The Olympics: Lest We Forget

Dark Hope And Dreaming Ahead In Perpetually Troubled Times

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. 

Antonio Gramsci  Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)

 What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way.

Karl Popper, 1949

 ‘Dreaming ahead’ (Bloch)


The Olympics bring us a dark hope. Along with a billion or so other human beings I watched with rapture at the opening of the Olympic Games last night, and especially the glorious march by of 203 nations. There were wonderful  and extravagant moments. Yet the Olympics is also a moment of huge contradiction: of the promotion of human co-operation through competition and conflict; of the  celebration of internationalism through nationalism;  of the search for the ordinary man through the search for celebrity. And not to mention the claiming of the inevitability of ‘austerity through cuts’  while wallowing in extravagant major expenditures. Or the fear of terrorism justifying the extension of state power. Despite this, maybe for  a moment we can and should celebrate the good side of humanity which the Olympics is meant to symbolise and seek it across generations and the future. .

But we should also never forget. Human beings always live in troubled times: in the past, in the present and in the future. One of the lessons of life is that troubles are indeed our lot. The world is in perpetual crisis though more so at some times than others. Experiments in creating better worlds often fail and frequently presage disasters; grand plans are rarely achievable; good deeds have unintended consequences; often we confront fatal remedies and pyric victories; the world is aleatory. And meanwhile human beings suffer in their billions.  A glancing eye on history and recent times cannot encourage much optimism.

Take the very current moment. It is stuffed full of its own problems, though all may simply be versions of universal and long lasting issues. As I write, we confront:

Conflicts, war and armed crisis  – usually sectarian and often religious across countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the so called ‘Arab Spring’. The search is on to understand – and maybe alleviate- perpetual violence and conflict and the peace process.

Economic crises linked to the breakdown of neo –liberalism and capitalism –evidenced all around the world but currently notable in the Eurozone and Greece, Spain, Italy. The search on to provide a sociological account of a new or transformed human economic system which will not cause so such human damage.

Criminality, violence, and lawlessness across the world – Robbery in Cape Town, Drug wars in Mexico, Homicide in Rio & San Pedro Sula, Kidnapping in Grozny, Checnya, violence in Baghdad, lawlessness in Magadishu, Somalia.  The search is on to understand crime not as a simple problem of individuals in themselves but to see how sociologically crime is so very bound up with the very conditions of the way a society is run – and to seek changes within the society.

Abject Poverty and extreme inequalities across the world – evidenced in slum cities, feral societies, and the manifest differences in lives between the mass outcast poor and the elite ‘super-rich’. The search is on to understand and to find the means to lift the poor out of their poverty and examine just how much wealth a life really needs. There is an obscenity on the planet when we live and ignore so much abject poverty of the many along side the luxuriant and wasteful lives of the multi billionaire few.

De-secularization and Global violence over religion – The Global Jihad, Buddhist Revolts in Asia- Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Tibet; Hindu Nationalism; Pakistan Conflicts; Pentecostalism  in African countries; The clash of Fundamentalisms. The search is on to understand and change the dynamics of both inter and intra religious conflicts and violence –and their possible expanding futures in the world.

Gender and Sexual Violence across the world – Widespread domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex trafficking, female infanticide, rapes of all kinds (including war rape, work and sexual harassment, dowry abuse and sexual murder. And over 80 countries still outlaw homosexuality – some with the death penalty. Transgender issue remain an anomaly in many countries. The search is on for to understand and change gender and sexual inequalities across the world amongst many countries and groups who actively promote this kind of hatred and discrimination.

The World Crisis of the Environment and Population  – climate change, expanding waste, water shortage, energy crisis, endangered species and population expansion with ageing populations are all putting planet earth and the people who live on it in jeopardy.  The search is on to understand this ‘new catastrophism’ , to see what it is doing to human lives around the world, and to seek change.

Democratic Failure and Political Crisis – dictatorships in North Korea, Sudan,  Zimbabwe, Burma; genocide in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia; restrictions of freedom in China, especially in the media; a lack of equality, widespread corruption, a lack of free and fair elections. The search is to see how authoritarianism is still prominent, inequalities pervade and how democracies – after all this time, still fail and fail badly.

And so the list goes on and on……

Contemporary humanists and sociologists are charged with documenting all this bad news. It is hard to miss the wider tales of genocide, the long history of violence, wars, of gross global and local inequalities, of economic breakdown, of endless political corruption, social exclusion and environmental breakdown.  It is indeed part of the wider social imaginary that we live in ‘crisis’, ‘bad times’, or as Wallerstein once put it, ‘The End of the World as We Know it’. Our newspapers, television and pundits tell us this every day.  Indeed sociologists should perhaps spend more time critiquing this widespread view instead of simply mirroring it in the language of yet another damn crisis.

So here comes a problem: with all this, sociology can easily become the moaning, grumbling discipline. Excessively critical, we only look on the dark side of life. Much sociology becomes almost obsessively miserablist (espousing the philosophy of pessimism), misanthropic (cynically believing the worst of human nature and motivation) and melancholic (a mental state characterized by deep depression, sadness and gloom).  Some sociologists are modern day doomsayers and apocalypse forecasters.

 But dark as it indeed is, this is not the full story.

We also need a human sociology to take seriously the idea of hope and the future. Part of our work should routinely be the emancipatory project of imagining better human social worlds for all; and to engage in discussions about the values and practices which need to be developed to nudge us towards this potentially better world. As Ernst Bloch outlines in his magisterial volumes on The Principle of Hope (1938-47), we need a sociology of hope which might help provide some ‘outlines of a better world’.  What might this project look like?  The Olympics might bring a little of this? And I hope bits of this new web site will.

Watch this space.

footnote: The image is of the film of the 1936 Olympics made by Leni Riefenstahl. She is considered one of the greatest film makers of the twentieth century. They also capture the world of Hitler’s dreams.

The phrase ‘Lest we forget’ comes originally from a refrain in  Kipling’s poem “Recessional’.

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