JR'S Free Thought Pages
On the Perils of Faith, Hope, Optimism and Positive Thinking
The Power of Pessimism and Negative Thinking for the Twenty-First Century
By JR, July 2021
The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears it is true - J. Robert Oppenheimer
The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation – Albert Camus
There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy. ... So long as we persist in this inborn error, and indeed even become confirmed in it through optimistic dogmas, the world seems to us full of contradictions - Arthur Schopenhauer
Today we read Don Quixote with a bitter taste in our mouths, almost with a feeling of torment, and would thus seem very strange and incomprehensible to its author and his contemporaries: they read it with the clearest conscience in the world as the most cheerful of books, they laughed themselves almost to death over it - Friedrich Nietzsche
Man cannot decide between freedom and happiness. On one side, infinity and pain; on the other, security and mediocrity – Emil Cioran
To allow oneself to entertain pleasant beliefs as a means of avoiding fear is not to live in the best way. In so far as religion makes its appeal to fear, it is lowering to human dignity - Bertrand Russell
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts - Bertrand Russell
A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power - Bertrand Russell
I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But not one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible - Bertrand Russell
The counter-culture of the 1960s that continued into the 1970s but sadly faded away was a period of not only challenging the status quo of conservatism, war, imperialism and capitalism but also one of rare optimism, hope and uplift. But perhaps the expectation of a more just and compassionate world was combined with a little too much naiveté, credulity and gullibility. I was certainly a part of this movement insofar as I was able to periodically pull myself away from my university studies. Despite being able to find good paying jobs during the summer breaks, I still needed those first class grades and the scholarships and bursaries that went with them.
The folk, folk rock and pop songs of the era reflected those attitudes of hope and optimism. Despite the seemingly endless abominations and horrors of the Vietnam War, enlightening music promising a better future was dominant. Moving inspirational songs that come to mind are The Youngblood’s Get Together, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Going to Come, The Hollies He Ain’t Heavy; He’s my Brother, Bill Withers’ Lean on Me, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Waters. For me the most profound manifesto for a much better world without capitalist exploitation, religious superstition and other despotic dogmas was John Lennon’s Imagine which was released in 1971 as the vision and great hopes of the 1960s counter-culture revolution began to wane and eventually unravel. The song “Imagine” was featured and beautifully performed by Alejandro Sanz and the Suginami Junior Chorus accompanied by John Legend, Keith Urban and Angélique Kidjo at the tail end of the delayed 2020 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremonies held in Japan. Japan is, along with a few Western European countries, one of the most secular countries on the planet and it’s difficult to conceive of it being performed in most other countries such as the United States overwhelmed and diminished by bigoted monotheistic religion.
By the late 1970s and 1980’s the neo-conservative and neo-liberal counter-revolutions began to be ruthlessly implemented by calcified conservative reactionary ghouls such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney. Dreams for a better world were viciously dashed as darkness and sense of futility began to accelerate following the disturbing murder of John Lennon. A deep pessimism, despondency and sense of despair set in as several songs of the 1980s reflected this lethal transformation. Two of the most profound for me were Bruce Hornsby’s The Way it Is and Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence which Hornsby co-wrote and that featured his amazing piano accompaniment. Henley is very protective of his material so finding the original studio track for The End of the Innocence is difficult. Check the link for the lyrics to End of the Innocence which are so revealing of what took place during the demolition of the dreams of the 1960s music by power hungry sclerotic elitist silver spoon conservative dickheads and hypocritical limousine liberal assholes. That’s when pessimism, at least for me, became locked into my mind permanently and surely for anyone else who cared deeply about our degenerating FUBAR world. A retired physicist and now erudite blogger Manuel Garcia Jr. on his website wrote:
I want the thieves robbing today’s youth of their futures — as they rob and have robbed their wage-slave parents and grandparents — along with the unctuous slimy hypocritical bottom-feeding careerist political ass-kissers (you see them daily on corporate TV) — who tell you a decent life for you is impossible, or costs too much, and who pimp justice to claw their way to the top — to rot in a hell for them where they are discarded, ignored, profitless and robustly taxed: a new American society that is socialist, and democratic, and universally just, and enthusiastically ethical and intelligent. (“I Rebel, Therefore I Exist”, adopting a quote from Albert Camus)
Sadly, too many distracted unthinking people of the zombie corporate media walking dead don’t give a damn about the disappearing natural world, a future for their descendants or anything else that matters. All that concerns them - other than their unthinking impulsive vacuous narcissistic consumer driven conformist imbecilic lives of cell phone addiction, getting their next techno-toy or tattoo, smoking weed, docility and passive escapist entertainment, online gambling and getting more obese passively watching corporate dominated professional sports with its endless marketing on every available square millimetre of space or hooked on patriotic drivel and other mindless boring banalities. The fat and fatter spectators of sport, most of whom have never participated in sports other than darts or poker (now deemed sports) and barely fit in their seats with a 16 oz beer in one hand and sloppy 12 inch 1200 calorie burger in the other.
The fairy tale called the “American Dream” was described by the late George Carlin as a “nightmare”, a disturbing hallucination that can only be believed if you are asleep. Real existing capitalism is the living horror story that is axiomatic to all of today’s amoral systems of authoritarianism and hierarchy: wealth by winning the genetic lottery, power facilitated by that wealth and freedom from responsibility by power. The American nightmare is still what many of us call “democracy” – a fraudulent system serving those born with a silver spoon, combined with widespread economic inequality and misery by design, powerlessness by poverty and beating the masses down by convincing them that their miserable life is their own responsibility. And if the guilt trips don’t render them submissive and complacent, there is the heavy hand of the police and military with its prison gulags. The United States with about 4-5% of the global population has in its prisons 25% of all people in the world that are incarcerated. These are the protections that enable American neo-fascist capitalism to be one of the most oppressive and economically unequal socio-economic systems in history whereby one-tenth of 1% control more wealth than the bottom 90%.
We live within an environment of stark mediocrity, endless surveillance and stifling management, bullshit superfluous jobs in finance and the ever-manipulated stock markets where all the big money is made by algorithms and mouse clicks. The mark of failure is the inability to make money in a world in which rules and moral sensibilities are for fools. The orgy of police incompetence and violence we live with daily is the product of complete failure to create functioning systems of genuine democratic communities and higher education for which the latter has become mere preparation for some decadent career in management, security for the wealthy oligarchs, finance and the markets. The life of the intellect has depreciated, been anti-intellectualized and discarded en masse to facilitate obsession with the worship and accumulation of money, the only litmus test for success.
As I write in the wake of the four year freak show of the demented self-described Christian Donald Trump, a blowhard serial liar, racist, con man, sexual predator and creepy Hitler loving asshole and his neo-fascist ideology - the ongoing conditions of disgust, despair and pessimism simply will not go away. Curtis White wrote about this sad state of affairs in a recent book, with a title that precisely describes the point at which we have arrived, namely, We Live in a World which Cannot be Fixed.
It appears there is a science to pessimism after all. I’ve just read an article about a group of psychiatrists – in Germany – whose research shows that people with a “dark,” pessimistic outlook live longer and lead more well-adjusted lives. They even go so far as to suggest that people with optimistic attitudes are more at risk for disease, depression, and early death. I’ve been on a health regimen without knowing it – Eugene Thacker, Infinite Resignation
Although scepticism and cynicism are dispositions also held by pessimists, pessimism arises out of a fundamental tension between the world as we think it ought to be - and the world as it actually is. But the pessimist certainly does not hold to the quasi-religious ideal of a “just world hypothesis”, that in the end all will work out for the best. There’s an infinitesimal logical probability that an omnipotent beneficent deity exists, but given the world as it is, he’s clearly asleep at the wheel. Voltaire was perhaps the first European Enlightenment philosopher considered a pessimist likely due to his critique of Alexander Pope's optimistic tract "An Essay on Man" and his skewering refutation of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz affirmation that "we live in the best of all possible worlds" because the Christian God’s creation of our perfect world could not be otherwise. Voltaire's satirical novel Candide an extended critical demolition criticism of Leibniz’s (Liebniz is Dr. Pangloss in the novel) theistic optimism and his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster are especially pessimistic about the state of mankind and the nature of a fictitious despotic God. Though himself a deist, Voltaire argued against the existence of a compassionate personal God through his astute analysis of the contradictions inherent in the “problem of evil” concomitant with an ethical deity, an irrefutable argument that can be traced back to Plato,
Pessimism, once a respectable albeit unpopular philosophy, has become so ignored, marginalized and even despised by both our dominant religious and capitalist cultures that the word “pessimist” is invoked as a term of abuse, personality disorder, political derision or intellectual dysfunction. One first needs to understand what pessimism is not; it is not to be conflated with scepticism or cynicism even though it can be reasonably conceded that pessimists are also commonly sceptics and cynics. To be a sceptic is to doubt, even your own self; to be a cynic is to have a negative attitude toward human morality, behaviour and motivation. There are many good people out there but you will find precious few within the hierarchies of big business, organized religion, politics or those who hold positions other power, including the boss, bullshit management jerks and assholes in the workplace. Most pre-school children in a sand box understand injustice and unfairness when they see it. But what happens to them when they reach adulthood and “maturity” following their so-called “education”. My young precocious and idiosyncratic disposition, radicalism, rebellious nature and scepticism began early in life, perhaps due to some mutant gene or perhaps an upshot of growing up in an alcoholic family. I was forever on some shit list both at school (brutalized by the infamous “strap” on numerous occasions) and in the workplace. If you stand up against the status quo of injustice and authoritarianism, you are not only disliked and unpopular with management drones, but pay a price even with your own colleagues. People, unless mutant iconoclasts such as yourself, don’t even want to talk to you about issues that I have always thought were vitally important. Since my mid to late teenage years I’ve been on the far left politically and ironically moving further to the left - leaning to anarchism - with age. During the farcical election cycles, I reject carte blanche the hypocritical ass-kissing big business candidates - either the sclerotic conservative or latte liberal candidates, a non-choice between two lickspittle autocratic corporatist lap poodles. However, I almost succumbed to Trudeau mania in the late 1960s Canadian federal election, but with the great social democrat Tommy Douglas running for Prime Minister, supporting Tommy was a no-brainer.
