Hope and fear

‘Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of men’ – Nietzsche

‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’ – Spinoza

 

The ancient Greeks disliked hope. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes it as a form of wishful thinking indulged in at immense personal risk and cost. ‘Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources’ he writes, but ‘those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined’.

The election has been terrible news for many of us. The reaction among friends and relatives has been like Brexit in fact – stunned, anger, despair. I’ve heard lots of blame of the working class; of the English and their racism; of the world outside of London; of human nature. On the vocal Left, which by no means represents all the Left, let alone the wider range of public opinion on politics, that this is a result of a media stitch-up; or quisling centrist commentators; that the party should’ve pushed for Brexit, or instead harder for Remain.

There’s something in these positions, but all miss the mark in my view. It was clear from researching what became Island Story five years ago that there was a very wide gulf between London and the rest of England and Wales. London is the site of all economic, cultural and political power. It has long imposed decisions on the rest of the country which have been resented. To blame the world outside London, or England, reinforces the problem. To blame people for not ‘understanding’ Corbyn is similar. While ideology in the final part explains this election result better than any economic factor, the supposition of false consciousness on the part of the voters is arrogant and deluded.

Because in the final part, for many of the voters who mattered for Labour, this was about the credibility of Corbyn. While many will blame the right-wing press, this credibility had been undermined by his dithering on Brexit and failure to appropriately deal with anti-Semitism in the party, at least going 18 months back. Then, of course, about Brexit and bringing a decisive end to three years of a deeply frustrating deadlock. When the bodies are counted later, these two factors have to be prioritised. The tragedy is that the NHS and the social fabric of the UK will unravel at an increasing rate for the next five years.

One of the common findings of the Island Story work, which the book generally under-reported and avoided discussing because of its disquieting and inconvenient nature, was how immigration dominated most discussions of place and politics all across the country. This had an obvious bearing on the Brexit vote, even if it was one among several factors (Danny Dorling’s research rightly shows that, with Brexit at least, and I would say this result, the drivers were the more affluent middle classes, who make up the majority of the Conservative vote). In the perceptive election coverage of Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times came this insight from Shirebrook, where a massive Sports Direct factory has been built over a former pit:

‘Most residents refused to work in such a degrading environment, so the jobs are largely taken by people from poorer parts of the European Union. In the local consciousness, the concept of regional decline became fused with that of European immigration, instead of neoliberal economics.’

As we’ll know, Dennis Skinner has just lost his seat there to the Tories – a staggering loss (so too Laura Pidcock). But as we’re dealing with ideology, we need to talk about class. Cap-doffing and being allowed to snigger with your betters is a decisive part of the Boris Johnson charm (or any similar aristocrat in public office). The roots of class shame, humility and the need for respectability go back at least to the British establishment’s reaction to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. But with deindustrialisation came a collapse in jobs that evoked pride, and in allied industries and incomes that furnished working class communities. London also experienced deindustrialisation of a similar numerical scale to anything in the North-East over the 1960s-70s – hence the peculiar right-wing politics that marks its outer corridors like the East, to this day. The ‘wounds of class’, as David Smail wrote about from a psychiatric point of view, and later Mark Fisher and Jeremy Seabrook, from a socio-political one. We need someone with the insight and anger of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the psychological and embodied structures of social class in the UK.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a class called ‘Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene’, where I’ve been outlining and discussing concepts for my next book. Both classes I taught have made a great deal clearer. Collectively, we ended up generally agreeing on the importance of theories of participatory democracy, like Carole Pateman’s, but there was a radical strain throughout which refused to accept any theory of human nature as somehow determining or ‘fating’ politics. The concept of the Anthropocene was rejected in favour of an analysis of political and economic structures, but we were also careful to avoid lazy moralising and pieties about the evils of capitalism that divested ourselves of confronting difficult problems of obligation and responsibility that involve each of us.

The Ancient Greeks subscribed to a view of fate, as did Nietzsche. Amor fati, love of fate he called it – accepting what was necessary, embracing it even. But that position has always been dissatisfying to me and others. To not have hope seems strangely luxurious. Hope is something we need to live, to believe that alternatives are possible and worth pursuing – hence the old Gramsci line everyone knows.

