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Does Hope Have a Future?

by Norbert Elias Monday, Jan. 10, 2005 at 8:17 PM

Hope, as the theologian Jurgen Moltmann has explained, distinguishes humankind from all creation.. Hope is a transnational category and cannot beonly nationalist or myopic. Where there is danger, there is also hope (Schelling).


A ZEIT Poll of Scientists, Artists and Intellectuals

[The Apocalypse lives. Sinister prospects on the end of the world dominate our minds and imaginations. Amid Chernobyl and Bhopal, Aids and DSI, it seems there is no room for hope any more. Hope, as we know from Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope,” is a political category. Hope was the confidence that we could gain enlightenment about its dialectic and end our homemade infantilism at last. Hope was the certainty that we could bring about the freedom of all through the power of critical and political action. Today the horizons have dimmed. The following responses are translated from the German in DIE ZEIT, Nr.1, January 2, 1987,]


Philosopher, b.1897

Hope for what future? I have never shared the great dream and also the disappointment that this dream has not been fulfilled. I sympathize with those who have endured this disappointment and hope that their strength for the new projects of this age will not be taken from them.

Only a blind person can misunderstand that this is a time of the greatest dangers; only one psychically broken can deny that it is a time full of promising tasks. However the center of the gravity of hope has shifted. No longer does the center lie in domestic policy and diverse party ideals in the national framework. It lies more and more in international politics, in the human or international setting. The problem of the balance of power between social classes within one state is increasingly overshadowed in urgency by the balance of power between states and groups that become states. The question whether communism or capitalism will disappear in an individual country suddenly loses meaning before the question whether and how international conflicts can be settled without murder and manslaughter, that is without the hegemony of a particular group of states.

The greatest goal to which we should be working in the first place, the goal of hope, is a world society without war within which the national inequalities of living standards gradually diminish, not through the impoverishment of the wealthier but through the growing prosperity of the poorer countries. Peacelessness and group violence, including wars and revolutions, produce and prolong poverty.

Goals that delude with false hopes can bring about short-term improvement in human distresses through the kettledrum of a revolution. Nevertheless the awakened false hopes leave behind hosts of disappointed people, cynics to whom every goal seems narrow. Many people today find only short-term goals worthwhile, only hopes that can be realized in their lifetime. What a pity! The great social problems can only be solved in the course of generations.

Humanity can be seen in a long-learning process. Most people of the earth learn much through bitter experience and little through insight. Perhaps the bitter experiences of a great war are needed before international murder is outlawed as a punishable offense. How wonderful if people and their prominent politicians would do what is necessary without this bitter experience, namely work tenaciously and persistently across the generations for a pacified world society with diminishing inequalities, flexibly ready for compromise and advancing undeviating toward the goal!

The question how we can bring about the voluntary subordination of all states, the smallest and the largest, under the control of supra-state tribunals has a high place among humanity’s problems. Insight in the limits of the sovereignty of the individual state, absent today, is imperative. In the present state of technological development, the idea of the unlimited sovereignty of an individual state is de facto nothing but a dangerous illusion. Before our eyes, a perceptible shift of the center of gravity has occurred from domestic to international, multinational political movements, parties and goals (Movements commonly called multinational are in truth with few exceptions not multinational but controlled by members of a single nation.). This shift is not confined to politics but includes concrete educational goals. The traditional orientation of education to the national horizon required changing sociality more and more. A multinational perspective on education and transmission of knowledge with a human horizon are now imperative.

The disaster of our times is that the educational policy of many governments does in the opposite direction. Educational policy often inclines to the narrowing of the horizon of knowledge of coming generations, to the computer, practical economic discoveries and knowledge that is restrictedly national. This is all useful. At the same time it is a testimony to the extent to which governments, plagued with burdensome short-term present tasks, lose sight of the long-term future of their own people. This future demands that future generations have a wide horizon and a thoughtful understanding for the problems of the developing world society.

