Groundless hope

In the recent general election in the UK in May the political discussion sometimes turned on the idea of hope. Each of the political parties was keen to convince the electorate that their particular plan for the UK, their ‘vision’, was the best recipe for hope. They each promised UK citizens a better future (although the vote may have come down to people’s perception of the least worst option). Equally, the current leadership election contest in the Labour Party which has been triggered by the party’s humiliation by the Conservatives, has provoked some jostling amongst the candidates. Each has been arguing that their particular platform offers most hope particularly to the poorest in society who have been most severely hit by government initiatives which target benefits.

To a degree you can see how politicians are caught in something of a double bind. One the one hand if they fail to set out some kind of transformative ‘vision’, a promise of hope, then no-one will follow them (even if it is as simple as ‘yes we can’, or ‘change we can believe in’). On the other hand, and because we have come to distrust politicians with their grand promises, any grand narrative is bound to be met with a sceptical response. Nonetheless, each of the candidates seems to be setting themselves the impossible task of coming up with a ‘clear vision’ for the future.

It seems to me that hope figures very prominently in contemporary organisations too, and not just those which have been founded with an explicit moral purpose, such as NGOs. This may have something to do with the increasing dominance of work and the idea of fulfilment through working life, and the commensurate decline of other forms of meaningful social association, such as church/mosque/synagogue/temple, trade union or other community associations. Organisations have become much more dominant in our lives and the lexicon of contemporary management often reflects the ambition to motivate employees through appeals to the soul, passion, spiritual fulfilment, or some other more mystical counter to the flattened world of targets and procedures. Management literature emanating from north America is particularly guilty of this. The contemporary organisation is supposed to be the place where we can meet all our needs, including our hopes for a better future.

Having been part of any number of strategy process in organisations which promise a transformation in its fortunes into becoming the world-leading this or that, I can testify to how uplifting it can be, at least temporarily, to feel part of a greater ‘we’, to be swept up in the idea of a better future. There are still organisations which develop strategy using what has become referred to as the idealised design method – think of the idealised state you would like to attain, then work backwards logically from there.

However, and for any number of reasons, not least from a perspective informed by an interest in the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of social life, the certain quality of ‘clear visions’ and promises of transformation become more and more problematic. This is particularly the case when they are supposed to emanate from someone else. But is this the same as saying that for those of us interested in uncertainty there can be no basis for hope?

During this year’s Complexity and Management Conference we discussed the politics of every day organisational life and one of our speakers, Professor Svend Brinkmann reminded us that the philosopher Simon Critchley has observed that philosophy begins not with hope, but with disappointment. This is a disappointment that things can be other than they are and that we perceive a mismatch between what we hope for and the world that we encounter. Ironically, disappointment may propel us to action, which provokes hope again in the dialectic of hope and disappointment. Hope preoccupied both Ernst Bloch of the Frankfurt school, but also the pragmatists, who were hopeful that through our intelligent engagement with every day problems with others a better world is possible. The kind of hope they articulate is not teleological, meaning that we cannot know where our engagement is leading as an end point (Bloch developed what he referred to as an ontology of not-yet-being), but is a hope which manifests itself in the making. It is a groundless and endless hope in the sense that it seeks not fixed ground towards a determined end point, but ground which is good enough to proceed to the next step of self-generating hope.

In response to the certainties and fixities of hope as expressed in contemporary management theory, where it is the senior leaders who decide what an imagined future should look like, which for me constitutes the colonization of hope, I wondered what a pragmatic version of hope would be. If I assume that hope cannot be instrumentalised into a logical framework, and that I cannot know what utopia would look like tomorrow, then how might I think about it? How might we understand hope from a perspective informed by complexity?

  • I could assume, in the pragmatic tradition, that there are no beginnings and no ends. This would mean taking an interest in how we have become who we have become, and how we are becoming, and what was important to us along the way. Rather than always rushing towards an idealized future, which seems to me to be a contemporary habit, we might show greater curiosity about how we got here in the first place. The present makes the past, which makes the present, which makes the future possible. In the present, then, we might take more time to think about what we are doing and what we have been doing and the reasons we gave ourselves for doing so.
  • This also points to the paradox of tradition, which Dewey noticed most prominently. On the one hand our traditions, our habits of thought, have developed because they have been useful to us. On the other hand we are probably encountering problems which we have never met before and for which our traditions may not equip us well.
  • One way of thinking about ourselves and our habits is through the practice of reflective and reflexive discussion. In doing so we might discover degrees of freedom from what has determined us and come to notice more clearly our irrational/unconscious selves. At the same time we might give up on the idea of pretending that we can predict and control what is happening, and what will happen. Reflexivity offers the possibility of noticing our rational/irrational selves caught up in the game with others.
  • Brinkmann urged conference participants to resist the modern preoccupation with reinventing the self – we should sack our coaches, he said – and encouraged us instead to appreciate the constancy of self. To this I would want to add that we might instead appreciate the paradox of constancy and the potential for change in ourselves. We constantly surprise ourselves and others in our ability to be ourselves and not ourselves. If there was only constancy there would be no novelty. Paradox, then, is at the heart of a pragmatic understanding of hope.
  • For Bloch and for the pragmatists, hope is a process of engagement and it is the quality of engagement which makes hope possible. It is a self-generating, responsive engagement, a dialectical engagement between the self and other selves.
  • Richard Rorty took the pragmatic project further in his exploration of hope, and argued in favour of solidarity, which sounds today like a rather old-fashioned word. I do not imagine that Rorty intended us to set aside our differences by encouraging solidarity, or even meant it as an idealized state. Instead, what I think he was pointing to was the importance of what Dewey referred to as the ‘urge to find working harmony amongst diverse desires.’ As usual with the pragmatists, there is an attempt to bring about a stably-unstable idea of unity in diversity, a dynamic pluralism.

All of the above implies an ability to act politically, to form alliances, to persuade and be persuaded, and in doing so to deepen and widen the sense of community. It is an active and emergent process of hope which involves all of us, not just our ‘visionary’ leaders.

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