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On Protest and Hope as Social Inquiry

Updated: May 6, 2022

By William Paris

In 1948, Marxist philosopher C.L.R. James, addressing Black political militancy, insisted “that the independent Negro movement that we see today and which we see growing before our eyes is nothing strange. It is nothing new. It is something that has always appeared in the American movement at the first sign of social crisis” (184). Following James, I believe the protests we saw this past year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd should not surprise us. They should not surprise us because American society has been in crisis for decades. But these protests also should not surprise us because, as James reminds us, Black struggle has “deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles” (180). Something is quite wrong in the basic structure of American social life, yet these protests are a sign of hope. But how we should understand this hope is not yet clear.

The dominant trend in the philosophical literature is to classify hope as an emotion or affect of anticipation. One hopes for this or that outcome. I confess that when the George Floyd protests emerged, I was filled with anticipation. I asked myself, “Is it happening?” The “it” was, for the most part, empty and abstract.

I watched these protests filled with anticipation and awe as they swept throughout the country and then across the globe. During those months, I allowed myself to dream of a world animated by resurgent social movements, a world realigned and organized against arbitrary violence and exploitation, a world truly fit for Black liberation. And yet, these dreams came with the bitter knowledge that disappointment was on the horizon. I did not think the reconstruction of the United States’ social order was imminent and I knew the protests would not last forever. I worried whether a backlash was inevitable. Hope, ineluctably as Spinoza would say, carries disappointment in its heart (Ethics III, P 18).

Du Bois wrote in the aftermath of World War I that through the tragedy he had “a dream of a world greater, sweeter, more beautiful and more honest than ever before; a world without war, without poverty, and without hatred…Even though it was a mirage it was eternally true” (413). Here hope seems to take on romantic overtones. It is an illusion whose worth resides in producing a picture of how we ought to live even if it is not practically possible. Critics of hope will point to lines like these and ask whether utopian hope is fundamentally irrational or mere compensation for a tragic life. Indeed, Engels takes utopianism to task for only being able to pronounce that social conditions are not ideal without a full understanding of why social change emerges (693-694).

However, I am no romantic when it comes to hope (and for the record, I do not think Du Bois was either). I do not think the practical utility of hope should be confined to dreams of a better life which one might think are disconnected from our material conditions. In fact, I think quite the contrary is true. Hope emerges precisely because of painful contradictions in our social reality. If this is so, then hope can provide both knowledge of how things stand with the world and, crucially, of real possibilities for their reconstruction.

For this reason, I think it is important to understand why James keeps emphasizing to his audience that they should not be surprised by outbreaks of Black militancy. What is at stake for him is to show his Marxist peers that they have fatally misunderstood Black working class people on their own terms. They have not grasped both their needs and how they have organized themselves to meet these needs. For James, hope is an activity that springs from the material organization of our lives. It emerges because our needs are not being met. But how we understand those needs and the political activity organized around meeting them are not set in stone. And so, hope must become a form of knowledge.

Our contemporary problem is that, more often than not, hope is not used to clarify the shape of our social crises, but to mask them. This problem is most apparent when political parties or elites attempt to capture Black protests and seek to define the crises along the lines of their own hopes. When hope is absorbed as the prerogative of those whose interests lie with a dominant social structure, we are beset by illusions. The illusion, I believe, occurs when a hope is not concretely connected to a social need. When hope is severed from social need the protests can be represented as the demand for a better police force rather than a better society that would not require the police as the solution to too many social problems. To avoid these illusions hope will always require more concrete historical investigation and not less.

Without historical analysis, hope risks becoming a “cruel optimism.” What I mean is that hope can be used to convince people to invest their energies in the very political formations that created these social needs in the first place. Hope, thus, will tend to function as a political transaction whose value for the status quo is immeasurable yet returns very little for those most vulnerable within our social order. The truth of the matter is that for many Black working class people the United States has used hope as an instrument to blunt radical critique and pacify protest. Politicians kneeling in Kente cloth scarves do not meet the needs which catalyzed the George Floyd protests, but it does function as an image which promises next time will be different. But why should anyone believe this? If this is what hope looks like, then something has most certainly gone awry.