Pay attention to our domineering corporate media, especially television or newspapers and one will quickly realize that pessimism and cynicism is generally justified toward corporations, especially those in the ethical cesspools of finance and the stock markets. As I have intimated, this is the case not only for our boot lickers in the corporate media but also today with the preponderance of prosperity gospel closet capitalist hypocrites within the leadership of mainstream Christianity. Philosophical pessimism stands opposed to all forms of hope, faith and optimism, including utopian schemes and political philosophies that cover the entire spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. Many like me find the anti-ideological ideas of anarchism a compelling philosophical world view of genuine bottom up democracy which challenges all sources of power, hierarchy and authoritarianism of both state and religion which throughout their histories have been oppressive institutions of exploitation and enslavement. Emil Cioran claimed that Hegel was one of the popular philosophers responsible for widespread modern optimism who asked “how could he have failed to see that consciousness changes only its forms and modalities, but never progresses?" Ethical, political and philosophical pessimism is distinguished from other philosophies by holding to no ideal or fixed governmental structure, economic dogma or political scheme; rather pessimism generally tends to be an anti-systematic philosophy of individual and group action and consensus. This is because philosophical pessimists tend to be sceptical that any politics of social or political “progress” can actually improve the human condition. As Cioran states, "every step forward is followed by a step back: this is the unfruitful oscillation of history", also condemning political optimism because it creates an "idolatry of tomorrow" which can be used to authorize any means to achieve whatever end. However, this does not mean that the anarchic pessimist considers everything in life is an exercise in futility. Pessimists are not nihilists and hence they can be as seriously involved socially and politically as anyone else, as Albert Camus argued in The Rebel.
It’s commonly sufficient to label an idea or person “pessimistic” in order for them to be candidates for carte blanche condemnation and dismissal without further discussion. Moreover, the vast majority of the obedient indoctrinated masses both today as in the past have internalized the values, ideologies and culture of power elites, what Karl Marx called “false consciousness”. Most pessimists are merely using a pessimistic outlook as a defensive strategy against risk, given that the norm of human cognition is ignorance and stupidity and their endeavours failure and disappointment. Failure for the pessimist is a question of “when”, not “if”. Despite these advantages pessimists continue to be generally reviled as being defeatist, irrational, emotionally unstable, unpatriotic or even misanthropic and nihilistic as these depictions are endlessly promoted by the always upbeat everything is great corporate capitalist neo-liberal world order which for the 99% sucks. Those in positions of power have always peddled the notions of confidence, hope, the just world hypothesis - that everything will inevitably turn out for the best despite history having, for the most part, revealed the opposite.
Pessimism regarding the prospects of life on earth has been expressed at regular intervals throughout recorded history, whether those prospects have been held to result from our own actions or from circumstances beyond our control. As to the former, there has been a long standing debate as to whether our actions have been the upshot of our human nature or from nurture and other environmental considerations. Earlier in its history at least, Christianity has been a particularly strong proponent of the ideas of pessimism with its doctrine of original sin and innate depravation of humankind for which they, of course, have the salvation plan. And of late it is science that has revealed the basis for pessimism about our future as we are regularly informed about global warming (since as early as the 1950s), ecosystem and biodiversity collapse and a myriad of other existential threats. When at one time we were told (and many still believe) that everything that happens is the result of god’s will, we are now informed by science that all our problems are anthropocentric, caused by us. For the atheist, neither Christianity nor Science, provide any reasons for optimism. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has devised what it calls the “Doomsday Clock” that reports on the multiple existential threat that capitalism’s dogma of endless economic deregulation, chaos and growth , consumption and technological developments pose to humankind. The latest report informs us that it is 100 seconds to midnight.
So why is pessimism the correct default dispositional position? As the English poet Alexander Pope correctly stated, “To err is human” which implies that there a strong basis for the inevitability that things will go badly as humans screw up with regularity. Surely pessimism is no more or less rational than the expectation that things will go well. In fact failure is far more prevalent than success; recall Murphy’s Law. Even the most cursory examination of human history will suggest that conditions all too often turn out wrong, in fact, quite often horribly wrong as the two barbaric world wars of the 20th century testify. And the wars and millions of death continue unabated into the 21st century; consider the “city on the hill” called the United States once considered, at least by most of its propagandized and indoctrinated inhabitants, a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
The “culture of narcissism” referred to by Christopher Lasch at the onset of the 1980s has now been transmogrified to nihilism, distraction, self-inflicted ignorance and solipsism as people, including our corporatist politicians deny global warming and the real history that continues to slide down the memory hole. But take a look at the unvarnished truth of land theft, racisms, genocide and chattel slavery. The countless wars such as the one most have forgotten such as the one against Mexico during the 1940s in which the US stole the northern half of the country the quite uncivil Civil War of the 1860s, the false flag Spanish-American war that led to massacres in the Philippines and the two World Wars. Dust off an un-sanitized history book and check out the three million dead in Korea and five million dead in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, a million or more in Indonesia where our CIA handed out left wing kill lists to Suharto’s regime, the untold atrocities in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America with countless juntas and death squads covering both South and Central America, trained goons and murders at Fort Benning, Georgia. How many hundreds of thousands dead in the wars based on lies in Afghanistan and Iraq million or more in Iraq? Welcome to America, where minorities are killed for uncertified cigarettes or burned-out taillights and where kids are shot up in school after warning of the gun crazy lunatic dozens of times.
The risks from global warming, nuclear war, industrial contamination of soils, water and air, new pandemics, and food and water shortages from drought, floods, wildfires and extreme weather all should remind us that we are constructing our very own abattoir as well. Meanwhile we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years; implications are inconceivable and beyond description as I write while we have had no precipitation for at least six weeks with record breaking heat and drought in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. We need global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the global capitalist dystopia. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources like a Global Marshall Plan implemented to save a demolished Europe following World War II, which will need trillions of dollars of aid redistributed to the developing nations over the coming decades to combat three main crises: (1) global warming, (2) habitat and biodiversity loss, and (3) accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected. But don’t hold your power of positive thinking breath waiting for it from the profit before all else corporate vultures and their sock puppet politicians. All of this ecological destruction has been driven by America’s most popular exports: capitalism and imperialism. Eight multi-billionaires now have as much wealth as half the world’s population, with approximately 50 million worldwide at risk of starvation.
We are now faced with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, an open air prison of a world where we go to school, work, play, shop, party all while gazing into a cell phone to escape our boredom, drudgery and dictatorship of money enslavement. As education philosopher Neil Postman wrote over two decades ago, amusing ourselves and being entertained to death by any means is promoted and peddled by the ruling capitalist classes and their sycophantic Leviathan nation state, but genuine fulfillment, intellectual, spiritual and psychological health are rejected as instead we are subjected to endless marketing of silly apps, online exercises, weight loss idiocies and DR. Ho quackery – or recommended to hire a “life coach” or as we face growing fascism as if we’ve learned nothing from history. Rather than face the realities of our lives and the dismal state of the world in general as environmentalists, peace and anti-war activists, anti-state anarchists and other dissidents are beaten by militarized cops , the rest of us put our heads in the sand with what one writer called the “tyranny of amiability” when discussing (or - usually not) issues that may cause psychological and intellectual discomfort. Generally speaking, most of us are addicted to a toxic cult of optimism, positivity, the constant pursuit of “happiness” and a state of denial whereby any honest portrayal of our political, economic, social and ecological crises is deemed “cynical” “negative” and “pessimistic”. Our intellectual lives have been immobilized by every category of logical dysfunction and deductive or inductive fallacy: faith, hope, delusion, cognitive dissonance, framing biases, the positive thinking happiness cult, attribution and confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and much more. Only our lack of imagination keeps us of thinking of a much better way to organize our lives.
Cooperation, reciprocation and kindness towards others were the rule for 99.9% of human existence. As Pulitzer-prize nominated author Barry Brown explains in his book Humanity: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality, complex trade connections of our common ancestors existed perhaps as long as 400,000 years ago on the east coast of Africa as there is no archaeological evidence of large-scale warfare before 4000 BCE. It would seem that human society was, certainly compared to the last 2500 years, peaceful, cooperative and egalitarian as were most Indigenous cultures in the Americas. Many other great thinkers have called for a return to small scale communities that enable real democracy and a more cooperative, harmonious and peaceful existence: E.F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, John B Cobb, Kirkpatrick Sale, Jerry Mander, James Lovelock and many anarchist philosophers are a few examples who come to mind. Yet what these authors point out is antithetical in one important sense to the mass of Westerners: advocating for de-growth, followed by a rationally, planned, sustainable economy that serves everyone and not just an oligarchic elite. Decentralization, elimination of hierarchies, bureaucracies and even the nation state are options that anarchists have suggested for the past 150-200 years. After hundreds of years of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and endless wars among states we’re approaching a condition of total global collapse, perhaps a massive point of no return. Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros has argued in his essay “Capital’s Historic Circle is Closing” that our “sustainable alternative can only be a radically different social metabolic order” and correctly notes that “the requirements of sustainability imply a societal reproductive order with its consciously articulated autonomously planned and exercised mode of decision making”. Although not an anarchist, for Mészáros this will require “the total eradication of the Leviathan state”.
