Revolutionary Pessimism: The Worst is Yet to Come

Ours is a situation that cannot rely on the abstract comforts of “optimism” or “hope." Instead, we need what Peter Fleming calls a "revolutionary pessimism" that weaponizes our unhappiness to perceive “in this decomposing world both a taste of things to come and a way out."

The week before mass cancellations and lockdowns started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I gave a conference paper that drew heavily on Peter’s Fleming’s recent book, The Worst is Yet to Come. As you may have guessed by the title, Fleming’s not too optimistic about the current state of things. He argues that we’re witnessing the birth of what he calls, for lack of a better term, post-capitalism, which is a “much worse version” of neoliberal capitalism, one that will “make the ‘Trump Years’ look like a tiptoe through the tulips.”

A “suicidal work ethic” that continues to blur the lines between work and non-work without, however, adequate compensation; the monetary erosion of a real sense of the social and the refashioning of the human as primarily an economic being; the return of nativism, seen in the brash assertion of white supremacism and the uptick in far-right sympathies; the subsumption of daily life to “shitty robots,” that is, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and the like; the constant policing of our psychological well-being; the real threat of climate disaster—all these and more define our immediate present.

We can add COVID-19 (and the threat of pandemics in genera)l to Fleming’s examples, as it has now become the organizing crisis of other crises, at least for the time being. To use one example, the “suicidal work ethic” has simply turned murderous or, perhaps better, sacrificial, as the perpetually low-waged workers now deemed “essential” have been given up to the desires of others and the market. While those on the “front lines” take one for the proverbial team, at least we can take comfort in the fantasy that “we’re all in this together.” Or, as the crosses and signs in the yards of almost every other house in my neighborhood claim, “Faith Over Fear.”

Maybe we should be optimistic, though, invest hope in the wistful promise that something positive will emerge from this catastrophe. At the very least, this coronavirus has torn open the numerous, unjust fissures in our collective socio-economic body. Now is the time, then, to organize, to act, to take back what’s ours as we forge new ways of being together, ways that work for all of us, not just a select, predominantly white few. Perhaps the left has finally run up against its kairos moment.

We’ve heard this all before, however, and as recently as the last crisis. Remember the optimism that then filled the air? Remember, in the years that followed the 2007-08 global financial crisis, the open assurances that a generalized Marxist mood was on the rise? Remember the Occupy movement? Hell, remember Bernie Sanders?

It’s the same rhetoric, the same expression of optimism, the same hope. Although in the time since we’ve also seen the rise of significant social movements like, for instance, the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement, there haven’t been any net socio-economic gains. If anything, economic disparities have become more pronounced, and the pandemic hasn’t stopped the wealthy from grabbing more while the rest of us check our bank accounts frantically to see if that stimulus money arrived. If we could take a pulse on how things are going, consider this:  a decade or so of optimism, of hopeful agitation, has given us Joe Biden. Not necessarily out of any fault of our own  (though, in the end, Sanders and Warren, the two most progressive candidates, failed to garner widespread support) but, rather, due to the sheer power of capital. Some kairos moment.

I’ve always thought that André Gorz got it right, when he pointed out that the problem with organizing the sort of democratic movements we require is found in the organization of labor itself. Work codifies and regulates conduct, duties, and relationships in line with the demands of capital, but it does so in an environment that is ultimately undemocratic. Since work takes us up a big portion of our day, a lot of our time is spent in spaces that are explicitly undemocratic, where we are cut out of decision-making processes – and the workplace is only one among a vast array of undemocratic spaces and institutions in which we constantly participate.

If, then, our lives are literally shaped in undemocratic institutions, putting piety aside, how can we expect real, substantial participation in democratic processes beyond the merely electoral? We don’t know how to think and act democratically because we have been trained not to. Or, as Natasha Lennard has put it, we lead more or less fascist lives which manifest “a perversion of desire produced through forms of life under capitalism and modernity; practices of authoritarianism and domination and exploitation that form us, such that we can’t just ‘decide’ our way out of them.”

All this provides us with one way to read the premature pushes to re-open the economy, to get things back to normal. The creation of democratic movements requires being democratic; it requires times and places unoccupied by the top-down demands of capital. If that is the case, then squashing such movements—even the potential of such movements—just requires putting people back to work. Hence we shouldn’t be surprised that various “reopen the economy” and “back to work” groups now appear, even if following their demands will result in more deaths than anticipated:  all fascisms require sacrifice. That is, whatever particular form fascism takes, it enacts (to quote Lennard again) a “desire to dominate, oppress, and obliterate the nameable ‘other.’” Fascism, then, requires the sacrifice of the other as essential to the achievement of its goals.

Where does that leave us? A response to our current pandemic situation requires acclimating ourselves to the idea that, as Fleming says, the worst is yet to come. Ours is a situation that cannot rely on the abstract comforts of “optimism” or “hope,” because those have gotten us as far as we currently are, which is not even close to where we need to be. Fleming’s alternative of a “revolutionary pessimism” seems more clear-headed. Revolutionary pessimism refuses calls to make the most of our lot, to be upbeat in the face of difficulty. “Revolutionary pessimism, rather, “weaponizes” our unhappiness to perceive “in this decomposing world both a taste of things to come and a way out.”  For Fleming we might as well because we really have nothing to lose; and, as he puts it, “our survival depends precisely on that loss.” Perhaps it’s in that loss that we may find our kairos moment.

Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University. His most recent book is Jesus and the Politics of Mammon published by Cascade Books.



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