The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope

If, as I suspect, the British are divided between those who feel uplifted by the sight of Hazel Blears and otherwise life-affirming folk for whom her pitiless smile and perky tread are soul-curdling memento mori, it is clear which side Roger Scruton would be on.

Despite disclaiming any kind of Schopenhauerian gloom, his book argues that a measure of judicious pessimism is essential to restoring balance and wisdom in human affairs, and to tempering unrealistic hopes that might ruin us. His chapter headings - "The Best Case Fallacy", "The Born-free Fallacy", "The Planning Fallacy", and so on - speak for themselves. And while his categories, such as "unscrupulous optimists" and "scrupulous pessimists", may not be for the conventional-minded, neither is this book.

The first category includes Lenin, Mao and Hitler, whose followers and combined utopian fantasies - scientifically grounded, naturally - brought death to roughly 150 million people. (The Nazis, the least "idealistic" grouping of the three, contributed a modest 35 million.) In a humbler category, those guilty of forward-looking, positive-minded destruction include architects who have straightened out the offensively crooked timbers of our cities in favour of boxes of glass and steel, and Eurocrats intent on ironing flat their continent's stubbornly lumpy cultures. All have inexorable plans for the betterment of humanity, whose self-evident benefits tolerate no refutation.

Once you get the hang of the argument, much of it paradoxical, the case for a cheerful sobriety - for that, in the end, is what Scruton wants - is persuasive enough. More interesting, however, is the philosophical background, presented with his familiar encyclopaedic breadth and Nietz­schean clarity of expression.

In the "Born-free" chapter, we skip along from Hegel through Strindberg to Lady Plowden, the well-meaning patrician who thought that it would be jolly to impose experimental educational methods on other people's children (a mangled version of Hegel was at the root of the subsequent disaster). Hegel's sweeping view of onward-marching history lent itself to illusions of relentless progress, though he never believed in the liberation of the "I" and still less in child-centred theory, arguing that true freedom must be social, and rule-based.

Scruton's economic arguments are especially topical, even though sometimes a rounder view would have been helpful, such as in his discussion of usury, where he praises (with reservations) the Muslim approach. Until the early 17th century, the Protestant progenitors of modern capitalism were opposed to it, too, and the consequences of their conversion have been rather larger. What are we to make of that for the distinction between optimism and pessimism? Maybe the author was striving to be complimentary to Islam, a faith towards which he has shown little indulgence in the past.

Scruton-haters keen to be provoked will be gratified by his attack on Keynes, "the flippant aesthete", whose catchphrase "In the long run we are all dead" suggests that the more we can postpone to the future, the less we will have to account for it. "The infinite regress of transferred liability", Scruton calls it - and a subject very much in the news as we borrow to infinity.

He confronts full-on the obvious argument that, if fantasies about human potential are in some way innate, as in the pessimist's eyes they must be, there is limited future in seeking to wean the world off its false hopes. And sure enough, the utopian fallacy, responsible for
untold slaughter, is not easily despatched. To this day, there are plenty who assert that the trouble with communism is that it was never really tried, and the moment the market gets itself into trouble, back comes the argument that Marx had it right.

The only way to ensure we don't repeat our mistakes endlessly, whether "liberating" peoples the better to put the executioner's pistol to their necks or (as Scruton might have added) constructing fissiparous empires, would be to approach each new world-historical enterprise or "solution" with a dose of prejudice - not in the sense of paralysing negativism, but, as Burke argued, with a mode of thought evolving from the pooled experience of absent generations.

In theory, optimists ought to be tolerant of their critics. The future is with them, by defi­nition, and doubters must one day be force-marched, blinking, on to the sunny uplands. But it isn't like that. When optimists' beliefs are questioned, Scruton notes, they pronounce quasi-religious anathema on their critics, similar to the toxic effect enthusiasts of the French and Russian Revolutions have had on modern debate. That even Scruton, one of the most genuinely rather than affectedly original thinkers in Britain, should have fallen victim to unscrupulous institutional optimists in higher education (he now works in America) adds piquancy to his remarks.

It would be a refutation of Scruton's thesis if his book were welcomed, but there seems little danger of that. I doubt whether a single individual's outlook on the world will be altered by it, however nuanced its message. The fallacies it seeks to counter underpin too much of our lives, from politics to education and from the arts to foreign policy. Optimism is our brittle currency. Too many folk have invested too much in misconceived hopes to step back and consider. People feel good about feeling good about the world - it is part of the modern practice of public relations, the way they get on in their careers - and they don't enjoy being told to sober up and confront the truth.

Yet, in the end, undue optimism is based on a dismal view of human nature - that only by making a retreat from the complexity of ourselves and our society, and by enforcing the onward and upward view of life displayed on commercial and totalitarian posters alike, can we be saved. For Scruton, by contrast, the world is "a much better place than the optimists allow: and that is why pessimism is needed".

For all her difficulties over expenses, Blears, it need hardly be said, was re-elected.

The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 240pp, £15.99

George Walden's memoir "Lucky George" was published by Allen Lane in 1999

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis