One of the stranger symptoms of the coronavirus crisis is the hope it has engendered. Most of us wish for something other than a pandemic. A vaccine would be good; so too would a competent government. But a less modest hope has also gone viral over the past four months.
We always hope for something better than before, and in the early days of the crisis we saw signs of just that: neighbourliness, self-sacrifice, a new respect for those who do the hard and dirty work, a basic universal wage, shelter for the homeless and the joy of pollution-free air during spring walks along empty roads.
“Hope is the rainbow over the cascading stream of life,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. We chalked rainbows on the pavements and clung on to the rocks as the torrents of death and infection rates flowed over us.
And other possibilities for how we organise our societies suddenly became possible. Maybe we had been wrong to hope for so little before. As the historian Rutger Bregman argues in Humankind: A Hopeful History, it is in our nature to cooperate, to care. It is human kindness that keeps the social contract intact. Hope is back on.
Or is it? And should we even want to hope at this point?
Ever since Hesiod’s myth of Pandora’s Box philosophers have argued about whether hope is a good or a bad thing. Nietzsche himself actually had little time for hope. He thought that religious and metaphysical hopes were illusions that prolonged our earthly agonies. The French author Albert Camus also warned against hope; as for Sisyphus pushing his rock repeatedly up the mountain, hope gets us nowhere.
But not to hope now also seems intolerable. The thick spike proteins of Covid-19 have latched on to poverty, inequality and racism. There has to be a better politics than this.
The question, perhaps, is not whether to hope or not to hope, but how to hope.
In the 1950s the German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote The Principle of Hope. Bloch was interested in what he called the “not-yet-conscious” moments that seem to push us towards hope. Turning Freud on his head, Bloch talked of a “forward unconscious”. Whereas Freud thought we were haunted by the past, condemned to pursue desires and past traumas, Bloch argued that it was the future we were always aiming for unconsciously. You can find hope everywhere once you start to look, he argued: in art, history, sport, science, architecture, healthcare and poetry. Hope weaves its dreams in everyday life; it’s just that we don’t usually notice it. More than a feeling, hope is a form of cognition, which is why we can act on hope. Bloch’s hope was revolutionary. It was not the banal daydreams of capitalist culture that drove hope, but the yearning for another kind of existence.
But for Bloch, in the end, all the little hopes gathered into one big hope: the realisation of a classless society, a Leninist utopia on Earth. Bloch’s utopian hope became a dismal reality for millions in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Hope can also be dangerous.
After the Cold War, and the end of Bloch’s Leninist dreams, we were supposed to accept a new liberal politics that had little place for hope. The message of Third Way politicians, from Tony Blair to David Cameron in the UK, and from George W Bush to Barack Obama in the US, was that poverty, inequality and injustice were regrettable, but should not be treated with structural change. That didn’t work. Hope burst out of the box, and the consequences were ugly. The new nationalist ideologies, embodied by Donald Trump and Brexit, thrive on chaos and inchoate hope. Some of these hopes get more dangerous by the day.
But hope isn’t just irrational. It also lives in the space between what reason tells us is possible and what Bloch teaches us to recognise as our everyday desire to create something better. Go back to his list: artists, scientists, sportspersons, healthcare workers – all maintain hope by practising, experimenting and working with it. When hope is not an illusion, it can be a work in progress. This is where we are now: working with hope against the ideologies of chaos.
We are “only reasonably entitled to hope when we believe that we and our equals have more strength in heart and head than the representatives of the existing state of things”, Nietzsche wrote. This sober realisation is perhaps our true coronavirus rainbow.
Lyndsey Stonebridge is the author of “Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees” (OUP)
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid