Reasons to be cheerful?



Over a decade ago I found myself working in a factory. Now it was hardly a ‘satanic mill’ but I certainly didn’t enjoy my time in this relentlessly boring and sterile place. It was a software packing and shipping company owned, indirectly, by one of the richest men in Ireland who had made a fortune out of paper and had been subcontracted by Microsoft to deal with the tremendous demand for Windows V whatever. Looking back at the experience there are a number of obvious intersection points between my personal biography and significant social trends in Irish society. For instance, much of the wealth generated over the past decade has come from the manufacture of high value ‘knowledge’ based products manufactured by multinationals availing of Ireland’s low corporation tax. Also, work in this factory relied on a ‘flexible’ temporary workforce. What this meant in reality is we did the work according to demand, so lots of overtime followed by lightning redundancies was the order of the day, a process which was managed by an employment agency who was more than happy to limit Microsoft and Smurfit’s responsibilities to their employees. The composition of the workforce was perhaps significant as well. The bulk of the workers were ordinary Irish people who, as a matter of course, are expected to do all the dreary and badly paid work in society. However, there were also a bunch of Swedish students working on the assembly line which at that time struck me a completely incongruous. In fact, at that time, after decades of Irish outward migration, the idea of Swedish people coming to Ireland for work seemed shocking and almost wrong. Over a decade later it all seems par for the course but then it was both a wonder and sign of things to come.

Any way, this sociobabble is only offered as background because I some reading I have been doing recently have given me pause to think through my experiences there again especially about the importance of hope. So in other words, in true blogging style, enough about them and lets get back to me.

As winter lengthened squeezing the light out of the days, the shifts got longer and slowly in the churning tedium I became aware just how unhappy I had become. Nothing fitted. The shape of my days there with its deadening fixed routines had sharp definite lines that nipped and pinched at my sense of life. Deep down I was also worried that this might be a foretaste of how life might pan out. The masochistic element and frankly delusional element in all this might well be worth analysing at a different time but for today I will just say that crap work, winter and problems in my personal life left me feeling reduced, cramped and blue.

This seemed to me to have been made all the worse by what I regarded as the burden of my asinine and frankly blockheaded utopian hopes. On a fundamental level I wanted and needed more from life and knew in my guts that life was, and should be, so much more for everyone who worked there (well, maybe with the exception of the supervisor and the young chap seconded from the Smurfit Business school). However, in the face of thwarted desire hope is often a taunt. Especially as there seemed to be less and less reasons to be cheerful in terms of radical politics. I had become uninvolved and regarded some of my efforts in activist politics over the preceeding years with a baleful eye. It felt like we had been lighting votive candles at the edge of motorway in the drizzle while the juggernaut of history zoomed past. Yep, as I said I was out of sorts.

Despite feeling that all that internalised left wing rhetoric and vaunting bold hopes were part of the problem I paradoxically clung on to the news tumbling out of Chiapas. The general significance of the Zapatistas has been endlessly debated but in personal terms this revolt against the blinkered ‘common sense’ that said we had arrived in the ‘best of all possible worlds’ allowed me to feel a little bit normal. The pull of this meant that I eventually saved enough money and went to Mexico and Central America. Now it should be said quite clearly that my six month tourist trip had little to do with offering genuine solidarity. Travelling around a very broken Nicaragua and through the shadows of Guatemala where the atrocities of recent history were felt but not mentioned was depressing. However, arriving in rebel Chiapas felt like the most liberating thing in the world. I could feel there that my hopes were something apart from a burden and that collective aspirations towards justice and freedom could change the world. After this I returned renewed and became involved in a libertarian bookshop-café collective, some community art projects and renewed my commitment to an Irish Zapatista solidarity group.

Well, so what? A burnt out activist had a holiday and felt better. True enough but there is something else in all this. The resources of hope, as Raymond Williams put it, are necessarily a vital part of radical activity. Yet we very often pass over this as a topic or give it a little perfunctory nod. I think there are all sort of reasons for this, not least the stranglehold Leninist thoughts and structures of feeling, have had on the radical tradition. Whatever the exact reasons the upshot of this in my opinion is that maintaining and enlarging these resources of hope has often been seen as less important than the ‘serious’ business of radical critique and analysis.

Fredric Jameson has observed that we now live in an era in which it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a genuine alternative to capitalism. Then perhaps the need to identify, analyse and nurture hope is more important than ever? This vague train of thought has meant that for over a year or so I have wanted to read the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s book The Principle of Hope. It runs to over 1200 pages this week I finally worked up the courage to begin reading it. So far it is fascinating and quite unlike the dismal, if interesting, work by Bloch’s miserable buddy Adorno. The work is sprawling defence of the Utopian impulse analysing everything from the classic texts of European philosophy to our most commonplace daydreams. Enmeshing oneself in a sprawling treatise on hope has a curious effect and has underlined to me just how little time we collectively spend on this topic.

The argument, rather crudely stated, is this- that utopian hope is a fundamental part of human life and imagination and is always present in our culture however distorted and degraded this impulse might be. This seeps into our culture and lies underneath even the most banal and conformist cultural products. The intellectual sources for Bloch’s philosophy of hope and advocacy of ‘militant utopianism’ are Marxism and psychoanalysis. Throughout the book there is an emphasis on the dialectical and historically contingent nature off social life. More interestingly though a good deal of what I have read so far is a tireless and measured attempt to reshape the insights of psychoanalysis within a Marxist philosophy. This is nothing new but it does offer a convincing appraisal of Freud’s word and an amusingly savage attack on Jung. Bloch argues that the anticipatory and hopeful elements that underpin our visions of future, what he terms the ‘Not yet’, are as fundamental to a theory of the human mind and intention as understanding our repressed past. Significantly, Bloch says radical utopian energy needs to be emebedded in social struggles and a realistic assessment of the political and economic context to be really valuable. However, without the ‘Not yet’, without a sense of how individual dreams can be realistically linked to collective hopes, as I felt in that factory, we have nothing. I will give a more critical and complete account when I finish the book. However, given Laurence’s totally accurate analysis of academia and electronic networks I felt that Fringe Thoughts could accommodate both pessimism of the intellect and some notes, however incomplete, on optimism of the will.

A nice introduction to Bloch can be read here by the radical cultural studies critic Douglas Kellner