Issues & Analyses: Becoming Human. A New Column About Hope And Possibility


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The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion”. – 2019 Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser in A World of Many Worlds.

When Art Keene invited me to write a column for the Indy, he told me that what was needed in these pages was “hope.” He explained that a lot of what is written and published in the Indy are critical assessments of local and municipal efforts, and by extension, a critical orientation towards the violent historical projects that they emerge from. Important work for sure. But critique, by itself, can often lead to closure and despair. 

In the face of historic inequalities, ecological disaster, and a renewed reckoning with the pervasiveness and magnitude of white supremacy and colonialism that are so tightly woven into the fabric of our reality, it’s easy to lapse into despair. It can be almost comforting to let go of hope and adopt a sort of cynical pleasure knowing that we are all doomed (is it now 12 years that we have left, according to the latest IPCC reports? 10? Does it matter?)

But hope, too, is tricky. Blind hope, or hoping for a deus ex machina (green technology? God? the Democratic Party?) to save us from the brink, can momentarily stave off despair, but still leave our problems—and the practices that produce them—unacknowledged and unaddressed. It might, in fact, be hope and desire that work to hold us to our dominant ways of knowing, doing, and being that are producing the violent conditions we must contend with.

Cruel Optimism
The late Lauren Berlant offered the concept of Cruel Optimism to describe situations when attachments to a particular desire is an “obstacle” to one’s own flourishing. This could be something mundane, like a particular emotional attachment to watching terrible TV late at night—a regular occurrence for me, even though I know that this will deprive me of much-needed sleep. Or it could refer to a something more nefarious, as Berlant suggests, like the narrative of the American Dream: though imperfect, the United States is a place where, if individuals work hard, make the right choices, and obey the rules, they will be able to find meaning, progress, and find a good life. It’s the insidious, impossible story of a Hamilton in the making that, like other broad social narratives animating capitalist modernity, works to give shape to and organize our desires and hopes. 

Always mythological for most, even the fictitious promise of the American Dream is becoming difficult to maintain as historic inequalities continue to grow, as working conditions for most continue to decline, and as possibilities for individual and social well-being remain elusive. In this context, a resignation to the American Dream, to liberal individualism, to capitalism, appears as the flip-side of hope. I don’t want to work 80 hours a week at a job where I get treated like shit, but what else can I do? I know going to college will bury me in debt, but what are the alternatives if I want to survive well? Competing against other individuals for the right to be exploited seems awful, but the terror of the market demands it. I know that purchasing a Toyota hybrid is actually part of the problem that it claims to be addressing, but at least I can pretend that my individual choices matter. Continuing to turn ecosystems necessary for life into commodities to keep our economy going is insane, but it just seems inevitable. 

Capitalist Realism
Within what Mark Fisher (whom we have also recently lost) refers to as capitalist realism, hope, and resignation, desire and despair, all work together to constitute the limits of imagination and possibility. Meanwhile, our inclinations and habits, beliefs and practices, affects and feelings are organized by and in service to a world that is structuring violence and destroying its own conditions of possibility. 

How to break free of the world that we are being made by and re-making? How do we detach from our hopes, resignations, and cynicism—a whole knot of contradictory investments—that attach us to our own destruction? How to orient towards and become part of other worlds in the making—worlds in which being human is not measured by our aspirations towards whiteness, individualism, development, and accumulation but towards caring for each other and all beings? How to break open capitalist realism? 

Reorienting Hope
A significant, though certainly not sufficient step, is to realize and invest ourselves in ways of being—near and far; in the present and past and future—that are already and always in the making. This includes, as will be the focus of this column, community and municipal projects and movements that are unleashing suppressed and new practices and narratives about being in the world through work—cooperative, and re-valued; governance—participatory budgeting and collective decision making, ownership—community land trusts, land back movements—and relational ways of being in the world together like solidarity economies, aspiring mutual aid efforts and powerful mutual aid movements, and the centering of care and abolition.

The growing narratives, relations, and power from which other worlds are being assembled, maybe, can help reorient our hope and desire—and resignation—away from the death drive of white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist modernity, and towards an open, uncharted horizon of radical egalitarianism.

Each week, this column will feature an article, reflection, interview, poetry or other types of expression that engage with a community or municipal effort. We will aim for, at least once a month, an original feature that discusses a local initiative and in other weeks, we will print stories about efforts in other parts of the world that we might learn from. 

The growing narratives, relations, and power from which other worlds are being assembled, maybe, can help reorient our hope and desire—and resignation—away from the death drive of white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist modernity, and towards an open, uncharted horizon of radical egalitarianism. Towards the reality that other worlds are in the making and already here. 

Boone Shear teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is involved with a number of overlapping efforts to imagine, organize around, and expand post-capitalist possibility in Massachusetts. 

Acknowledgements: This column—and the articles cited within—are in dialogue and solidarity with numerous collaborators and comrades including Vin Lyon-Callo, Meredith Degyansky, Penn Loh, Stephen Healy, students in Anthropology 340 – Other Economies are Possible, Anthropology 341 Building Solidarity Economies, Anthropology 597CC Community, Commons, Communism, and the pluriverse of world-making and world-defending efforts, movements, and projects in Massachusetts and around the worlds.

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5 thoughts on “Issues & Analyses: Becoming Human. A New Column About Hope And Possibility

  1. Thank you for writing this – it made me feel hopeful and wanting to know more. The Land Back article was illuminating.

  2. Thanks for this response Janet! I am hoping that this column helps to generate a deeper and wider sense of practices, relationships, and movements that are being assembled towards other economies and worlds (and that we can invest ourselves in and organize around). BWS

  3. Not sure what all the “ping back” above means but I hope it’s models you’ll describe for adoption into Amherst (locality development is mine).

    Here’s hoping you first address what the Gazette & others will not cover in depth: local models currently operating in obscurity. Example – the Mobil Market v CSA. Most know of the latter. Some of these include time bank, amherst neighbors, buy nothing, Fellowship for Intentional Community, a favorite – Institute for Social Ecology (many in my Common Shares article) and much more.

    Thank you for joining one, our food coop. Looking forward to the reading especially if paired to real life examples currently in the town that’s now a city OR workable methods to transform broken local endeavors (institutions, businesses, organizations). Robust, local alternatives are just the stuff of hope which seems to be sought in these essays, Welcome~

    Chad Fuller

  4. Mmmm, had not seen this ‘new development’ to our ‘home town paper’. And now I see it over a yr later. Here’s hoping I can read ALL the columns !
    I do see one thing of interest and hope to find more on it here. “…engage with a community or municipal effort….” and that is the world-wide municipalism effort (decisions made on lower levels, closer to actual home). Certainly something Amherst could benefit from. Our anchor Institution probably pays no PILOT, another Institution we need as it effect every other Institution including the family.

    Chad Fuller

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