The global peaceful competition of the nations will intensify if a great war does not occur. Only those nations have a chance of maintaining their position in the contest of nations where future generations have the advantages of a far-sighted and realistic education. Governments that assign a low place among the priorities of their countries to their youth and their teachers show that hope and prospect for the future are lost to them. For those who only understand economic language, capital investments in people are as important as investments in docile machines for French, German or Dutch Europeans. Seen concretely, they are vastly more important.


Author, b.1911

When I leaf through the middle-class newspapers (there are no others in my café, in the next or in the kiosk) and watch television from channel to channel, there is no doubt that the enlightenment, the modern western venture, has failed.

My impression is that people do not want to know but to believe. For example, consciousness is not desired since it accomplishes nothing and only brings responsibility. We all live best, let’s admit it!, at the expense of the third world and in a danger that even Cassandra could not exorcise. In politics, optimism, Moscow and security through bank connections will go through their blue miracle and the less state the better. Whoever questions publically injures the economy.

Patriotism is impugned, not our patriotism but patriotism from the lowlands of xenophobia. The dying of the forests that foresters cannot deny is new in the mother country. Still we should not exaggerate. Pessimism does not bring any election votes. What is rational is what pays. People do not want doubt but nostalgia. The migration of souls (native American) is free to every citizen and a bestseller. The guarantee that our souls migrate disarms the whole multitude of nuclear warheads. All in all there is no cause for panic and revolt – only occasion for armament. What else is left? People do not want an apocalypse (understandably); behold the gaiety of the post-modern!

I am in solidarity with all who resist everywhere in the world and here. Resistance on all stories of this profit-manic society, even resistance against law and justice as tricks – resistance with the goal that the spirit of the enlightenment may be accepted in time, not as an historical reprise but through historical experience awakening in new different attempts of cooperative life of come-of-age people. There are beginnings and initiatives. Perhaps much time is not left for our species, no thousand-year kingdom as vast as outer space. Without a breakthrough to social reason that can only come from resistance, there won’t be a next century, I fear. A call to hope is today a call to resistance.


Painter, b.1937

The question is obviously insane. The future is nothing but hope. We could ask first whether hope has a past. Yes, hope has a past. Our ancestors hoped! For example a majority in 1933 hoped that everything would be better, truer, greater, more just and so forth. They could only hope because the conditions of the time were not good, true, right, great, just and so forth.

Has anything of the catalogue of hope come true? Something else came true for which no one hoped, in any case noone in Germany.

How can I hope when everything happens differently whether I hope or not? I don’t hope! Probably I don’t hope because life goes well for me. Chernobyl? Yes, hope begins there. With the prospect for catastrophes, I hope everything will go well, that nothing worse may befall me and my own. Should I hope for a change of government or should I hope for the whereabouts or remains of the government? I must already be in a great distress if I should set my hope there. Distress does not exist there and consequently neither does hope.

Hope is where distress is. I hope for example that the borders in Germany will disappear again, a hope with a future (naturally I hope that they may disappear as soon as possible). Of course, we may not mistake hope for illusion. Whoever hopes for a utopia from change within the political leadership is obviously an illusionist. If he then despairs and becomes angry, he becomes a hopeless know-it-all.

All that we do (and hope) will be past, even the so-called future. We cannot depend on the past because it exists. The future does not exist.


Writer, b.1916

“The Principle of Hope” by Bloch is a great book and a great testimony of the worldly innocence of all philosophy. I was never convinced that private ideals were identical with political goals. Longings are not divisible with others. Hope is not a category grasped collectively but an inter-personal quality that one has – more or less – or does not have.

Does it have a future? Since the future itself is the object of hope, this question can be turned around: Does the future still have hope? The answer in both cases is a categorical and devastating NO. Whoever denies this lives in and from repression that has different forms from resolute automatic denial of future symptoms, aggressive scorn hiding defensiveness and blindness or delusion, if not clinical hallucination.

