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Prescience and Pessimism

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet had

The terrible news.

– Brecht, “To Those Born Later”[1]


1. I do not believe that the words which will follow will provide anyone with comfort. They are not intended to be read as such. Though, neither are they intended to be read as a reprimand. Frankly, I doubt they will be read at all.


2. When times are good, pessimists are tolerated with a certain fond disdain. They are comical figures, fools who simply refuse to see how good things actually are. When one encounters the pessimist with their grousing and grumbling, their moaning and moroseness, their dirges and doom saying – one walks away wondering what is wrong with this somber individual? Shouldn’t they speak to somebody – such as a trained professional who can prescribe something? Why do they commit to digging through the darkness when there are so many sources of light?

Why indeed?


3. Of course, right now, times are decidedly not good.

Some would date the beginning of these “not good” times to some hour in the early morning of November 9, 2016 at which point it became clear that the presidential election’s results were not what many people had hoped they would be. Still others would argue that an even passing glance at the news in the months preceding that date demonstrated that the times were already decidedly “not good” – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The point, is that many a person who had woken up on November 8 with a big smile and with excited plans for that evening (they had bought cake and champagne!) woke up on November 9 (assuming they had slept at all) with a sense of shock and a deep sense of despair. The unthinkable had happened. And suddenly the future, which had seemed so beautiful hours earlier, had been repainted in grayscale. Those who had looked forward to seeing tears of rage on the angry faces of men wearing red caps instead found their own cheeks damp and a hollow feeling in their stomachs. The recognition of loss left some feeling profoundly lost. The death of hopes is often experienced like the death of a close friend.

And one should not scoff at those who are in mourning.


4. In times such as these it is worth taking a moment to acknowledge the prescience of pessimism.

Do not bother reading the articles about the failure of the pollsters. Skip the numerous think pieces wherein the authors frantically seek to avoid personal responsibility by shifting blame from one scape goat to another. Resist any commentary that seeks to further normalize the mainstreaming of xenophobia and misogyny. Avoid the self-satisfied musings about how all would have worked out in the end if only a different candidate had run. Look askance at any piece that exhorts you to remember “we’re all in this together” when what you are being encouraged to do is to seek common ground with the xenophobes and misogynists who have openly expressed their desire to see harm done to you and yours. Realize that for all of the witty barbs launched by late-night comedians, in the end the joke has been on them. All of these solicitations are comforting distractions – they seek to speedily pull those in mourning through the stages of grief so that they can be slotted back into their assigned societal functions as cogs and consumers. Even in their seemingly sincere anger and fury, such pieces are simply putting on an elaborate performance that attempts to desperately resurrect the optimistic worldview which was dealt an incapacitating blow on November 9th.

To hell with those articles! To hell with those news sources! To hell with those writers!

Try this instead:

“Don’t be a coward. Have the courage to be afraid.”[2]

Or, how about this:

“The democracy whose electorate is not both enlightened and humane will ultimately succumb to the most unscrupulous propagandists. The development of the mass media of propaganda such as newspapers, radio, television, polls and their connection and interplay with the decline in education must necessarily lead to dictatorship and the regression of humanity.”[3]

The above quotations come from two provocatively prescient pessimists – both of whom died long before the 2016 presidential election. Yet neither of those authors would have been in the least bit surprised by the election’s results. They would have found nothing “unthinkable” about the prospect of a reality-television star playing on resentment and xenophobia in order to lay siege to a fragile government. After all, both of those authors had lived through (and fled from) the rise of fascism in Germany – and neither one ever went in for the comforting myth that such things could never happen again. That such things could “never happen here.”

The first quote comes from Günther Anders, and though the context in which his words were written had to do with the threat posed by nuclear weapons, the core ethos of Anders’s warning extends well beyond that case. For Anders one of the most worrisome elements of life in contemporary society was that people refused to see the dangers around them, they refused to see the extent to which their world was genuinely at risk. Thus he exhorted people to have the fortitude to acknowledge the apocalypse that was staring at them. And while this may seem slightly over the top, it is worth bearing in mind that the codes to a nuclear arsenal have been handed over to a man who seems eager to use such weapons – and furthermore the chances of serious governmental action to deal with climate change have pretty much just been reduced to nil. Or to put it another way – when people in the coming weeks say “don’t worry, there isn’t really anything to fear” recognize that such comments are couched in cowardice. Pay attention to the pessimists, you need to “have the courage to be afraid.” Not just sad. Afraid.

The second quotation comes from notes written at some point between 1957 and 1958 by Max Horkheimer. But those two sentences tell us more about the 2016 presidential election than the mountains of words that were vomited forth in the run-up to November 8 – and they provide a great deal more insight than most of the words that will be spat out in the coming days and weeks that try to explain what actually happened. The 2016 election was the horrible confirmation of the arguments that were developed by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School regarding “the culture industry” and “the authoritarian personality.” Those grim lines from Horkheimer speak to a sense in which people are taken in by the clever manipulations of modern media, and lacking “humane” sensibilities, cast their lot in with the propagandists paving the road towards a dictatorship. Which, alas, is pretty much what has happened. Certainly, Horkheimer (and his close collaborator Adorno) could be accused of being ungenerous and hyperbolic – and many a person has mocked these thinkers for arguing that popular culture makes people amenable to the appeals of fascists. But given what the results of the election were, perhaps it is time to stop mocking them. Sure, Horkheimer and Adorno didn’t like popular music – but the entreaties of popular musicians didn’t do much to change the election’s results.

In other words: the pessimists were right.

Or, at the very least, they were certainly on the right track.

If we are being honest about where we find ourselves at the present moment – it is time for us to woefully acknowledge these woebegone warnings that we ignored.


5. Pessimists are pariahs. They know it. After all, those around them devote a fair amount of energy to reminding them of their status. They grow accustomed to being told by friends, comrades, partners, lovers, family and associates that they are “too depressing” or “counter-revolutionary” or “too serious.” They are aware that they have become transformed into punchlines, because their droll pronouncements are viewed by many of their interlocutors as jokes. They are thoroughly out of step in a society in which everybody is encouraged to be happy and in which everybody is told to pursue that which brings them joy. They keep bringing up the ugly topics that ruin the dinner party atmosphere, and as Simone Weil wisely observed:

“We hate the people who try to make us form the connections we do not want to form.”[4]

Granted, there is a fine line between acknowledging that pessimistic observations deserve to be taken seriously and arguing that what is needed is more wallowing in despair. This is not to say that the criticisms of pessimists are completely lacking in merit. Pessimists truly are depressing to be around. And some pessimists give off a definite reek of apocalyptic romanticism – it is as though they want to be proven right. A stinging critique often launched at pessimists is that they just want to be the ones saying “see, I told you so” as the world collapses. Yet, this may be the type of criticism that has less to do with actually engaging with pessimism than it is about providing an avenue by which people can avoid having to engage with pessimistic thinking at all. For even though there are some pessimists with a fatalist desire to be proven correct – just as often (if not more so) pessimism is borne out of a desperate hope to be proven wrong.

As Lewis Mumford, who spent most of his life being denounced by one person or another as a “prophet of doom,” put it:

“I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, ‘This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!’ Yes: then I could die happy.”[5]

Or, to give another example, as Günther Anders put it in the conclusion of his “Theses for the Atomic Age”:

“I have published these words in order to prevent them from becoming true. If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out. There is nothing more frightful than to be right.”[6]

These are not voices joyfully crowing in dismay. They cry out in despair in the hopes that their calls will be heard. And heeded.

These voices were not heard. They were not heeded.

And thus we find ourselves in our present predicament. We are the residents of a world about which these deceased pessimists tried to warn us – a world in which the specter of fascism and Armageddon still linger.

Try as we might not to admit that.


6. In the poem at the start of these pallid pronouncements Bertolt Brecht lamented that he lived “in dark times.” And he certainly did. Over the course of the poem, Brecht beats his breast as he recounts what it has meant to live through “dark times.” And as the poem draws to a close he turns his attention to those reading the poem, those who he hopes will come to look upon one’s such as he with forbearance and understanding. Brecht writes:

You who will emerge from the flood

In which we have gone under


When you speak of our failings

The dark time too

Which you have escaped.[7]

But we have not escaped. And the flood which many had thought would be eternally contained has just ripped through the shoddily built dam that was keeping it at bay.

Truly, we live in dark times. Right now.

Let us cry out in our anger and despair so that we may find one another.

And as we do so, let us pay heed to the premonitions of the pessimists.



[1] Bertolt Brecht. Poems 1913-1956. London: Methuen, 1987. Pg. 318.

[2] Günther Anders. Burning Conscience. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1961. Pg. 14.

[3] Max Horkheimer. Dawn and Decline. New York: The Seabury Press, 1978. Pg. 153.

[4] Simone Weil. Gravity and Grace. London: Routledge, 2002. Pg. 139.

[5] Lewis Mumford. My Works and Days. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979. Pg. 528.

[6] Günther Anders “Theses for the Atomic Age.” In The Life and Work of Günther Anders. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2014. Pg. 194.

[7] Bertolt Brecht. Poems 1913-1956. London: Methuen, 1987. Pg. 319.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

30 comments on “Prescience and Pessimism

  1. Joseph Ratliff
    November 10, 2016

    Reblogged this on The Ratliff Notepad and commented:
    Although I don’t see we are in dark times as of yet, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel getting dimmer.

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  3. Anonymous
    November 11, 2016

    “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Horkheimer

    -Two grateful students that value your opinion

  4. michaelj51
    November 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on snave51.

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