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Losing the battle for a better world takes its toll

In 2011, my husband and I felt so defeated as leftists that we requested content for a proposed website called “Why Fucking Bother?”

Barack Obama was president and there was little disagreement. The post-September 11 wars were still raging, but no mass protests occurred. Bailouts and recessions had also produced little rebellion. “In Why the Fucking Bother?” we may have envisioned a constant digital pep talk, as well as a serious analysis of our situation, convincing ourselves and others to stay in the fight.

People responded eagerly and hungrily to this project. They wanted to contribute and read why they should care. Feeling defeated, they felt seen in those feelings – and wanted a way out.

Typically, left-wing scholarly literature on social movements focuses on strategy, tactics, and material conditions. But increasingly we see another area of ​​inquiry that is probably just as important: feelings.

From Enzo Traverso on left-wing melancholy to the late Lauren Berlant on the “cruel optimism” of neoliberalism, to Jodi Dean on camaraderie and Sarah Jaffe on the politics of grief, left thinkers are beginning to understand that our emotions matter, and that these feelings are our driving force. political actions and choices. by Hannah Proctor Burnout: the emotional experience of political defeat is a nice addition to this literature and relatively unique in its specific focus on defeat.

Born in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat – which was emotionally devastating for many Britons to the left of centre, just as Bernie Sanders’ defeat was here in the United States – Burnout explores the grief, trauma and guilt of many survivors of defeated left-wing movements, from the Paris Commune to twentieth-century communism, to feminist and revolutionary movements of the 1970s and the British miners’ strike of 1984-1985.

Proctor tries the ‘Don’t Roun, Organize!’ to interrogate. style of left discourse. She remembers that during the British student movement, activists distributed Gillian Rose’s book, The work of love, with the motto of an Eastern Orthodox monk: “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” Thinking of these words, Proctor writes:

I felt so angry. If people have to live in the hellish world while trying to transform it, can’t they at least feel despair? What if it is not possible to believe in salvation, in redemption? What if it’s all too much to bear?

A few weeks after we started requesting content for “Why Fucking Bother?”, the world answered our question: Occupy Wall Street began. Our project of facing defeat and working through it no longer made sense. Like everyone else, we suddenly had enough to do. In a real political moment you don’t have to ask: “Why bother?”: it is clear that we have so much to gain.

That real political moment is still happening. While there was no left-wing mass movement at all in the United States in early 2011, we then had Occupy, followed by the simultaneous rise of Black Lives Matter and the Bernie campaign (and Corbyn in Britain), the lasting democratic socialist revival. a renewed labor movement and a Palestinian solidarity movement. All of these phenomena are intertwined, and I suspect that future historians, when they look at this period, will see it as a time of growth for the left, perhaps (we hope!) a time that led to some dramatic changes.

That said, we’ve certainly had our share of defeats. They are emotionally complex because, unlike most of the world-historical defeats Proctor describes, they occur simultaneously with victories and new beginnings. A student camp is cleared by the police; the next day another one arises. Socialists are getting elected even as Republicans flip blue congressional districts nearby. Unions are declared bankrupt, industrial action is won. Union contracts are lost, workers strike and win concessions.

What’s also complicated is that even as we balance the emotions of victory and defeat, we have to live in a society that, as Proctor notes throughout, constantly reminds us that our side hasn’t won nearly enough.

Not only have Sanders and Corbyn lost, but Donald Trump and Trumpism are on the rise, and the regime currently in power, waging brutal wars and approving fossil fuel projects, is generating headlines that remind us 24/7 that is not the case. This is a recipe for despair, even as we spend more time organizing and taking action. massivelythan we ever thought possible at the turn of the century.

For me, an emotional limitation of left movements has been a lack of room for joy. I’m not the only one who feels this way. There was a reason why Emma Goldman felt the need to argue that it was indeed appropriate for a revolutionary to dance (it turns out she never actually said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” “but as Corey Robin has written about other commonly misattributed quotes, such aphorisms say more about our collective unconscious desires than about the person being misquoted).

