Jonathan White on Hope and the Future

What is hope to you?

Hope is a belief in some kind of better future without the certainty that it will materialise. Hope is something almost assertive. It has to be. We often think of it as an emotion, as an extension of your feelings about something. But in fact, it is often much more of a cognitive act – you decide you are going to see the glimpse of possibilities. Hope gives you reasons for optimism, even when emotionally you don’t feel particularly hopeful.

How is hope connected to the concept of the future?

There are different kinds of hope that we project into the future: the activist hope that involves trying to make something happen, a hope that shades into something different, less about agency and more mythical, a projection of a narrative into the future. This kind of hope is about ideals, you have no real sense of what might happen between now and then. It is sometimes very hard to trace a line between these dots.

What happens when a perspective of the future is lost?

We need hope as citizens to have a sense of control – this is why we tend to focus on the things that are nearer to us. But we also need these far-away things, idealistic motivations, especially in politics: ideas like equality, justice, liberty. Joining a political party is, or should be, a matter of both: a long-term idea with a concrete commitment.

Do you see a lack of a sense of future in present day democracies?

This began already in the middle of the 20th century, with the meaning of atomic weapons and the idea of possible sudden endings. The question was less: what kind of future do we want? But more: do we have a future? This kind of thinking went into abeyance with the end of the Cold War – and it came back, in a different form, in the early 21st century. Now it is less the fear of a sudden end but the fear of a future which is simply a continuation of the present.

Less the loss of future and more the lack of alternative futures?

This is connected to certain critiques of neoliberalism – that we can imagine the end of the world but not the end of capitalism. And it is connected to the idiom of climate change which is not about an imminent end. Humans will continue – but which humans? The world will continue – but with us? We are ill-equipped to face these kinds of questions because we are in the habit of expecting little but the continuation of the same.

The project of an egalitarian society is inevitably long-term, probably indefinite.

Does democracy depend on the promise of a better future?

When we think about political parties, party democracy, all the kinds of collectives that people join – these generally presuppose an idea of a better future, either as something new or as the restoration of a better past. And they often imply a long timescale. They demand commitment in the face of inertia and setbacks. You could say that democracy is not just about what you are pursuing, but about how you make sense of the obstacles you encounter along the way. The project of an egalitarian society is inevitably long-term, probably indefinite.

At the same time, democracy is about the present, about getting things done.

Democracy is promise and process, true – the notion of proceduralised democracy, not just democracy as a general ethos. If you believe in institutions, you believe in procedures. But how do you cope with the fact that sometimes you will be frustrated that the wrong people win elections? Traditionally the answer for modern democracy has been to say that we can hope for mistakes to be corrected. Ideas of toleration have a lot to do with the notion that there is sufficient time for mistakes to happen, for the public to get it wrong, for the wrong people to be empowered, for people to behave badly.

Hope is a promise of change that promotes stability?

This is how capitalism works in a lot of ways, by appealing to the long term: “don’t judge us yet”. Don’t judge the system now because wealth hasn’t trickled down yet. The attempt to use the far future to compensate for the inadequacies of the present. The claim that the future is where the rationality of the system emerges.

If we feel that time is running out, how can we use this impatience constructively?

Democracy requires patience. But ultimately, we need to recapture some sense of time – because without urgency there is no agency. It is easy to let things pass when you think you have that abundance of time. Sometimes we need to feel that there is no time left in order to act.

And this is where we are now?

We have a sense of being at a fork in the road. This happens periodically in history, such as with the dualism of the 20th century: socialism or barbarism. These questions crop up in every crisis. What is distinctive about the present situation is that there are multiple sources of anxiety: we may not want to reduce our diagnosis of climate change to capitalism alone. We also face technological change, artificial intelligence, and nuclear weapons. The crisis of the moment is not reducible to one stimulus.

Do you see revolutionary constellations today that remind you of constellations in the past? Are we living in a revolutionary moment?

Every revolution seems impossible the night before it happens. The revolution is an event exactly because it is surprising, because it stands out from the passage of time, because it completely confounds your expectations. In thinking about the present, I find the idea of the spiral of silence relevant: everyone thinks that everyone else is apathetic. And then suddenly they realise they’re not. Suddenly everyone understands that something they thought just they themselves were thinking was actually something shared by many people.

Climate change creates another dynamic, a sense of urgency – what is the role of hope in times of emergency?

A characteristic of emergencies is the desire to restore some kind of status quo ante. Emergency thinking is in that respect quite conservative. Which is also why governments often want us to think in terms of emergencies rather than crises – a crisis implies the notion that things are unsustainable, that we need to do things very differently. A lot of the things that we have faced in the last decade were presented to us as emergencies and governed as emergencies, requiring fast and decisive action by the government for restorative goals – to make sure that the banking system still works for example. The danger with emergencies is that hope is reduced to a desire for restoration, for breathing-space.

Hope gone wrong.

Hope can of course be abused. It can be co-opted by those who want to maintain things as they are, because you can make people hopeful simply to return to the past, to calm the markets, to be able to drink in pubs. These are all sentiments I share at some level. The place for a more critical kind of hope is in keeping alive a sense of volatility and shaping it in a direction that’s progressive.

Can you complete this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

I’m bad at hoping and depend on others for much of it.

JONATHAN WHITE is a political scientist whose interests lie in political sociology and political theory. His areas of expertise are contemporary European democracy and EU integration. In his work, he explores a number of themes including political engagement and public opinion, models of citizenship under conditions of transnational integration, and the nature of social bonds. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, White is a fellow in the program “The Future of Democracy”, where he is working on a project about the relationship between democracy, time, and ideas about the future.

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