Pessimism and War
I recall as a young teen reading Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I anti-war epic All Quiet on the Western Front that my mother had in her book collection and later watching the excellent 1930 movie based on the book. This and many other anti-war books and movies have influenced my growing pessimistic inclinations and especially my attitudes toward violence and war. The bodies of some of my relatives who fought and died in World War I have still not been recovered. My father and his older brother were trained as pilots during World War II. His brother was a fighter pilot and was killed in North Africa in October of 1942. My father has sinus issues and was consequently transferred to a Lancaster bombing crew, surviving dozens of missions. He was a lifelong alcoholic as were all the members of his crew. After returning home he survived on his intelligence and hard work, typically putting in 10 hour days six days a week. Life for my wonderful loving dedicated strong wiled mother and four younger siblings was not easy but we all somehow survived the alcoholism and anger issues of my dad and flourished. War is a lie as my father realized later and more people should ask the obvious: cui bono? Certainly not the young working class men who fight, are maimed, psychologically damaged and die in them.
War has been well represented in film, and from the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and endless imperialist wars of the USA since their invasion of Mexico in the 1840s to the wars in which the murder of over 25 million people have resulted since 1945. These films have become increasingly critical of the demented Machiavellian politics behind war and what this says about capitalism and the greed of our power elites. While it is still possible to make positive films about the Allied victory in the Second World War, and Hollywood continues to return to this subject, Vietnam and its successors comprise much more problematical material with which to work. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), for example, is particularly successful at capturing the chaos of war and the effect it has on those caught up with it. Set in the Vietnam War, but taking inspiration from the storyline of Joseph Conrad’s anti-colonial novel Heart of Darkness (1899), it offers a deeply pessimistic account of colonialism and imperialism, which are portrayed as bringing out the very worst in human nature.
The inhumanity unleashed by war is emphasized very powerfully in Stanley Kubrick’s World War One movie Paths of Glory (1957), in my view one of the best anti-war films ever made, featuring a brilliant performance by Kirk Douglas. The robotic cruelties and incompetence of the French commanding officers and general staff, safe in their headquarters away from the front line, have precious little regard for the soldiers under their command, sending them on doomed attacks, turning them into mere cannon fodder for propaganda campaigns to hide their many failures to make significant progress in the conflict. When one group refuses to go on a suicidal attack, three of the rank and file is subjected to a rigged court martial and eventually executed for cowardice. Kirk Douglas plays the colonel who defends these three men and exposes the careerism, corruption, incompetence and cavalier disregard for the lives of the working class men under their command.
The inhumanity that comes in the wake of war is also strongly conveyed in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which draws on the director’s own experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War. The character of Chris Taylor is based on Stone, and he is shocked by the conduct of his own comrades, who kill unarmed Vietnamese civilians when in a rage over the death of others in their platoon, subsequently turning on those who dare to voice objections. Sergeant Elias is one of the most vocal critics of the crime, and he is deliberately shot by one of the culprits when out on a jungle patrol in order to prevent him from revealing the truth of what happened, which might lead to charges being made against them. With memories of the My Lai massacre still fresh in American minds, the film is an indictment of war’s brutalizing impact on everyone caught up in it. Stone, one of the great contrarian directors who exposes ugly truths, subsequently had plans to produce a documentary about My Lai until the studio backing it decided to pull out – mindful that it is still a very contentious topic in the country, and prone to provoke accusations of being “unpatriotic”. He has also directed two other excellent films dealing with the Vietnam War (Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth) in which the US and their anti-communist hysteria killed about five million people, laying waste to the country with napalm, dioxin defoliants and other toxic chemicals.
Stone’s film on the Kennedy assassination, JFK (1991), which hypothesizes a complex, high-level conspiratorial scheme behind the event, is not optimistic either about what goes on in American domestic politics. How true the film is has to be open to question; quite plausible conspiracy theories about the assassination have continued to be churned out regularly over the years, and always seem to find an interested audience. Stone has remained a resolute critic of American imperialism over his career, which he was also to attack in the film Salvador (1986), this time set in Latin America for which the US has invaded multiple countries to replace any socialist or other left leaning government, having slaughtered millions over the years.
The most pessimistic aspect of films like these is that we know only too well from history that this is the way imperialist powers like the British Empire traditionally behave. The United States’ more recent interventions in places like Iran (1953), Indonesia (1965); Iraq (1991 and 2003), Afghanistan, Syria and almost everywhere in Latin America do not suggest that very much has changed since the collapse of the brutal British Empire. Less than complimentary films are still being produced about these horrific episodes, and it is highly unlikely that we have seen the last of them. The situation in the Middle East alone is sufficient to indicate that there is every reason to be pessimistic about those in power and their ability to resolve political disputes between different cultures, and to exemplify just how difficult it is to reach a non-violent compromise. But in a capitalist world there are reasons for the occurrence of most events, including imperialism and war. The rule is “Follow the Money”!
Oliver Stone’s two films about the stock market, Wall Street (1987) and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), based on the exploits of the character Gordon Gekko, maintain the critical stance towards American capitalist institutions – as well as cementing the vulture capitalist Gekko’s phrase that “greed is good” in the public mind to represent everything that has in inherent within the depravities of the capitalist world that has descend into a deep moral abyss. More recent efforts like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) do not suggest someone with a great deal of optimism about how humans behave within the capitalist culture. We now know from Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys and countless other critical books, there is a wealth of damning evidence to back up such a view when it comes to capitalism, especially the mafia banks, parasitic hedge funds (that would be illegal in any moral sane society) and the rest of the financial sector. The message that emerges from such films is that capitalism and its imperialist war, plunder, parasitism and noxious culture of greed are anything but democratic, just, uplifting or morally progressive.
Although not a war film, The Day the Earth Stood Still is Robert Wise’s marvellous movie made in 1951 during the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism anti-communist hysteria was a forewarning of what may likely come to pass. It features Edmund H. North’s screenplay of Harry Bates’ story of a highly intelligent and technologically advanced alien visitor and emissary, Klaatu, played wonderfully by Michael Rennie, and his all-powerful robot Gort with a heat-ray beam-weapon that vaporizes any earthly material. They arrive in a Flying Saucer to deliver a message to humanity from an alien Federation of Planets with an ominous message: live peacefully on Earth and join our Federation as an independent planet and do not militarize space with your rockets and nuclear bombs, because the Federation would consider it a mortal threat and if violated our space-patrolling robot police, like Gort, would “reduce your Earth to a burned-out cinder.” Humanity’s advancement to peace, goodwill and the ethical life, which is offered in this movie fantasy, would be achieved only by forsaking earthly greed, exploitation and war-making in all its forms to instead gain the advanced knowledge and technology of Klaatu’s far superior and ethically centred interplanetary civilization. That technology and advanced civilization would vastly enhance the quality-of-life of the popular socialistic humanism that human beings must necessarily adopt as its new political and socio-economic paradigm. This timeless movie is relevant today as capitalism, imperialism and its endless wars, pollution, violence and ecological collapse continue to plague a planet facing existential threats on multiple fronts.
The big business bastards and political hacks that do their bidding in our phony “democracies” back when this great Cold War movie The Day the Earth Stood Still was made were unethical assholes hooked on power. It’s a truism that “power corrupts” and the political and big business (aka corporate capitalists), including the mainstream churches which differ little from our bandit banks and corrupt corporations have become far more of a problem today than they were back in the 1950s. There are many good, honest decent, caring moral people in the world; unfortunately you will rarely find them in today’s religious, corporate or political hierarchies. By the way, when I use the world “moral” I certainly do not mean “religious” since there is no logical or functional correlation between the two and in fact more likely to be an inverse or anti-correlation.
On the basis of never ending wars alone, it seems only sensible, therefore, to cultivate a mindset that is prepared for negative outcomes to continue to be a significant part of the human experience. We need to keep the dark side of human behaviour at the forefront of our consciousness, to counter the optimists and their rose tinted spectacles outlook. Perhaps, after all, it is more rational to adopt an essentially pessimistic attitude towards our species and the highly dubious notion of progress” however defined. One of the primary causes of bad human behaviour, resulting in injustice, death and destruction is power which in the hands of most, usually ends badly. The great anarchist philosophers and writers of history understand this very well - the truism that “power corrupts” with the corollary that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. 
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe – Albert Einstein
The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits – Albert Einstein
Behind all fascism is a failed revolution – Walter Benjamin
There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism – Walter Benjamin
An extended examination of the question of pessimism versus optimism could well yield a judgment in favour of the one or the other but the label is used precisely to foreclose such an inquiry as pessimism is dismissed before serious dialogue even begins. One might venture that, somehow, the idea of pessimism is so threatening to the bright-sided optimists among us that people refuse to consider it seriously, afraid of the effects such a consideration might elicit. But then this curious dilemma itself should be sufficient to demand critical inquiry and argumentation. While those so fearing might be tempted to go further with this thread, I can at least dispute the common perception that pessimism must somehow necessarily result in behaviours of resignation, defeatism and withdrawal despite the fact there are many reasons for despondency at the state of the current world: climate change and global warming, overpopulation and overconsumption, grotesque economic inequalities, a rerun of fascism, endless imperialism and war, widespread humanitarian disasters due to these wars, pandemics, famine, financial parasitism, corporate and political corruption, religious obscurantism, fanaticism, persecution and intolerance and the growing influence of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, political and police terrorism, racism [1a], discrimination against ethnic minorities and sexual predation; the list could go on and on.
