Hope : Bruce Robbins

Laclau’s career-long engagement with populism will lead one to suspect that for him, as for Richard Rorty, locating hope in the particular means locating it at the scale of the particular nation, seen as better suited to the fostering of hope than any cosmopolitan or trans-national solidarity. As my reference to the welfare state above was meant to suggest, I see nation-states as among the particulars out of which a new or non-universalistic cosmopolitanism has been and can be composed. But the same also holds for smaller-scale particulars, like the community of specialized scholars. Specialization is not the antithesis of community. When asked the old cynical question “how many divisions does cosmopolitanism have?,” the new or Hegelian cosmopolitanism has the right to answer, with a less than humorous pun, “Well, some.”

This answer is grounded in the premise that divisions in the non-military sense–that is, the social dividedness of hyphenated, diasporic identities–will generate multiple and overlapping loyalties and therefore, at least sometimes, will generate an extra-national detachment that does the work of Kantian universalism while at the same time being anchored, as Kantian universalism is not, in actual social collectivities. Divisions name a desired constituency, but they also explain why cosmopolitanism already has one, and more than one. It is not to be expected that what cosmopolitan constituencies want will be a perfect revolutionary break with the status quo in favor of the welfare of humankind. Hence the alignment between Laclau’s particularized items and what Clark calls reformism.

Affectively speaking, the problem with cosmopolitanism is the same problem as with hope, considered as a vestige of Christian redemption: it seems to ask for a Christ-like sacrifice of everything, a sacrifice commensurate with the heroism of taking in and responding to all the suffering in the world. What does Walter Benjamin’s formula “hope in the past” mean if not, on the model of Christian self-sacrifice, “hope for others, but not for ourselves”? If this is the case, then it is worth inquiring into. We are others too. That is one lesson of both Hegelian Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis. If we are not comfortable saying so, the reason would seem to be the trumping of social theory by Levinasian ethics, which recognizes as ethical only an absolute, uncompromising renunciation of all self-interest. If self-interest is disallowed, then reciprocity is disallowed as well: we can no longer properly receive hope from others just as we would wish them to receive hope from us. After Nietzsche, this renunciatory ethic should not still be as tempting as it seems to have remained.

When I say “still” in the last sentence, I am assuming that, in small ways and therefore also in larger ones, history can be progressive. A secular notion of hope would not need to congratulate itself, falsely, on having expunged all vestiges of religious vocabulary or belief. To see secularization dialectically is to deny that it can ever be a complete break with religious faith and to affirm on the contrary that transformation will always involve some degree of preservation. But secular hope must refuse the distraction of a religiously-inflected, sacrifical ethics. It must be less ethical than historical. From this perspective, Kant’s question “what can I hope?” could be translated as “looking at history, what do I have grounds for hoping?” The sense of history to which I have been appealing would suggest that there might be grounds for hope in the case of global justice or cosmopolitanism because cosmopolitanism can mobilize self-interest on its side. The term “reform” suggests only a range of particularized items or goals that lie within reach and that also–this is what Clarke says–lead beyond themselves. Hope, like cosmopolitanism, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Both hope and cosmopolitanism bring us up against the limits of democracy. Structurally speaking, the inhabitants of the future resemble non-residents who don’t vote in the nation’s elections even though they suffer the consequences of decisions made in those elections. Democracy excludes those who will come later just as it excludes foreigners.41 Democracy therefore needs to be stretched in both directions. In The Future as Cultural Fact, Arjun Appadurai writes that “hope in this context [he’s referring to housing movements of the poor in Mumbai] is the force that converts the passive condition of ‘waiting for’ to the active condition of ‘waiting to’: waiting to move, waiting to claim full rights, waiting to make the next move in the process that will assure that the queue keeps moving and that the end of the rainbow is not an empty promise.”42 An empty promise is exactly what the end of the rainbow sounds like. One might as well say “global justice.” That the queue will keep moving is easier to grasp, as are such phrases as “I hope to show.” But if we looked closely, I think we would see that these are not two distinct zones of being.

A final paragraph is not the best place to talk about how the economic rise of East Asia has reduced the inequality of living standards between rich and poor nations, though not within nations, either rich or poor, and has been accomplished by means of government decisions, not by the free market. It is not the place to say more about the boycott as an expression of global civil society–the 1980s boycott of apartheid-era South Africa, the boycott of Israel that I hope is now on its way–or about the boycott as a possible and necessary politicizing of cosmopolitanism, the marking off and naming of an actionable enemy that’s needed if we are to escape from the morass of “everyone is guilty, so no one can be singled out.” As I have been arguing, a list like this is not irrelevant to hope. But starting out from such a list of conditions and political achievements (if that is the right word) as well as the options for action shaped by those conditions and achievements, as I believe one has to start, it remains true that nothing unconditional can be said on behalf of hope, or for that matter against it.43

The kind of unconditional statement I have been trying hardest to avoid is one that refuses to consider conditions at all because it has already decided, or is in haste to decide, that only a god can save us. A rational calculation of probabilities is hardly an adequate or indeed an eligible alternative, given what is to be feared about the future and what is already being suffered in the intolerable conditions of the present. The secular conception of hope of which we are in need would have to fall somewhere between the two.


Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.


Published on January 25, 2016

41. See Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?,” The London Review of Books (May 24, 2012), 3-6. Bull’s article is a review of Stephen Gardiner’s A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

42. Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact, 127.

43. Whether hope should count as a political concept depends, today, on whether we believe politics exists at the scale beyond the nation–whether our social imaginaries include what Gramsci never got to call the “international-popular.” Incertitude about the future is the common human condition, but it seems more important to stress that the incertitude is unevenly distributed, especially on the global scale. The same can be said of hope. Access to hope is unequal. Like precarity, it is a metric by which injustice demands to be measured. In order to fulfill our responsibility to see that hope is better distributed, we will also have to ensure that it is better grounded.

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