But I am not convinced either that, as Mark Fisher once wrote, after Deleuze, that we should abandon hope. The few convincing accounts of hope in my view have come from the American civil rights movement. Dr King famously said that ‘with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope’. But I find it more persuasive in the work of James Baldwin. In his “Letter from a region in my mind”, he pleads for hope, even for what is impossible or unrealistic. ‘But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand’, for history ‘testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible’.

Spinoza is generally dismissive of hope. ‘If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them’, he writes at the beginning of the Theological-Political Treatise, then none of us would suffer from superstition. But inevitably we encounter adversity. ‘Then’, he says, ‘they usually vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear, desiring immoderately the uncertain goods of fortune’. In the Ethics he writes that hope is an ‘inconstant joy, arising from the image of a thing future or past, of whose outcome we are in doubt’. Being inconstant, it is unreliable, because it based not on a knowledge of actual events but wishful thinking. ‘The more we strive to live according to the guidance of reason’, he writes, ‘the more we strive to depend less on hope, to free ourselves from fear, to conquer fortune as much as we can, and to direct our actions by the certain counsel of reason’.

But despite hope’s unreliability, it is undeniably one of the things that bring together people into communities. In the later Political Treatise, Spinoza describes political change being driven by ‘a common affect of hope, fear or desire to avenge a common loss’. Because hope involves a joy, it is considered more powerful, because a joy is something correlates to an increase in our power of acting. (All the same – simply advocating joy or collective joy isn’t a consistent position in Spinoza – joy does not make us more powerful, joy instead is something we experience when we become more powerful. Empty or transient joys are no good for us, nor is voluntarism. After a rave is the comedown. Collective power is more than collective joy).

But here I think Spinoza is less insightful than Thomas Hobbes, for whom fear has greater general influence in decisions of politics and human affairs. Many of us have seen this – how fear drives people to extraordinary actions, terrible as well as transformational – as I have beside the dying and the bereaved, the addicted, and those trying to fight their way through social services and housing offices. Fear has been a part of this election. Perhaps fear of the Other – but fear of further uncertainty, of the collapse of one’s savings or aspirations to material security, of being governed by someone who does not seem trustworthy.

You will say: Boris Johnson is far more terrifying. And you are right.

Fear will cloud the next few years. Beyond this current election are the wider crisis issues of the environment – food production, the habitability of many parts of the earth, and the wars and many hundreds of millions of climate refugees forecast by the mid-century – and that of the collapse of social care and the necessity of preparing for an ageing and unwell population. There is also the pressing urgency of restoring the social fabric, and I hope that at least some of the canvassers end up exploring work in frontline charity and social support and advice roles, where a real difference can be made to people’s lives.

Fear inhibits collectivity. Fear leads to distrust, contempt for others, and a retreat within. Fear was decisive in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian regimes, in engendering the state of loneliness in which men are ‘deserted by all human companionship’ and feel they can trust no-one.

But fear is not overcome by facile hope. Both are equally uncertain. Fear, in Spinoza’s analysis, which to me remains the best one, is overcome by knowledge of its societal causes. It necessitates what the criminally-underread American philosopher Jane Addams saw as democratic knowledge. ‘All about us are men and women who have become unhappy in regard to their attitude toward the social order itself’, she wrote of working class Chicago, where she was a pioneering social worker at the turn of the 20th century. The challenge for the progressive, for the one who seeks real social transformation, was to develop and enable others to think and act for themselves. This couldn’t be done in a paternalistic, outside-in, top-down way. It meant learning, recognising and becoming part of the same social fabric. This was what she called ‘social morality’. For Carole Pateman, writing of participatory democracy seventy years later, it also necessitates ‘social training’ – a collective education in how and why to participate in community and social life, together. ‘[T]he more individuals participate’, she writes, ‘the better able they become to do so’.

There is an opportunity here for a new kind of participatory social democracy, but it will not become clear for a while. For the Left, simply blaming others is facile, reactionary and likely to lead to a second Johnson term in five years. Recent writing mocking communitarianism has proven to be out of step. But communities, like individuals, are made, not born, as Spinoza says. We will need a new understanding of the social fabric, one that begins to read and think about leading work in sociology and economics. But one, as Jane Addams would stress, that’s rooted in understanding and participating in communities in an open-hearted, democratic way. That remains a powerful opportunity.

