Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The overcoming of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand that they should abandon illusions about their conditions is the demand to give up conditions that require illusions.
Whether or not you share Karl Marx’s view of religion, you might still concede his general point—that seeing through the desperate fabrications of the heart is a crucial first step toward political progress. Yet while clear sight may be necessary for change to occur, it does not guarantee it. Facing what we take to be reality can also lead us to conclude that progress is not forthcoming. Indeed the more difficult it becomes to imagine a better world, the more readily we appease ourselves with illusions about meaning and redemption. When we cannot handle the truth, we do not handle it. If we are to disarm political illusions, we must believe that real political progress is feasible. But is it?
Certainly some of our hefty hopes have been recently revealed as wishful thinking, if not mass delusion. The popular uprising known as the Arab Spring was seen by many as a leap forward in the struggle against tyranny in the Middle East, but it has since been supplanted by violent conflicts, a gruesome civil war in Syria and the harrowing rise of ISIS. And in my own country, Israel, everything that has happened since the peace accords of the early Nineties—from the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in November of 1995 and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, to the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, to the Gaza campaigns in the last decade, and through the current eruption of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel-Palestine—has been viewed by Israelis and Palestinians as a continuous, unyielding and brutal refutation of the possibility of peace, which is, for us, the only possibility of progress.
If I were to describe the effect this string of events has had on Israelis since the Nineties I would say this: first we lost our faith in the possibility of change (despair), then we lost our will to change (resignation). Politics ceased to be a realm of action and became a realm of reaction; goals were replaced by appearances; survival took the place of achievement. Struggles against systemic injustices were superseded by struggles against public misrepresentations. Indignation replaced resistance to power as the paradigm of political action.
But this shift in emphasis is not unique to the Middle East; it is, I believe, a global phenomenon. Desperation with regard to the possibility of effecting significant political change has led many around the world to adopt an expressive approach to politics. We proceed as if the true goal of political acts in general, and of protests in particular, is not to change political conditions but to adequately express our experience of these conditions. The relevant illusion in this case is not religious, but it is an illusion nonetheless—an illusion about political significance, whereby the fundamental political question—“What to do?”—is wrongly perceived as subordinate to the question of public appraisal: “How to appear?”
The politics of expression acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of progress by, effectively, renouncing the desire for progress. We may not be able to change political conditions, it indicates, but we can endlessly redescribe them.
An eloquent example of a deeply informed disbelief in political progress can be found in the recent work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a profile piece published last July in New York magazine, Coates says that since Obama’s election in 2008 he has become “radicalized,” by which he means that his view of race in America has become bleaker and his verdict more damning. At one point, Coates is depicted as having had an epiphany while walking back from a frustrating encounter with President Obama:
The warm optimism of the early civil-rights movement (the insistence that the universe has a moral arc, the sense of destiny in the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome”) echoed in Obama, but Baldwin had not shared “all of this sentiment and melodrama; he was just so cold,” said Coates. “Baldwin was saying, ‘You should be aware that failure is a distinct possibility.’ That was so freeing.” Coates called Christopher Jackson and asked him why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore, and the editor suggested that he try.
Toni Morrison described the result of Coates’s attempt, Between the World and Me, as filling the void left by Baldwin’s death. The book, written as a letter to Coates’s fifteen-year-old son, takes its form from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains an essay in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s fifteen-year-old nephew. Coates recounts the path he has taken toward the realization that white supremacy and the destruction of the black body are, as he calls it, “American heritage.” Systemic racism is not an aberration of the American dream, Coates tells his son, but a necessary condition for it: “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”
There will be no progress, Coates seems to say; moreover, the peculiarly American faith in progress carries with it an indifference toward suffering. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice,” he tells his son:
The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. … Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. … So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
All that is left is the struggle. But if there is no hope for progress, what is the struggle for? To answer this question, Coates resorts to “the old rule” of the streets, an ideal of loyalty to one’s friends even in the face of great danger. When confronted with the likelihood of defeat, one must stand up and fight, not for victory but for the sake of holding strong: “We knew we did not lay down the direction of the street, but despite that, we could—and must—fashion the way of our walk. … The struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” The struggle, according to Coates, is not a means to an end but a way of life.