Part of the Series
The Public Intellectual
The war drums are beating loudly, and America is once more mobilizing its global war machine. How might it be possible to imagine hope for justice and a better world for humanity in a country that has sanctioned state torture, is about to bomb Syria and kill untold number of civilians, spies on its own citizens, extends the reach of the punishing state into all aspects of society, and inflicts violence on black and brown youths through racial profiling and the machinery of the mass incarceration state? How does one retrieve hope from the dark and dismal killing, cruelty, human rights violations and abuse that has been produced as a result of the needless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the role played by a conformist media that supported such practices? Is hope on terminal life support when the police are allowed to handcuff a kindergarten student for doodling on her desk or arrest a student for a dress code violation? What does hope mean in a country in which there is no tolerance for young protesters and infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers, hedge fund managers and corporate polluters? How can hope make a difference in a country in which economics drives politics and harsh competition replaces any notion of compassion and respect for the public good?
What does hope mean when the United States, as the most powerful nation in the world, is virtually unmatched around the world for incarcerating thousands of young people of color and destroying millions of families and the social bonds that give them meaning? What does hope teach us at a time in which government lies and deception are exposed on a daily basis in the media and yet appear to have little effect on challenging the deeply authoritarian attacks on civil liberties initiated by President Obama? What happens to the promise of hope as a foundation for social struggle when all of social life is subordinated to the violence of a deregulated market and the privatization of public resources, including health care, education and transportation? What resources and visions does hope offer in a society in which greed is considered venerable and profit is the most important measure of personal achievement? What is the relevance of hope at a time when most attempts to interrupt the operations of an incipient fascism appear to fuel a growing cynicism rather than promote widespread individual and collective acts of resistance? Where does hope live in a country in which moral courage is valued less than a brutalizing hyper-masculinity and a cult of toughness? In spite of this brutalizing script, hope not only matters, it is alive and well all over the globe, especially in those places where young people refuse the dictates of authoritarians and the savagery of casino capitalism and its politics of austerity.
More corrosive than authoritarianism is a loss of faith in the possibilities and promise of collective struggle for an open society, the promise of a radical democracy, and a society that is never just enough. In this regard, Robert Reich’s comments on an exchange with his mentor are instructive for how to understand the power of militant hope. He writes: “You’ve been fighting for social justice for over half a century. Are you discouraged?” “Not at all!” he said. “Don’t confuse the urgency of attaining a goal with the urgency of fighting for it.” [i]
Hope refuses the cynical and politically reactionary idea that power cannot be simply equated with domination. It also raises serious questions about its own possible demise and the dystopian forces at work in either dismantling or subverting its power to advance democratic agency and social engagement. As a mode of self-reflection, hope raises questions about the growing sense that politics in American life has become corrupt, progressive social change a distant memory and that a discourse of possibility is on the verge of becoming the last refuge of deluded romantics. Those traditional public spheres in which people could exchange ideas, debate and shape the conditions that structured their everyday lives appear increasingly to have little substance where they still exist, let alone political importance. Civic engagement seems irrelevant and public values are rendered invisible, if not overtly disparaged, in light of the growing power of multinational corporations to privatize public space and time as it disconnects power from issues of equity, social justice and civic responsibility. Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs.
