Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

I started writing this as a kind of meditation in a notebook, but then I thought maybe it would be interesting to others so I decided to share on my blog. It's my reflections on Gramsci's famous aphorism named in the blog post title - but, while I won't go into depth here, I'll just note that if I were to write reflections on Mark 12:30-31 they would probably be very similar. Nothing profound, but I hope it helps someone nonetheless.

Tullio Crali - The Forces of the Bend
"Eyyy, I paint'a de race car, it exemplifies'a da ever accelerating forces of de modernity'a and
implicitly calls to mind the relentless use of fossil fuels to make that possible'a, mamma mia!"

We must always act from a sincere love of our fellows, but never give in to maudlin sentimentality or (worse) facile irrationalism. In theory, so long as one avoids silly ideological tropes, it is not so difficult to keep the two apart. But on a day to day level it can seem very difficult indeed. Especially when one is faced with nigh-inevitable catastrophe. Many have reflected on this before (for example), I am just going to add my own voice to the chorus.

When Gramsci wrote the words from which this famous aphorism is derived he was imprisoned by the fascist Italian state. What he actually said... well, when translated... was that "the challenge of modernity is to live life without illusions and without becoming disillusioned… I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but am an optimist because of will." I take it that what made disillusionment tempting for him was the rise of fascism in his homeland, economic collapse, imminent war, his own personal health and security. Of course these may still resonate with plenty of people. But what prompted this for me, today, was reading news of climate change, so that's what I will focus on in what follows.

The International Panel on Climate Change today warned the world that we are on the eve of destruction. Unless we take large scale action very quickly we can expect rolling waves of ever more extreme climate events as the years go by. Anyone who has been paying attention to the news this year will know this has begun, and these will get worse and cause death and devastation in their wake. What is more, as we already seeing, environmental change will exacerbate conflict, war, and refugee crises.

The actions required call for mass, and to a significant degree coordinated, behavioural change on a global scale. People need to change settled patterns of behaviour, and change patterns of consumption that have long been associated with status and ease. This is intrinsically difficult, and would not be easy for any social system under any circumstances. But even beyond this, there are peculiarities of our circumstance that make things harder.

First, it is well documented that we have a clique of wealthy and powerful people and organisations who have a long history of deliberately undermining public understanding of this crisis and the collective actions necessary to meet it. This is not just random malfeasance on their part, but in a certain amoral sense a rational response to the incentives they face and options they have available to them. Without some sort of state action to compel economic sacrifices, ones that would hit them hard, there is no hope of successful climate governance. They hence, of course, use their economic and political power to prevent such state action. Their power has also given them access to a political and media-communications infrastructure that makes it very possible for them to ensure their preferred talking points and ways of understanding things dominate public discussion, or at least take up enough room to prevent the formation of a consensus in favour of actions they disprefer. So with every incentive to continue to promote what is worse, and every ability to influence what a great many people believe is for the best, it is no surprise that fossil fuel magnates' strategies work, and we still find governments twisting themselves into knots to pretend that now is the time to be opening new oil fields even while catastrophe looms.

Second, as far as I can tell, the within-present-lifespan effects of climate change inaction will largely hit poorer people in poorer equatorial countries worst of all (see e.g. the link above re war in the Sahel). And even the things that do affect the world's wealthy (think of summer fires in California caused by a combination of global change and terrible local environmental management) are the sort of things that the wealthy can protect themselves from. Buy houses on the hill, and have a second home to summer in just to be on the safe side. But since the poor of poor equatorial countries are doing least to contribute to carbon emissions they're people least empowered to actually change things to avert the disaster. The wealthy are not exactly accustomed to caring too much for their plight at the best of times, and if I look at what our wealthy are up to it seems at best they propose to blast our problems into space and at worst they are simply preparing to ride things out in secured luxury by themselves. What is more, the old bigotries of racism and xenophobia make it possible to present climate refugees as a scary invading horde to be dealt with as a matter of national security at the border, rather than desperate people harmed by our actions and in need of our assistance. Indeed, one can't help but notice that some wealthy nations are building off shore detention camps, while others prepare prison camps in the desert. That's infrastructure that sure would be useful if your medium term climate change plan was doing not enough to mitigate serious change and dealing with the inevitable displaced people by simply locking them out and demonising any who got through!

