The pursuit of hope becomes dangerous when it comes at the price of clarity.
A little over six months ago, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote that:
Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe. As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus.
The top item on his list of reasons for optimism was the rise of the Greek leftists Syriza. Now that same party appears poised to let down the electorate who they promised they would keep Greece in the Eurozone, The country has imposed capital controls. It’s shut down its bank for at least a week leaving the large numbers of Greeks without cash cards struggling to get the cash to pay for food. Syriza has turned the most modest of recoveries into the most nightmarish of potential crashes. In short, the party is giving Greeks very little reason to feel hopeful.
That I’m afraid is hardly surprising. Hope is a very poor basis on which to base your political calculations. Don’t get me wrong, my spine stiffens as much as the next liberal hearing a circa 2008 Obama speech. But even Mr-Hope-and-Change himself has been forced to become much less sunny. The man who aspired to bridge the gap with Republicans, has had to take them on in a deeply partisan battle using every tool at his disposal. Some might see that as betrayal but I’d suggest it rather reflects the president becoming wiser with experience.
There is nothing inherently desirable about politicians being optimistic. Naturally, they should aspire to make the world a better place. But achieving that means recognising which goals are realistic. It also requires having leaders who are wary of the dangers that could instead make things worse. Panglossians are precisely the wrong people to deliver positive change.
That’s not an excuse for cynicism or paranoia. One can be unduly pessimistic as well as unduly optimistic. But it is a warning against wishful thinking. Fear has played a big part in many of the worst moments of human history but so as delusional optimism: think of Soviet industrialisation collectivisation or the Iraq War.
We should not be seeking a politics that replaces fear with hope. Rather we should be seeking to balance the two. Humans evolved to feel fear because it is helped us to avoid dangers. Now we are political animals, we must also be attuned to political dangers. Sounding the alarm and in so doing making people afraid is often the only responsible course. To take an extreme example Churchill was fearful where Chamberlain was hopeful but he was still right.
Sadly among the dangers one must be vigilant for are those peddling hopes that lack foundations and dismissing real threats. And even more sadly such people appear to be leading Greece to disaster.