Shadows. An Essay on Bleakness and Hope 2
[Second part of the Shadows essay. Endnotes have again been left out. Another abstract photo from the beach at Currarong.]
Shadows. An Essay on Bleakness and Hope 2
Hope From Out of the Shadows
In the spring and summer of my ‘politicisation’ (an awkward but widely used term in Germany at the time) during the late sixties and early seventies, the relationships between the collective shadow and the everyday were different, of course, and yet also similar. As conscious participants in the international student movement, youth culture and later eco-movement of the time, the predominant shadow of the fifties and early sixties, the shadow of The Bomb, was largely pushed aside, relegated to the periphery, ignored by us hopeful student radicals. In Germany our adversaries were fairly clear and ethically self-evident: the Holocaust-repressing, Nazi collusion-denying generation of our parents, authoritarian (and even ex-Nazi) establishment figures of all kinds, the pervasive spiritual aridity and meaninglessness of body- and soul-denying consumerism, capitalism’s structural violence of everyday life, western governments’ various collusions with US imperialism and war crimes in Indochina.
We thus chose definable, combatable shadows, as it were, our revolt as much political and moral as it was diffusely aesthetic and cultural. The latter forms or revolt were in fact probably primary in the sense of visceral, non-intellectual, almost biological or instinctual. (Like kundalini energy in the esoteric body of Tantrism, the social energy seems to move first through the primary chakras of sexuality, gut and heart before reaching the head and becoming rational opinion and theory).
We had a global explanation (‘late capitalism’), a clearly responsible adversary (‘the establishment’, i.e. the order-givers of late capitalism) and, above all, a not always articulated but strong and pervading sense of hope. The latter seemed to initially arise spontaneously out of the very synergy – the dynamics, social impacts and vitalising energy ‒ of the movement itself. There was a subtle but definite sense of being-in-sync-with-something-larger, of the real possibility of some vague but sudden planetary shift to something more exciting and better.
When this feeling ebbed (in Germany perhaps already in late 1968 after the Easter riots, the collapse of the wild utopian promise of the Parisian May and the brutal Soviet military destruction of Czech ‘socialism with a human face’), the sense of hope transferred itself more and more to explicit theoretical constructs and utopias of various kinds: ‘socialism’, ‘self-management’, ‘post-scarcity anarchism’, then to ‘eco-topia’ and an ‘alternative society’. In the later seventies the latter then merged seamlessly with the emerging struggles against nuclear power and later, in the early eighties, with the renewed global peace movement against Reagan’s threats of ‘limited and winnable’ nuclear war and the European deployment of new US and Soviet nuclear first strike weaponry that made intentional or unintentional nuclear war much more likely.
The late eighties and early nineties then saw a renewed upsurge of mass interest in all things environmental, stimulated in the main by the twin shock realizations of ozone depletion and global warming. Hope was then bound up with the possibility of the nineties becoming a ‘turnaround decade’ in which the newly liberated post-Cold War global energies (the so-called ‘peace dividend’) would now turn to building ecologically sustainable and socially just societies. This feeling faded quite rapidly after the corporate hijacking of the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and its ‘ecological sustainability’ agenda, although some hope lingered to a degree at local levels where communities all over the planet endeavoured to facilitate forms of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ within the ‘Local Agenda 21’ process spawned at the Rio conference.
Since then hope has begun to crystallize again in the now very consciously planetary (and mis-named) ‘anti-globalisation’ movement initially surfacing as the indigenous Zapatista uprising against the NAFTA process in Mexico in 1994 and the street riots against the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and then crystallising in the World Social Forum meetings in Brazil and India (with increasingly large numbers of participants from all over the world).
The World Social Forum then facilitated or helped stimulate the first fully and consciously global demonstrations for peace and against an impending imperial war, the second US war against Iraq. Held on March 15/16, 2003 and encompassing between 10 and 30 million people, these demonstrations were, in both scope and deep meaning, an almost millennial, spiritual event and an immense source of hope for a rising global utopian consciousness of the ultimate oneness of the human family and planetary ecology.
So the social movements embodying human hope and countering the ‘objective’ bleakness of social and ecological conditions have continued to evolve since the sixties, moving in the usual, seemingly universal, cycles of surge and ebb, of birth, climax and decay and forming shifting, complex interrelationships with each other.
