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Optimism is a mouthful in a world mired in misery

Defend Truth


Optimism is a mouthful in a world mired in misery


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

I should be clear: my pessimism is not the conventional Afro-pessimism. It is also not a concern for day-to-day failures, breakdowns, violence or destruction.

Earlier this week, I had a brief but insightful exchange with a friend whom I have admired and respected for more than three decades. I think we differed about my unflinching pessimism over South Africa’s future. There really is nothing new I have to say about South Africa’s future. I maintain the position that I have held for the past six years, and even the slightest signs of hope inspire fear and anger rather than optimism. 

I should be clear: my pessimism is not the conventional Afro-pessimism. It is also not a concern for day-to-day failures, breakdowns, violence or destruction. On one level it can be associated with the “natural” rate of entropy (I will avoid all esoteric language); on another level, it has to do with an increase in actual things and states of affairs that are life-threatening (nuclear power and weapons, the climate crisis, recurrent crises of capitalism, poverty, communicable disease, war and so forth) – and then there is stupidity. My main point is actually philosophical, but I will get to that below. 

I accept that the charge of stupidity is highly subjective and invariably requires evidence. But if you go to a rally of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte or Julius Malema, you might get a sense of the astonishing way that almost everything is misrepresented or twisted to mean something completely other than what it actually does. These misrepresentations are invariably devoid of truth conditions. 

If, also, you actually listen to people who ignore the climate crisis, people who follow doctrines based purely on faith (never mind the cruelty that some of these beliefs spawn) and ignore the scientific unreality of their (own) beliefs, it becomes difficult to avoid using the term “stupidity”. Believe it or not, there are people who believe the Earth was created in six days and that it is only 6,000 years old, when it has been scientifically proven that the planet was formed about 4.5 billion years ago; a little more than 9.2 billion years after the Big Bang.  

Optimism in a bog 

Briefly, and before I get to some of my reasons for pessimism (indulge me), I will turn to the traditional thinking of optimism and pessimism; two antithetical positions. 

Copper-bottomed Marxists (based on very many discussions, seminars, workshops etc) unflinchingly believe in Marx’s teleology of a communist utopia. Many thinkers are considered to be optimistic if they believe that the Earth is generally a good place to be, that it will progressively become better, and that there is a rainbow, a pot of gold and unicorns at the end of it all. (I had to slip in something cheeky. I am, after all, not a philosopher but a lowly hack.)  

If, however, you dare consider (as I do) the world a hostile place of war, famine, social conflict, racism, fascism, rampant exploitation, hunger, food and water scarcity, increasingly difficult access to basic healthcare, distrust in political and corporate leaders (and on and on) you’re regarded as pessimistic.  

In this framework, both pessimism and optimism are shaped by some powers of prediction about the future – which (always) ought to be considered with great caution. I do this even with my feeble attempts at “predicting” the future. In short, then, it is probably safe to dismiss all talk about the future – unless you’re an economist and imagine the beauty of your models as the truth. 

Optimism is defunct 

The problem with optimism is in its denial, or the aversion of its gaze from the impossible and leaving insufficient room for irrationality. This is as true of liberal capitalists as it is of Marxist-Leninist communists. The religious folk have a fascination with the hereafter that places them on a fast track to meeting their maker – mostly out of choice, sometimes with awfully barbaric consequences, sometimes patiently through Sunday or midday sermons. 

This notwithstanding, humans have a remarkable tendency towards self-serving delusions. With this, we expose ourselves, like festering open wounds, to manipulation, especially by politicians who would have us believe that once they’re elected, everything will be just fine. As Joseph Servan de Gerbey (1741-1808), a French minister of war once said: “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own idealism.”  

But there remain the Marxists who seem to be the most optimistic; clinging to Marx’s teleology of a communist utopia and the (desirable) utopia of a classless society, never mind the contradictory “dictatorship” of the proletariat, like a safety blanket. Actually, there rarely has been a benevolent dictatorship.  

