On social hatreds and fears

Cildo Meireles, Insertions in Ideological Circuits Coca-Cola Project 7 x exhibition copies (detail), 1970


The idea that political life can exist without the impulse of the passions is superficial, arrogant and wrong.

“Whoever the enemy spares, dies at his hands” (Portuguese popular wisdom).

What does history teach about the place of hate in the fight against oppression and exploitation? Writing or reading about history is of no greater importance if one does not seek to learn lessons. The idea that political life can exist without the impulse of the passions is superficial, arrogant and wrong. The popular masses are people. Human beings move by interests, ideas, but also feelings.

Class consciousness is indivisible from the affects that define the human condition. Hatred against injustice does not diminish the legitimacy of social struggles, on the contrary. Fear is what dehumanizes. It is not possible to change the world without mobilizing the heartbreak and resentment, the anger and rage in the hearts of millions. It is these feelings, when united with hope, that fuel indignation and courage.

Social hatreds are incomprehensible when we don't relate them to fears. We live in hopelessly fractured societies. The class struggle is not only the confrontation of economic and social interests, but the condensed perception in the consciousness of millions of an inevitable clash of aspirations and perspectives.

The privations, the sacrifices, the material and emotional sufferings of the masses in each society can decrease or increase, vary and fluctuate, but they are constant. The disposition to fight is what is variable. Fear inhibits revolt. Hate ignites rebellion.

The pressures of cultural and ideological inertia that imprison the broad working masses, urban or rural, in resignation or submission are powerful. But in extreme situations where patience has run out, revolutionary situations, they need to measure forces with even stronger pressures. There is no more powerful social force in history than popular revolt, when it organizes and mobilizes against the existing order.

The fear that change will never come – which, among workers, is discouraged by fear of reprisals – has to face even greater fears: the despair of the propertied classes to lose everything. The hesitations of the workers in their own forces, the incredulity in their egalitarian dreams, the disbelief in the possibility of victory, in some situations, are overcome by the hope of justice and freedom, a higher political yearning than petty-bourgeois reactionary pettiness and capitalist avarice. Class hatred against exploitation, or the resentment of the oppressed – blacks or women, LGBT's or indigenous people – are morally superior feelings to presumption, arrogance and bourgeois arrogance.

The utopian dimension of the socialist idea – the promise of a classless society, that is, the commitment to human freedom – has its place in ideological exaltation. That the vocabulary of this exaltation has so often been tangled up in mystical yearnings is understandable. Dreams fuel the fight for a better world. Social equality and human freedom remain the highest civilizing aspirations of the times we live in.

In the fight against exploitation, the popular masses, more than once, allowed themselves to be seduced by millenarian discourses – the eschatology of futurisms that predict a “natural” breakdown of the world order – or messianic discourses – the redemption of a life of suffering for a savior agent -, which echo his aspirations for justice. They are illusions that the world could change for the better without a fight, or without greater risks. The religious form of language, however, should not divert our attention.

The material life of workers throughout history refers to the image of the valley of tears. Those who live under exploitation need to believe that it is possible to transform the world or that, at least, their sacrifice makes sense. This moral expectation that there should be reward and punishment corresponds to the thirst for justice. Believing that it will be in another life can help or hinder to continue the struggle in this life. It depends on other layers of meaning that are assimilated by consciousness, politically, from the experience of struggle.

Hope in imminent change, or faith in the power of saving leadership responds to an intense subjective need – skeptics would condemn it as a consolation – but also to an experience. Those who live from work have always been the majority. The exploited know that they will always be the majority, as long as there is exploitation. It is from this experience that hope is renewed that they can change their lives.

The utopian dimension of an egalitarian project could never be minimized, since the political bet will always depend on an engagement that requires facing doubts and risks, not to forget the dangers and defeats. All the formulas that place the hope of defining a fight that demands commitment and will “in history” can only help to sow deterministic illusions or fatalistic pessimism. “History” cannot decide anything because it is not a subject, but a process.

Socialism has always been understood by Marxism as a project that depends on the ability to mobilize and organize social forces with anti-capitalist interests, and on the presence of political subjects capable of translating these interests into a perspective of power.

But without “faith” in the possibility of these social subjects being victorious, what we could call a class conscience, it would be very difficult to sustain in a continuous way a militancy that is emancipating, liberating, but demands sacrifices and abnegation.

This feeling that has been called, in the past, “robust optimism” in the revolutionary disposition of the workers is essential to feed a political project, and has an evident utopian dimension. Because we fight for the future, for what is yet to come.

But there's a catch. The formula "utopian paradigm" has been used as an alternative to socialism, and often as a nebulous alternative to the very need for an anti-capitalist strategic perspective. In a situation like the one we are experiencing, of crisis of capitalism, but also of crisis and reorganization of the labor movement and of the left, therefore, of great uncertainties, it is not strange that ideological insecurities gain ground.

A good part of the world's left feels uncomfortable even with the concept of socialism, and trembles before the concept of communism. The new “respectability” of the utopian paradigm concept is explained because, comfortably, it promises to say a lot without committing to anything. It is the strength of weakness.

On the one hand, it refers to a somewhat constrained effort to overcome the schematism of the Stalinist currents that dedicated themselves, tirelessly, for decades, to the unconditional defense of the “achievements” of the construction of socialism in the USSR, but were surprised because the capitalist restoration came by the hands of the leaders of the communist parties.

On the other hand, it expresses the tremendous pressures that fell in the last decade on the mass organizations of the labor movement with the collapse of the former USSR, and the offensive of neoliberalism: it translates, in this sense, a confused theoretical movement of adaptation to the discourse predominant anti-socialist, a recycling of explicitly non-socialist European social democracy.

But it is also used by outspoken socialists as a formula that seeks to go beyond the ideological certainties of what was long identified by former communist parties as the dogmas of "scientific socialism". In any case, it is disconcerting how so many socialists accept it, so lightly, in place of, or as a synonym for, socialism. This, of course, is not an innocent choice. And it confesses more about the current difficulties of criticism, of a large part of the world's left, in the face of the virtues of "republican" democracy (the "mantra" of absolute values), than it explains about what is thought of as a project of an egalitarian society and libertarian. Post-Marxist or even post-socialist, criticism of the project idea, and praise of the process idea has been one of the theoretical fads of the last thirty years.

But it is true that we need inspiring ideas. All ruling classes were hostile to utopian doctrines that foresaw the subversion of order, and they unhesitatingly fought mass movements that embraced the prognosis – or prophecy – of an imminent collapse of constituted power.

It turns out that the people express themselves in the vocabulary they have available. And revolutionary beliefs, when they conquer the voices of the streets, can express with religious diction a political discourse that legitimizes the struggle for power.

It is the dispossessed, the visionaries and the political radicals who are moved by the prospect that it is possible to change the world. Nothing transforms without fierce and relentless struggle. Reactionaries of all times have always insisted on disqualifying utopias as dangerous theories and wild projects inspired by passionate people.

But their name is "revolutionaries".

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).


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