Hope : Bruce Robbins

As turned out to be the case. Blamed for their luxurious consumption, many 18th century women drew the conclusion that what they consumed was a political matter, and that it was a political matter precisely because it did connect their households to the distant labor of others, because it was a domain in which their apparently trivial actions made an ethical difference. Much of the distant labor, they realized, was performed by slaves. Logically enough, therefore, women took the lead in the sugar boycotts that accompanied the abolitionist campaigns of the late eighteenth-century, aimed at cane sugar produced by slaves. The conditions of Caribbean labor lay right there before you, the campaign said, as close as your teacup. One Quaker pamphlet popularized the equation of a pound of sugar with two ounces of a slave’s flesh. To refuse sugar was therefore to strike a blow against slavery.18

The sugar boycotts are not evidence of continuous linear progress. The ability to recognize distant labor in intimate domestic commodities was lost for many years–arguably, it was a casualty of the movement’s success. The nineteenth-century abolition of slavery allowed tea-drinkers to re-brand the same brutal labor by the same workers on the same plantations as “free,” hence no longer a matter of scandal. But such recognition did not vanish forever. The anti-sweatshop movement that arose in the last decades of the late twentieth century is a lineal and, I think, a notable descendant.

Linking the two, and at least as unlikely a contributor to the cause of global justice as misogny, there would have to be a chapter on the welfare state. The welfare state doesn’t even try to abolish inequality, but only to moderate its worst effects, and the inequality it aims to moderate is restricted to the domestic population; it does not generally acknowledge economic suffering outside its own borders even if it can be established that it is itself responsible for some of that suffering. Yet the cosmopolitan denunciation of global inequality required the welfare state for one all-important reason: it is only the rise of the welfare state that enabled people to recognize for the first time not only the justice of re-distributing social resources so as to protect the victims of the market, but also the feasibility of such a redistribution.

The welfare state showed that, to some extent at least, the market could be tamed, and tamed by democratic decision-making. The welfare state is uninspiring, and especially uninspiring to those most concerned with global justice. Yet from the moment when it became a more or less effective agent of re-distribution, capable of offering a safety net for the most vulnerable–from the moment when it was seen as capable to some degree of compensating for the inadequacies of the market within the borders of the nation, its example was also available for use at a scale beyond the nation. Much of the anti- or counter-globalization movement has followed out this logic, calling for planetary equivalents to welfare-state institutions.19

A more recent stage, part of the consumerism that picks up from and carries on the impulse of the sugar boycotts but that has also arguably helped undermine the welfare state, is today’s “Eat Local” movement. The imperative to “Eat Local” combines a certain tendency to xenophobia and racism, some of it quite overt, with concern that the goods of the earth might be allocated more justly as well as more sustainably if we shipped and consumed fewer of them.20 The racism that is mixed into the locavore fashion, like the misogyny that was mixed into the discovery of distant labor, illustrates what I’m trying to say when when I assert that hope has to be grounded in history. The Crow chief on whom Jonathan Lear reflects in his book Radical Hope produced hope, Lear says, when he “gave the tribe the possibility of drawing on a traditional ideal that would help them endure a loss of concepts.”21 In the narrative Richard Rorty tells, “History [replaces] God, Reason, and Nature as the source of human hope.”22 Rorty is no blind worshipper of history; he defines hope as “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past.”23 But like Lear, he wants a past that contains ideals, ideals we can be proud of. But history can be a basis for hope even when it is not filled with presentable ideals, when it is messy and unlovely–when it offers us a past of which we can’t simply be proud.

We tend to think of history as resisting hope or making us pay an unacceptable price for it. That is not wrong. In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear radically underplays the compromises with the Powers That Be involved in sustaining hope for the Crow Indians. He quotes Crow Chief Plenty Coups as follows:

We knew the white men were strong … and that there was no good fighting them… Our leading chiefs saw that to help the white men fight their enemies and ours would make them true friends. We had always fought the three tribes, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe anyway, and might as well do so now. Our decision was reached not because we loved the white man who was already crowding other tribes into our country, or because we hated the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, but because we plainly saw that this course was the only one which might save our beautiful country for us. When I think back my heart sings because we acted as we did.24

In attributing hope to a leap of faith that is also a re-invention of Crow tradition, Lear ignores the fact that the Crows succeeded, if that is the right word, largely by helping the white men commit further violence against other Indians. But there is a better alternative both to grounding hope in tradition and to thinking of it as groundless or ungrounded, miraculously springing from nowhere. The more eligible option is to affirm that, for better or worse, history also generates hope. Fredric Jameson’s famous formula in The Political Unconscious was “history is what hurts.”25

For Hegel and more generally, to think of history as dialectical means not restricting it to what hurts. When we talk about history hurting–about what the white men and their Crow allies did to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, or about how the Palestinians of Gaza are being hurt now, which of course they are, and to an unspeakable degree — we cannot forget, for example, that as Israel’s gross misconduct has little by little destroyed hopes for a two-state solution, it has unintentionally brought a one-state solution closer to the top of the agenda, where few had expected to see it. This dialectical twist is not a reason for confidence, but it is grounds for hope. It’s not just that “another world is possible,” though it is. The real point is that another world is what you are going to get anyway, for better or worse.

18. On the sugar boycotts, see Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

19. Our apparent hopelessness about expanding welfare state institutions beyond the nation state today has a historical echo in 19th century resistance to expanding mutual benefit societies, which had proven themselves at the local level, to the new and frightening scale of the nation-state. How could there be national health insurance schemes when, at the scale of the nation, people didn’t know each other and could not be expected to feel solidarity with each other? Stefanie Börner argues in her book Belonging, Solidarity and Expansion in Social Policy (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) that in this case solidarity was not a prerequisite for the new welfare institutions; it was in fact the institutions that produced the solidarity. The same might be true, she argues, for an expansion to the scale of the EU and perhaps beyond.

20. The titles of this movement’s books often say all that needs to be said. For example, Sara Bongiorni’s A Year Without “Made in China” (Hoboken: John Wiley, 2007) and Roger Simmermaker, How Americans Can Buy American: The Power of Consumer Patriotism (n.p.: Consumer Patriotism Corporation, 2008). For an excellent historical commentary, see Dana Frank, Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

21. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, 141.

22. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, 265.

23. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, 120.

24. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, 142-3.

25. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 102.

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