The revolutionaries in our midst, those who do call for a dictatorship of the proletariat, have not gone any further than demanding the land, the exodus of non-Africans and economic freedom. It is freedom, above all, that they want. Alas, they are condemned to be free. Put another way, and what has become clear, at least in South Africa, is that once “freedom” is achieved, the liberators very quickly run out of ideas. It’s worse than chasing (and catching) a tiger. At least once you catch the tiger you know you’ll probably get killed. If you listen to members of the liberation movement that governs, they would rather the hunt for the tiger continues… 

On optimism and pessimism, capitalists do my head in 

There is a great irony in the contention (which I make here) that the liberal capitalists may be the most pessimistic of all. With a big caveat inserted here, and to contradict the previous statement, it is in that pessimism that the arch-capitalists may be forging an optimism that drifts between shadows and darkness. I am cleverly stealing a passage from Edwin Hardin, who wrote some time before World War 1 that Nietzsche had provided a great “service to Christianity”. How could that possibly be about he who wrote that God was dead?  

“At first thought, the phrase sounds paradoxical and preposterous. Can any conceivable service have been rendered to Christianity by the apostle of individualism, by the author of Antichrist, by the man who inexorably and pitilessly subjected every moral proposition cherished by society to the most searching scrutiny and found reasons, ample and satisfactory to his own mind, for rejecting most of them?” Hardin wrote. 

Nevertheless, flicking between pessimism and optimism we either use general principles or unchallenged truths like the existence of god or look ahead through the use of verifiable patterns found (especially) in nature. Where you stand on either depends on where you sit; as generalisations, the former is probably sat in the pews of your local church, and the latter in a lecture hall or laboratory. 

It is well known, or at least it should be well known, that capitalism has gone through hundreds (yes) of banking, currency or financial crises over the past 500 years. We have reached a point, today, where there is great uncertainty about capitalism’s future. This does not mean that individual capitalists or groups of CEOs are resting on their Laurence. In this era of capitalist pessimism, they’re working on ways to secure their gains and find new ways of stockpiling vast amounts of money. Please bear with me.  

Consider the following. If you are sure of the future, you would invest in that which would make a success of and stabilise that future. And so, when one considers the global unemployment of young people (the future), there is reason to believe that those who currently hold on to money would rather, well, hold on to their money than invest in the future. They would rather that no taxes be paid, and their money be kept in the dark economy, in shadow banking or in offshore accounts. This makes them feel secure (optimistic) and safe from recurrent crises, taxation, accountability, transparency, spending on the common good and caring for common-pool resources which, in this frame, is negative (pessimism).  

In some ways, humans are always and forever mired in pessimism. Let me try the analogy of life. If I were asked whether I would like to live forever I would say: No! Imagine knowing you will never die; there would be no reason to get out of bed, go to school, get a job, earn a living or even go for a walk. That is probably the epitome of the optimistic life. My guess is that life would turn to immense displeasure and misery (pessimism) in no time. 

Now imagine, or at least accept the fact that you will die at some time (pessimism). You then aspire to get as much out of life as you can; you have to go to work, feed, clothe and house your family and yourself, keep everyone alive or extend their natural life by paying for expensive medical aid. That drudgery surely cannot be the apogee of human beings. It may be best understood as pessimism. In short, optimism is one of the great delusions of life. Sure, there are happy people, rich people, beautiful healthy people… To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, even enormous wealth and privilege are a conditional optimism. You can be happy, but it comes at an enormous price paid for with often backbreaking pessimism. DM


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  • Pls let me respond with a little blurt i wrote yesterday, in muted curmudgeon applause of your article:

    To praise the fortunate:

    The fortunate are often so full of themselves, as humans are wont to be, they love to squawk and squeal about how wonderful life is, so everyone will look at them enviously or adoringly. The less lucky, for whom hope is a fierce virtue and belligerent faith, join in the chorus of the lucky, ever hopeful that their turn is coming. Since the hopeful are in the majority, the lucky can rely on the adulation of a vast mass of grimly cheerful optimists, and in the ensuing brouhaha and lavish lekks, very few take the time to reflect on the inevitability of their personal demise, those they love and might have imposed mortal existence on, and that of the planet itself, so the question is seldom asked, “well, why not now?”

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