Transcending Pessimism: Rekindling Socialist Imagination
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
‘We’re free… we’re free.’ The last words of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, are uttered, sobbing, by Linda Loman over her husband Willy’s grave. Weary and penniless after a life of selling ‘a smile and a shoeshine’, overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and failure, yet mesmerized by the thought that his life insurance will provide his estranged son with the stake that might induce him to compete and ‘succeed’, Willy Loman’s suicide famously symbolises the tragic dimension of the relentless competitiveness at the heart of the American capitalist dream. ‘He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong’, this son laments at the grave side, even as his other son dedicates himself to ‘beat this racket’ so that ‘Willy Loman didn’t die in vain…. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.’ At the end Linda stands over the grave alone. Telling Willy that she had just made the last payment on their mortgage, a sob rises in her throat: ‘We’re free and clear…. We’re free…. We’re free…’
When first uttered on stage in 1949, at the start of the Cold War, these words spoke to the ambiguity of the freedom represented by the ‘free world’. Fifty years later, when Linda sobbed ‘we’re free’ at the end of Death of a Salesman’s sesquicentennial revival on Broadway, she seemed to embody the angst of an entire world enveloped by the American dream at the end of the 20th century. One could everywhere sense the anxiety – an anxiety as omnipresent as ‘globalization’ itself – that had emerged with accumulating awareness of the enormous odds against actually ‘beating this racket’ and escalating doubts about the worth of a life defined by the freedom to compete. What made the tragedy of Willie Loman so universal as the 20th century drew to a close was that even people who wondered whether the capitalist dream wasn’t the wrong dream could yet see no way of realizing a life beyond capitalism, or still feared that any attempt to do so can only result in another nightmare. Overcoming this debilitating political pessimism is the most important question anyone seriously interested in social change must confront.
As people search for what direction to take in the 21st century, it helps to know that others before have faced the same problem. How to make ‘the defeated man … try the outside world again’ was precisely the question that impelled Ernst Bloch in the 1930s to write his magnum opus, The Principle of Hope. Pessimism – ‘paralysis per se’ – was the first obstacle to be confronted:
…people who do not believe at all in a happy end impede changing the world almost as much as the sweet swindlers, the marriage-swindlers, the charlatans of apotheosis. Unconditional pessimism therefore promotes the business of reaction not much less than artificially conditioned optimism; the latter is nevertheless not so stupid that it does not believe in anything at all. It does not immortalize the trudging of the little life, does not give humanity the face of a chloroformed gravestone. It does not give the world the deathly sad background in front of which it is not worth doing anything at all. In contrast to a pessimism which itself belongs to rottenness and may serve it, a tested optimism, when the scales fall from the eyes, does not deny the goal-belief in general; on the contrary, what matters now is to find the right one and to prove it…. That is why the most dogged enemy of socialism is not only… great capital, but equally the load of indifference, hopelessness; otherwise great capital would stand alone.
Bloch’s response was to try revive the idea of utopia. He insisted that even in a world where socialist politics are marginalised, we can still discover, if only in daydreams, the indestructible human desire for happiness and harmony, a yearning which consistently runs up against economic competition, private property and the bureaucratic state. The ‘utopian intention’, which was, for Bloch, the real ‘motor force of history’, may be found in architecture, painting, literature, music, ethics and religion: ‘every work of art, every central philosophy had and has a utopian window in which there lies a landscape which is still developing.’ Bending the stick against orthodox Marxism’s traditional dismissal of ‘utopian socialism’, Bloch’s project was in good part to rehabilitate what Marx himself once called ‘the dream of the matter’ which the world had long possessed. ‘The power of the great old utopian books’, Bloch demonstrated, was that ‘they almost always named the same thing: Omnia sint communia, let everything be in common. It is a credit to the pre-Marxist political literature to possess these isolated and rebellious enthusiasms among its many ideological insights. Even if they did not seem to contain a shred of possibility… the society projected within them managed without self-interest at the expense of others and was to keep going without the spur of the bourgeois drive for acquisition.’ It was this literature which first established that one of the main prerequisites to realize ‘the leap of humanity out of the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom… is the abolition of private property and the classes this has produced. Another prerequisite is the consistent will towards the negation of the state in so far as it rules individuals and is an instrument of oppression in the hands of the privileged.’ What made More’s Utopia ‘with all its dross, the first modern portrait of democratic communist wishful dreams’ was that
For the first time democracy was linked here in a humane sense, the sense of public freedom and tolerance, with a collective economy (always easily threatened by bureaucracy, and indeed clericalism) … [T]he end of the first part of the ‘Utopia’ states openly: ‘Where private ownership still exists, where all people measure all values by the yardstick of money, it will hardly ever be possible to pursue a just and happy policy… Thus possessions certainly cannot be distributed in any just and fair way… unless property is done away with beforehand. As long as it continues to exist, poverty, toil and care will hang instead an inescapable burden on by far the biggest and by far the best part of humanity. The burden may be lightened a little but to remove it entirely (without abolishing property) is impossible.’