Despite much progress toward social, economic and political justice since at least the French Revolution, being situated on the political left can be tiresome and disappointing, especially losing over and over without any real change in the authoritarian models we’ve endured for the past 2500 years at least tracing back to Thucydides’ claim that “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must”. But despite so many failures in the many struggles against historical tyrannies - capitalist states being the most recent - and toward real democracy and justice for all must continue. After all failure in most human undertakings is the expected outcome. Consider the amazing athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, most of whom do not win a medal. Perhaps we dissident pessimists can acquire inspiration from those determined competitors and tale solace in Samuel Beckett’s famous quote, “Fail again; Fail Better”.
There is a need to reverse the conventional understanding of pessimism as something necessarily depressing and gloomy. With the right approach and conceptual understanding pessimism, like the misconceptions and distortions of anarchism, can and has been throughout history a refreshing and liberating philosophy. While it does require we limit and eliminate some of our wild unrealistic dreams, hopes and expectations (accepting the realities of our intellectual and physical limitations), it can also provide us with the means to better navigate the contingencies and circumscribed unjust world of power relations and hierarchies that are presently beyond our control. If the notion of a positive pessimism sounds paradoxical, a persuasive argument can still be made for it. Once we appreciate that there is a thread of pessimism running through history, and that there have always been good reasons for holding to such an outlook, we will be in a better position to understand how we can now turn it into a positive stance.
Those who have power over us invariably preach the benefits of faith, hope and optimism; that is, having faith, hope and optimism in them. This is the case with organized religion, big business and the politicians who are controlled by the latter. For those of ordinary means and not born with the silver spoon, life can be a continual struggle as even the light at the end of the tunnel is often another oncoming train. In the vast majority of cases with human endeavour and striving they end in unforeseeable accidents, error and debacles; this has been the case throughout history. We tend to focus on the generally rare successes and not the more numerous failures. Of course this is not to say that intelligence, planning, hard work and perseverance are not crucial to achievement in any undertaking. These characteristics are generally requirements for success but some people just get life handed to them on a gold platter with a 90 metre head start in the 100 metre dash for life and can spend their entire live meditating on their navels if they so choose.
But stupidity and laziness, for which there is surely no excuse, combined with the Dunning-Kruger effect, overconfidence and delusional reliance on optimism, faith, hope, prayer and a benevolent sky daddy are, for most mortals, a recipe for failure. Facing reality, not engaging in self-deception, being aware of your limitations and doing your best are requirements - but failure remains the most probable outcome.
To cite one example: Anyone ignorant of basic probability theory and dumb enough to visit a casino or purchase a lottery ticket is only informed of winners, never the tens of millions of losers. For example, the probability of winning Lotto 6-49 is in the order of 1 in 14,000,000 and if they printed the losers rather than the one or two winners in the local newspaper, one would need several thousand pages of small print. These odds are about the same as being struck by lightning or witnessing a Donald Trump piloted UFO cruising over the Loch Ness Monster. Television ads are polluted with advertisements to entice people (there’s a sucker born every second) to play online casinos which during a more civilized era were illegal. But today our corporatized undemocratic and morally depraved governments promote these swindles and even sponsor their own lotteries.
There exists today an entire popular and scholarly literature devoted to condemning and blaming pessimism for whatever political, social or spiritual crisis is thought to be currently afflicting us. Witness the massive sections of religious and self-help palliatives in any local bookstore or online book selling web sites. Pessimism is such a pliable term of abuse that it has been readily attached to every anti-capitalist political theory that has appeared for the past century or more. Existentialism, psychoanalysis, critical theory and bottom up realist history exposing our sordid past of racism, colonialism, land theft, genocide and imperialistic wars are all routinely labelled pessimistic, as if that was sufficient to discredit them. While the term is more appropriate in some of these cases than others, consideration ought to be given to the question of why this word functions so well as a gesture of dismissal. This is partially a case of killing the messenger as philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists who have written in these traditions have often presented a bleak picture of human existence and thereby offended modern sanitized, optimistic and often delusionary sensibilities. The authors of these revelations do not celebrate the horrible situation they describe; they simply value the truth not only as a moral imperative but consider it their intellectual and epistemic obligation to draw attention to it. Both conservative and liberal critics alike have often mistaken depiction of the violent and unjust world as a choice about our future, as if philosophers, historians and other critics delight in revealing the violence, decadence, corruption, atrocities and moral decay that they describe. Is this not unlike the vitriol directed at scientists who warn of overpopulation, overconsumption, global warming and ecological collapse because their research, calculations and predictions reveal apocalyptic scenarios. As the great Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman once rightly stated, “Nature cannot be fooled”.
Rather than address the threats to transient happiness that the cess pool of capitalist exploitation, corruption and grotesque economic inequalities the world provides on a daily basis, critics of pessimism focus on the bearers of bad news and unpleasant facts, expecting that marginalizing, suppressing and silencing them would abolish the baneful consequences as well. Yet despite the abuse they attract pessimists keep appearing and this should not be surprising since the world keeps delivering bad news. Consider courageous pessimistic people like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and just recently Daniel Hale who are deemed “enemies of the state” for revealing the ugly truth about the many crimes of the United States, crimes that resulted in the execution of several Nazis following the Nuremburg Tribunals. Did not George Orwell warn us about this over seventy years ago in his now re-popularized novel 1984? Pessimists have often been anything but complacent or resigned. Rather, they not only happen to be far happier and content than optimists of faith and hope but have taken it as their task to find ways to live with their unpleasant truth and conclusions to flourish, be joyful and maintain a sense of humour. If this cannot be true for all of us, it is not the pessimists who are to blame, but those power elites and their lap poodle politicians who have created the problems with which we face and those ordinary endlessly propagandized people who support those same power elites who have power and control over their empty lives, hearts and minds.
The promotion of faith and optimism is especially prevalent for politicians in our dysfunctional immoral capitalist societies, fraudulent democracies and the authoritarianism and tyranny of monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. For these dreadful institutions, optimism, faith and hope are deemed obligatory, but also by our contemporary globalized capitalist culture, media and politics. Optimism is endlessly peddled by our corporate media, their so-called think tank apparatchiks, apostles of big businesses, billionaire tycoons, robber barons, business school henchmen who award bullshit 3rd rate vocational school MBA’s to future CEOs, the Chambers of Commerce and the banalities of mind destroying marketing of predominantly superfluous and useless products. It’s difficult not to notice that the people featured in these boring nauseating advertisements are depicted as helpless unthinking bumbling and credulous morons bereft of logic, reason and free will. The lickspittle ass kissing politicians that our corporate oligarchs and organized crime bankers elect with the power of big finance preach the inane mantras that “anything is possible”, you can be anything you want by giving 110% - and that includes the pursuit of subjectivities such as happiness and prosperity. Some have called this the cult of happiness which is surely not making us happy, but miserable, depressed and often suicidal as anti-depression drugs have increased dramatically in recent years with the United States having the highest percentage of drug usage of any other country. Happiness, after all, is more or less something we stumble into or as one wise sage remarked “happiness is the short interval between long stretches of unhappiness”. Anyone who pursues an abstract enigmatic “happiness” is pretty much guaranteed to be permanently unhappy.
With respect to Christian evangelists and preachers, optimism, faith, hope and getting rich are also major themes that ironically fly in the face of Christ’s admonition against the evil of money and the “den of thieves” expression he employed to describe the bankers and financial con men of his own era. This idealistic sanguine pabulum of entrepreneurship and chasing the almighty dollar has a long history with charlatans such as Christian evangelist Norman Vincent Peale and his still in print The Power of Positive Thinking and evangelical capitalist Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you tend to prefer looking on the bright side of life, a cup half full rather than half empty, then recall the satirical scene from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian called “Look on the Bright Side of Life”. But in a world of Donald Trump, the depressing return of fascism, ecosystems circling the drain, global heating, contaminated soils, air and water, overpopulation, widespread species extinctions (with the exception of humans) and IQs in free fall, where’s the “bright side” of this FUBAR planet?
Trying to explain causation by appeals to religion is not only delusional, but childish. For example, when someone recovers from a serious illness, our typical response is to immediately attribute some sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc bogus cause to the recovery. A return from the brink of death is surely not insignificant; after all someone or something must be held responsible and thanked; “everything happens for a reason” people typically say. Yes, but not the reasons they are thinking of and looking for. Thanks to the doctors or perhaps your own body simply healed itself. But you beat the odds and pulled through; it must be “God’s Will.” Watch any professional baseball game and you’ll see the fallacy of false cause in action. Many of the players are uneducated, from Latin America and have been brainwashed into Catholicism from the minute they pop out of the womb. But homegrown Americans are equally indoctrinated into some form of Christianity, often wear a crucifix and display the same behaviors such as “pointing to the sky” thanking the deity for their home run or scintillating defensive play. God is the impetus behind all that happens. Oddly however, this behavior is absent when a player strikes out or fumbles the ball on a routine double play.
For centuries, philosophers such as David Hume have explained how unreliable causality can be, capable of being shaped and molded to fit whatever we already believe (confirmation bias). What we are less able to do is to accept the arbitrariness and contingency of life, especially when someone dies from a tragic accident or serious illness at a very young age, even children one month old who are born with an inoperable brain tumor. For the religionist, these tragedies, not unlike the good fortune they may experience, are the will of god. From this argument there is no escape. All religions are solipsistic and the notion that any people at all are a “chosen people” is a one of the most egotistical, arrogant and depressing thoughts.
Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Pessimism
Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us – Jean Paul Sartre
Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre are two philosophers that have had an enormous impact on my thinking and world view. In some aspects Sartre’s existentialism can appear similar to Schopenhauer’s notions of pessimism as there are themes throughout their writings that emphasize the less sanguine aspects of human behavior and existence. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness portrays humans as being “abandoned” and thrown into existence, facing life in a meaningless universe without intrinsic moral or intellectual guides. Born into a condition of absurdity we are “condemned to be free” and would be foolish and delusional to think otherwise. But unfortunately the majority of humans accept childish religious and other comforting delusions and myths that life has intrinsic meaning – a fable endlessly peddled by Christianity, Islam and other supernatural superstitious dogmas. Most people refuse to acknowledge that alienation is an integral part of being human and are unwilling to deal with its anxieties, angst, disappointments, tragedies and other challenges that life inevitably throws at them. Family and friends notwithstanding, to live with “authenticity” is to recognize our estranged solitary status of freedom and contingency. Sartre explains what this means for us as individuals in uncompromising terms, “In anguish I apprehend myself at once as totally free and as not being able to derive the meaning of the world except as coming from myself.” We cannot legitimately adopt any belief system, whether a political ideology or a religion. After all science has proclaimed “god is dead” and to be honest with that fact it really is up to us as solitary individuals to face up to the considerable responsibility forced upon us.
For Sartre, to not accept our intellectual and ethical obligations by facing up to reality is to not live honestly or authentically; the alternative is to be a slave. Slavery is so much more easily facilitated today by the docility, complacency and acquiescence of robotic compliant medieval serfs in our neo-liberal oppressive workplace of widespread wage slavery. Sadly most people are already slaves to the monotheisms of Christianity and Islam or hundreds of other inane religious dogmas and false representations of fact and reality. Add to this our postmodern, post truth and anti-science Trump distracted bullshit world of fact being conflated with opinion, truth reduced to faith and fiction and cogent argument degraded to the semi-literate ravings of twitter twits, face book freaks and blogging know nothing dim bulbs. Universal gravitation, the orbits of planets including our earth revolving around the sun and evolutionary theory are facts regardless of what we think or believe. And there are no gods, demons, ghosts, angels, tooth fairies or other supernatural entities. Deal with it.
The protagonist Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s best-known novel, Nausea, focuses on the extreme anguish and stress we experience every day of our increasingly precarious lives. The character Antoine experience repeated attacks of “nausea” that often overwhelm him:
Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea. And this time it’s new: it caught me in a café… I can feel it over there on the wall, on the braces, everywhere around me. It is one with the café; it is I who am inside it.
Does this seem like someone in our gig economy of underemployment and starvation wages such as the plight of an Amazon worker, Door Dash or Skip the Dishes driver? To shy away from the admittedly harsh reality of a life of anxiety and anguish, on the other hand, is to be guilty of “bad faith”’, what Friedrich Nietzsche called “lying to oneself” and that is the ultimate hypocrisy for the existentialist. Why do these people not rebel? All they will lose is their slavery. As an example of living in bad faith, Sartre cites the case of a café waiter whose duties requires him to compromise and betray personality, dignity and moral principles to the demands of his boss and customers. When that happens, the waiter can no longer be said to be living for him, but rather for merely existing for others; as Sartre puts it, “he is playing at being a waiter in a café”. By performing a role with a routine set of activities he may be keeping anxiety at bay, but at the cost of denying his own freedom and self-respect, failing to create a meaningful life (rather than mere existence) for himself in the world as anyone else, even a robot or android, could step into his role at a moment’s notice. There is nothing unique about his situation, just a series of repetitive tasks to be undertaken in the service of others. Religions have much the same effect of offering the banalities of worshipping power, serving pre-planned roles and accepting dubious salvation plans and an afterlife all in the service of a divine master plan of a non-existent supernatural entity. Perhaps for many believers this offers a seductive alternative to a life full of anxiety and freedom especially for those unbelievers who are condemned to eternal hell fires.
Sartre envisages human existence as playing out against a background of “nothingness”, a vacuity that is lying in wait for us at any given moment in our lives, ready to obstruct our efforts to be authentic individuals, “coiled in the heart of being – like a worm”. Even though we know that nothingness eventually must win in the end, death being the inevitable denouement of every human life, we must never surrender the necessity for personal meaning. Suicide would therefore be the ultimate capitulation, the ultimate act of bad faith. One can easily understand why this predicament would be considered demoralizing and stressful by many of those who fear autonomy and authenticity. Surely any meaning for one’s life must be created by us, not by some fictitious or supernatural power or by any earthly dictator or boss man. There can be no meaning outside what only we can create for ourselves; and why would anyone want it any different? Authenticity, integrity and real freedom demand it. The message from existentialism emphasizes our solitary existence despite guidance from hopefully wise parents and others we trust. We eventually must decide for ourselves what our life’s experiences and projects will be. Sartre’s contention is that as long as we are alive and healthy, we have at least the opportunity to create a life as a work of art, to find a course for which we are passionate and intellectually stimulated. Since for the most part events rarely turn out the way we’d prefer, pessimism can be a defensive stance against frequent disappointments, not only in ourselves but in others on whom we have trusted as willing partners in our life’s interests and undertakings.
Albert Camus’s famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus deals with the fate of the Greek mythological character as symbolic of the meaninglessness of human existence, providing the reader with a daunting existentialist metaphor Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to thrust a heavy boulder up a steep hill but never quite managing to reach the top before it rolls back down. Sisyphus is left with no alternative but to return to the task over and over ad infinitum. Camus argues, however, that there is a certain degree of heroism to be detected in what Sisyphus is forced to endure; he never gives up despite his repeated failures. His actions ultimately have no external meaning and they never will have, but he never gives up, not unlike someone like the revolutionary, anti-capitalist or anarchist who continually loses but never quits, perhaps learning to lose with partial advancements. Sisyphus represents the dilemma that absurdity poses for humankind and the daunting challenges it opens up for us in challenging all forms of authoritarianism and injustice including the tyranny and dictatorship of money, the latest being the hegemony of a viral neo-fascist mutation called globalized capitalism or neo-liberalism. The dissident anti-capitalist may win a few battles, but never achieves success in overthrowing the prevailing tyranny and create genuine democratic societies.
Jean Paul Sartre is considered by some as a pessimistic thinker, perhaps because of his popular novel Nausea, in which he wrote: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” One of the best known quotation of Sartre’s is "L'enfer, c'est les autres" or "Hell is other people” which is a passage from his 1943 play No Exit. One needs to read the play and understand the context but I see it as the stark reality that there are many people who cannot be trusted, are unreliable, unethical, selfish, ignorant and stupid, incompetent and worst of all, sociopathic assholes. The fact that we live in a capitalist world based on rewarding some of the worst human attributes and deformations such as exploiting others, greed, selfishness and the love of money which is why living in such a world can be so frustrating and tiresome. “Greed is good” and the “love of money” are capitalist axioms, the latter described in the Bible as “the root of all evil” which most “prosperity gospel” Christians conveniently ignore.
But as Sartre had tried to explain, it was not his alleged pessimism that outraged people so much as his powerful optimism. He asserts that it is his insistence that we are free to act, free to change the world, and hence that we are responsible for the world as it is; responsible for war, genocide, injustice, racism, oppression, poverty, starvation injustice, environmental degradation and the current existential threats from a multiplicity of sources. The fact of this freedom, experienced not pleasurably, but as anguish, disappointment and disgust, is central to all of Sartre’s work, as are the strategies we develop to deny our own freedom and responsibility than is necessarily attached to it.
Sartre thereby insisted that there was no such thing as a natural disaster; after all is it not humans who destroys their cities through the agency of bombs and overdevelopment, cutting down forests, carving up mountains, flooding lakes and rivers, typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes. And what we witness today is a world being used as a trash heap combined with global warming, pollution, overpopulation, ecosystems dying as air, water and soils are being systematically contaminated. In a world without human beings or other life forms, an earthquake, heat wave, tornado or hurricane would be of no significance: just a meaningless upheaval of matter. It is only when the Mother Nature comes up against human projects - roads, buildings, cities, resource extraction and nuclear reactors - that we end up with disasters. It is a stark reminder that in the endless wars, pandemics, drought, floods and severe heat, disaster results not from nature but from human choices, the anthropomorphic human hubris of overpopulation, overconsumption, greed, stupidity, disaster and barbarism.
Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish fascism, and others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.
This is very much in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative: “socialism or barbarism.”
Sartre recognised that any political philosophy or ideology had to have an ethical foundation. But if a moral impetus had to be the basis for any attempt to change society, at the same time it was impossible to establish universal moral principles in a society based on the immorality, gross inequalities and injustices of capitalism. Even if everyone held to the golden rule, it’s hard to imagine capitalism surviving. Immanuel Kant had argued that we should act according to principles such as the golden rule which we wished to become universal laws. Kant also focused on means and ends, that people should not be reduced to means to someone’s nefarious end. When the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell declared that he would “do whatever it takes” to save the stock markets during the 2020 raging covid-19 pandemic - that is, the end justifies the means - he was gravely violating Kant’s ethical imperative.
Sartre argued, we live in a world where the distribution of wealth and property are based on past theft, violence and mass murder and his position is wonderfully illustrated by the story of the Yorkshire miner walking across open moors. The local landlord rode up and informed him he was trespassing on private property. The miner inquired how the land came to be his. “My great-great-great-grandfather won it in a battle,” replied the landlord. “Take your coat off,” said the miner, “and I’ll fight you for it now.” Sartre’s concluded that morality must be revolutionary socialist”. That is, our first priority must be to fight for a socio-economic system based on equality and common ownership of wealth. Only when that was achieved could we even begin to think about universal moral principles. In his discussion of ends and means Sartre refers in particular to Leon Trotsky’s pamphlet Their Morals and Ours. Trotsky’s works were hardly easy to come by in France in the 1940s, with Nazi Occupation having given way to a period whereby the entire French left and the resistance against the Nazi occupation was dominated by the Communist Party. Sartre may have acquired Trotsky’s from Merleau-Ponty, who was knowledgeable about Trotsky’s massive writings. Trotsky wrote on the basis of first-hand experience during the early years of the Russian Revolution and the difficult choices required when foreign capitalist and monarchist armies attempted to strangle the Revolution at birth, leading to a devastating three year civil war. Trotsky rejected carte blanche the facile amoral Machiavellian formulation that the end justifies the means. A simple balance sheet of profit and loss could not do justice to ethical issues. Since socialism involved the self-emancipation of the working class, it follows that the only means permissible were those which raised working class consciousness. The working class could not be liberated behind its own back by third parties such as capitalists or wealthy elites claiming to represent them.
