Not long after Melbourne teenager Masa Vukotic was stabbed to death, my Facebook feed was roiling with emotion. Vukotic was not the first woman to be murdered in Australia this year, and, shamefully, will not be the last, but something about the attack – perhaps the fact that Vukotic was killed in broad daylight while exercising in a public space – triggered the kind of fierce public reaction not seen since the murder of Jill Meagher in 2012. My friends, particularly women, posted status updates to express their affective reactions to the news: shock, anger, disgust (at male perpetrators of violence against women), exhaustion, and sheer black-out rage all burned through my computer and phone screens. My own reaction to the news was perhaps less noble: all I could feel in response to this heinous crime was a sense of profound despair and powerlessness.
Events such as Vukotic’s murder are dispiriting because they show exactly how much work we, as a society and culture, still have to do to make the world a safe and just place for girls and women. Over one hundred years of feminist political action have brought about massive changes for the better, yet there still exist men whose sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and lives extends to choosing the time, place and method of their deaths. Similarly, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown show how much work remains to be done in terms of race, and the suicide of Leelah Alcorn and the murder of Islan Nettles show how much work remains to be done in terms of trans issues, and so on – there is no shortage of examples to draw from, a fact that is dispiriting in itself. Those of us whose politics are broadly progressive – from the most committed radical Marxist through to the softest of liberals – can occasionally be overwhelmed by the size of the task of change and both the strength and the subtlety of the forces arrayed against us.
The internal logic of helplessness, hopelessness and despair suggests that this affect cannot be put to work – because if that affect could be put to work, it could help change the situations it arises from, which would in turn no longer be capable of producing that affect.
Helplessness emerges precisely when we feel a situation is intractable, or perhaps tractable only for others (who might possess greater social, cultural, financial or emotional resources than we do). Despair is, therefore, a profoundly unproductive emotion, and one that leads to status quo–favouring inaction rather than action, which might explain why progressive political movements tend not to inculcate it in their adherents. As Robyn Marasco outlines in her book The Highway of Despair, despair is ‘too typically thought without political value’.
Marx, Lukács, Lenin and Žižek have each linked despair to narcissism, withdrawal, anarchism, and impotent rage. Similarly, George Monbiot chides environmentalists (including himself) for articulating the threats posed by climate change, because an understanding of those threats leads to a sense of despair, which leads to political quiescence: ‘Terrify the living daylights out of people and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.’
Monbiot argues that environmentalists need to articulate a positive vision rather than paint a doom-and-gloom picture: ‘An ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.’ Hope isn’t the only affect that might profitably supplant despair or hopelessness, however: Gough Whitlam’s famous instruction to ‘maintain your rage’ indicates that, for political purposes, the valence of what replaces despair doesn’t matter so long as something does.
Negative affects – hatred, fear, anger, suspicion, bitterness – can be perfectly well transformed into political action by both progressive and conservative causes. Hopelessness and despair, by contrast, can be instrumentalised only if they are displaced onto others who we might feel moved to help through the mechanism of pity. Remember, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’
Despair might be recuperated in progressive political struggle, however, if we examine it as both an effect of neoliberalism broadly speaking – which, following Foucault, we might define as ‘the overall exercise of political power modelled on the principles of a market economy’ – and an affront to that same ideology. Zygmunt Bauman puts the paradox succinctly: ‘Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.’
As neoliberal economic policies shred social fabrics worldwide in the name of freedom – freedom of markets, freedom of capital, individual freedom – gross disparities in outcomes develop. We are all free to compete, yet very few of us are winning, and the winner (who more often than not already possesses any number of advantages) takes all. When financial policies that are designed to shift wealth from the poorest to the richest are implemented worldwide, how can the poor be anything but dispirited?
Yet, neoliberalism abhors despair: the fiction of neoliberalism’s meritocratic nature is promulgated at exactly the same time as inequality grows. As Jo Littler argues, this is no coincidence: ‘Meritocratic discourse … is currently being actively mobilised by members of a plutocracy to extend their own interests and power.’ Meritocratic discourse is a hope machine: it holds out the promise that with enough talent and hard work anyone can transcend their circumstances, no matter how dire. As life becomes ever more precarious, we are told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Lauren Berlant has called this combination of hope for a better future through hard work and the impossibility of that future a form of ‘cruel optimism’; that is, ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.’ If neoliberalism demands hope from us as the enabling fiction that blinds us to the reality of rising inequality, entrenched social systems that favour certain classes over others, and the destruction of the planet’s ecosystem, then hopelessness and despair might allow us to perceive the very cruelty of this cruel optimism.
Despair might preclude political action, but it does not necessarily preclude political insight – the challenge is not how to avoid despair tout court, but how to utilise its disenchanting force without sinking into its inertia.