On desperation

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

Desperation is not, of course, to be confused with despair. Both are marked by the absence of hope, but whereas despair is passive, desperation is active. People sunk into despair tend to do nothing; desperate people will do pretty much anything. There is something calming about really deep despair. There is nothing calming about desperation.

It is desperation that has families with small children trying to cross the English Channel in rubber dinghies. Desperation took Russian and Polish Jews to the East End of London in the 1880s, and the Irish to America a generation previously. Nobody wants to leave home when times are good. I remember seeing an interview with John Perkins, the author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Ebury Press, 2006), in which he observed that he had met a lot of terrorists in the course of his career, and none of them wanted to be terrorists.

Quite substantial chunks of history have been driven by desperation. Popular uprisings, for sure, of which history offers plenty of examples. According to the Chinese historian Gang Deng (cited by David Graeber in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years), there have been periods in that country’s history where on average there was a peasant revolt breaking out somewhere over forty times per day. That’s a lot of desperation.

While some rioters are undoubtedly opportunists (or paid for), the ones who create the opportunities for looting are often genuinely desperate. People, on the whole, want to lead quiet lives; they generally accept the status quo. Only when the status quo becomes intolerable will they be driven to act to try and change it. Typically their resentment builds up slowly over time, much like the gradual increase in subterranean stresses that results in a sudden earthquake. Then something – it may be trivial – tips them over the edge. If this happens to a lot of people at about the same time, the results are apt to be spectacular.

A prudent regime finds ways to divert all that energy into harmless channels. The Roman elite famously kept the lower orders in check with “bread and circuses” – that is to say free food and free entertainment. The modern equivalent of the former is UBI, although this is mostly still hot air. We do, however, offer a fine array of free (or almost free) entertainment to distract us from all those unpleasant thoughts that lurk just in the background for many, if not most, of us.

Desperate people are, understandably, prone to substance use. A desperate person, more than anything else, just wants it to stop; drugs and alcohol can make that happen, at least temporarily. Of course addiction can then give them an even worse case of desperation. It’s a devil’s bargain, but by no means the only one we end up making in the industrial world. Of course people who are off their heads on the stimulant du jour will probably be disinhibited, making extreme behaviour more likely.

At the individual level, we see school shootings in the US, and at the other end of the spectrum an upsurge in petty crime. Suicide rates continue to rise in both the UK and the US. Much of this is the expression of desperation on an individual level (especially the suicides). Everyone deplores this, but we see no coherent political solutions to the underlying problems put forward, merely fixes for some of the symptoms. So we crack down on drugs, or propose legislation to limit the availability of firearms. (The Hungerford Massacre in the UK back in 1987 is a textbook example of shutting the stable door when the horse is already on the menu of a French restaurant.)

The obvious explanation for this reaction is that it is always easier to treat the symptoms than the underlying disease. In truth the issues are systemic: there simply is no way to improve the lot of the bulk of the population without radical change. At this point, there may not be a way even with radical change, but in any case the turkeys who govern us are never going to vote for Christmas.

I am not going to offer advice here to the desperate person, who has no doubt already examined their (limited) alternatives. I am certainly not going to recommend that they do anything illegal, in case I get a visit from the soi-disant competent authorities. But what can such a person do that is legal?

They can die. Technically this is illegal in some jurisdictions (it was in the UK until 1961), although once you’re dead you probably don’t care. This is a popular option, as per the suicide statistics I alluded to above. It is not, however, anyone’s choice of first resort. In a sense, suicide is self-harm taken to its logical conclusion. Abuse of alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders, and extreme behaviour in general can likewise be seen as on the same spectrum.

They can go somewhere else, where circumstances may be better. I’ve already referred to migration. It’s chancy, but if home is uninhabitable – whether because of war, famine or plague – it may be necessary. It definitely works out for some people, but not all or even most who try it. It is also a lot easier to do if you are comparatively well-off.

They can attempt to change the system from within. I am not aware of any examples of this strategy ever succeeding – suggestions in the comments are welcome. In societies where democracy has been reduced to a spectator sport, the opportunities are in any case few and far between. Where they do arise, voting for “anything but this” is likely get you President Trump or your local equivalent. On a bad day, it could be worse. In 1970, the people of Chile elected the wrong president – or wrong in the view of the United States, which arranged to have him replaced by General Pinochet, and the people of Chile didn’t get to elect another president until 1993. As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

There is really no advice to be given to the truly desperate. Someone with reasonable options open to them will not, in any event, be desperate. The fact I want to draw attention to in this essay is simply that desperation is widespread, it is growing, and that it will erupt – how and where is anyone’s guess. This is not just a matter of statistics, either. This is the lived experience of people you know, the people you pass in the street, perhaps of you yourself. You see it on people’s faces every day.

I don’t believe all this bodes well for a smooth transition to a better state of society. Desperate people cause revolutions to happen, and while they may be interesting to read about they are generally not much fun to live through. Usually they result in extremely authoritarian and repressive regimes. There were a lot of desperate people around in the latter stages of the First World War, and again in the Great Depression, and the names of the winners of those struggles are a roll-call of tyrants. Those regimes themselves tend to be unstable.

But we should not forget that Hitler, for instance, garnered a lot of popular support by promising and delivering a better life for the average German worker (with some glaring exceptions). His contemporary Huey Long was on a similar path in the United States; had not been assassinated before he could run in the 1936 presidential election, who knows how things might have turned out? Such politicians are nowadays dismissed as “populists,” a term which seems to mean “someone I dislike who has won (or is likely to win) an election.” That description was certainly applied by the Americans to the unfortunate Salvador Allende, and we’ve already seen what the sequel was.

When the cake is shrinking – as I believe it is today and for the foreseeable future – those who currently get the lion’s share have a choice to make. They can either take less for themselves or risk losing everything at the hands of desperate people. Roosevelt saw this, and took America down a different path by bringing in the New Deal over the loud protests of the monied. It was a closer call than we like to remember.

The question is: where are the Roosevelts of today?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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