Morbid Symptoms and the Optimism of the Will


So there we are then. It will soon be President Trump and I won my compensation bet, though to be honest I would have preferred to lose it. I have quite a number of friends and colleagues from the USA and all were distraught when it became clear that Trump was going to win. Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t know any Trump supporters, either from the USA or elsewhere.

I’m not going to try to offer consoling platitudes. It must be an even scarier time for them than it is for the rest of us Citizens of the World. In the absence of anything better, all I can do is say that I’m so very sorry for the pain they’re feeling now.

I’m not going to attempt any sort of analysis of what led to Trump’s victory either. There’s a lot of twaddle already filling up the internet, much of which isn’t at all illuminating despite being written with the benefit of hindsight.

I will say, however, that the quote that sprang into my head when I checked the news on waking up this morning was the following, from Antonio Gramsci (from The Prison Notebooks, c1930):

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Or if you prefer the original Italian:

La crisi consiste appunto nel fatto che il vecchio muore e il nuovo non può nascere: in questo interregno si verificano i fenomeni morbosi piú svariati.”

It seems to me that the old order – in the form of a broad consensus that has held in Western democracies since the end of World War 2 – is collapsing. Events like the election of Donald Trump and BrExit vote in the UK do not, however, represent the construction of a new order but are merely the death-bed convulsions of the old.

What the new world order will look like depends on what new political alignments and forms of governance can be established and whether this transformation takes place by peaceful and democratic means. I think there will be considerable social and economic upheaval in the next few years, and this will be a dangerous time if factions attempt to impose their will by violent means. It seems to me that what is vital is for people to be offered a positive vision for the future, something which today’s politicians – especially those on the left – seem unable or unwilling to do. Some of political parties may not survive, but then if they have outlived their usefulness or relevance then there’s no reason for them to.  What happens will depend entirely on who grasps the opportunities that this period of uncertainty will undoubtedly create. Clinging in despair to the wreckage of the past will put us in no position to grasp anything.

So I’ll end with another quote from Gramsci:

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.


15 Responses to “Morbid Symptoms and the Optimism of the Will”

  1. Morbid symptoms indeed. We have them all over the place – disaffection interspace.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Well, let’s hope the future brings “the optimism of the will” and not Triumph of the Will.

  3. Irish politician Enda Kenny spoke of Trump’s victory speech. In the speech there was a talk of healing wounds, building partnerships and working constructively with all people of the United States of America, and every other country that wants to work with us. So yes, let’s all look forward now, be optimistic, and feed every machine possible to heal our precious world.

  4. I think that my will is much weaker than yours. As a british national living in Spain with an Italian bf it is difficult living through this period with what can only be described as a sense of powerlessness in the face of these so-called democratic mass votes (so-called because nothing can be democratic in the current melting pot of open lies that pervades politics today).

    In the US, the best hope seems to be that all of Trump’s promises will turn out to be just so much more hot air, and things will be effectively run by the Vice President. But that hope is quickly dashed by a quick look at Pence’s record in office…

    Humanity is more educated, wealthy and above all more connected than ever before. Yet en-mass they behave as if everything is just a selfish tribal battle in a zero-sum game.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree that Pence is no better than Trump, and that things will probably get very bad during the next four years. But the response to that is not to give up in despair, but to fight for a more positive vision.

      The scariest facts about the election are the following:

      Of the total US electorate:

      25.6% voted Clinton
      25.5% voted Trump
      46.9% didn’t vote at all.

      It’s the disengagement of half the electorate that was key to this outcome.

      But on the other hand, there is cause for hope in that fewer voted for Trump this year than Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008. The problem is that people just didn’t turn out for the Democrats in sufficient number in key states to turn a narrow victory in the popular vote into a majority in the electoral college.

      And for an election of such momentous importance, almost half didn’t bother to vote. This level of apathy is how democracy dies which it will, unless we have the will to stop it.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        There is a specific reason for that disengagement, and it is not apathy but the poor quality of both candidates.

      • telescoper Says:

        Actually the turnout in US presidential elections is rarely much bigger than thus time, which suggests to me something more systematic. There doesn’t seem to because way for more appealing candidates to break through their two-party system.

      • I agree with everything that you say here. I think the problem is how you effect that change.

        From a personal perspective on brexit, it is difficult to see what more could have been done. All the blogging, tweeting and support of friendly media still did not change the outcome – and turnout was fairly good by British standards. In the case of the US, seemingly every media outlet stood against Trump bar the KKK.

        It is clear that part of the problem is that people feel that they are being given a false choice, and that no option is good. But that choice is the consequence of the current political structures and party systems, and it is difficult to see these changing short of full blown revolution. Some groups are trying to advocate change (e.g. DiEM25), but most people remain apathetic to any politics, and it may need a major financial crash to change that.

        The next big test in Europe will the French presidency – something with consequences far beyond France. Beyond comments/posts such as this and support of pan European political groups, it is difficult to see what any individual can do.

      • While I agree that it looks bad if so many people don’t vote, it doesn’t remove the justification of the winner (which, in a fair system, would have been Clinton, but I would say the same even if Trump had won both technically and in getting more votes). Essentially, these people (assuming that they were not prevented from voting, which might happen but doesn’t apply to the majority of non-voters) are saying “I don’t care”, so of course the others decide. It’s not even a statement saying that neither is good enough, because one can’t say “I am not voting because….”.

      • Interestingly, Trump once described the electoral college as a disaster for democracy. This is one of the few times that he has been right. 😐

      • A chart puts it into perspective.

  5. “I’m not going to attempt any sort of analysis of what led to Trump’s victory either.”

    It was the antiquated, non-linear electoral system. Despite everything, Clinton got more votes—and Trump won.

  6. ” I think there will be considerable social and economic upheaval in the next few years”

    Weeping and gnashing of teeth.

  7. Maybe some people actually will leave because of Trump. A few prominent people also announced that they would; it would be interesting to see if any of them actually remain true to their words. On a similar note with opposite sign, noted actor Gerard Depardieu actually moved to Russia.

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