When humanity doesn't rock
There are two kinds of pessimism that I think human beings in general need, and which our politics in particular need. They tend to be unwelcome on parts of the Left, insofar as they are taken as laying the ideological foundations for political conservatism. But, to me, they do the opposite.

The first is anthropological pessimism. This would appear to be at odds with the Promethean aspects of Marxism. But is far more of a problem for the semi-official capitalist ideology that (dixit Elon Musk) "humanity rocks". Just very occasionally, it's okay to admit that it doesn't rock. Not always. 

I don't just mean the obvious stuff like mass warfare, mass extinction, and industrial genocide. Those are experiences that, with some intellectual exertions, can be entirely blamed on a small subset of humanity, thus exonerating our good species-name. And why not? When people like Musk say “humanity rocks”, the unspoken subclause is that rich white humans rock hardest.

Admittedly, that strategy only gets one so far. It runs up against the surprising availability of millions for participation in slaughters not planned or fully understood by them. It also, if we're honest, conflicts with a certain baseline egalitarianism. If any one of us could be a monarch, given the right circumstances, it follows that any one of us could be a bloody murderer. This, perhaps, is why we often feel acute guilt, what Martin Amis called a "species infestation" -- in addition to anger, revulsion, excitement, or whatever else we may be feeling -- when we encounter those parts of the past. And that guilt, as both Devorah Baum and Francis Spufford write from different traditions, can be a gift, a blessing, a source of essential news about oneself, the beginning of a liberating transformation.

Something similar can be said about the loaded concept of the 'anthropocene'. On one level, it is a political evasion, diluting the necessarily focused discussion of capitalism and its restless accumulation. On another level, capitalism is something that human beings, and no other species, do. We're all doing it now, even if we don't all have the same level of power or responsibility. It clearly is not the only thing we could be doing, but it does have some relationship to specifically human propensities and capacities. It does something with the cumulative, collective cultural intelligence that make us the number one predator on the planet. It has survived in part through brute force, in part through disciplinary mechanisms. But it also survived because of the promise (for some) of ever-increasing abundance. Why worry about having a smaller slice of the pie? The pie will keep growing. Or, if not, you can steal someone else's slice.

But as I've said, that is not the sole, or primary scale on which I'm situating my pessimism. I am also thinking of the smaller, everyday cruelties and stupidities for which we are on-goingly available, and which form part of the normal run of human experience. The moments when you get so obsessed with your own shit that you forget the effects you're having on other people. When you get so paralysed by rage at some petty injustice while blithely ignoring those you may be inadvertently committing yourself. When, on a low-level, you manipulate and instrumentalise others in a way that you would find humiliating if it was done to you. When your righteousness is so absolute that you can only imagine the worst of anyone who disagrees with you, and so set out to 'destroy' them. When you feel so threatened by someone's beliefs that you actually believe they are in some way oppressing you, and act accordingly. It is as though there is an opaque part of ourselves, psychoanalysis might call it sexuality, or the drive, that is not the friend of our ideals.

These are ordinary failings. Yet it would be extremely difficult to look at the texture of political life, be it in party meetings, public events, or online discussions, where they don't have some bearing on the run of things. We can all see this when it's other people who are doing it. The term "political discipline" is in disrepute because of its association with sectarian politics and top-down cults. And if it means suppressing disagreements or keeping secrets, it probably isn't a good idea. But if it means acting on the knowledge that none of us are squeaky-clean, that all of us can be stupid or cruel, that we are often most self-deceiving when we think we're right, and that we often (always) fall short of our own ideals, then it would lead to a far kinder and less volatile discourse. It would not stop people from trying to 'destroy', humiliate or exploit their comrades, or putting their own issues ahead of 'the struggle', but it might put a check on it.

