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.


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

Add yours

  1. Good read, as usual. If you’re interested, my position on the old hopium has long been thus:

    Fuck hope *and* fear, because they are both passive expectations of a future we should rightly be actively engaged in creating.

  2. ‘because it’s right’ Wendell Berry… About hope and duty, this quote by Berry is seared in my mind… that he could still hold this view after decades of activism and in particular, fighting mountain-top coal mining, personifies civic virtue, imo: EXCERPT: Wendell Berry: I don’t think that people on our side have any right to assume a good outcome. I think that the real, authentic motive for doing what we’re doing is because it’s right. And that has to be enough. If we have to have some guarantee that it’s going to be effective, sooner or later, we’ll become discouraged and quit.’

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