The dreaming matters more than the dream: From TINA to TAMA
by Paul Raven
In my chapter for Being Human Under Covid-19, I invoke the late Mark Fisher's notion of capitalist realism, and argue that during the early months of the pandemic there emerged a cross-class solidaristic sense—very brief, very far from complete, and very unevenly distributed, but none the less real—that there was, after all, an alternative to the hegemonic market-individualist paradigm of late neoliberalism. As I note in the chapter, this sunbeam of possibility already felt like a distant memory (or even fantasy) by the time we were editing the pieces for publication: capitalist realism has a knack for reasserting itself, perhaps because of the extent to which we have internalised it. In that sense, it is very like a virus, reliant upon sustained transmission between viable hosts.
It's hardly an original observation on my part to note that the timescale of academic publishing has a tendency to make one's writings obsolete (or at least less relevant) by the time they're actually available to be read. Two years or so from the original commission, an essay with Covid-19 as its 'hook' seems almost wilfully quaint—which, for the sake of clarity, is not to claim that Covid-19 is no longer relevant, but rather to make the unpalatable point that "the discourse" (in the sense of that term endemic to social media, but generally applicable beyond it) has moved on. Plagues are so last season! The theme of the new series is war—available flavours include hot, cold and trade, all served with a side of cyber—and of all the four horsemen who haunt humanity, this is perhaps the one with the richest trove of tropes, centuries of familiar narrative arcs to dust off and update, and reassuring (if not exactly comfortable) oppositional factions to rejoin.
Whether the example be Covid-19, the Ukraine conflict, or whatever fresh nightmare might follow—for, let's be frank, there will be fresh nightmares—I stand by my argument that the best response, the response worth making the effort to make, is neither pessimistic defeatism nor solutionist optimism (the two Janus faces of TINA, if you like), but rather the labour of utopian hope.
Perhaps it seems strange that I would follow a declaration of the inevitability of fresh nightmares with a rejection of pessimism; is this not a contradiction, even a hypocrisy? I believe it is not. There is a vital distinction made in the literature of utopian scholarship between optimism and hope, which—with my apologies to that discipline, and everyone involved therewith, for this sweeping and reductive summary—pegs optimism as fundamentally passive, and hope as active. To be an optimist is to assume that (per Whig history) the arc of human existence bends ineluctably toward progress, and that things will work out fine in the long run; optimism is thus a license to do nothing, a bit of mental judo that allows the shrugging off of responsibility for making things change, and to deny the inevitability of fresh nightmares. Hope, by contrast, concedes that it is possible that things could be better, just as it is possible that they could be worse, and accepts that the precondition of things being better is the work of those who can envisage that possibility. Or, more succinctly: hope recognises that change requires both a vision of difference and an effort to realise it.
The tricky bit—which I will confess to struggling with ‘on the regular’, and particularly at present—is that hope comes with no guarantees. Hope is not consoling, though the work that hope can motivate has its consolations.
Exactly what that work looks like is a question of context; only you, and those around you, can decide what is worth doing. The process of discovering that knowledge starts with the work of imagining that things could be different, which is less effortful than it is unfamiliar. Our imaginations are a vast mental muscle, well exercised by capital through its channelling of desire into the realm of consumption, but rarely used for anything other than our desperate attempts to grab things with which we hope to fill that muttering void of meaning that lurks within. We are capable of dreaming so much more, and we are capable of dreaming together—not in some lockstep unity, but in a rolling polyphony of contestation and discourse.
It has never been that case that There Is No Alternative; that is a salesman's subtext elevated to the status of philosophy, and it has brought us to the brink of disaster. My hope (and thus my work) is to remind ourselves that There Are Many Alternatives (and always were), and that to dare to imagine even so much as just one of them is to chip away at the walls of the prison into which we have sealed ourselves.
The dreaming matters more than the dream which is dreamt.
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