Hope and Utopia

There is a common sentiment that hope is required for social action. We must hold on to hope. We must not give in to despair.

Perhaps it is simply the contrarian in me, but I cannot help but sigh when hearing these exhortations. We must hold on to hope? Why?

On the surface, I suppose it seem like a perfectly reasonably thing to say. So reasonable, in fact, that people often don’t take the time to justify the claim. We must hold on to hope as surely as we must see that the sky is blue – it is just the way things are.

This only makes me question harder.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna defends the value of utopian visions, repeating several times throughout the book, “utopian visions are visions of hope.” By which she means that they “challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.”

Hope is required, then, because only hope can inspire us to imagine that things might be different and only hope can motivate us to work towards those visions.

Importantly, McKenna advocates against static, end-state models of utopia, in which “hope” essentially becomes shorthand for “hope that a (near) perfect future is possible and achievable.”

Instead, McKenna articulates her hopeful vision as a process:

If one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

In this way, “hope” is a sort of future-awareness. It is not a feeling or an emotion per se, but minimally hope is a sense that there will be a future self which our present self has some power over shaping.

I generally take the term “hope” to be somewhat more optimistically inclined, but even under this broad definition, I still find myself skeptical of hope as a necessity.

Consider the character of Jean Tarrou from Albert Camus’ The Plague. After the city of Oran is quarantined following a deadly outbreak of plague, Tarrou organizes volunteers to help the sick and try to fight off the plague.

One could argue that he had hope in the manner described above – perhaps he imagined a future in which the city was no longer wracked by disease; perhaps he imagined his actions could play a role in creating that future. Such a future-vision combined with a sense of agency could be described as hope.

But it is exactly this story which motivates me to be skeptical of hope as a required element of social change.

The situation in Oran is desperate. There is every reason to think that all the city’s inhabitants will eventually succumb to the plague. Perhaps Tarrou’s efforts may stave off some deaths for a time, but in the middle of the novel it is reasonable to believe that Tarrou’s efforts will make no real difference. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Many of Oran’s inhabitants seem to feel this way. In the face of almost certain death, people celebrate wildly at night, finally free of the taboos and inhibitions which had previously kept them more orderly. They had lost a vision of the future in which their actions played a part. They had lost hope.

Yet there is no reason to think that Tarrou felt any differently. Faced with almost certain death, accepting of the knowledge that his actions would make no difference, Tarrou still works to fight the plague.

He has no hope, it is simply what you do.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, another piece by Camus, he snarkily comments of Sisyphus’ labor that “the gods had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

But life is futile and hopeless labor. This is, in fact, the essence of being alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes.

Hope is not required.

I am heavily persuaded by McKenna’s process-model of utopia, but find hope to be a somewhat superfluous element. Her vision requires the imagination to conceive of possible futures, and it takes the agency to act in seeking those possible futures, but it does not require hope that those futures are achievable nor hope that one’s efforts will have impact.

In fact, I imagine the process-model as thriving better without hope. This vision finds that the future is and always will be imperfect. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. Abandoning hope means accepting the future as flawed, accepting ourselves as flawed. Most of us will probably have no impact, and most of us will never witness the futures we dream of. But that lack of hope is not a reason not to act – indeed, in abandoning such hope, our actions and our choices are all that we have left.

 

 

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