Sartre’s argument regarding ends and means was based on his understanding of history that conflicted with much of Marxist historical determinism. Unlike many of the doctrinaire and mechanical Marxists he encountered in the French Communist Party while in the French resistance during World War II, he did not believe in a history which developed through predetermined stages to a de rigueur conclusion. That was, he believed, a serious flaw in Marxist thought as history was no more than the sum total of human agency and the choices that are freely made. As he said pessimistically in a lecture in 1945: “Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be.”
During the 1960s as the barbaric wars in Algeria and Vietnam were raging, Sartre returned to his thoughts about ends and means. In discussing Vietnam, he insisted that there could be no equivalence between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressors:
“During the Algerian war I always refused to make a parallel between the terrorist use of bombs, the only weapon available to the Algerians, and the actions and extortions of a rich army of half a million, which occupied the entire country. It’s the same in Vietnam.”
In his last play, Altona, the central character Franz tries to imagine how the future will judge our own period of history. However, as he looks centuries ahead, he finds no human beings to judge humanity, only a court of crabs. At the time, Sartre feared nuclear war, but we can easily imagine that only crabs will be left when rising sea-levels have submerged humankind. Sartre still speaks vividly to both our hopes and our fears.
Religious Pessimism and the Christian Prosperity Gospel
Christians and Muslims comprise about 4.4 billion of our almost 8 billion humans on this deteriorating overpopulated and contaminated planet. It’s a disturbing and frightening thought, especially considering the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other irrational religions and superstitious belief systems? And remember the maxim “power corrupts” and what this implies about mythical tyrannical gods that these billions of people fear, worship and appeal to? The fact our capitalist world is a cess pool of exploitation and corruption and that the natural environment has morphed into a garbage dump and countless wastelands ought to surprise no one. Both Christianity and Capitalism embrace the notion than planet earth exists merely for our needs, desires, obsessions, exploitation and plunder. For Christians and Muslims our only place we can call home in an infinite cosmos is merely a miserable bus stop on the voyage to an imaginary terminus called “heaven” or “paradise”. However, for sceptics, heretics and non-believers such as me, my fate is to be tortured for eternity in another Christian fabrication, their infamous barbecue pits called hell.
The notion of moral progress is and always has been an obvious farce for anyone willing to examine real un-sanitized history of tyranny, mass murder, persecution, torture, death, destruction, never ending wars, anti-intellectualism, widespread ignorance and greed, gullibility, grinding poverty, psychological dysfunction and uncaring unthinking stupidity. The violent history of the war torn twentieth century alone ought to cure anyone of optimistic inclinations regarding moral progress in terms of capitalists, their bought and paid for politicians and the behaviour of the sheep like majority who credulously believe and trust religious leaders, corporate oligarchs, the mafia banks or their political hacks and obscurantist economic mystics who own and run the world in which Eden is corrupt and Paradise lost.
Despite the corrosive effects of five centuries of science and the humanist enlightenment, religion continues to render people docile, submissive and ignorant as the two monotheisms of Islam and Christianity, despite the hatred toward one another, differ only marginally. One will understand this by merely reading their so-called sacred books - the Koran and the Bible. These ancient volumes of countless error, falsity, absurdity are for the most part chronicles of mass murder, mayhem, tyranny, slavery, persecution and the requirement that one be obedient to the cruel vindictive deity or face everlasting anguish and pain. For those who do not believe in their contemptible doctrines, look forward to roasting in their aforementioned human bake ovens called Hell. Islam literally means “submission” (to be a slave) and the same can be said for Christianity. What we call “democracy” in our quasi-secular nation state is beyond farcical - a cruel joke. One wonders whether most people even care about real freedom that great anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman have brilliantly conceptualized, articulated, understood and valued. Real democracy, so much talked about by capitalists and their careerist politicians continues to be a delusionary myth as the only freedom, at least for the capitalist or “entrepreneur” is the freedom to exploit and extract profit at the expense of all else -abiding only by two rules: might is right and the end justifies the means.
The Happiness Cult
Embracing faith, hope, optimism and the pursuit of the enigma of “happiness” will result in repetitive bouts of disappointment and frustration as expectations are regularly dashed. After all, in all human endeavours failure and deceit are the norms; therefore by being a pessimist and expecting nothing one will never be depressed by the expectation of rosy salutary outcomes. Remove your rose tinted spectacles  and face reality; become a philosophical pessimist by reading the works of famous philosophical pessimists and curmudgeons such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) . Faith and hope are not viable plans for life and optimism will violate your glowing expectations repeatedly. Life has meaning for anyone who takes an interest in it, only requiring one to be sufficiently intelligent, curious and passionate about activities such as the arts, sport and the stimulation of the intellect. Reminding oneself of mania a few decades ago with New Age and self-help drivel which is still with us, there has been a great deal in the media about reviving the philosophy of the self, sometimes referred to by the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, now co-opted and hypocritically hijacked like much else, including the songs and counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, by the marketing behemoths of major corporations. It’s as if nothing has been written about the self since the era of pre-Socratic philosophers of the Ancient world. Philosophies of the self have remained with us all along, often ignored by mainstream culture, often filed under the rubric of pessimism. Like the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, pessimists have been occupied with locating the best ethical path toward freedom in an undemocratic autocratic political environment that presents the individual with a landscape whose basic features are well beyond his or her control. Without these enlightened contrarian pessimistic ideas, real democracy, moral progress and contentment will remain utopian myths.
For centuries, much philosophy, both Anglo-American and European Continental, has been premised on the idea of a gradual improvement in the human condition, something we call “progress”, both moral and intellectual. But insofar as we struggle with the possibility that such a progression to perfectibility is impossible we must accept the fact of our short lives, aspire to truth (an ethics of belief) and abide by moral imperatives such as compassion, caring and the golden rule. Pessimism does not promote inevitable gloom but is rather the philosophy that accepts these challenges to the debilitating and depressing status quo. In a relentlessly optimistic “bright-sided” world as progressive writer and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich described it, it is enough to give up the promise of an ethereal enigmatic happiness (those brief intervals between long bouts of unhappiness) to be labelled a pessimist. Pessimism’s goal is not to depress or debilitate us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for the life’s realities and risks that lie ahead. To build proper defences, one must have a proper sense of the enemy and his weaponry. For the pessimist, it is fundamentally a time- bound condition that threatens us. But this presents a special problem since it is also our existence within time and our consciousness of time that makes possible many of the most enlightened and glorious of human attributes, not least of which is the reason and logic that allows us to philosophize at all. So pessimism must suggest a kind of fortification of the self against an enemy that is already inside the gates of our mind. I leave the reader with a few quotes from the great mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell who has had a huge impact on my thinking since first encountering him as an impressionable teen:
The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction - Bertrand Russell
Capitalists, militarists and ecclesiastics co-operate in education because all depend for their power on the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement - Bertrand Russell
Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth - more than death. Men would rather die than think - in fact they do! Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid ... Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.
But if thought is to become the possession of the many, and not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back - fear that their cherished belief should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves prove less worthy to the respect then they have supposed themselves to be - Bertrand Russell
Man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones - Bertrand Russell
If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education - Bertrand Russell
Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm . . . What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define “faith” as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith”. We do not speak of faith that two plus two is four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence - Bertrand Russell
There is something feeble and contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comfortable. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed - Bertrand Russell
Belief in God and a future life makes it possible to go through life with a less stoic courage than is needed by sceptics and pessimists. . . Christianity offers reasons for not fearing death or the universe, and in doing so it fails to teach adequately the virtue of courage . . .to allow oneself to entertain pleasant beliefs as a means of avoiding fear is not to live in the best way. In so far as religion makes its appeal to fear, it is lowering to human dignity - Bertrand Russell
If everything happens according to God’s will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape - Bertrand Russell
What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite - Bertrand Russell on William James’ “The Will to Believe”
Democracy has substituted co-operation for submission and herd-instinct for reverence; the group in regard to which herd-instinct is to be most operative has become the nation, which was formerly rendered unimportant by the universality of the Church. Meanwhile propaganda has become persuasive rather than forceful, and has learnt to proceed by the instilling of suitable sentiments in early youth. Church music, school songs, anthems, patriotism and the flag determine, by their influence on the boy, the subsequent actions of the man in moments of strong emotion. Against these influences the assaults of reason have but little power - Bertrand Russell
So in everything, power lies with those who control finance, not with those who know the matter upon which the money is to be spent. Thus, the holders of power are, in general, ignorant and malevolent, and the less they exercise their power the better - Bertrand Russell
The objection to propaganda is not only its appeal to unreason, but still more the unfair advantage which it gives to the rich and powerful - Bertrand Russell
To speak seriously: the standards of "goodness" which are generally recognized by public opinion are not those which are calculated to make the world a happier place. This is due to a variety of causes, of which the chief is tradition, and the next most powerful is the unjust power of dominant classes - Bertrand Russell
The world is full of injustice, and those who profit by injustice are in a position to administer rewards and punishments. The rewards go to those who invent ingenious justifications for inequality, the punishments to those who try to remedy it - Bertrand Russell
Another not uncommon victim of persecution mania is a certain type of philanthropist, who is always doing good things to people against their will, and is amazed and horrified that they display no gratitude. Our motives in doing good are seldom as pure as we imagine them to be. Love of power is insidious; it has many disguises, and is often the source of the pleasure we derive from doing what we believe to be good to other people. Not infrequently, yet another element enters in. "Doing good things" to people generally consists in depriving them of some pleasure: drink, or gambling, or idleness, or what not. In this case there is an element which is typical of much social morality, namely, envy of those who are in a position to commit sins from which we have to abstain if we are to retain the respect of our friends - Bertrand Russell
At present, those who have power dread a disturbance of the status quo, lest their unjust privileges should be taken away. In combination with the instinct for conventionality, which man shares with the other gregarious animals, those who profit by the existing order have established a system which punishes originality and starves imagination from the moment of first going to school down to the time of death and burial - Bertrand Russell
 The quite obvious reason capitalism sucks is because workers are considered an exploitable cost to be minimized while owners of businesses care only about profit to be maximized. The bigger the business the more undemocratic, unjust, hierarchical and bureaucratic it becomes. So the issue of size and scale is a serious problem, especially for the increasingly impoverished precarious workers who under the “trickle down” neo-liberal scam, the destruction of unions and outsourcing of jobs to Third World sweatshops. In the current global economy protection for workers rights is basically nil.