With every hour, less prophecy is needed to interpret the signs. I do not mean Harrisburg, Seveso or Chernobyl because in these cases we could hope that this will never happen again. Still this disappearing hope may not be delegated to the constant development of projects, the geneticists, the astro-and nuclear physicists and other scientists – this “species of inventive dwarfs whom any one can buy” (Brecht) and whose freedom from value judgments allows them not only to breed rats but before long to manufacture rationally functioning people. Even now they accomplish geriatric miracles on people who already exist. Another division of science is working on electronic human substitutes.

Where should we set our hope? Will we ever realize that “economic growth” is a hideous word that feigns the organic – and is our ruin? That the increasing jet travel may choke us in sulfuric acid or that there will be no winners only nuclear sleepwalkers in the next war?

“Those who do not understand that the dawning age is fundamentally different from every past are the most dangerous people today,” Max Planck said 1n 1947. How many people understand this?

How can one live without hope? The individual life impulse is not quenched but promoted by the terror of the future. A minimal quantum of hope is hidden in everyone and unreachable by thought (In my interior it is untraceable as conscious hope. I have searched for a long time.). Spero, ergo sum? Just the opposite, the fact that I am still living must mean that there is hope somewhere in me.


Writer, b.1913

How is life possible without hope? Without breath there is no life; without light there is no day and without expectation there is no action. Whoever seeks a miracle will not find it on the old trodden paths. Whoever longs for deliverance cannot find it among those persisting on sinking ships out of lazy habits.

I know many who are building arks today. In innumerable workshops of the future, framing is done with the courage that dissolves despair and with the vision that discovers other realities. Not only analysts and planners are at work but designers and creators.

My hopes are the many who have been silent up to now, the angry who are indignant and the spinners who dare very different dreams. Germ cells arise of brotherly and sisterly community in the midst of the miserable present ruled by competition and rivalry. To the decay, they proffer regeneration; to the centrally controlled monopoly a surprising diversity. We find tenderness, not hardness, the warmth of lovers, not the coldness of the mover.

All this is described too vaguely with the sociological term “new social movements.” The deliverer emerges in so many different forms, in such unexpected places and with such opposite groups that every exact location and every description is much too simplified. In these different attempts to oppose meaningful and joyful life to the threatening shipwreck, women play a decisive role, fashioning a new humane style of people associating with people and people with nature. In their embrace hope is born again.


Author, b.1929

First dilemma: hope is the prospect for deliverance. The rats teach us this. When rats are thrown in a barrel of cold water from which they cannot escape, they swim in a circle until they give up and perish. But if given the chance of escaping beforehand, they will hold out longer in the second experiment than the first. Hope grows out of remembrance. Perhaps the comfortable decades behind us do not offer any remembrances pregnant with hope. Then we need “experiments” like those of Chernobyl to learn to remember and hope again. However this assumes we are rats enough to make experiences and people enough to form a political will intending hope for all.

Second dilemma: Sitting at a desk, the hopes of people living today can be added up and the possibilities, risks and costs of a general welfare can be calculated against the available resources. Our world could appear substantially better than what most have today and what could be expected if everything continues as before. Adjusting the miserable reality to the beautiful calculation requires terror. After wretched experiences of this kind, we are almost relieved when a program for the happiness of humanity remains a confession of the lips.

Third dilemma: Instead of hopes, the costs could be added up. These costs should not be chauvinistically calculated against each other (like Stalin’s victims against Hitler’s victims), the sum of what people inflict on other people today and presumably will inflict in the future. A voluntary self-extinction of humanity could be measured. This appears humane while the survival of the species threatens to become increasingly expensive. Only waiting for the involuntary shipwreck – or the absurd hope for change – remains for us since our voluntary shipwreck is inconceivable. This hope – different from Benjamin’s “Angel of History” – could have doubt and even despair as its tailwind which might carry us further than the self-righteous belief in progress though it is absent from the churches today.


Philosopher, b.1912

I live from hope. I always regarded the naïve optimism of the past centuries as an error and the discovery that hope is not simple as a triumph.

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