What is “hope” anyway? A conjecture on collective emotions, reservoirs and replenishment

Hope gets on my tits.

The need for hope censors.  I am sick of the constant whining that if you tell people how serious things are they will “switch off”. This is usually argued by people who basically believe in and are supported by the current system, who think the only problem is that our lords and masters are under-informed about, say, climate change.

This censorship means that we are all brightsided most of the time.

And so, I’m with Saint Greta when she says ‘I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.

But of course, panic leads, more often than not, to stupidity.

So, this dilemma forces me to think a bit more about hope and what people mean by it (and what I think they mean by it) and how we think about it.

New topic for me, so  may change mind. Haven’t done any reading on it yet, either. Fwiw, my hunches are

  • people think of hope as something to do with how they as individuals see the world – are they glass half-full or glass-half empty kinda people
  • people don’t think of themselves as particularly influenced by wider social phenomena, as picking up “contagions”
  • they think of hope as an exhaustible resource – once you’ve used it up, it’s gone

Now, these are in their various ways, entirely defensible positions to hold.  They’re not universal, of course  I remember reading one time somewhere about what happens to young black kids in the US – they have that sheen in their eyes of ‘anything is possible’ and then, by their teens, they realise it isn’t – they understand, on some visceral level – just what they are up against.

Anyways, this way of thinking about hope – it’s personal, it’s possibly genetic (or at least tied to personality/dispositions) and it is finite has some consequences.  The consequences are, at least, these

we don’t think about the role of social movements in creating and maintaining hope and hopefulness

  • we don’t think about hope as something that comes from shared experiences, from others’ actions and support
  • we don’t think about hope as something that can (and does) fade and return (in the right circumstances)
  • we think of hope as a concrete measurable entity, rather than as something
  1. processual,  (meaning it waxes and wanes over time, is the outcome of processes and actions. See here  – hat tip Sam)
  2. socially constituted and
  3. socially constructed and reconstructed, endlessly

In other words, were are the perfect little atomised neoliberal subjects.

We need to think about hope as a kind of potlatch – where people bring as much food as they can to share, that there will be times when they can’t bring as much and need to take more.  That our actions are contagious, that we can support each other at distance.  Hope will run low, hope will on occasion feel like lies. Hope though, is not a finite pile of something, it is something you (co)create, for want of a lot less shitty term.

As I said, first thoughts.  Happy to hear yours.


Besides these being first thoughts,  another important disclaimer – I am white and middle-class, and many/most of the people I know are too. We have both the illusion of control but also some actual control over our lives, in ordinary times.  That changes the way you look at the world, for better or worse.

My thinking about hope is in part being shaped by my experience of being in a relatively functional activist group Climate Emergency Manchester – one of the few things that kept me out of the nuthouse during the Australian bushfires.


Fear eats the soul – of COVID19, narking and Trump/Johnson approval ratings

Over the last few days I’ve seen some facebook posts/tweets/etc expressing anger/bewilderment that

a) people are phoning up the cops to inform on neighbours who are going out more than the narks think they should

b) the approval ratings for clearly failed “leaders” like Trump, Johnson and Morrison are going UP even though they are clearly flailing over-promoted charlatans.

I was planning a longer blog post taking in Just World theory/some half-baked Freud/Hell’s Angels/voters remorse, but, you know, life-is-short, so this:

People don’t reflect on their decision-making and information processing apparatus at the BEST of times (Dunning-Kruger much?), and these are not the best of times. In this dumpster fire of a civilisation, most folks are having a helmet fire.

And to cut and paste myself from Facebook (because life really is short) –

People are hella frightened. They want to prove to themselves that they are Good People (because, you know, bad things don’t happen to Good People. Because the universe is fair and all…) And so they are “sucking up” and displaying their probity. They haven’t learnt how/don’t have the wherewithal to process their anxiety/dread/stress etc, and so it comes out in these sorts of displays. Deeply depressing, but not surprising…

So, we need to have some compassion for stress-induced stupidity, but also push back against it, because stupid people whipped up by venal/evil string-pullers has often  led to mildly unpleasant forms of historical shit-fuckery…

See also



What COVID-19 might also be threatening – “our” dream of absolute control….

You can look at the top of a fountain of water and think it is static. But it is only there because of a constant flow of water, versus gravity. (1) The perception is an illusion. In strange days like these, we can see this (whether it’s always full supermarket shelves, or ICU beds, or whatever)

Thanks to long supply chains, fancy logistics, we have lived these last 40-ish years with permanent global summer time (no seasons), the “always on” world where enough money buys you (the illusion of) total freedom. That – if you are IN IT – seems normal, just, permanent.

Of course, if you don’t have money, or get sick, or are involved in an accident, well, the illusion is damaged, sometimes beyond hope of recovery. Right now, there is a simultaneous breech in the illusion – this virus is punching holes in the walls of “reality.” That’s why I put scare quotes around “our” in the title. What do you mean ‘we’, white man?

If you always had money, and had no imagination, no perception of your own privilege, of just how unusual the PGST world, 24/7, JIT logistics was, then the psychic/cognitive shock is just overwhelming. So you deny “It’s just the flu”, or you try to regain control through so-called “panic buying” (2). You look for something that will help you to not see what is happening.

It’s not JUST a possible unravelling of “neoliberalism” (another loaded term) but of a dream of predictability

We” were told, from the 1950s on, that the future was gonna be so bright we’d have to wear shades. There was going to be MORE of everything, and everything was “under control”. A comforting story, that you’d be unusual not to want to believe.

It’s not just lungs which are under threat from COVID-19 (and for god’s sake, stay indoors if you can, wash your hands etc). It’s that myth of control, of predictability, that things can be managed. Some can, sure (yay antibiotics and checklists). But much cannot: more than we want to admit.

If/when we come out of “the other side” of this into some new “normal” the psychological and social desire to repress this moment, this lesson, will be huge.We will want to manage our terror by forgetting what we saw.

Those of us who think climate emergency is about more than carbon, that it is about our relations with other people, with other generations, with other species,  will need to keep that discomfort alive… /end




(1) this is a tidied up and footnoted version of a Twitter thread I wrote as a first draft of a coda for an academic article I am about to submit..

(2) “Panic buying” is a loaded term to cover many differently motivated bhvrs . If you don’t trust the assurances of politicians like Boris Johnson that everything is “under control” then it is surely “sensible” to “panic buy.”  There’s a lovely thought experiment in “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge about a brewery and its customers not being able to communicate effectively and causing unnecessary heartache for each other. Well, the  same dynamic plays out. And no, I did not go out “panic buying”  I am not trying to wrap up shitty behaviour in some sort of half-assed justification. Not that behaviour, anyhowsame