State violence against any display of moral courage and dissent by artists, intellectuals, journalists and ordinary citizens has become normalized and has sent a chilling effect throughout a society in which all worldly criticism is equated with treason, anti-Americanism or worse. Whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoings are labeled as traitors in the dominant media and by the government. As the ACLU has written in its comments on Chelsea Manning, justice and the value of dissent are turned upside down,
When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system. A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability.[ii]
Americans now live in a bubble of intense privatization, commodification and civic illiteracy. The public does not merely dissolve into the private; the private is all that is left. One consequence is that citizenship is reconfigured largely within the confines of a consumer culture and at the same time the meaning and rights that accompany citizenship are excluded more and more from vast groups of the American public. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market values replace social values and people with the education and means appear more and more willing to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of the family, religion and consumption. Those without the luxury of such choices pay a terrible price in what Zygmunt Bauman calls the “hard currency of human suffering.”[iii]
The American public yawns as they are inundated with statistics that should shock, and they are complacent in the face of information that should make them ashamed. For example, in the richest country in the world, the “U.S. ranked 27th out of 30 for child poverty,” “over 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010,”millions of young people are crushed under the burden of student loans, increasing numbers of youth are homeless, living on the streets, and more than 50 million Americans are uninsured.[iv] Inequality in wealth, power and income has created a country filled with gated communities on the one hand and zones of abandonment and massive poverty and human suffering on the other.[v] The middle class pays higher taxes than many corporations, while the super-rich get even richer. For instance, “each of the Koch brothers saw his investments grow by $6 billion in one year, which is three million dollars per hour based on a 40-hour ‘work’ week.”[vi] Equally obscene and symptomatic is the example of Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, who made $21 million last year and received a bonus of $5 million in January 2013. At the same time, the poorest 47 percent have no wealth, 146 million Americans, or one in two, are low-income or poor, and a “third of families with young children are now in poverty.”[vii]
Unlike some theorists who suggest that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement has either come to an end or is in a state of terminal arrest, especially in light of the withering of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, I believe that the current depressing state of politics points to the urgent challenge of reformulating the crisis of democracy and the radical imagination as part of the fundamental crisis of vision, meaning, education and political agency. Politics devoid of vision degenerates into cynicism or appropriates a view of power equated with domination. Lost from such accounts is the recognition that democracy has to be struggled over – even in the face of a most appalling crisis of educational opportunity and political agency.
There is also too little attention paid to the fact that the struggle over politics and democracy is strongly connected to creating and sustaining public spheres where individuals can be engaged as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. The formative cultures, institutions and modes of critical agency necessary for a vibrant democracy do not exist in a culture in which knowledge is fragmented, power concentrated in few hands and time is reduced to a deprivation for large segments of the public – one consequence of which is the endless struggle by many Americans simply to try to survive at the level of everyday life. The colonizing of time, space and power suggests taking back people’s time in an era when the majority must work more than ever to make ends meet. There is no democracy in a country in which for most people time is a deprivation rather than a luxury. Time is crippled when it is trapped within an endless need to fight to merely survive in order to have enough to eat, have access to decent health care, day care and a social wage. The struggle over time is inextricably linked to a struggle over space, institutions, public spheres, the public good, power, the future and the nature of politics itself.
In a country in which the social contract is dissolving, the social wage is on life support and social protections are viewed as a pathology, democracy becomes a shadow of itself and choice becomes impotent and an empty slogan because of the constraints imposed on the 99 percent by vast inequalities in wealth, income, power and opportunity. The growth of cynicism in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than it might about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency, ethics and meaning for a substantive democracy. As Bauman has argued, “hope nowadays feels frail, vulnerable, and fissiparous precisely because we can’t locate a viable and sufficiently potent agency that can be relied on to make the words flesh.”[viii] If democratic agents are in short supply, so is the formative culture that is necessary to create them – revealing a cultural apparatus that is more than an economic entity or industry. It is also a public pedagogy machine – an all-embracing totality of educational sites that produces particular narratives about the world, what it means to be a citizen and what role education will play in a powerful and unchecked military-industrial-security-surveillance state. Stanley Aronowitz is right in arguing that:
[The] social character has become entwined with communications technology. … This intricate interlock between cultural institutions, political power and everyday life constitutes a new moment of history. It has become the primary machinery of domination. And a central aspect of domination is the abrogation of concept that we can know the totality, but are condemned to understand the division of the world as a series of specializations. Thus, the well-known fragmentation of social life is both a result of the re-arrangement of social space and the modes by which knowledge is produced, disseminated and ingested. The cultural apparatus is largely responsible for the intellectual darkness that has enveloped us.*
We live in a world in which any viable notion of hope has to recognize that the social media, or the cultural apparatus as C.W. Mills once acknowledged, has “formed a new mass sensibility, a new condition for the widespread acceptance of the capitalist system” and that our social character has become inextricably merged and shaped by the new social media.” [ix] Most importantly, the existing cultural apparatuses in all of their diversity are the most powerful educational tools of the 21st century shaping not only individual desires, dreams, needs and fears but the nature of our understanding of politics and social life in general. Yet, such cultural apparatuses that range from magazines, film, newspapers, television and various instruments of the social media and platforms made available through the Internet constitute one of the few spheres left in which hope can be nourished through the production and circulation of alternative knowledge, ideas, values, dreams desires and modes of subjectivity. The fight over the cultural apparatus may be the most significant struggle that can be waged in the name of hope for a better and more just future.