Moreover, one needs to question the origins of capitalism, especially the concepts of wealth and private property. Today even knowledge is deemed private property with the ludicrous swindle, among countless others, called “intellectual property”, Liberal philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in a convoluted argument with highly dubious premises argued that something - land, for example - became private property when someone’s labor (never clearly defined) was imposed on it. This led monarchs who occupied and controlled huge tracts of land, declaring that anything and everything they “labored” their gaze upon was their private property. Anyone occupying the king’s property had to ante up. This is how people who had occupied land for centuries were forced to pay rent on land they thought they had a right to work and live on. The Vatican in 1493 declared the Doctrine of Discovery that not unlike the free trade agreements today, a blank check for European conquistadors to steal, pillage, enslave and impose genocidal war against the indigenous peoples of the New World.
Mysteriously, to proceed from the king or priest owning everything to private companies or individuals and states owning everything, there must have been transactional agreement; titles created, titles bestowed, titles sold, titles bequeathed. However, all of these transactions of assets from the crown to private entities are contaminated with the original sin that the crown never owned them in the first place. In fact no one did.
Native Americans for example did not own land on the Americas before Columbus and other Spanish conquistadors arrived because they did not believe in the notion of “private property”, that some individual owned a tract of land. In fact their spiritual beliefs considered private ownership of land sacrilege. So who owns North America? No one really owns anything since private property is merely a human construct, an invention of someone’s greedy rapacious imagination. So based on either natural law or superficial laws invented by human audacity and hubris, on the face of it would seem reasonable to say that everything that exists is a collective asset owned by everyone. As the anarchist and French philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) rightly declared, “All property is theft.” No bullshit origin story by power elites who own most of the planet will ever justify the massive transfers (confiscations and robberies) of resources from one group to another that has occurred throughout our sordid history of war, racism, land theft, slavery, plunder and pillage. Anything not done freely and fairly is simply theft. No one seems to accept this unavoidable conclusion except anarchists. The distribution of wealth becomes a near random contingent given at the outset of one’s accidental life that has no more ethical legitimacy than loaded dice, a shell game or rigged casino game. The capitalist system is plagued by these mock up scenarios, one the most lethal and egregious swindles of which is “intellectual property”; which is how corrupt creepy asshole con men like Bill Gates and others like him made their billions.
The Austrian neo-liberal/neo-fascist economic dogmas of Milton Freidman, Frederick Hayek and von Ludwig Mises would have you believe that the mutual advantage in each voluntary transaction will compound to some theoretical point of post-scarcity where everyone can afford all they need to live and not simply exist. There is enough wealth, even in the grossly overpopulated world, to do that today but the world’s wealth is hoarded by the super wealthy as six billionaires have more wealth than the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. If you divide the entire wealth of the world by the world population, by some estimates you arrive at about $130,000 per household which would instantly eliminate all poverty.
The Austrian school’s theologians of finance and the economic mumbo jumbo of Wall Street soothsayers and crystal ball gazers believe excessive wealth would produce competition in order to distribute profits more equally, and this competition would lead to ever higher wages. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Excessive wealth combined with unrestricted campaign finance in America allows the super wealthy to take over the mechanism of the so-called “democratic” state to prevent competition from diluting profits. While they’re at it, the American oligarchs set up an “education” system of indoctrination to provide the skills they need to make profits while promoting the fairy tale of private property, the myth of the meritocracy, the fable of the self-made man and the “morality” of wealth inequality. The Austrians assumed, but Thomas Piketty has confirmed, that capitalism leads to a concentration of wealth, not equality. The obvious lies of the Austrians were the delusion that excessive wealth would float all boats. But capitalism’s search for lower wages is insatiable and the impact on the workers of the world has been an unmitigated disaster. Capitalism is even bad news for the one percent as entry into the rarified realm of the super rich will become increasingly difficult as wealth continues to concentrate even further into the slimy hands of sociopathic vultures like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and other multi-billionaire blockheads. The fact that a billionaire exists is an international scandal and outrage, further evidence that democracy and justice do not exist and never has existed. Liberal pundits who bemoan the erosion of “democracy” are pissing into the wind. What “democracy”? And when has it ever existed?
[1a] Like religion, racism has no scientific basis or cogency of argument yet is a toxic debilitating belief that persists throughout the world, particularly viral in the United States. Zionism, for example, is racism, justifying the land theft and continued persecution and genocidal treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel since 1948. And it is why so many Americans and their leaders in big business, religion and government endorse it. American capitalism, its big business and political ideology has within its imperialist agenda a motley association to varieties of racism. Racism is akin to a religious faith whose sacrament, like all else in capitalism, is the love of money whose mythologies are economics and real estate and whose original sins are land theft and genocide. Global warming, ecological destruction and countless other ominous existential threats have affected all species on the planet, many of which are in extinction mode and are an upshot of capitalist delusions of infinite growth on a finite planet. And we humans are now beginning to experience their deadly effects. God is dead because we have become gods ourselves, all powerful and plagued by hubris, arrogance, mediocrity and increasing cavalier stupidity as we are dying in the rising tide of entropy that is seeping out from the body Mother Nature.
As Manuel Garcia Jr. wrote in a recent Counterpunch post titled The Lethal Hypnosis, “The more stupid you are, the easier it is to be racist. The more racist you are, the easier it is to be more stupid. Racism - and gun toting - is the pathetic effort by ignorant people, who are fearful about their irrelevance, to hide their lack of self-confidence behind racist bravado and ‘manliness’. Self-cure is the only way out of it, but the individual has to become motivated for that by going through some difficult or traumatic experience. They can’t just be talked out of it by ‘friends’.”
This dilemma regarding racists is not unlike the religious who, having not been reasoned into their beliefs, cannot be reasoned out of them. Any attempt to deploy logic, evidence, science and reasoned argument to convince the devout Christian person of faith that his beliefs are false is about as effective as treating cancer with quack remedies (aka alternative “medicine”, faith healing, Dr. Ho or prayer). But reason and logic are not strategies employed by the vast majority; in fact stupidity and ignorance are the norms – one more reason to embrace pessimism as a reasonable approach to life. As the late George Carlin once remarked, “Think about how dumb the average IQ person is and then ponder on the fact that half of all people are even dumber than that”. But any attempt to remedy this epidemic of stupidity with logic and critical thinking courses in our schools have been blocked by various sclerotic yet powerful conservative influences in our communities, primarily the Christian churches which wield political power far beyond what most realize. I have an extensive library on logic, critical thinking and the cognitive traps that people succumb to; one book Logically Fallacious lists 300 logical fallacies.
With regard to imbecilic religious faith and the “prosperity gospel” most hypocritical Christians these days support (the Xian Sky Tyrant apparently wants you to be rich), Manuel Garcia, in the same blog post, goes on to write:
“The 2nd Amendment is both a religion and a mental illness. That illness is the psychosis of seeing oneself as a self-guiding unit entirely divorced from the organic integration known as Nature. One is then the hunter, the survivalist, the extractor, miner, chemical factory farmer and rancher, the conqueror, the capitalist, the owner, the dominator.”
“The economic structures in that part of the Human World we called ‘developed’ are nearly all capitalistic, despite how they are labeled in each national jurisdiction, and the political structures erected by their capitalist owners to maintain their capitalist economics are thus entirely dominated by the mentality of anti-organic schizoid-materialistic psychosis. That illness within the human species infects the Natural World as a whole, so that it reacts feverishly in the manner which we have labeled ‘climate change’ and ‘biodiversity loss,’ and which pathological complex includes the vast inequities in the Human World, all of which is encompassed by the name: Planetary Crisis.
To the psychosis mind all problems invade the human isolates from an external world, and all solutions to those problems are technological assaults against it. But look at the human history of “developed economics”: nothing ages faster than technology, and nothing matures more slowly than human thought and morality. The difference between the collisions of deer-in-the-headlights, and “developed” humans-facing-climate-change, is that the humans have their eyes closed.
Snapping our species out if its lethal hypnosis by the anti-organic schizoid-materialistic psychosis will doubtless require a widespread traumatic shock equivalent to that required to snap a racist individual out of his or her racist mental fog and into a genuine thirsting for self-cure from that malady. One symptom of the popular denial of our interconnectedness during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic is the laxity displayed by many regarding compliance with the infection-prevention protocols: conscious person-to-person social distancing, the wearing of exhalation-filtering face masks, and becoming doubly vaccinated with the newly developed anti-viral serum.
