The politics of hope

June 30, 2022 11:13
Photo: Reuters

I’ve been asked this question many a time – how do we keep faith? How do we remain hopeful? How can we see light at the end of a tunnel that repeatedly refuses to end? That’s the question of the century – and a question with which populists and genuine pragmatists, elite and public alike must grapple. Politicians need the answer, in order to concoct their elixir for holding onto office for yet another term (in electoral democracies – am looking at you, BoJo – via elections; in non-electoral, authoritarian regimes, via ostensible ‘elections’). The masses need the answer, so as to keep themselves afloat in face the deluge of bad news. The repeal of Roe v. Wade. Mass shootings. Indyref 2.0 (Scotland). A sinking ship from Hong Kong. COVID-19. You name it – this has been a pretty terrible year.

So what do we do? Do we sit there and sulk? Do we complain, berate, and seek the easy way out – e.g. run away from the problem? Must we, on the other hand, charge into the crises head-first, with the intention of sacrificing oneself, and the actual terminal outcome of achieving very little bar pure sound and fury? It is of my humble opinion that the only path forward for hope – at times of despair – is realism. Ultra-realism – as opposed to idealism – is the necessary ingredient that sustains hope. Here’s how: let me explain.

First, hope is dashed not via the setting of moderate and achievable, if not unimpressive, expectations, Indeed, one often finds hopelessness the afterthought and epilogue to intense, impassioned, and borderline delusional yearning for ‘ideals’ that are clearly and viscerally beyond reach. Now don’t get me wrong, ideals and principles certainly have a role to play in politics. But the incessant pursuit of them – even in face of circumstances and facts that astutely and lucidly demonstrate that said pursuit is futile, or likely to be futile – would only result in the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, in more ways than one: first, in the subjective-affective sense (in that individuals who are hurt and jaded by their hopes not materialising, tend to be more dejected than those who calibrate their expectations to begin with); second, in the institutional-reactive sense (i.e. conservative, oppressive institutions tend to double down on their subjugation in face of blatantly unrealistic and grossly out-of-reach demands/end-goals being agitated for by the people). Of course, there are instances where seemingly infeasible and unrealisable goals turn out to be not only feasible, but also a necessary prerequisite for the engendering of transformative social change. I do not dispute their possibility – I merely dispute their ubiquity.

Second, ultra-realism enables us to put into perspective the many challenges and the milieu that underpins the malaise afflicting our shared community. That is to say, it forces us to prioritise, to ration the limited attention economy and political capital we possess on the basis of whether the ends we spend such resources on can in fact be brought about in any meaningful sense. Idealism – especially the hyper-idealism that has come to constitute social movements in the social media age – is both misguided and misguiding; the former, for it ignores the need for principles of justice to be context-sensitive and realistic, and the latter, for it sends generations of cherubic youth to their demise. In vain. In vain. True realists won’t rule out imaginative hypotheticals and ideals – yet would accordingly assign a premium (or corresponding discount) in their appraisal of options, in order to come to a path that yields measurable and concrete progress. Only through tangible, apparent (even if piecemeal) changes can movements sustain the continued momentum they need to eventually succeed. Hence the politics of hope – in virtue of its innately organizational and mass-psychological origins – cannot be indifferent to realpolitik and the vicissitudes of the imperfect world we inhabit.

And ties me onto my final point. We can remain hopeful if we choose to – that seems trivially obviously and almost redundantly trite. But it’s true. Hope is not merely a spontaneous reaction, a knee-jerk and intuitional reaction, for one. Hope is a form of conditioning. Hope is conditioning. And there’s no reason to think that if one is an ultra-realist about the descriptive facts of the matter, one must also be a status quo conservative who prefers adhering to and upholding existing arrangements of injustices. Those who dare to hope, would do so with audacity and dexterity – be as daring and ambitious as a soaring eagle when one must, yet also be as astute and reticent as a prudent snake when separate occasions call. Very often, these subsets of occasions conflict and merge together into one – which is why clinging onto, or manufacturing, hope is such a tricky and no mean business for the faint-hearted.

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Assistant Professor, HKU