The Uses of Pessimism: and the Dangers of False Hope, Roger Scruton, Atlantic Books, 240pp, £15.99 (hardcover)
I thought at first this book was mis-titled. It is not really about pessimism or its uses at all, but about optimism and its abuses. Roger Scruton assembles a good deal of evidence concerning these abuses. His view is that we have allowed ourselves to be governed by too sanguine a view of the future. Our political and social culture has been compromised as a result, root and branch.
Few could set about demonstrating this thesis with such generosity of reference. Scruton moves effortlessly between education policy and modern architecture, EU directives on Wellington boots and the ‘genocidal scale’ of abortions in North America, the ressentiment hidden by anti- American posturing and the ‘hounding’ of Enoch Powell by the liberal establishment. That names only about a fifth of the issues discussed at length in The Uses of Pessimism. It quickly becomes clear that there is very little about optimism which Scruton does not regard as flawed. And that is perhaps the clue to his choice of title. For one might be forgiven for thinking that this must be pessimism, and in its purest form.
Forgiven, but not quite correct. For it is not as if optimism and pessimism exhaust the options. One could also be a conservative. Pessimists and optimists alike give a pre-eminent place to the future in their thinking. They may disagree about whether to expect the best or the worst, but it is by considering the future that they direct themselves; whereas some of us prefer to privilege the present in our thinking. And people of conservative temperament are of that party. Michael Oakeshott is elegiac about this: ‘To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’
This gentle voice and the presentism of which it sings are absent from Scruton’s book. Anger and zeal set the tone. His sarcasm is quite brutal. The villain has the central role, and there is no hero. That villain is the present itself: the familiar, the convenient, the actual. Scruton’s worst fear is that this present will govern our future. Hence it is his purpose in this book to undermine our natural preference for the present. Our best hope lies in futurism: a ‘scrupulous optimism’ which administers ‘the occasional dose of pessimism’. The solution is not to conserve but to replace.
This will all seem very mysterious if we consider Scruton a conservative. But it is simply mischievous of him to continue calling himself that. The Uses of Pessimism is really a work in the classic leftist tradition, Marx out of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas). Adorno comes in for a battering, it is true. But eradicating one’s closest competitors is also in the best traditions of the left. And Adorno’s readers will not be fooled. They will recognise exactly the same, rather questionable assumptions guiding Scruton’s book.
It is not just a matter of sharing a lively abhorrence for the present and a keen desire to tear down what is now familiar. There is the same reliance on future-based thought; the same belief in the extraordinary pervasiveness of the status quo, its coercive hold over individuals and their beliefs; the same faith in quite general principles of explanation; the same angry desire for a radical, perhaps revolutionary response; the same reticence about how things will have to be ordered if they are to be as they should. And deeper than this, there is essentially the same diagnosis, and essentially the same course of treatment.
The shared diagnosis goes as follows. The present situation is detestable. Why do people not change it? Partly because they lack the requisite knowledge. They do not know what their true interests are, nor that those interests cannot be met in the present situation, partly because they lack the necessary will. They irrationally prefer what is actually worse for them, or do not mind (enough) when their true interests are not met. This is, to some extent, the fault of a malicious or self-serving few. But their activities would not be effective without the complacency of the irrational many.
From this diagnosis, the remedy follows straightforwardly. The aim is to guide human action. The means are two-fold: to enable agents to discover their true interests, and to free them of constraints that are partly self- imposed. The method is to identify the mistakes of rationality which mislead people, root them out, and cultivate practices and habits of mind which will prevent their return.
It is precisely this remedy which The Uses of Pessimism seeks to provide. The heart of the book—seven of its chapters—describes the various sorts of fallacy which hold people imprisoned in an abhorrent present. There are the fallacies which encourage people to think that, without doing anything in the present, the future will simply be better anyway. When asked to choose under conditions of uncertainty, for example, people imagine the best outcome and assume they need consider no other. Scruton calls this the ‘Best Case’ fallacy. Or people tend to believe that costs and benefits balance out in the end (the ‘Zero Sum’ fallacy). Then there are the fallacies which encourage people to think that the present is better than it actually is. People tend to assume that they are already free, by right of birth, rather than recognising that freedom is something that has to be striven for and acquired (the ‘Born Free’ fallacy). There are the fallacies which encourage people to believe that they are simply powerless to change anything they do not like about the present. People tend to see the actions of living individuals as the necessary consequences of the times in which they live (the ‘Moving Spirit’ fallacy). Finally, there are the fallacies which encourage people to overlook what is false about their attitudes or what is problematic about their ways of generating beliefs. People tend to place their faith in systems of belief that cannot be confirmed or falsified and are thus immune to refutation (the ‘Utopian’ fallacy). People tend to assume that we can advance collectively to our goals by adopting a common plan and by working towards it under the leadership of some central authority—whether that be the leadership of a company, of a religion, of a state (the ‘Planning’ fallacy). People tend to believe that, if some things are individually good, then they would be even better in combination (the ‘Aggregation’ fallacy).
It is because people commit these fallacies that they act against their true interests and put up with an abhorrent present. That is the basic message of The Uses of Pessimism. So the book holds no surprises for those familiar with standard Marxist analysis. For leftists have always appealed to these kinds of fallacy to explain why people act against their true interests and put up with Capitalism.
Persons of conservative temperament have always been wary of the leftist analysis, of course. And they will recall their scepticism when presented with Scruton’s version. They will wonder whether we can usefully talk in such general terms of what ‘people’ think, of the fallacies that ‘people’ commit. They will be aware of what is forced, uniform, and rather too convenient about the diagnosis. They will be concerned about what is left so vague, so nebulous about the remedy. Above all, they will ask under what conditions so vast and indeterminate an analysis could possibly be confirmed, or falsified. So they may well come to think that Scruton has been trapped by one of his own fallacies. He appears to be that figure utterly opposed to the conservative: the utopian.