Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope

Alex Danchev is underwhelmed by some well-meaning but overpriced utopian futurology

March 12, 2009

Gilbert Ryle used to describe himself as "philosophically eager". Stefan Skrimshire might be described as intellectually earnest. He is interested in staging a conversation between two inseparable discourses, as he puts it - the political and the theological. The holy grail is easy to encapsulate but difficult to articulate: "a useful and responsible political theology".

Philosophically speaking, the author is something of a knight errant. He is centrally concerned with the imagination of the future. That is to say, he is obsessed with utopia, eschatology and apocalypse.

As knights go, he is a progressive one. Somewhere near the heart of his project is the enunciation of "a theo-political category of resistance". Not content to describe the world, he wants to change it. Quixotically, he appeals to hope, faith and desire. The text is shot through with desire, of a sort that leaves something to be ... desired.

"It is the fact that I have chosen apocalyptic as the occasion for a confluence between theological and political desires that has presented the greatest challenge," he avers, disconcertingly, two pages from the end.

Skrimshire sees his book as "an attempt to open up the meaning of practices of resistance as acts of faith in the future". He is keen on actions that express the "as if" of politics - politics as the art of the impossible, as he says, tied to no single religion or ideology.

"This form of apocalyptic desire," he writes in a characteristic phrase, "describes a dispersed, creative and non-authoritarian form of utopian resistance. It is an absence of guarantees, blueprints or conditions against which to measure one's hope. We might call it a postmodern style of apocalyptic belief."

This is heady but opaque. The author makes strenuous efforts to signpost and summarise, and the thesis comes complete with enlivening examples, such as the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a theatrical collective that uses "tactical frivolity", humour and carnival in acts of civil disobedience. And yet, all too often the writing cannot bear the weight of the argufying. Serial declarations fight epic battles against uncertain syntax.

The following extract has been somewhat simplified: "Participating in the construction of a future is more than a purely symbolic act. It is a transformative and participative process. It challenges ... a certain illusory faith in the future for one that invites the political activist to fill in the blanks. It is to return to the place of political praxis the desire for dreaming and ... the power of the 'not yet'.

"Thus, against a fatalist reading of history as dialectically 'resolved' in favour of the dominant ideology (capitalism, passivity, fear), performative resistance expresses not only a utopian impulse but an apocalyptic sensibility ... For it is precisely by 'mixing' with the messages and announcements of that which is 'to come', the anticipation of the future, and thus producing a thousand more 'prophets' than those sanctioned by the state, that creative, performative protest resists a culture of fear and fatalism."

The sources of opacity are not far to seek. Throughout the text, "the multitude" rush here and there like the Gadarene swine. The author has frequent recourse to Paolo Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude, equally mystifying in the original as in the gloss. "Public fear is fused with an existentialist form of internalised 'anguish', writes Virno, through the subsumption of interior life into a kind of servile publicness."

Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope is surely a well-meaning work. But its cover price is ruinous and its clotted theory drives a body to despair. Mutinous readers will migrate elsewhere. Enough of the apocalypse already! Read John Berger!

Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope

By Stefan Skrimshire

Continuum, 221pp, £65.00

ISBN 9781847060754

Published 30 October 2008

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