Elective Despair

by Rebecca Giggs

“The work of this emotion [hope] requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong”

—Enoch Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 1938.

RG 1As we slalom into Saturday’s Federal election, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about objectionable despair. Whether at Sydney’s ‘Green-Ups’, around the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, or in the café at the top of our street, I’m encountering an inordinate number of people on the Left—many of them are writers—who are preparing to walk into a cardboard booth on the weekend and vote informally. They will declare “Boundless Plains” on their ballot slip, or take the time to sketch a colonial tall-ship. Apathy isn’t their grounds; they know the names of the candidates, they know the policy positions of the major parties (and some of the smaller ones to boot). Many of these objectors are civically engaged in other ways. They read newspapers and gauge the debates of the day. They belong to various formal and informal communities whose ethical regard stretches beyond the home and workplace. What they’re feeling—they weigh the empty air in cupped hands before exhaling the word—is despair. Between us then forms what the essayist James Agee might have called an “expressive pocket of dead silence”. Together, we know the score. Someone reaches for a drink.

The greatest trick the parties ever pulled off was to convince a certain class of voter that in that moment they exercise their electoral power—once every three years when they are the most powerful—they are powerless. At least, that’s where the blame falls during these conversations. To account for their despair and impuissance, the objectors point the bone at the parties first (many of them were once, or are still, members). Then they condemn the politicians, the policies, the roiling media mauls and sometimes the voting system itself. Nothing will change hereafter. A threshold has been passed, and the future looks no different. Or rather, “the future is dark”, as Virginia Woolf would have put it—she meaning it to be full of potentialities, but all inscrutable and most of them terrible.

It’s personal, of course. They despair of themselves primarily, for becoming alienated from, and eventually defeated by, public politics. This isn’t just about now—the election, the leaders, and the politics of asylum seekers specifically. They used to believe in change, and believe defiantly. They were ruggedized against all the lackluster and looming personalities by their unshakeable faith in ideas: their own ideas and the ideas of their champions (who weren’t always politicians). But now their despair indwells. The well of ideas runs dry. They’re not just estranged from the apparatuses of power in Canberra, they’re estranged from their own political identity, from thinking of themselves as political people. Their despair is compounded because it marks an internal schism that won’t round out by the time of the 7pm news on Saturday. Perhaps it’s a psycho-social condition most familiar to those who came of agency at the beginning of the Howard years, having withstood the weathering of their nascent ideologies for over a decade before any yield at the federal level. But it seems to me (with no empirical data beyond my own circles, and the word on the street) this response is widespread.

Despair is private, intimate; what it feels like is a river-rock in the throat. To talk about it, coughing up the rock, resembles those confessions of monks and pilgrims on the Way of St. James. What I mean is, the confession of despair is without conclusion, and that is the point. It does not give us the explanation needed to close it. How seductive, to tear your hair and lose your voice! Say more! Say it over! Scream until hoarse! Though it can look like abreaction, I won’t begrudge those who see despair as a reasonable, and even sane, reaction to our current public discourse. Empathy is a large part of it. Exhausted of speaking for others, despair makes us finally fail to speak for ourselves. And many on the Left have been babbling fruitlessly for a long time now, about the environment, about refugees, about marginalised peoples and those yet to be born. Silence, being abnormal, registers foremost as powerlessness.

Perhaps all elections are flanked by death—a danse macabre of expired ideas and suppressed voices, trembling their tambourines behind the demountable classrooms. Listen closely and you’ll hear the footfall, chorused to spitting barbeques and the persistent pamphleteers. But lately, I’m beginning to feel all this despair has become a self-indulgence. Certainly, it’s the least creative response to the situation we find ourselves in, and it surprises me the number of creative people who have given way to its temptation—some even given way enough to abandon voting altogether. Despair, being personal and self-regarding, atomizes us, turning individuals inwards, turning our shamed faces away from one another. To that extent as a political emotion despair is a conservative one.

There’s a lot of crooning going on, and it’s okay to feel sad on Saturday if you don’t see your hopes for the country reflected in the parliament. But let me tell you one thing. There will be no group therapy on Sunday. Despair does not render collectives of any kind (save for those that value the coherence of mourning, or of victimhood). Despair is not a story being told to you by Antony Green and the other psephologists—it is a story you are telling yourself, about how you will go into the future.

There is, in fact a lot to be hopeful for. The ALP in opposition will cleave to progressive positions more readily, and if the Greens retain the balance of power in the Senate the center of gravity shifts, slightly but significantly, away from the right. The NDIS will survive, and the education reforms will too, albeit in a more partial way. What I want to concentrate on here, however, is how to hope. With no faith left in ideas or champions, clutched by despair, what is the way forward?

The answer, in my mind, is manifold. To quote Rebecca Solnit, whose book Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power (Nation Books 2004), I have been re-reading recently: “you must make yourself into a small republic of unconquered spirit”. Put action where before you put ideas. Close action at first perhaps, small action, action with short-term goals. Action built then around patience (which, as Ambrose Bierce defined it in 1911, is a minor form of despair disguised as a virtue, and should therefore be easy to transform to). Remember that nations are not the only unit to which you might address your political imagination. The Left is a movement with global scope and precedent. By letting go of despair—or at least, accepting silence not as powerlessness, but as refusal to give despair voice—you allow other connections to arise. Most of these connections will be local, but international exemplars can impel hope at even the most domestic level.

The African writer Laurens Van Der Post (whom Solnit cites) once said that no great leaders emerge at a time when the lesson is for us to cease to be followers. Objectionable despair is all too easy right now, and gathers speed with every confession of helplessness in the pub, or on social media. On Saturday, it would be pre-emptive despondency to foreclose on that moment of power with the pen hovering over the ballot. Resist, resist the surrounding despair, and turn in the direction of those imaginative, hopeful states that will be necessary to steer the future in a different direction, and energise yourself until the next election. Hope comes best to those who practice hope.

RG 2

4 thoughts on “Elective Despair

  1. Astute, imaginative political thinking and often gorgeous sentences. After the mostly faux spiritual, sentimental, self-regarding entries by Mark Tredinnick, this is a welcome relief.

  2. May your ‘small republic of unconquered spirit’ be also reflective about the environment, the refugees and the marginilised who have suffered the politics of selfish compassion and done very little – may it maintain and expand under a freedom of speech that it denied to those outside its writers festivals entitled elites. Neighbourhoods, not nations are the only unit to which you should direct your political imagination. Direct it to your families – to your beloved. Forget the globe. The globe without your family, your neighbourhood, your beloved and your nation – is nothing. Let us continue with freedom of speech – we have much to discuss that has been surreptitiously banned these last dim years.

  3. Pingback: Rebecca Giggs

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