The George Floyd protests are an occasion for us, as philosophers, to inquire into what latent political possibilities could emerge from this historical moment. I can think of no better category of analysis for this form of social inquiry than hope. Hope should offer novel frameworks by which to understand the political activity and tendencies of individuals and groups. I think, as individuals, we become poor judges of what is politically possible when we accept the transactional terms of our social order as the only realistic premises from which to understand political protest and organization. Our social order of voracious capitalism insists that “there is no alternative” and as Ernst Bloch observed in The Principle of Hope “[it] has striven to spread, apart from the false happy ending, its own genuine nihilism” (446). How do we avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of false happy endings and nihilism?

To begin with I think we should not assume that the George Floyd protests had a singular political message that all Black people hoped to deliver upon us. Those who participated in the protests, without a doubt, had various motivations which were not reducible to each other. We need not assume a facile racial essentialism whereby all Black people have the same hopes when we know that not all Black people share the same needs. Furthermore, and this bears stressing, the police do not only menace those with Black skin, but those who are poorer as well. And so, we would do well to be more concrete in our analysis of hope.

More importantly, the consequences of their political activities have not yet fully come to fruition. We simply do not know yet what the trajectories of this year of protest will be. Conclusions about happy endings or nihilism are hasty and premature, at best, and politically irresponsible, at worst. What we can say is that these protests have altered our social terrain. As philosophers we should strive to catch up to these protests rather than arbitrarily leaping ahead in order to speak for them.

My sense is that philosophy always comes late to the political phenomena it seeks to describe. The political effects these protests will engender are never discernible from the outset and to assume that this or that outcome will emerge presupposes that one’s framework knows what to predict concerning the future. For instance, whatever one may think of the call to “Defund the Police” criticisms that this phrase will harm the electoral prospects of the Democratic party assumes that the only effects worth tracking will be how political candidates fare in the short term. Moreover, these analyses subordinate Black protest to the authoritative terms of the status quo. Approaching Black protests in this way foreshortens analysis of new political alignments already underway.

The George Floyd protests call us to ask what tendencies towards liberation and justice are not yet ripe rather than judging them as asymptotically approaching a just world which is not yet here. I suggest that hope is much more than our emotional attachment to an imaginary world. My imagination can show me many different types of worlds where liberation for all has been achieved, but it cannot tell me which of those worlds are possible here and now.

I also do not think hope should serve as a moral injunction to “Buck up!” or “Look on the bright side!” We should resist turning the protests into a transaction that brightens our mood about what is politically likely. I personally understand why many Black people, especially those in the working class, may remain pessimistic about the immediate future even after the protests. Instead, we should take these protests as the occasion to discern what alternative tendencies towards political freedom our social order actively suppresses.

The protests did not emerge out of thin air. The death of George Floyd inflamed and crystallized long running crises around policing and Black citizens amid an economic downturn and a public health emergency made needlessly worse by a political class unwilling to do what was necessary to contain it. The category of hope can turn our gaze away from a strict focus on the future and turn it towards the past and present that has made hope necessary in the first place. In doing so we will find historical as well as current political organizing preparing alternatives to our current political life. By identifying these counter-tendencies hope affirms, according to Cedric Robinson, that it is impossible to “create a perfect system of oppression and exploitation” (11). The George Floyd protests should remind us that we do not adequately know what may already be underway, but we can look for it.

In this way, hope does not cede the future by turning towards the present and its historical tendencies. Instead it becomes a necessary form of social inquiry. It poses to us the question: what has been happening? Reducing hope to the predictive choice between optimism or pessimism assumes we already fully understand the tendencies at play in our social world. I do not think we do. Hope is not a known quantity, but a quality that ought to be clarified. The George Floyd protests do not tell us what will or will not happen. They show us that the way things are does not work for so many. They show us how extensively the needs of many Black people are not being met. But what they also show is that the way things are is not all there is.

Few would describe 2020 as a year which augured much hope for a better future. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year has witnessed long-running and interconnected ecological, economic, and racial crises that burst forth, rattling our shared political life. And yet, the George Floyd protests, on record as the largest social movement the United States has seen, will leave their own unpredictable legacy with a changed political consciousness around race, policing, and political economy. In the wake of George Floyd and the many Black lives harmed and lost, hope matters more than ever to social and political philosophy. Without it I wonder how philosophy can remain in contact with the actual existing work of Black liberation rather than trapping this work within castles built on air.

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