Third, the forces that might be challenging this are in utter disarray. There is no serious sign, that I can see, of a successful internationalist left properly attuned to the scale of this challenge taking power in any of the major carbon producing nations. China and India have governments that are sternly nationalistic at the present moment and none too tolerant of leftwards dissent. While the Western powers have an utterly emaciated left, with the status-quo establishment parties more or less on board with the frankly genocidal ambitions of our rich and powerful as outlined above.

So, facing an intrinsically very difficult problem, we find ourselves beholden to a wealthy and powerful industry set on worsening the problem in a market economy that more or less compels such behaviour, with a ruling class that is decidedly indifferent to the suffering of those who will be worst affected and who if anything seem to be preparing for mass death, and no serious prospects for successfully challenging this situation. Pessimism of the intellect.

In the face of all this it is tempting to do one of two things. First, one can harden one's heart. Cut yourself off from all this, become apathetic or defeatist. Or, maybe, convince yourself that the only way to be a hard nosed realist, pragmatic and practical where it is urgently needed, is to accept some of this loss (the loss, that is, suffered by a global poor you have never met and will never interact with) as inevitable and start planning around it as given. In these ways you can lose your heart of benevolence, and forget the love of your neighbour. Second, one can give in to irrationalism. Simply deny the evidence of how bad a problem this is and hope that it is all a hoax, or embrace disconnected personal aesthetic lifestyle changes that have no serious hope of changing things but which at least let you feel better. In this way one forgets the love of God or Nature, loses one's heart of wisdom. In extreme cases one can go eco-fash, hope for a mass die off that will somehow reduce the population to a sustainable level, and try to ensure that one's preferred group are among the survivors. In this way one becomes a heartless fool.

Of course none of that will do. What is needed is the cool-headed rationality of one who passionately loves sentient life in all its forms. This does indeed require taking stock of the information available on climate change, its social and technical causes, what stands in the way of effective mitigation. In this way one will indeed come across the dire probabilities gestured at above, and be compelled to face with sober senses your real conditions of life, and relations with your kind. But that is not the end of things. For just as we know the challenges so too we know the stakes. And what is at stake is both the possibility of enormous suffering for many of our fellows if we do not do this right, but also immense joy if only we could do better! As in a sort of secular Pascal's wager, it only takes a small possibility of success for it to be entirely worth it for us to act determinedly towards a better world. And even if we fail, from our failure future comrades may learn and do better. Optimism of the will.

(Since to anyone paying attention this is obviously a quasi decision theoretic argument, I must acknowledge that my talk of probabilities is a bit loose here. But I think there are close enough analogues in pertinently similar cases to make my point. Likewise I think any suggestion of individualistic voluntaristic imposition of will can be mediated by a proper role for communal deliberation in deciding how to respond to our situation. But this isn't the time for that. Leave my meditation alone, hypothetical critic!)

And this is why I love Gramsci's aphorism so much, and why I meditate on it at moments when I am inclined to become defeatist. In a brief phrase it brings all this together. It acknowledges the dire state before us as we intellectually square up to the world. But it also reminds us that none the less there are factors beyond that, concerning our will, what we value and love, which nevertheless rationally compel us to action. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.


  1. Thank you for sharing this rather uplifting article. If I may, here is a personal experience. I found myself in an existential crisis considering all the atrocities happening or looming in this world. There was a psychological toll when I found myself caring too much or focusing too much on an issue (Uyghurs for example). After a period (probably a year) of negligence and diversion of attention, I found myself in a happy illusion as if everything could be fine on its own so long as I do not contribute to the worsening of it. I am trying to let that illusory state of mind be surpassed or overcome, probably through clearer consciousness and conscience.

    So that's why I find this article of yours uplifting. Other than Gramsci's aphorism, I especially like this sentence you wrote:
    "What is needed is the cool-headed rationality of one who passionately loves sentient life in all its forms.''

  2. For starting off as a notebook meditation, it is indeed an optimistic entry! The end idea is one that I am a personal fan of, the attempt to produce a better world, even if the attempt falls short.


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