Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit

Image: ©Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Trevor Fisher says beware dreamers and false hopes for the future

Gramsci’s famous call for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit” has never been more relevant. The Covid-19 crisis was totally unexpected and darkens the political outlook but, before that arrived, Labour had already opted against deep thinking about the future. Starmer is right to say Labour lost four elections not one, but those who can remember before the failure of New Labour know that it was a project designed to solve the previous run of four lost elections, from 1979-92; it delivered temporary successes but had failed by 2010.

The 2019 result did not generate any major grassroots debate – unlike the 1983 disaster, when the Labour Co-ordinating Committee produced the detailed analysis After the Landslide. Indeed, as in 2010 and 2015, Labour moved to elect a leader before even the official party analysis was produced. And since the election the internal state of play has been more “don’t rock the boat” than questioning how shipshape is the vessel.

There were no easy options before the pandemic. It is understandable that Brexit has vanished: the Party cannot be seen as undemocratic and Johnson does now have a double mandate, from the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election. But however difficult it is to raise questions over the future, there was never an oven-ready deal and the UK cannot “have its cake and eat it”. No Deal now seems inevitable and the signs of the situation after the January 1st deadline are not good.

The handling of Covid-19 by Number 10 left Starmer hamstrung and Labour had been unable to make justified criticisms – for example, on the disastrous over-optimism of early government thinking. Johnson, like Trump, contracted the virus by not wearing masks and taking sensible precautions, spending money recklessly by assuming that the pandemic would be over in a few weeks: but the space for criticism is admittedly limited as in the short term the public has accepted the situation – except in Scotland, where the arrogance and incompetence of the Tory regime has fuelled separatism. Labour’s long term failure in Scotland is a separate subject, but the SNP is aided by limiting criticisms of the Tories.

A question of priorities

The political direction of travel makes pessimism of the intellect entirely justified as the UK heads into a winter of discontent. Rising unemployment is an objective fact. Social tension is widely visible. As contributors to this site have argued, domestic violence is fuelled by lockdown. At a Police Commissioner meeting I attended recently the risk of increased crime as a result of unemployment and lockdown was an issue. The least Labour can do is call for a plan to tackle the issues created by lockdowns when – or rather if – the bug is beaten.

But to do so means accepting there are reasons to be pessimistic, and this is not happening. It is more likely to hear voices calling for optimism – raising false hopes. A good example was Ian Leslie in the New Statesman. Dealing with Covid-19, Leslie argued “when we come out the other side… we’ll be far better prepared for any future public health challenge”. In the meantime? A vaccine is not a miracle cure and the anti-vaxxers have issues which need to be addressed.

Leslie was also rosy about the climate change issue, arguing: “there’s every possibility the world will get to net-zero emissions before the halfway point of this century”, a mere 30 years away. His view is we have to talk up the future, contending: “tell us something good is possible and we feel motivated to make it come true”. No, there has to be a balance. Admittedly if the view of the future is totally negative people give up, but give a view that better is inevitable and the impetus for change vanishes. Leslie ended with the problems of teenagers with poor mental health, especially middle class girls; a valid point, but these real problems are not addressed by avoiding them. Exactly what do parents tell children leaving school for a job market in crisis or a university sector where coronavirus makes both teaching and socialising next to impossible?

This era resembles the late sixties in the States, where hippies imagined a world of extreme libertarianism in part to escape the crises of racist America involved in the Vietnam War. “Turn on, tune in and drop out” was a popular slogan, but dropping out was not an option. There will be many in 2021 who would prefer to indulge in similar dreaming. If we are not to see mindless optimism become a diversion from grappling with real problems, pessimism of the intellect must be the key. We have to think critically to get real about the problems now facing us.

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