When Jeremy Corbyn launched the Labour manifesto in Birmingham last month, he referred to it as “a manifesto of hope.” If you live in the UK in 2019, and earn less than, say . . . £80k a year, then hope must feel in short supply. A decade of Tory rule has seen a fall in living standards through the implementation of a destructive — and often deadly — program of austerity. The bungled aftermath of the Brexit referendum has helped give power to the Tory far right; their victory at the upcoming election directly threatens the future of the NHS and the environment. Meanwhile, the left-wing alternative, represented by Corbyn, has been constantly monstered in both broadcast and print media — despite the transparently monstrous figures who comprise the current Tory government.
It was in the last election in 2017 that the Labour Party, which had been half-expecting a heavy defeat, began to surge in the polls over the course of the campaign — and ultimately succeeded in depriving the Tories of their majority. A sudden outburst of hope, driven by grassroots activists, conquered the dominant narrative of despair.
“Hope” has become a powerful message for Labour to be running on. If nothing else, it contrasts strongly with what’s on offer from the Tories, whose most ambitious policy beyond the vacuous promise to “Get Brexit done” — something they’ve failed to do during more than three years in office — is the launch of a £2 billion “pothole fund” to help fix the country’s horribly maintained roads. (The fund is apparently only sufficient to fill one-fifth of the holes.)
The Tories are the party of a cynicism that has become dominant in British politics for decades — a cynicism that allows people like Boris Johnson to get away with constantly lying and plotting to make people’s lives worse, relying on a belief that “all politicians are the same,” and all we can ever do is grimly joke about them.
For the cynic, better things just aren’t possible: they are a childish delusion that must be purged from the horizons of our imagination. This cynicism is thus closely related to what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” One way of viewing such cynicism is as a sort of defense mechanism: the cynic is never disappointed in their hopes, because any hopes they once possessed have already been disavowed. This disenchantment extends across much of British society, and it is certainly pervasive among mainstream journalists: take, for example, this Sky News anchor’s incredulous response to the Labour manifesto’s use of poetry (“you can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep the spring from coming”), in which he appears to deny even the possibility of metaphor.
Much of Corbyn’s campaign relies on igniting hope and pitting it against cynicism, which is the attitude that benefits the ruling class. But to what extent should we trust politicians who speak in the language of hope? Perhaps the politician most strongly associated with hope in the Anglosphere is Barack Obama. The word appeared under the image of Obama, illuminated in red and blue, on that iconic 2008 presidential campaign poster by Shepard Fairey. “That’s what this election is about,” the then–Illinois state senator Obama told the Democratic National Convention in his 2004 keynote address, the speech that launched him to national prominence. Referring to the upcoming presidential contest between John Kerry and George W. Bush, Obama asked his audience, “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?” He continued:
I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it . . . I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores . . . Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!
But was Obama ever really offering anything more substantial than wishful thinking? As president, Obama embraced drone warfare in the Middle East; deported more people than any other president before him; missed the opportunity to take real action on climate change; and betrayed the fight for abortion rights by failing to appoint a liberal replacement for the ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. All these decisions were made with a strange, stoic detachment, as if capitulating to evil was just something sensible adults are supposed to do. Undoubtedly, the election of the United States’ first African-American president was historically significant — but he was ultimately succeeded by a nakedly open racist. More recently, Obama has appeared willing to act to undermine the Democratic left — who plausibly have the best hopes of beating Trump in 2020.
Originally, Fairey’s poster was captioned “Progress,” but he changed it to “Hope” after the Obama campaign said they wanted to push the latter message instead (apparently Obama’s team considered Progress to be too Marxist a sentiment). In Obama’s 2004 speech, “hope” is a maximally inclusive principle that can be identified with a belief in an ideal America where class and race are no barriers to success, and where voters in red states and blue states can be united in patriotism, regardless of their views on whether or not the United States ought to be in the business of lying its way into being allowed to start pointless, endlessly destructive wars.
Given the failures of “hopeful” politicians like Obama, it might seem tempting to subscribe instead to the line pushed by Greta Thunberg, who, in her breakthrough speech at Davos earlier this year, declared to the assembled superrich movers and shakers that, in the context of the climate emergency, “hope” was little more than an empty substitute for real action. “Adults keep saying,” she told them, “‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”
For Thunberg, it is only through this panic that the ruling class can be stirred into real action. But it should be emphasized that Thunberg was not speaking out against hope as such. Rather, she was arguing against hope as an excuse for inaction. In regards to climate change, the hopes of the global superrich are toxic to the rest of humanity, who face a future of floods, fires, and storms. We have to be clear that our hopes are directly opposed to theirs.
The hope that Corbyn heralds is different. His hope is a hope that really can be transformative, because it opposes: it dares to oppose the cynicism, complacency, and casual violence of a ruling class whose legitimacy ought to have been eclipsed a long time ago. With this opposition, a more general cynicism can be dissolved into solidarity. “Ignore the wealthy and powerful,” Corbyn pleads, “who tell you” that our hopes aren’t possible. “The future is ours to make, together.”