Back to school

This week has had that short-breathed, edgy feeling, as all my teaching gigs fall into place. So many new faces and names, so many different things to try and remember. Each year my teaching load expands. I’m learning how to spin more plates simultaneously, and find myself learning more widely as I go. It’s thrilling; it’s tiring too.

At Goldsmiths’ History Department this year, I’m convening London’s History Through Literature, as well as the first year introductory behemoth Concepts and Methods in History. I’m also supervising some fascinating MA/MRes work on Georgian pugilism and the early Quakers and Islam.

At Mary Ward, I’m teaching two classes on the Anthropocene (as per last post – still some places left on the second 4pm class). In the spring I’ll teach a 12-week intermediate course on Martha Nussbaum, which I think is the first time her thought has been taught at such length and depth.

I also work at Lawrence University’s London Centre now. I’ve been designing and teaching a ten-week, twenty-class course on the impact of the British Empire. It’s been eye-opening, even for someone already on the Left. In Spring I’m back to teach the history of the Stuarts, and life and politics in 17th century England.

I’m also teaching on the annual IF Project’s class series in East London. Last week I lectured on Hannah Arendt on truth and politics, a topical one for sure, and will be doing seminars with them on left populism and political theory the next few weeks.

Some good news too with writing. I worked over the summer on a new Spinoza manuscript, completely reworking my old PhD into an accessible book. The result, Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, will be forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press’s Spinoza Studies series (at some point).

I also got some journal articles published:

  • Bataille and Blanchot on death and friendship in Angelaki (forthcoming next year)
  • A piece on Spinoza’s Political Treatise in History of European Ideas
  • The ‘affects of resistance’ – indignation, emulation and fellowship in Pli.

I hope to have some news about other articles and chapters in due course.

Lastly, I spent a few days in Gateshead over the late summer working out my next book. I want to say much more about that project, and hope to get the chance to do so (and start real work on it) next year.

Sending love and thanks to my family and friends for their support over these busy and sometimes hard few months.

Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene

Mark Fisher once wrote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. As evidence of dramatic climate change mounts, film and TV are awash with endless dystopian futures, contributing to an air of fatalism and resignation. But philosophy has historically demanded that we think through and beyond the apparent inevitability of our ways of life. They direct us, like Kant says, to cultivate an enlarged mentality, mindful not just of others’ positions and needs, but of alternative ways of thinking and living. In this course, we’ll explore the ideas of leading contemporary and classic philosophers to address the issues of the Anthropocene. What can Kant tell us about the ethics of responsibility, stewardship and care? How might Spinoza, Hannah Arendt or Bertrand Russell help us re-evaluate automation, work and artificial intelligence? Focused each week on a given issue, this course will draw on the philosophical tradition in novel ways, taking philosophers out of their historical contexts to explore the challenges facing humanity today.

http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk/course/new-where-are-we-going-philosophy-in-the-anthropocene/?search=1&subject_id=175

I am running this course at Mary Ward Centre in a couple of weeks which has sold out quickly. It’s based on my new book which I began researching this summer. We are thinking of running a second class if we can guarantee the numbers, so if you’d like to come and discuss the future (and past) of the world with us on Monday afternoons, send me an email without delay: dan.taylor@marywardcentre.ac.uk. It will run for twelve weeks on Mondays between 4pm-6pm, starting Monday 23rd September.

If you don’t know about Mary Ward already, it’s a wonderful place in Bloomsbury. Courses are very affordably priced to widen accessibility – this one will be £38 for concessions. I’ve been lucky enough to teach and learn from a wise, friendly and diverse set of philosophers my three years there. The discussions are always enriching and expanding.

Christian Kerslake is also running courses on Nietzsche, nihilism and transgression; anyone who has been to these before will know the unusual care and depth of thought put into these courses.

I’m also teaching at Goldsmiths, Lawrence London Centre and the IF Project next term, and will post again soon with some recent writings.

Update (October 2018)

Just an update on my goings-on, which on a professional level haven’t changed much. Since September I’ve been back teaching at Goldsmiths and the Mary Ward. At Goldsmiths I’m teaching a couple of first year History modules; at Mary Ward I’m halfway through a course on Hannah Arendt as well as the introductory classes, with a new course on political philosophy in the new year. The teaching has been a joy; it always is.

Over the late spring I finished my third book on Spinoza. I’ve got some minor changes to make on that, and then I’ll be able to share more news.

