The Cruelty of Optimism

The dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the hope-less are told obstacles can be overcome but be patient and exercise restraint

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 25th Jun 2019   12:10 am Updated: 24th Jun 2019   11:44 pm

We have had reasons to think of the politics of resilience in these columns before: how those victims of disaster such as floods, unemployment, broken down health services or the maverick education system are expected to be resilient and ‘bounce back’. The already disaster-struck student, a victim of the mismanagement of exam results, is expected to toughen herself up to face the world in the future. The resilient subject here enters a cycle, as Sarah Bracke argued, of disaster and recovery from disaster. The onus falls on the victim of disaster to be prepared for future disasters where examination papers will leak, examinations cancelled, results bungled – and yet she has to go on. But one can, of course, hope for an improvement in government responses (has an adequate number of oxygen tanks been supplied to the Gorakhpur hospital at least now to prevent future deaths?).

Hope of Institutional Redress

The hope of institutional redress is a mark of what the critic Lauren Berlant termed ‘cruel optimism’. This hope embodies cruel optimism in two ways.

First, led to believe that such obstacles can be overcome, the resilient subject enters the realm of hope. This consists of the victim being told that these institutional obstacles can be fought – for example, one can apply for reverification of the results, or the absconding millionaires will return their public’s money! – and won. This fantasy of institutional redress, despite the million bits of evidence to the contrary, charges the population with the duty and task of becoming optimistic about courts, corporates and the various arms of the government. The fantasy is encouraged through speeches about accountability and that lovely myth-phrase: ‘the guilt shall not go unpunished’.

The dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the hope-less are told things can be set right, but they must be prepared for the long haul – think of the slothful process of aid and reconstruction for the poor after any natural disaster, or more pertinently, the Bhopalis after 1984 – and exercise patience. The resilient subject is shown the virtue of patience, restraint and optimism.

Become Resilient

Second, the victim is told to become stronger in the eventuality of another future disaster. This means, any hope of the transformation of the system that produced the disaster in the first instance is rejected in favour of the victim strengthening herself for future disaster.

This effectively shifts the focus away from even imagining an improved system – whether in terms of the Board of Intermediate Education or primary health services – towards the victim of the system who has to reconcile herself to the same set up but become resilient about it.
Cruel optimism generates a myth of potential toughness in all of us: toughness that will ensure that, if tomorrow another industrial disaster occurs, we know how to take care of ourselves. The promise of the tough subject or citizen implies a new model of governance: the onus is on you as a good, strong citizen, not on Union Carbide/Dow or the nuclear plant, to ensure safety in the face of disaster.

Misusing ‘Inclusivity’

The promises of inclusivity trotted out by the powers-that-be are exercises in myth-making calculated to generate a cruel optimism. These also place the responsibility of feeling included on those who never were included or counted. Such a move absolves the state of the responsibility of putting in place structures and processes that actively create inclusivity.

By merely employing the term ‘inclusivity’, those historically excluded are to feel they belong even when there is no substantive change directed at creating inclusive policy, process or infrastructure. The excluded should feel they belong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the fact of vigilante violence, exclusion, lower support systems and large-scale hate-speech. If they do not feel they belong, despite the lovely rhetoric, then this means they are not resilient and optimist subjects.

In the creation of such a cruel optimism, one can see the danger of the status quo. Once the potential for a structural transformation has been eroded in favour of individual and community resilience and a self-generated sense of belonging, then there would be no need to alter existing systems that generated exclusion in the first place. Then, the process of improving the self into a model, tough citizen, which is implied in the rhetoric of cruel optimism, is ever ongoing.

The labour of transforming the self, which in fact depends on systems like the health services, education and the law for its survival, is performed in the face of the very structures that hindered the improvement of the self. But keeping the citizens busy in toughening themselves up ensures that (i) they do not have time to complain, (ii) they begin to believe in the virtue of being tough and resilient, (iii) they remain productive for the nation.

Public Myth-making

Cruel optimism is the hallmark of political speeches and public myth-making discourses. It makes us believe that ‘we shall overcome’, but it does not say we will be helped along the way. Take an example common to urban India. A residential area securitises itself at huge expense (private security, walls, CC TVs) after buying into the cruel optimism that says you can defend yourself against marauders even if the local law enforcement apparatus fails you.

This move refuses to concede that perhaps the apparatus is the one in urgent need of more personnel, better training and instrumentation (from vehicles to cameras). Effectively, then, the responsibility for personal security has been moved away from the state apparatus to the citizenry. The fantasy of a secure enclave or ghetto is financed by the citizens themselves, although the task of securitising the citizens is the primary duty of the state.

Cruel optimism is not, therefore, either an individual or a social-psychology theme. It reflects the nature of power relations between those (the state) tasked with securing rights, safety, welfare and prosperity of its (tax-paying) citizens irrespective of the latter’s religion, language, sexuality etc, and those excluded from the ambit of rights, safety, welfare and prosperity.

It retains the uneven power structures, but ensures that those with less power will bear the additional burden of fortifying themselves against the future failures of the very systems that placed them in positions of less power.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)