Hope is in trouble today, and not only because Trump is in the White House. In fact, this has been true for some time now. “Not even close” is what Shepard Fairey, the designer of the 2008 “Hope” portrait, answered when asked whether Barack Obama had lived up to the expectations stirred by that iconic poster. Although Michelle Obama recently insisted that “Barack didn’t just talk about hope” as “a nice slogan to get votes,” by now many of those swept up in the 2008 campaign might be excused for thinking exactly this. In retrospect, Obama’s hope was hard to pin down, abstract, and gauzy. And at its most specific—searching for common ground between the opposing parties—it could be positively naive. Or at other times “hope” talk might indeed be labeled as deceptive, particularly when we recall who Obama put in charge of the economy, or other “realistic” aspects of his domestic and foreign policy. The artist Fairey, for one, was particularly disillusioned by Obama’s reliance on drones and domestic spying.
But in the age of Trump, it is important to resist the temptation to roll our eyes at the mention of “hope.” In avoiding any further talk of hope we risk depriving ourselves of one of the linchpins of the left. Even if it is frail, hope animates much of what we think and do. Despite frequent defeat and disillusionment, hope matters to us because the left is its natural home. After a debacle like 2016 we understandably call for getting right back to work, but doing so today without thinking about what has been happening to our hope is a bit like rounding up the usual suspects. After Obama, after the Sanders campaign, in this time of Trump, we need to become clear on what hope is, how it takes place, and how it is especially connected to the left.
In answering these questions we must untangle ourselves from the generation-long inflation of individual hope and the accompanying shrinking of social hope. This trend is bringing our world to the point where we all live in what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the “individualized society”—where more and more people forget that they are social beings living interdependent lives. Just as Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch followed the Stalinist tendency of his time by falsely claiming that all personal hopes were ultimately social, today the opposite has been happening in our era of what I call the privatization of hope.
The individualizing trend, with its seismic change of emphasis from the larger society to our own personal universes, was announced in Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “There is no such thing as society, only individuals, and families.” Her declaration signaled the neoliberal counterrevolution, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, which has been ideologically and practically constructing what sociologist Ulrich Beck described as the “risk society.” Here, individuals are increasingly charged with finding “biographical solutions for systemic contradictions.” The growth of charter schools as an alternative to public schools is one striking example of this privatization of hope. Another is the shifting purpose of education from the development of intellect and the capacity for citizenship, as Wendy Brown describes it, to an ever-narrowing obsession with “maximizing competitiveness” and “capital appreciation and investment.”
In contrast to this trend, social hope entails searching collectively for public solutions to our public problems rather than pretending that everything is up to the solitary individual. Obama evoked social hope in 2008, with his movement-style reference to the United Farmworkers’ “Si Se Puede!” and by invoking the collective struggles of women, workers, and African Americans. Despite its vagueness, his “Yes We Can” implied at least two decisive social goals: that a relative outsider like Obama, supported by a movement of activists, had a real shot at winning the presidency; and that an African American could overcome the national history of slavery and racism and be elected to lead this country.