With Laura Grace Ford, I’ve been running a Mark Fisher Acid Communism reading group at Somerset House. This has been a wonderful thing and may well continue next year, where it may change form again.

I’m speaking at a few events:

  • Baroque Sunbursts: k-punk remembered on Sat 17th November at Somerset House. I’ll be co-hosting the night with Laura, and it comes alongside the launch of Repeater’s edition of Mark’s collected work.
  • “Mandatory Individualism and Post-Capitalist Desire”, for a series of talks on Capitalism and Mental Health by The Culture Capital Exchange, Ravensbourne University, 6th December
  • “Do we still not know what a body can do? Beaking down the productive body”, for The Body Productive , Birkbeck on 8th December – looks ace.
  • “Are some more equal than others? Hannah Arendt on human rights” – SLT Philosophy Forum, March next year…
  • The PSA annual conference next April on the A13 and Brexit.

Over the summer I finished a couple of papers in some new areas – Bataille and Blanchot and death, and the early 20th century British socialist weekly The New Age. A load of Spinoza work is sitting in the pipeline at various stages of completion/publication.

I’m not sure yet what next year holds, it depends on some applications I’ve made. Where are we going, Island Story’s future-focused and more philosophical sequel, remains at an embryonic stage – structured, thought-out, but no more. And one day I’ll finish the London novel, when the time’s there and it feels right.

One day… When it’s all done… One more push, get that bit of work done and then life will be so much easier, then you can relax… Yeah we all know how that goes.

‘Neoliberalism’s victory, of course, depended upon a co-option of the concept of freedom’, wrote Mark in his late, unfinished Acid Communism. ‘Neoliberal freedom, evidently, is not a freedom from work, but freedom through work.’

To everyone working much less…!

Updates

The last six months have been good, if defined by hard work. Teaching has been a joy, and it’s been great to work with such bright students. Fascinating essays and some inspired conversations. Not much is worthy of self-publicity (is anything?), but a couple of updates are due.

I’m back at Mary Ward Centre teaching three courses starting next week. It’s short notice, but all are welcome and course fees are fair.

  • The Philosophy for Beginners class I’ve been running turns to the philosophy of religion and belief, from Christian and Islamic philosophy to existentialism. It runs on Wednesdays from 2pm-4pm.
  • Intermediate Philosophy: Society, Language and Difference, which turns to post-war French philosophy. Expect Foucault, Fanon, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva and Butler (and some Situationists). It runs on Mondays, between 1pm-3pm and 6pm-8pm.
  • Lastly, How to Think Straight in an Information Overload. Another new course for me, expect a mixture of critical thinking, rhetoric, critical theory and applied rationality. It runs on Tuesdays from 6pm-8pm.

My friend Rod Kitson painted these two familiar figures:

Two Brothers from Camberwell (2017)

I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Open Country programme, talking about Coventry edgelands and common land, about 19 mins in.

I had plans of writing a series of essays as a sequel to Island Story, focusing on a small number of places to draw out a common story about the futures facing the island. Still at the planning stage. Teaching has wiped out all free time. But I’ll begin in August. Thanks to people who’ve got in touch to help with the project, and I’m sorry it hasn’t got further yet. I will arrange walks and talks in the late summer, and I’ve picked up funding from the Society of Authors for it.

Between teaching preparation and marking, I’ve written a manuscript based on my PhD. It’s called Collective Desire: Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom. It’s taken a lot of time and work, though I finished earlier this week. It combines a mixture of close readings of Spinoza’s own politics, his views of servitude, political domination and fear and its relation to freedom and collective power, with some more speculative tangents linking Spinoza to more recent political and philosophical thought. There’s a lot there about desire, hope, commonality, and its possibilities in more difficult times.

I don’t know what will happen yet with the manuscript, but wherever it is eventually published, it’s dedicated to Mark Fisher. As I was writing the MS I delved back into his work, re-reading Capitalist Realism and his blog, sifting out his account of Spinoza, which the book engages with throughout. I’m going to share some the dedication that appears there:

