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  • The centre will not hold:changing principles of political hope
  • Phil Cohen (bio)

To avoid pessimism we need to look in the right places for hope

How is it possible to live in a society whose dominant values you abhor, but which invade your everyday life and even your dreams? How is possible to thrive under these conditions without retreating into some kind of private world, or an escapist subculture which insulates you from the very society you are seeking to understand and change? How are we to sustain the courage, resourcefulness, cunning and fortitude to keep on keeping on in pursuit of forms of social justice we know will not be realised in our life-time, and without falling back on some utopian/apocalyptic belief system? What is there in our political culture that supports - or hollows out - the emotional, moral and intellectual resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration? And to bring the issue closer to home: how far has the left succeeded in creating a counterculture of commemoration that offers a sustained alternative to the constant celebration of celebrity that marks the new spirit of capitalism? For without such a counterculture there is no heritage of struggle for a younger generation to accept or reject.

These questions have taken on particular urgency in the wake of an election that [End Page 42] is coming to be seen, perhaps too readily, as a historical turning point in the fortunes of the labour movement and the left in Britain, and as symptomatic of a wider crisis of social democracy across Europe. How a political movement deals with defeat is a test of its maturity as well as its resilience, and so far the signs are not encouraging. There have been plenty of Jeremiads, a lot of back-stabbing and settling of old scores, and a few consoling extrapolations from the electoral statistics to suggest that the result was not as bad as it seems. But whether it is the fire next time, or the spectre of the Blair/Brown phoenix rising from the ashes, commentators are as equally united in the belief that now is the moment for a profound rethink about the Labour Party as they are divided on what form this should take.

I am going to suggest that one of the reasons why it is so difficult for political activists to come to terms with failure is that we have lived through a profound but subtle shift in our general political culture, a shift which militates against incorporating the work of mourning into the process of sustaining realistic principles of hope. We have moved from a culture of proto-modernism underpinned by a belief in historical progress, and a capacity to distinguish clearly between progressive and reactionary forces in society, to one of retro-modernity, in which the fetishism of the present and the ever new is underpinned by a continual recycling of the past and a pseudo-futurism in which everything is magically possible and nothing is realistically predictable or attainable.1 At the same time there has been a shift from what I call Low culture - a culture grounded in an appreciation of the transient and tragic-comic aspects of the human condition - to a High culture - which oscillates between states of manic excitement and chronic depression, jubilee and cenotaph, prophecies of doom and the new dawn.

I am currently trying to trace out these shifts by looking at changes in the form and function of the archive, the narrative paradigms of the memoir and the protocols of the obituary.2 In this article I want to focus on the impact of these changes on the cultural politics of the left intelligentsia by revisiting Gramsci’s famous formula for surviving setbacks and difficult times: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.3

My argument will be that this formula has undergone a radical inversion. Optimism of the intellect - the belief that critical ideas operating within an intrinsically depoliticised cultural realm can nevertheless by themselves change the world - is flourishing in conditions where pessimism of the will - the feeling [End Page 43] that there is little or nothing that can be done to...


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