Hopeless Helpless I: Power to Poor People, Research Time, 21/04/2016

It's been a pretty busy time for me lately, which is why I haven’t been able to go through Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth as thoroughly as I’d like to have done yet. The first of the book’s six chapters is about understanding the material powers of poor people. It’s something that actually needs a little work to get done.

Understanding that poor people have real, material power in the world is a tough proposition. We seem, as a society, accustomed to thinking of poor people as inherently passive and powerless. 

Does a boy like this, working in a Pakistani brick
foundry, deserve only our pity? Or can we learn from him?
They’re recipients of welfare benefits or charity, the passive role of waiting for handouts or aid. Their passivity could be used to encourage sympathy for them, like calls for charity or for poverty alleviation policies from government. Or their passivity could be a reason to despise them, like the (often racialized) accusations that the poor are lazy, contemptuous, or criminal. But they remain passive.

Negri discusses two of the most profound ways to dismiss and obscure the power of poor people. One of these was Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical God Is Charity. This was the Pope’s official dismissal of all calls for social justice as unrealistic for people to strive for in the modern world. All that we could achieve for the poor is to pity them and give them our charity.

When Negri and Michael Hardt wrote Commonwealth, Benedict XVI was still the Pope. Given Francis I’s election shortly after his predecessor retired for health reasons, it makes me wonder if there weren’t many in the College of Cardinals who thought true social justice needed restoration in the Catholic Church’s mission.

Benedict’s dismissal of poor people’s power and dignity rains with a common theme of contemporary life – hopelessness. It’s really only in the past few generations that the idea that humanity will likely drive itself to extinction has really become mainstream. To the point where it’s a casually accepted discussion point.

This is a radical idea compared to human history – the idea that the entire human race would be gone within a few generations. Not raptured or elevated, or any other religious apocalyptic visions. There have always been those as long as there’s been religions that imagined the end of the world at all. 

In many ways, Francis I is the Pope of hope.
I just mean sad, final, plodding extinction. The base indignity of cold, simple, stupid death. We will drown in our own shit. This is the endpoint of our global ecological crisis – we will either dig ourselves out of it or we won’t. 

This hopelessness began before the ecological crisis, if we’re talking about the general feeling of cultural dread that comes with the first shocks of the most thorough atheism. I mean this in the sense that we now realize that we live in a world that has no absolute meaning or transcendent justification beyond the brute fact of its existence.

That feeling of hopelessness about the aloneness of humanity and the indifference of the universe to us kicked into gear in the West in the late 19th century. But that was only for an elite of intellectuals and philosophers – the foundational existentialists and their fellow travellers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,* or the young Max Weber.

* If you make sure you take his devout Orthodox Christianity not as a dogmatic religious experience, but as a mystical gesture of gratitude to the Czar who spared him from a firing squad.

The true popular shocker about the irredeemable, hopeless nature of humanity was the terror of the First World War. I keep returning to this epoch because I’m trying to find the best way to deal with the heritage of this influential period in human thought. 

It’s vital for Utopias because the hope of utopian thinking meets its opposite in the profound pessimism that dominated the last century of thought. This is the fight that hope needs to survive in politics and in human society. The book Utopias itself will be a dramatization of that fight in philosophical writing. 

Understanding the power of the poor could be a major element of hope’s victory in this battle. Because if the abjectly poor can generate this hope from their own horrid condition, then we can all dream of a better world for us all.

But I have to understand the most profound conception of that horror, dread, profane, abject, hopeless pessimism. There are many ways you could go. The immediately intuitive path to the profound would, I suppose be Martin Heidegger. Well, let’s have another look . . . To be continued.

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