‘I had the great fortune of being taught philosophy by Mark at a further education college in South London. His enthusiasm for difficult thinking in difficult times was infectious, and he had that rare Socratic gift among teachers of giving his students the confidence to think and express their own ideas as if they had arrived at them independently. He made our thoughts ours. He encouraged me and others to go to university when we were unsure if we were good enough, or if difficult thinking was worth the uncertainty. His prolific output on the k-punk blog brought many more of us into contact with new cultural and philosophical worlds, including that of Spinoza, while his Capitalist Realism gave a blueprint for radical change that galvanised many like me into the British student protest movements that raged in the years after. Above all, Mark was a Spinozist avant la lettre. Not only his political thought, but his warm, self-effacing yet electrifying manner all bore the manner for whom philosophy was a ‘meditation on life’, and on the very best of human life, in the vistas and vicissitudes of human freedom. Yet as Mark also put in an early, perceptive writing on the ‘inhuman’, anegoic aspects of Spinozan reason, ‘being a Spinozist is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world’. Mark’s final, incomplete thought was turning to a politics of ‘postcapitalist desire’ and ‘collective joy’, and while the remainder is reliqua desiderantur, this work is a very modest tribute to the collective joys and desires his conversation brought to life.’

 

Four Conversations

I’m speaking this Sunday afternoon in London at Conway Hall, ‘Four Conversations: A United Kingdom?’, at the Bloomsbury Festival. The theme is nationalism and identity, explored from four different perspectives within the UK. I’ll be joined by Ewen Cameron, Jennifer Thomson, Daryl Leeworthy, and the audience. It’s free, and has been brought together with the intention of avoiding cliche and generating reflective, critical and open-hearted discussion. Read more here.

Conversation is an interesting thing to note in passing. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in words, picked from the printed page and chewed over. Then, for about a year, that changed, and I threw myself out into the world, and hardly wrote or read. But towards the end of the summer, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I decided to step back from that.

I came across something by Simone Weil recently that verbalised something I’d had in mind: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. I’d stopped being able to focus without distraction. I wanted to step back, disappear underground, start to tune into and observe what was around me, without worrying about my own place within that. Switching off social media, the news, alcohol, no longer being constantly connected, and inhabiting myself, has brought about peace. But it seems against my collectivist ideals, and I wonder what to do about that.

In its space, another kind of wonder creeps in. I am lecturing around twelve-fifteen hours a week, most of it on courses I am designing (at lightning speed), and more work than I can remember. But it’s good work, the sort that doesn’t feel like work at all, a dangerously pleasurable work. In a week of constant conversation and communication, the spaces between classes and lectures and emails are pleasant. I find myself often wondering about the different worlds and futures of all these bright people I meet, who I have the pleasure of talking about ideas or events with, and of watching the sophistication of their thinking develop and grow over a short period of time. It’s hard to put it concisely, but I often wonder and daydream about the futures of people I meet. What will life do to them, or what will they do with life? It inspires much more than it saddens.

The book I hope to write, which hasn’t been written for a while – there has not been enough time, there is never enough time – will explore some side of this, politically, I suppose. But writing and classifying an idea is also a way of processing it to expurge it, get it out of your system. And I’ve enjoyed not writing, not finishing. And, instead, imagining and reflecting on the many mental worlds actually around me. I’ve come to think that finished words or polished concepts are not the final story of our minds, but a continual flux of emotions, memories and half-worked ideas. Maybe that is what makes conversation most illuminating of human thinking, concerned not with full stops but ellipses…, with stumbles, mumbles, disagreements and misunderstandings, where words might be shared but rarely do we have precisely the same things in mind.

But my word, I miss reading all the blogs and short essays of friends who no longer write! So many indeed, I wonder if it is over-work or fatigue or just having interesting lives or something else entirely which has taken the words away, like it has mine, or made us escape their confinement.

Spinoza in London

spinoza

From next Monday I’m teaching a 12-week course on the philosophy of Spinoza that’s open to the public. It will explore Spinoza’s Ethics in depth, as well as the Theological-Political Treatise and its contributions to the Enlightenment and modern political ideas. We’ll be thinking with Spinoza about nature, knowledge, freedom, contentment, and democracy. While some basic familiarity with philosophy or history with help, all are welcome. Classes take place at the Mary Ward Centre, Holborn, on Monday afternoons, with more details here.

I’m also teaching another year of my Introduction to Philosophy course at Mary Ward on Wednesday afternoons – all are welcome. Lots of rich, ranging discussions on life, death, responsibility, and the many meanings of life. And also two courses on London’s literature and London’s social history at Goldsmiths that I’ve put together, plus seminar teaching there too.

But, Spinoza!