The second type of necessary pessimism is epistemological pessimism. This is really just a ramification of anthropological pessimism. There are some things we can't know, both individually and as a species. Let me give you an example. The famous paleontologist and mystical monk, Pére Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, proposed an explanation, of sorts, for The Phenomenon of Man. His explanation involved a rich, ornate, pantheistic teleology according to which, just as matter is fundamentally granular in structure, so is consciousness. Consciousness is divisible and sub-divisible, from the highest levels of animal complexity to the lowest levels of particle complexity. It progresses through successive 'envelopes' of ordered existence, but it is always there, everywhere, in every atom of existence. 

Was he right? How the fuck would I know? How would anyone? Someone may as well write an account of what happened before the Big Bang, or why it happened, or why these physical laws apply and not others, or whether there is a why. These are not things we can know, but which we might legitimately form imaginative speculations, fantasies or beliefs about. What I do know is that I find Chardin's cosmos far more interesting and suggestive than that of the I Fucking Love Science 'new atheist' nerd. But that's a digression. The point is not to prefer this or that, but to acknowledge it as a preference shaped by upbringing, habitus, the unconscious, any number of things that are not to do with knowledge as we generally understand it.

There are also some things which we can potentially know, but which we may not have any inkling of until it's too late. Let's go back to the anthropocene. At a certain level, the idea that "we didn't know" is wrong. Many people did know. Many who were empowered knew, but disavowed it in the interests of capital, or capitalism. But, in another way, of course, the specific nature and extent of global warming was not anticipated. And, when fossil capital first appeared, it would not have been predictable. So we have to make room for the possibility that future technological breakthroughs will also inflict on us unanticipated and hugely destructive consequences.

One does not, however, have to reach for such grand horizons of knowledge to register the points where the shoals of the knowable become the trenches of the unknowable. I can have an imaginative, intuitive guess about what it's like to be you, if you tell me something about yourself. But I can't know. And I would be an idiot if I thought I did know. There are even parts of myself that, though they may be present in my self-sabotaging, stumbling, occasionally stupid or obnoxious behaviours, I can't really know. And those who think they know themselves are, most likely, idiots. There are statements whose full meanings can't be known. We have a whole fictional genre based on the mysteries that inevitably revolve around such utterly cliched statements as, "I love you", since no one seems to mean entirely the same thing by it.

What, you might reasonably sputter at this point, has any of that got to do with politics? But if you've got this far, you've patiently waded through relatively ordinary observations about the anthropocene, guilt and genocide. So stick with it. We're almost there. The point I'm making is that, in political discussions it is increasingly the worst thing in the world to be wrong. Indeed, it's often hard to separate being wrong from being a loser, thick, malevolent, or bigoted.

There's something about social media, in particular, but also the wider culture, that favours zero-sum, win-lose arguments. I often find myself responding to this pressure on social media, but you can also see it in television 'debates'. Not to be precious about this, some arguments are actually win-lose in their essence; sometimes those are the stakes. But it is in the nature of such arguments that we can't encounter other people being wrong without gleefully strutting and clucking over the grave of their rectitude, the tattered remains of their dignity. Logically, that also entails that we can't stand to be wrong about anything ourselves. Which means, we can't stand to learn anything, because in any conversation like that, pedagogy is only ever one-way and takes the form of a punishment beating.

This gleeful grave-dancing of the victors in argument, moreover, looks uncomfortably close to the kind of prideful cock-walking that you might expect from some of the victors of the neoliberal game. At times, dare I say, this form of communication looks a little fascistic, as through difference could be settled through group humiliation. Which brings me back to what I was saying earlier. “Humanity rocks” usually, in practice, means that “humans like me rock hardest”.

If, however, we start from the premise that humanity isn't all that neat, that it doesn't always 'rock', that there is a lot to be wary and frightened of in ourselves, that there are things to be guilty about, that there are failures that are understandable but not okay, that we don't and can't know it all, then we might find the gleeful grave-dancing of the victors (in whatever domain) far more ridiculous and repulsive than the losers. Indeed, we might acknowledge the losers, whether or not we personally like them or their politics, with a certain rueful solidarity, a certain recognition of their predicament. It’s the egalitarianism of universal failure. That’s the sort of pessimism I’m talking about.