In the first column of this series dedicated to “objects of political desire” I argued for a renewed theory of mobilisation, centred around desire. But that theory is worthless so long as it not does not help us solve the main problem we have in the political arena today.
That problem can be summed up in one question: what’s stronger than fear?
Fear is effective because it is a monopolistic emotion. When you are scared, you cannot think about anything else. Intellectuals will try to dismiss fear as irrational, without realising that fear’s irrationality, insofar as it exists, is the key to its strength. But many fears are rational, or at least plausible, and telling people to just not have them doesn’t work. Reactionary politics weds itself so perfectly with fear because it is so instinctive to its core element: when we fear, we react.
That is not new to say that if progressives want to counter the reactionary use of fear, they must find something that is equally emotionally wedded to progressivism as fear is to reaction. Elections that pit “hope” against “fear” or “love” against “fear” (or “hate”) are a classical example. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was universally described as a victory of hope after years of living under the fear of terrorism throughout the George W. Bush years. In the recent elections in Brazil, Lula da Silva successfully used a discourse of love against Jair Bolsonaro, whose tenure is a clear example of what a hateful discourse can do to a country.
If you inject despair into politics, you will only get despondency and pessimism.
But these weren’t definitive victories, not only because they were narrowly secured, but also because hope tends to be a passive feeling (especially in Latin languages, where it translates as esperança, esperanza or espoir, all variations of the verb to wait). Love, when not of the passionate kind, tends to be a quieter emotion than hate.
Particularly when in government, progressives can succumb to technocratic politics. This retreat is especially prevalent at the European Union level and it is a serious mistake. When faced with a challenge as strong as the one posed by national-populist authoritarians (who, it must always be remembered, have already destroyed European democracies once), the technocratic answer is to say, “Let them have the territory of emotions, we will have reality”, without realising that emotions are our main interface with reality. For the human species at least, emotion are effectively the pillars of our consciousness. No emotions, no social life, no politics. If you concede that, you’re giving away all of politics to our adversaries.
Progressives, and the Greens in particular, also have their brand of fear. The fear of not having a liveable planet in the future, the fear of the consequences of inequalities, and so on. But even here, reactionaries are able to mobilise more immediate fears. Fear is not only monopolistic in regards to other emotions but also among several distinct fears. We only worry about the next fear when we have dealt with the most immediate one. Hence, most people find it difficult to worry about the end of the world when their main worry is the end of the month.
Our use of fear brings diminishing returns for mobilising people for progressive politics – in contrast to what happens in the framework of reactionary politics. In progressive politics, if you go around telling everybody that there won’t be a planet for the next generation, that there’s not enough resources for everybody to enjoy a decent life, that, in sum, there’s not enough of the world for everybody — don’t be surprised if people drop their arms, go back home, and curl up in bed. What point is there in going out on the streets, attending long meetings or organising your workplace if everything will turn for the worse regardless?
Progressivism depends on optimism – the desire for a better future. Luckily, desire is stronger than fear.
If you inject despair into politics, you will only get despondency and pessimism, effectively guaranteeing a turn for the worse. Moreover, when progressives emphasise a negative future, they invite comparison with a positive past, which automatically benefits reactionaries.
If progressives do not have a credible way to say that there is enough of a world for everybody to live a better life and that the way to get there is to overcome our current challenges with a progressive plan, nobody will get behind them. Progressivism depends on optimism – the desire for a better future.
Luckily for us, desire is stronger than fear.
In the next couple of columns, we will see historical examples of how desire works as a catalyst of political and social change. But before I finish, let me go back to theory. The shift that we need to operate here is one of the relationship between the “now”, the past and the future. This is the “structure of awareness”, as one of the great theologians of the 20th century, Thomas Oden, called it in an illuminating book by the same title.
According to Oden, there are two main ways of approaching this relationship: one in which the past is mainly the lieu of guilt and the future the creator of anxiety and another, in which we use memory as “an attempted re-imagining of what has happened” and imagination as “an attempted pre-imagining of what might happen”. The first way is oppressive and anxiogenic. The second is emancipatory and liberating.
If we are to combat – and defeat – objects of political fear with objects of political desire, we need to operate this shift from the past-as-guilt and the future-as-anxiety to the past-as-memory and the future-as-imagination. In other words, the future as desirable possibility.
Successful progressive politics is not – and has never been – the Excel file of the technocrat or fear-mongering Left. The progressive programme, and especially the Green programme, must provide a vision of a desirable future, backed up by the examples and steps we need to get there.
This article is a part of our new monthly column looking at the past, present, and future of political desire. Read part #1 here and sign up to our newsletter below to get it in your inbox.