‘Hope without Optimism’ reviewed by Chris Byron

Hope without Optimism

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2015. 160pp., £18.99 hb ISBN
ISBN 9780300217124

Reviewed by Chris Byron

About the reviewer

Chris Byron recently defended his dissertation on a new reading of Marx’s theory of exploitation …


Terry Eagleton has always stood out among authors in the academic Marxist tradition for his ability to write with equal parts erudition and jocularity. A trait which is especially keen in Eagleton’s work is his ability to incorporate humor into penetrating analytic reasoning, often to the chagrin of liberal and postmodern philosophy. Moreover, his examples for demonstrating philosophical points are quite prodigious, drawing from high and low culture, contemporary political events, and the finest of Western literature. Fortunately his recent book Hope without Optimism retains all of his past virtues in writing.

Given the rise of economic inequality, the collapse of Occupy Wall Street, the quelling of the Arab Spring, the media and DNC’s internal ability to defeat Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign, the racism and xenophobia behind Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, to name but a few recent events, there is quite a lot for the left to be sullen about. While some members of the left may not be full-blown pessimists in light these events, it is rather hard to endorse Optimism. Politically this form of psychological withdrawal can only exacerbate defeat. Eagleton argues that one does not need to embrace optimism, which is logically absurd, nor pessimism, which is inherently defeatist, but rather hope, which signals the fact that there are still battles left to care about.

Eagleton’s book is divided into four parts. The first part deals with the banality of optimism, the second part sketches out the nature of hope, the third part is a rather unexpected detour into the philosophy of Utopian Marxist Ernst Bloch, and the final part argues why we can still muster hope, as a catalyst for change, in the face of ostensibly insurmountable political defeat. The book is targeted at two general audiences: leftist (of the socialist and Marxist variety), since they are the ones suffering constant defeat, and those interested in a philosophical and literary reflection on the nature of hope, tragedy, and optimism, provided by some of the West’s most impressive thinkers.

In the first part Eagleton rather convincingly argues that optimism and pessimism are two sides of an irrational coin. Both are world views predicated upon unjustifiable belief. Although event X at time t1 may or may not appear to be going well, it cannot follow that all future events at interminable times, will also turn out likewise. As Eagleton states: ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ has about as much rational force as ‘always part your hair in the middle’ (2). Moreover, to be optimistic is also to be conservative, in that one has faith in the essential present social arrangement to be confident that it can only unfold in a positive direction. This de facto prevents critiques of the inherent nature of our present social and political arrangements.

One of the real highlights of this section in particular, and the book overall, is the devastating critique Eagleton offers of Matt Riddley (former chairman of Northern Rock, and amateur philosopher, pop-scientist, and pontificator). Riddley is tarred and feathered for being unable to see that capitalism is particular form of arranging the economy, which does not – and cannot by any Marxian conception – bring about more leisure time. And some of Eagleton’s best insights, laden with humor, are to be found in this critique. For instance ‘’Helping others do their consuming’ is a splendidly euphemistic way for portraying Exxon or Microsoft. It is as though one were to see the thief who makes off with your car as helping to reduce your waistline by forcing you to walk’ (22). Like most ideologues, Riddley takes the present social arrangements for granted, reads them forwards and backwards into history, and chalks up everything good about humanity as the essence of our present socio-economic relations.

Section two is a scholarly tour de force, commenting on the relationship between hope and desire in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Marcel, Lacan, and Badiou, to name just a few references. Hope is often tied to our conceptions of what the future can be, given the nature of human capacities that often rest dormant. This is not always the case with desire, which can be entranced by an object which is neither dormant, nor possible, but wholly unattainable (e.g., returning to the security of the womb). Thus, whereas desire is unconstrained within the domains of the possible and impossible, hope is constrained, and always aims for the possible. This possible aim is targeted at changing social arrangements and human affairs, unlike desire which is often, but not always, object based. There is quite a bit more to this section beyond that essential kernel, and the nature of hope and despair, and hopelessness with a lack of despair (as pressed cogently by Thomas Hardy in numerous works), comes in for consideration. This chapter ought to be read by everyone interested in the relationship between hope, despair, and desire, and their developments in Western literature.

Section three, to my mind, while certainly well written and well developed, was the low point of the text. Eagleton spends approximately twenty pages dismantling the views of Utopian Marxist Ernst Bloch. One really wonders why Ernst Bloch warrants so many pages and such devastating critique. His name is barely mentioned in Marxist circles anymore, and he lacks the popularity – be it justified or not – of an Althusser or Zizek. Eagleton seems upset with his Utopianism and myopic optimism, but this hardly warrants such a prolonged critique. As Eagleton points out, the sheer size of Bloch’s written output is overshadowed by his monotonous focus, and belabored points. Yet this very critique is rather ironic, coming within a section whose output is overshadowed by its own narrow focus. Still, Eagleton does raise the non-postmodern and prudent point that to have hope about all devastating events is poisonous, since it prevents us from recognizing what is truly dreadful in itself. There is nothing wrong with seeing, for example, the Holocaust as noxious, period. Therefore looking on the bright side of things can often be a way of passing positive judgment on something purely odious. And inversely, seeing the bright side in everything prevents us from revering those rare events which are truly good. By being a hopeful Utopian through and through, as Bloch is, we miss out on passing proper negative and positive judgment on remarkable and unique events.

Section four, aptly titled “Hope Against Hope”, is quite the consummate section. Elegantly reiterating a fundamental Marxian point, Eagleton argues that ‘If radical transformation is a hard concept to seize, it is because it demands foresight and lucidity, precision and calculation, but all in the name of an end that is necessarily opaque. To project a future is inevitably to draw upon the experience of the present, and thus to surpass what we know already’ (114).

The hopeful revolutionary always faces the paradox that she fights for something radically new, but must use the foundation of the present as the inspiration for change. And what is the revolutionary to do when the present is a barrage of constant defeat? As expressed in the second paragraph above, when left-wing defeat is omnipresent, and the left justifiably loses all sense of optimism, what well can we draw strength from to fight on? This concern leads Eagleton into an in depth reading of classic tragedies (e.g., those of Shakespeare). Because tragedy has a place in our civilization as something which is more overwhelming than pessimism, something that really shakes the fabric of our being, its potency comes from the fact that it is something we hold of great value which is being destroyed. And if we still hold something to be of great value, since we must if we feel a sense of tragedy, then we still have some source to draw strength from, some value to continue to fight for. The left needs to recognize that all the defeats it constantly faces, which make it momentarily withdraw with dread, consistently imply that if we feel negative, that is because there is something positive we are still holding onto. This remainder is something to be hopeful about. To never fight and thus never fail, implies zero commitments and thus no hope. But to try and fail, and fail again and again, reveals a hopeful remainder in the human spirit. We can never be certain we have completely lost a fight until we stop trying, and so long as we keep trying, even in the face of inexorable defeat, there remains something to be hopeful about. 

1 August 2016

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