As power is separated from politics, it becomes more reckless, arrogant and death-dealing. No longer viewed as accountable, casino capitalism and its minions turn savage in their pursuit of wealth and the accumulation. All bets are off and everything is fodder for increasing the wealth of the bankers, hedge fund managers and the corporate elite. Ensconced in culture of cruelty, neoliberal power relations have become global, eschewing any sense of responsibility to an ethics of care, justice and spiritual well-being. Responsibility now floats like a polluted cloud signaling a dystopian future – a symbol of both extreme savagery and corporate irresponsibility. But there is more at work here than a retreat into cynicism or a collective silence in the face of a normalizing disimagination machine. There is a need to craft a new political language that requires a more realistic, impatient and militant sense of hope. Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, involving the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites and the renewal of civic courage among citizens who wish to address pressing social problems.
Hope is not an individual fantasy or a recourse to a romanticized and unrealistic view of the world. On the contrary, it is a subversive force that enables those who care about democracy and its fate to not mistake the difficulty of individual and collective agency with the urgent need to shape it in the interest of the arc of justice and the promise of a democracy to come. In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, progressives need to resurrect a language of resistance and possibility, a language in which hope is viewed as both a project and a pedagogical condition for providing a sense of opposition and engaged struggle. As a project, Andrew Benjamin insists, hope must be viewed as “a structural condition of the present rather than as the promise of a future, the continual promise of a future that will always have to have been better.”[x] Rather than viewed as an individual proclivity, hope must be seen as part of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible.
The late philosopher Ernst Bloch rightly argued that hope must be concrete, a spark that not only reaches out beyond the surrounding emptiness of capitalist relations, anticipating a better world in the future, a world that speaks to us by presenting tasks based on the challenges of the present time. For Bloch, hope becomes concrete when it links the possibility of the “not yet” with forms of political agency animated by a determined effort to engage critically with the past and present to address pressing social problems and realizable tasks.[xi] Bloch believes that hope cannot be removed from the world and is not “something like nonsense or absolute fancy; rather it is not yet in the sense of a possibility; that it could be there if we could only do something for it.”[xii] As a discourse of critique and social transformation, hope in Bloch’s view foregrounds the crucial relationship between critical education and political agency, on the one hand, and the concrete struggles needed, on the other, to give substance to the recognition that every present is incomplete. This is a discourse that must be reclaimed, used and mobilized in the interest of a radical hope willing to struggle collectively, take risks and make education central to any viable notion of transformative politics.
Prophecy, moral witness and civic courage matter more than ever in American society. And we see hits of such practices in the rise of public intellectuals such as Michael Lerner, Stanley Aronowitz, Carol Becker, Angela Davis, Chris Hedges, Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, Robin D.G. Kelley, Noam Chomsky and too many others to name. We also see the power of collective hope in the increasing resistance by unions, workers and young people to the attack on all things public in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maine and other states now controlled by right-wing Republican extremists. In this instance, the longing for a more humane society does not collapse into a retreat from the world but emerges out of critical and practical engagements with present policies, institutional formations and everyday practices. Hope in this context does not ignore the worse dimensions of human suffering, exploitation and social relations; on the contrary, it acknowledges the need to sustain the “capacity to see the worst and offer more than that for our consideration.”[xiii] This reclaiming of hope from the idiocy of consumer and celebrity culture, from a market that turns hope into a commodity and from a government that kills hope with its electronic gulags, its proliferating war zones and its militarizing ideologies and policies is a crucial element for the reclamation of not just hope but a fundamental element of politics itself.
Hence, hope is more than a politics, it is also the outcome of those pedagogical practices and struggles that tap into memory and lived experiences while at the same time linking individual responsibility with a progressive sense of social change. As a form of utopian longing, democratic hope opens up horizons of comparison by evoking not just different histories but different public memories and futures; at the same time, it substantiates the importance of ambivalence while problematizing certainty or, as Paul Ricoeur has suggested, it serves as “a major resource as the weapon against closure.”[xiv]Democratic hope is a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, making authority accountable, becoming an activating presence in promoting social transformation.
The current limits of the utopian imagination are related, in part, to the failure of intellectuals, academics, artists, workers, educators and progressives to imagine what pedagogical conditions might be necessary to bring into being forms of political agency that might expand the operations of individual rights, social provisions and democratic freedoms. At the same time, a politics and pedagogy of hope is neither a blueprint for the future nor a form of social engineering but a belief that different futures are possible, holding open matters of contingency, context and indeterminacy. It is only through critical forms of education that human beings can learn about the limits of the present and the conditions necessary for them to “combine a gritty sense of limits with a lofty vision of possibility.”[xv]Equally crucial is the belief that hope needs to translate into collective struggles and disciplined social movements that go beyond popular protest and what Aronowitz calls “signs without organization.”[xvi] Such struggles are crucial to develop disciplined national organizations, infrastructures, cultural apparatuses and modes of collaboration among diverse artists, intellectuals, workers and others to address the totality of issues confronting American society and the need to get at the roots of those injustices weighing down on America like an all-consuming plague.
Democratic hope poses the important challenge of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. Judith Butler is right in insisting that “there is more hope in the world when we can question what is taken for granted, especially about what it is to be human.”[xvii] Bauman extends this insight by arguing that the resurrection of any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose, as he puts it, is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unraveling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”[xviii] Neither the death of hope, its commodification nor its romanticization are enough to explain the absence of struggle in the United States. Mass ignorance matters, as does a political economy that manufactures it, but at stake here are larger issues about those modes of education, socialization and the production of subjects in American society that willingly buy into their own oppression and subjugation.
The fear of taking power has deeper roots in the American public than simply the plague of not knowing. While the pedagogical nature of politics cannot be disavowed, it must be supplemented into a deeper understanding of how capitalism subverts people’s needs, how depth psychology works through dominant cultural apparatuses as part of a broader public pedagogy that cripples the spirit, redirects the drive for pleasure and subverts the imagination. This is a different war waged by neoliberal society – not just on the body and mind but on the individual and collective psyche. And if the left and progressives are to address this element of low-intensity warfare on the home front they will have to connect hope to a sustained inquiry, as Aronowitz argues, over the shaping of the political and cultural unconscious.[xix] Outrage has gone astray, losing its moral and political moorings, and has been absorbed in self-deprecation, depression, cynicism, a fear of the other, a hatred of poor minorities, a distrust of the Arab world and a disgust for democratic social bonds.
War has become not simply a strategy but a way of life in the United States. It has been elevated to an all-encompassing ideology and politics that includes a view of all citizens as potential terrorists in need of surveillance and an ongoing attack on dissidents, critical journalists, educators and any public sphere capable of questioning authority. Hope provides a potential register of resistance, a new language, a different understanding of politics and a view of the future in which the voices of the public are heard rather than silenced. Hope also accentuates how politics might be played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of hope is not to liberate the individual from the social – a central tenet of neoliberalism – but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social.
Democratic hope is a subversive, defiant practice that makes power visible and interrogates and resists those events, social relations and ideas that pose a threat to democracy. It refuses to escape into firewall of obtuse academic discourse removed from the problems of everyday life, it rejects the alleged neutrality of mainstream media, rebuffs the discourse of idiocy and simplification that characterizes celebrity culture, and it disallows a sterile and empty discourse of common sense, which wages a war on informed criticism, the imagination and the very possibility of imagining a better world. Hope at its best provides a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between passion, vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation, on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice, and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the ongoing struggle for a global democracy.
Yet, such hopes do not materialize out of thin air. They have to be nourished, developed, debated, examined and acted upon to become meaningful. And this takes time, and demands what might be called an “impatient patience.” When outrage dissipates into silence, crippling the mind, imagination, spirit, and collective will, it becomes almost impossible to fight the galloping forces of authoritarianism that beset the United States and many other countries. But one cannot dismiss as impossible what is simply difficult, even if such difficulty defies hope itself. Bauman is right, once again, in arguing that “As to our hopes: hope is one human quality we are bound never to lose without losing our humanity. But we may be similarly certain that a safe haven in which to drop its anchor will take a very long time to be found.”[xx] As the current administration tries to persuade the American public and a cravenly Congress that military intervention is necessary in Syria, Obama is betting against hope – against the possibility that his investment in war, state violence and secrecy will be challenged by the American public. There is more at stake here than a military strike against Syria, there is the Hobbesian imaginary of endless permanent war and the presence of a security-warfare state that can only imagine violence as a solution to whatever problem it identifies. The future of American society lies in opposition to the warfare state, its warfare culture, its mad machinery of violence and its gross misdeeds. State violence is not a measure of greatness and honor. Such violence trades in incredulous appeals to security and fear mongering in its efforts to paralyze the impulse for justice, the culture of questioning, and the civic courage necessary to refuse and oppose complicity with state terrorism. Hope turns radical when it exposes the acts of aggression against injustices perpetuated by a militarized state that can only dream of war. But hope does more than critique, dismantle, and expose the ideologies, values, institutions, and social relations that are pushing so many countries today into authoritarianism. It begs for more than a retreat into the language of criticism by developing a renewed sense of what it means to imagine otherwise, rethink a more just sense of the future, reclaim the principles of a real democracy, and organize a political discourse that inhabits not common sense but reflective sense, good sense—a sense that the struggle is not over and demands a broad based social movement in which the struggle for a new democratic global social order can be constructed.
[i] Robert Reich, “Breakfast With My Mentor,” Reader Supported News, (August 29, 2013)
[ii] ACLU Comment on Bradley Manning Sentence, ACLU (August 21, 2013).
[iii] Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 5.
[iv] Paul Buchheit, “Five Facts That Put America to Shame,” Common Dreams. Org (May 14, 2012). Online:
[v] There are too many sources to cite on this issue, but one is particularly important. See Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review, (March 1, 2012)
[vi] Paul Buchheit, “Five Ugly Extremes of Inequality in America – The Contrasts Will Drop Your Chin to the Floor,” Alternet, (March 24, 2013).
[vii] Robert Reich, “Republican Myth: Obama’s ‘Entitlement Society,’ ” Robert Reich’s Blog (February 21, 2012).
[viii]Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), p. 147.
* Stanley Aronowitz, “Where is the Outrage,” Situations (in press).
[ix] Stanley Aronowitz, “Where is the Outrage,”Situations (in press).
[x] Andrew Benjamin, Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism(New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 1.
[xi] Bloch’s great contribution in English on the subject of utopianism can be found in his three-volume work, Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume I. II.& III [originally published in 1959] trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986).
[xii] Ernst Block, “Something’s Missing: A Discussion Between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopia Longing,” in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 3.
[xiii] Thomas L. Dunn, “Political Theory for Losers,” in Jason A. Frank and John Tambornino, eds. Vocations of Political Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 160.
[xiv] Cited in Zygmunt Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Philadelphia: Open University press, 1998), p. 98.
[xv] Ron Aronson, “Hope After Hope?”Social Research66:2 (Summer 1999), p. 489.
[xvi] Ibid., Aronowitz, “Where is the Outrage,”Situations (in press).
[xvii] Cited in Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification, ” JAC 20:4 (2000), p. 765.
[xviii] Cited in Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification,” JAC 20:4 (2000), p. 765.
[xix] Ibid., Aronowitz, “Where is the Outrage, “Situations (in press).
[xx] Ibid., Bauman and Lyon, Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation., p. 159)
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 3 days left to raise $35,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?