I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog. Fifth up:-
“Hope in the Dark”, Solnit, R. (2016) Canongate Books
Solnit’s book was originally published in 2005, but has been updated to reflect what seems like ever increasing reasons for social and political gloom – particularly for those on the left – which is what drew me to the book. I consider myself a thwarted optimist, rather than an out-and-out pessimist, and was attracted to a book that promised to help define, and find grounds for ‘hope’ for those looking for progressive change on a range of social, political and environmental causes, when the forces lined up against such change seem overwhelming.
As she wrote in her piece promoting the book’s publication in the Guardian, “We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future. Now is not the time to despair, but to act.”
For President Bush, and the Iraq War when the book was published in 2005, read Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump, and the disarray in the state of the UK opposition parties in 2016.
Rebecca Solnit writes compellingly. She asserts, “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty first century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.” She is big on identifying, remembering, and celebrating past campaigns, and successes – which are many and varied.
She synthesises a range of other writers to help build her case for real hope. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked.”
The key case for hope is laid out in the foreword to the 2015 edition:
“The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights, but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality, and the idea of the good life – of the past half century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation. And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.”
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both the optimists and the pessimists. Optimists think it will be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, and and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
So, that told me! And it certainly answered a lot of the painful doubts I’d been having – and I know many of my friends have been having of late, on the topic of having hope.
By exploring past successes, particularly of the last fifty or so years, Rebecca Solnit gives us good reason to have hope – and plenty of source material from which to learn lessons as to how to build it.
“Mushroomed: after a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. uprisings and revolutions are considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values often result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”
“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of the centre stage. Our hope, and often our power.”
The book is a reference guide for a number of liberation struggles throughout the world which have made for success. As Solnit says, “Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift”.
One final lesson worth noting from what is a fabulously uplifting book – and one that is incredibly pertinent for those on the left of politics who, like me, have concerns about whether the vehicles we are operating in quite get the magnitude of the problems we face.
“It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories. Total victory has always seemed like a secular equivalent of paradise: a place where all the problems are solved and there’s nothing to do, a fairly boring place. The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that has arrived in innumerable ways, small and large and often incremental, but not in that way that was described and expected. So victories slip by unheralded. Failures are more readily detected.”
Rebecca Solnit provides us with grounds for hope!