The Loss of Utopia
However, to a large extent the ‘utopian imagination’, the ‘poetry of revolt’ and radical theory that characterised the essence of the sixties and seventies movements and uprisings, seem to have often atrophied or disappeared under the relentless global march of neoliberalism. The zeitgeist is no longer utopian. In many ways this is very understandable and, especially from a very common sense, pragmatic and rational perspective that is sceptical of all speculative, do-gooding and ‘totalizing’ attitudes , perhaps even to be welcomed. Compared with the sixties, the times are economically, socially and ecologically more dismal, much faster, more precarious and complex, on some levels perhaps even more dangerous. Various waves of historical development seem to be super-imposing and coming to a head on many interrelated levels. The so-called ‘post-modern’ zeitgeist is pluralist, relativist, de-centred, hyper-individualist, sceptical and wary of all ‘grand narratives’, utopian or otherwise. In this radical neo-scepticism it seems both refreshingly anti-totalitarian and an unconsciously conformist, radical regression or ‘dumbing down’, an ideological (unconscious) reflection of neo-liberal economic and cultural hegemony since Thatcher and Reagan.
The necessary consequence of this prevalent stance, however, is the loss of a centred perspective and utopian hope. It would seem the utopian baby has been thrown out with the dogmatic Marxist or ‘grand narrative’ bathwater. As in personal life, social and political issues also tend to fall apart into disconnected single issues (social justice, peace, the environment, genetic engineering etc. etc. and a plethora of local holding actions) and there is no critical perspective of some core dynamic driving events, no directionality, no coherent ‘grand narrative’ if you will, to link these fragments into some cohesive, overall framework of meaning. (It is also part of the naïve or self-contradictory nature of radically sceptical post- modernism to ignore the fact that to say ‘there is no more grand narrative’ is of course itself also a ‘grand narrative’, and one that eminently suits the powers that be).
One of the reasons for this state of affairs is surely the strong erosion or almost disappearance of a sense of history and tradition, and, linked to this and more specifically, of the legacy of the previous ‘grand narrative’. The original, post-Christian and secular ‘grand narrative’ that gave hope and thus meaning to millions of lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was, of course, ‘socialism’ in all its many forms.
If ‘religions’ can be anthropologically and sociologically defined as encompassing meaning-providing cognitive, ritual and social frameworks , then ‘socialism’ (despite or, indeed, because of its ‘scientific’ pretensions) certainly was one. Developing out of and against the bourgeois democratic ideals of the Enlightenment and within the historical context of the rise of the industrial working class, for millions it tended to replace the gradual erosion of Christianity as a social binding force in the west. In terms of mass influence it has now joined Christianity in the notorious dustbins of history. And in terms of the well-deserved demise of dogmatic mainstream ‘socialism’ or the ‘Old Left’ since at least 1914, this is only to be welcomed.
However, with nothing really replacing Christianity and socialism, there is a social vacuum of meaning, values and perceptual orientation that is necessarily filled by other things. It can be filled by consumerism, political disengagement and private withdrawal and a corresponding generalised, disengaged bleakness shading off into the mainstream neo-liberal frenzy and spiritual aridity of competitive individualism and the ‘market personality’ (Erich Fromm). ‘We can’t change the world, let’s go shopping’.
The spiritual and social vacuum can also be filled by various religiously sectarian, populist and/or reactionary fundamentalisms often seemingly preparing, or at least awaiting, some modernised form of fascism. Sometimes in direct, mutually strengthening communication with the latter proto-fascisms, moreover, the social and spiritual vacuum can also be filled by the official spectacles and ideologies of nationalism, militarism and imperial wars that attempt to bind together the disengaged and isolated masses for the usual system-controlling purposes of the ruling elites.
War has always been the ‘health of the state’ (Randolph Bourne), both of the existing states and the nascent ones of fundamentalism. The state terror of war increases small-scale counter-terror which increases state authoritarianism and terror in a self-reinforcing downward spiral of violence and repression. The authoritarian, nationalist or militarist forces of all sides need each other to cement and increase their own power and influence.
The hope is that a critical mass of people linking across national boundaries can resist the hegemony of ruling elites in framing the issues as one’s of ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’. The hope is that a critical mass or people can globally network into a powerful force for systemic change and human survival. The hope is that a critical mass of people can come to realise that any ‘national interest’ is now a planetary interest in maintaining peace and a viable biosphere, that any ‘security’ now entails the security of everyone on the planet, i.e. social justice and the elimination of capitalism. The hope is that the spiritual vacuum can be filled by the realisation of being One Human Family on One Beautiful but Endangered Planet.
We are all, consciously or unconsciously, pulled between bleakness and hope. Given both the enormity and urgency of the threats and the gradually emerging, increasingly networking, global movements for deep social change, both would seem eminently rational.
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 10, 2014.
Posted in critical theory, essays, history, photography, social change, social theory
Tags: abstract photography, alienation, alternative globalisation, bleakness, collective shadows, despair, hope, imperial wars, liberation, nationalism, One World consciousness, social change, social justice movements, utopia