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?
Revolution is not ‘showing’ life to people, but making them live. A revolutionary organization must always remember that its objective is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation. —Guy Debord
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
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 numbers 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.
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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.”
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.
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.”