If you are not familiar with Rebecca Solnit’s work, then I heartily recommend starting to do so – I’ve read Men Explain Things To Me (the essay/book that gave rise to ‘mansplaining’) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost is waiting on the bookshelf. This collection of connected essays dates originally from around 2005 but has been recently updated – and while it was the despair of the George W Bush era / Iraq war that gave rise to this book, it could barely be more prescient or relevant to today. To be blunt, it feels pretty dark out there, and we need some hope.
The central premise of the book is that hope is not just a wishy-washy word, but a crucial concept for progress and one that should be taken seriously; and interrogating what we mean by hope and why it is important is crucial for those in activism or seeking to make change. Solnit is a wonderful and compelling writer, and I found myself taking copious notes and quotes which gave an indication of her argument:
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete – hope is rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.
Hope….is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
I thought when I started reading the book that what I took from it would be most relevant to the darkness or despair that one can feel in an era of Trump and/or the worst sides of Brexit. But it’s at least as pertinent, if not more so, to the fragmentation and polarisation of the left in the UK. For example, at one point Solnit says that “there’s a kind of activism that’s more about bolstering identity than achieving results, one that sometimes seems to make the left the true heirs of the Puritans”. In another chapter, she says that “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists.” Regardless of what one thinks of the policies of Corbyn and McDonnell, this rings very true if you’ve ever had an encounter with the more strident Momentum and Corbynista supporters on social media.
I took two key things from the book. One was Solnit’s brief that resistance and activism doesn’t have to be joyless or without fun. As she writes, resistance is more often portrayed as a duty but can be enjoyable and an experience where people learn and forge important friendships. The second is that you can create hope and create change not just in the achievement of a targeted outcome, but in the journey you take to get there (or to put it in the language of the world in which I operate, it’s as important how you do things as what you are doing).
The term “politics of prefiguration” has long been used to describe the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place,
Buy it for the downhearted activist or continual cynic in your life – and buy it for yourself to get your loins girded and your sinews stiffened for the years ahead.
BUY IT NOW; Hope In The Dark (Canons)