But the fictional Goldman is right: We don’t celebrate easily on the left. If you win, your comrades must insist that your political victory is incomplete, or that it is in fact a defeat. Sometimes celebrating a victory can even be seen as a failure of solidarity, since most people are still suffering after all. Routine pleasures enjoyed by apolitical people – everything from Christmas to organized sports – are viewed with suspicion.

When a fellow leftist asks, “How are you?”, you shouldn’t say, “Great! I fell in love and there are also muskrats swimming in the pond.” Instead, you can allow yourself to say, “Okay, considering” – considering all the terrible things that always happen in the world: war, climate crisis, exploitation, looming fascism. All this ritual negativity stems from the fact that the work of left organizing is demanding, not always fun, and can take time away from the joyful parts of life, whether that’s time with friends, lovers and children, reading novels, or just sitting inside. the sun.

This is not the emotional omission that animates Proctor’s book. Rather than banning joy and celebration, Proctor believes we don’t talk enough about the despair and sadness that comes with defeat – a great hallmark of being on the left in a capitalist world where we lose more often than we win.

It is commendable that Proctor wants to deviate from the usual leftist use of history, which is to find contemporary inspiration in past victories or revolutionary moments. (Reading that made me feel seen and even subtweeted; I appreciated her admitting that she, too, had written such pieces.) Instead, she asks: What can we learn from the emotional experience of defeat ?

Throughout the book there is a sense that political participation forces upon us an optimism and a ‘can do’ mentality that does not always feel authentic. Given the pessimism of the intellect, isn’t optimism about the will a bit forced? She quotes the radical poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War: “that terrible time when everyone writes ‘hope’.”

Given my own sense that the left is always a bit melancholic, I was surprised that Proctor felt that defeated feelings were absent from left-wing discourse. But as I read her compelling study, I realized that activism foregrounds urgency and activity, often at a pace that encourages participants to push aside all emotions except for a kind of forced optimism. The problem is that historically there hasn’t been much room for our emotions in left-wing movements. As Proctor astutely writes, “psychological experiences require patience, while so much in the world requires urgency.”

Proctor doesn’t say much about joy, libido, or love. When she does, she sounds a little irritated, as if too much has been made of these feelings at the expense of the more complicated emotions of defeat. But her intervention should prompt us to pay attention to all feelings. I applaud this, but also feel that Proctor may be part of the last generation for whom this argument is a necessary intervention.

Today’s youth movements are remarkably emotionally attuned to each other. As Proctor acknowledges, left-wing WhatsApp chats are alive with references to anxious check-ins (“Does anyone have the capacity to…”) and overt declarations of emotional fatigue, including the phrase “burnout” from which Proctor’s book takes its title.

Proctor doesn’t write much about climate sentiment, despite extensive recent discussions about it. The climate movement continually debates the value of optimism (what climate writer Mary Annaise Heglar has called “hopium”) versus “doomerism.” There is extensive discourse on ‘climate anxiety’ and ‘climate sadness’, sometimes discussed as barriers to action, but also as radicalizing emotions or as problems that need to be solved.

Many are also working on this collectively, with the understanding that, as Proctor states, the psychological and the social cannot be neatly separated. Movement groups have also created ‘climate cafes’ where people can talk about their feelings about the climate crisis. You could see all these conversations as a collective effort to address the practical effect of decades of left-wing defeat, which has resulted in the climate crisis, which in turn is contributing to a mental health crisis among our young people and also among many other people. .

It may be that the climate movement has the right idea, by making room for all feelings. The climate crisis is so depressing and terrifying that it is understandable that it would trigger an emotional evolution in our social movements. And not a moment too soon. Whether it’s liberating Palestine, bringing socialism or saving the planet for our children, we will need our resilience – and we will experience some very big feelings.

Proctor concludes that the psychological toll of this struggle “must be recognized and can be mitigated,” and that it is inevitable. Paradoxically, they should not prevent us from participating in our complicated and difficult political moments, with our complicated and difficult comrades and ourselves. She ends with an exhortation from the great Mike Davis that is at once more realistic and profound than the “don’t despair” or “don’t grieve” platitudes so often thrust upon us: “Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight.” absolute.”