“Cause and effect assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It is to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”
Rebecca Solnit is something of an icon for me. She has a visceral intelligence, a sharp eye for detail and a wonderful way of conveying a message. She is a magnificent woman, and I have loved everything of hers I have read. So when this frankly brilliant series of tweets from Canongate (who are worth following for their excellent books and entertaining Twitter presence) alerted my presence to the re-release of Hope in the Dark I knew I had to read it. Like pretty much anyone following the clusterf*ck that is the news these days, I am in dire need of something inspiring, something to recover my sense of hope. If you feel as I do, this is definitely the book for you.
Written in the second term of the Bush era, Solnit reflects on the sense of despair shared by those on the ‘Left’ of politics (a term, perhaps, more heavily used in US politic, though a fairly common theme of British politics too) and the way in which it debilitates and destabilises political activity. And she examines what political activism really means, the reality of it; the long, hard slog, the failures, the reversions, the teeny-tiny victories. It is a theme which I think is quite important, and one which bears sharing to the wider audience. In my experience, many people see the extent of democratic engagement being the five yearly walk to the polling station to put an ‘x’ in a box, but Solnit picks that apart here and shows how political activism arises in many ways, how it is democratic to march and protest and that, perhaps, the failure of much political activism arises from the false assumption that something can be ‘won’ or ‘lost’ rather than ‘improved’. She asks us to consider that imperfect but better is still better. As she references in the quote above, history is a crab scuttling sideways. It is not, as we imagine, a relentless path, one way only, without veering to the side or diverting or taking an about-turn or a meander. Progress is achingly slow, we do not know what the outcome will be of any of our actions. We have to leap into the dark. I guess we all know this to one degree or another, but the power of Solnit’s message is that we should enter that darkness with hope. That hope is a politically radical position, that we do not know the future and despairing of it is paralysing. Instead, let us grasp the present by the horns and do what we can to steer it, however small.
“Imagine the world as a theatre. The acts of the powerful and the official occupy the centre stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage. The limelights there are so bright that they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that all of it is, that there is no other place.
No matter the details or the outcome, what is onstage is a tragedy, the tragedy of the inequitable distribution of power, the tragedy of the too-common silence of those who settle for being audience and who pay the price of the drama.”
Drawing on such examples as the Zapatistas, the Czechoslovakian revolution, the Anti-Roads movement, the collapse of the WTO talks, the spread of organic farming and farmers’ markets Solnit shows that whilst it may appear that everything is going badly as illustrated in the example above that’s only the action that we see ‘centre stage’; but in the wings, in the darkened aisles of the audience, a quiet revolution is going on. She asks us to look away from the stage and see what’s happening elsewhere, to find the hope hidden in the shade of the limelit tragedy and despair. Whilst it may appear that the politicians have all the control, that the major corporations have all the money and influence, by hoping and following up on that hope, by imagining and aiming for something better, a movement can change the world. She references the butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a typhoon in China, to show how a small movement in one place can cascade into massive change elsewhere, maybe somewhere unexpected. She reminds us to think about our history, about movements like the gay rights movement where, in a relatively short (historically speaking) period homosexuality has moved from something (unjustly) judged immoral and illegal to being celebrated, to breaking down the bonds of ‘traditional’ views on relationships. She reminds us how the perception of gender has slipped from something polarised and binary to a spectrum and she uses this example, with others, to show how we can do the same for politics. Because if we focus on what we want to achieve, what we are told are political boundaries can disappear. She gives the example of conservative Texan ranchers working with environmentalists to improve the conditions of farming because whilst the political pundits will tell us that these parties are at polar ends of the left-wing / right-wing spectrum, when they are open-minded and focus on their goals, they find they are aiming for the same thing. She asks us to think about the power of stories, the ones we believe and the ones we allow to consume us:
“Stories trap us, stories free us, we live and die by stories, but hearing people having the Conversation [mutual wailing about how bad things are…my insert] is hearing them tell themselves a story they believe is being told to them. What other stories can be told? How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.”
Solnit’s book is a powerful rallying-call; it cajoles, it harries, it beats and it persuades and it sings a message of hope. In a time of political bleakness, when everything is changing and no one knows where we’re heading or how it will all turn out, Solnit reminds us that it is okay to be afraid but that we should not let fear guide us. And she shows how things can change, how politics can move and even small action on a small scale taken with a desire to bring about a better future without relying upon it can make a massive difference. She asks us to accept the imperfect world not because it’s a failure or because there’s so little that we can do but because it is a work in progress, that it is never finished (until we are all dead and gone, and the sun expands swallowing the Earth) and therefore there is always hope for improvement. Because hope is a radical, powerful thing and only if we allow ourselves to be robbed of it will the naysayers really succeed. It is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary women, and it has reminded me that it is not now or ever time to give up.
Hope in the Dark is published by the excellent Canongate books