In essence, a responsible recognition of our interconnectedness would see us all expand the mesh-spacing of our social network, while containing our effluent breath plumes, and immunizing ourselves as soon as possible; all so the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not propagate further through our species by exploiting our human interconnectedness that so many ignore and are even hostile to. Much COVID-19 death is a consequence of denial by anti-organic schizoid-materialistic psychotics.
Can we humans overwhelmingly snap into awareness for organic reintegration before being decimated by our own fearful and willful denial of it? Perhaps Uncertain - yet, Nature, which includes our marvelous human bodies, is wondrously responsive to new conditions, including new human attitudes and actions, so we already know that the organic reintegration of humanity into the long cycles of healthy Nature, and thus the ensuring of long-term sustainability for all planetary life, is more likely to occur the sooner we try to achieve it. All must change now. It is that simple.”
 An unshakeable optimism and faith in continuing progress lies at the heart of most modern economic theory, very notably in what is regarded as the current economic paradigm of global corporate finance and capitalism that resembles Mussolini’s definition of fascism which he referred to as “corporatism”; that is, the doctrine of neo-liberalism. So entrenched has the expectation of progress become among the general public after such a prolonged historical experience of advancement in technological terms, leading to an ever-improving quality of life at least in the West, that most rarely question the principles or the quasi mystical theories that underlie it. These principles resemble a theology rather than any sound philosophical, mathematical or scientific theory. Any skeptics and contrarians that do question it such as for example, socialists, environmentalists, anarchists or other anti-capitalists, though they are systematically marginalized, ignored completely or portrayed as lunatics and do not generally express the sentiments of the propagandized and indoctrinated masses. An ever improving economy – an economy that serves whom, one might ask - is taken to be the norm in our everyday lives, despite the statistics about grotesque levels of poverty and economic disparity. How capitalism survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and subsequent sequences of bubble-boom-bust and bailouts (BBBB) boggles the mind – but our memories are short and we are systematically bombarded with endless propaganda by the five multinational corporations that control the media. Neo-liberalism is now a planetary dogma as all governments strive to deliver endless growth on a finite planet, knowing that their popularity and re-election depend upon it. Political parties, mere sock puppet careerists of the big corporations and behemoth bandit banks never argue for moderation based on compassionate social democratic policies of democratically run cooperative enterprises, taxing the rich and multi-national corporations and sharing the wealth. Getting re-elected depends on a steady flow of money from wealthy elites, big banks and multi-national corporations who write the laws to serve them and have created police and military to do the same. Like the countless corporate lobbyists, it’s a system of deceit, lies and bribery, pure and simple.
Neo-liberal optimism is all about the beneficial effects of the free market fundamentalisms which are not really ”free” at all but rather blank checks for untrammeled exploitation of labor and monopolistic strategies. I am an anti-capitalist in profound disagreement with the neo-liberal world order which is antithetical to freedom, justice and democracy or real “free” trade. Arguably the most serious problem is the gargantuan scale of capitalist “enterprises” as many corporations have more wealth and power than many states. Moreover, modern capitalism attempts to justify future trends and outcomes of markets by employing highly dubious mathematical models and algorithms which are effective in sciences like physics but certainly not the irrationalities and contingencies of economics. I direct the reader to the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb such as Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan for more detailed explanation of economic bullshit and mumbo jumbo. Venture capitalists, investors and consumers trust mathematics, a mere calculation tool, far beyond its predictive capabilities in the sciences. Economics, referred to by many as the “dismal science” is a steady cycle of unpredictable sequence of booms busts and government bailouts for the past century as in the financial meltdown 2008 when only a very few heretical economics predicted the crash. These skeptics were depicted as mad men by the mainstream true believers on Wall Street. To claim that the largely unexpected and unpredicted – by the majority of mainstream economists, at least – global credit crash of 2007–8 will be the last of its kind simply seems unrealistic to pessimists like me who has lived through and survived many, primarily by paying little attention to the mugs game of buy and hold by the stock market analysts and gurus who preach buy and hold until the end of time. The Covid-19 crisis in 2020 (and still with us as mutations proliferate) was first treated as a threat to the markets, rather than life and limb. The strategy for investment firms, banks and governments was to protect the stock markets with steady flows of trillions of dollars, not to protect the people who were becoming ill and dying in the millions.
Cast even a cursory eye over economic history and you will soon note that booms, busts and government bailouts are not the exception but the general rule. This ought to encourage a high degree of skepticism and pessimism. For the few critical economic historians and market analysts such as the late John Kenneth Galbraith and contemporary Nouriel Roubini who predicted the 2008 market debacle, modern economic history can best be described as a series of irrationalities, emotionally driven decisions, invocations of the greater fool principle, market manias, manipulations, panics, crashes, as can be seen in such phenomena as the infamous South Sea Bubble of the early eighteenth century, the wildly inflated market for tulip bulbs in seventeenth-century Holland that were cited by Charles MacKay in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The only difference today is the depth of depravity as we witness, instead of public shaming and hangings of the financial criminals, bailouts by the public who are invariably the victims of the swindles. I detest religious expressions but if anything is “evil”, it is global disaster capitalism.
Yet despite the dismal historical record, before the latest crash exploded on the world in 2007-09 we were being earnestly assured by the neo-liberal economic priests, market scholastics, gurus and gods of mammon that such an event would never occur again as long as we stuck with the regimen of no government interference or regulatory mechanisms with the deities of the market. That is, until these same omnipotent omniscient lords of finance needed to be bailed out by those same governments and their victimized people. How wrong can you be and how much evidence is required before millions people throughout the world are in the streets with pitchforks and pillories?
Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys presents a particularly depressing account of how Wall Street has simply continued to flourish despite the regular their regular screw ups and financial debacles combined with refusal to create a stable fair and ethical market that meets the needs of all people and not a tiny layer of financial parasites. Some estimates as high as $40 trillion are hidden away in offshore tax havens despite tax evasion being a major crime in every country in the world; read Nicholas Shaxon’s book Treasure Islands for an up close and personal account of these massive global scams. As Lewis points out, there are few on the outside who really know how the stock market functions not as a “free” market but one that is manipulated by big players, hedge funds, programmed algorithms, market con men and manipulators all with the complicity of the government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich. And when these financial vultures screw up, out come the golden parachutes of literally trillions of bailout dollars by the central banks such as the mafia outfits called Bank of Canada and Federal Reserve in the USA which were originally created to serve the common good and to finance public projects. Now they serve the one tenth of 1% that make up the corporate oligarchies and power elites, Adam Smith’s “Masters of Mankind”.
Lewis paints a dismal picture of an amoral toxic environment on Wall Street, where “greed is good” and traders are engaged in a perpetual cut-throat struggle to gain advantage over their competitors now on a global scale where trillions of dollars change hands within hours to forge any advantage for their own personal benefit rather than those of the credulous small “investor” who is at the mercy of a swirling cesspool of crime and corruption. Social conscience and ethical oversight are conspicuous by their absence in a financial sewer where there are huge fortunes to be made in a matter of minutes. The “flash boys” ’ are in it only for themselves and are rigging and gaming the system for all it is worth. There has been no substantial change in psychology to suggest that much moral improvement is likely to be forthcoming if the sector is left to its own depraved devices. The market manipulating “flash boys” display a truly impressive ingenuity at deflecting the few attempts made at bringing about reform of the maniacal financial markets. Lewis traces the efforts of one such reform-minded movement from within the system over the course of the book, but as its initiator sums it up: “We know how to cure this…It’s just a matter of whether the patient wants to be treated. As far as the ‘flash boys’ are concerned, the answer is a resounding ‘no’”. This is a system that cannot and will not be reformed or fixed. It can only be anticipated that it will implode on its own or that people will wake the fuck up kick start a much needed revolution against disaster capitalism and that the dictatorship of money will be destroyed for good and replaced with universal justice and genuine democracy. People who continually declare that our “democracy” is being threatened are delusional. What democracy?
It is difficult not to respond pessimistically to what books such as Flash Boys are trying to tell us. Michael Lewis is just one of hundreds to expose the moral depravity inherent in the frantic machinations of the financial system, but he ventures into far more detail of the systemic evils within the markets than most others. The message that comes out loud and clear is that the stock market currently operates without reference to any moral compass. In blunt terms, “the game is rigged” as the rich get richer, economic inequality is out of control and democracy is a sham. The gods of global capitalism, like those of every religion invented throughout history, are frauds, rackets and delusions. Greed flourishes without any appeal to minimalist commonly understood ethical principles such as the golden rule that, if accepted by everyone, capitalism would not survive a week. Pessimism is the necessary dispositional stance required to continually check the fairy tales that we are heading on a moral course toward universal justice and real democratic ethical oversight. We are well advised to be aware of the dark sides of human nature, especially in cases such as capitalism based exclusively on self interest, exploitation and greed – the worst attributes of what it means to be a decent human being. In the jaundiced view of an insider of the global financial system, when it comes to the new breed of stock market traders, set free by the new generation of high-speed computer systems, algorithms and mathematical modeling too many would sell their daughters and mothers in exchange for a microsecond’s advantage over any market competitor. You might want to watch once again the 1980s Oliver Stone movie Wall Street for how the masters of finance operate. The depravity is many times worse today.
In the aftermath of Lewis’s exposé, and the many other books like it, various American government agencies have made it clear that they too have been monitoring the practices of both banks and the new breed of “high frequency traders” and are planning to take appropriate action against them in due course. Be a pessimist and don’t hold your breath. One would have to be extremely optimistic to think that new generally over-compromised and ineffective legislation alone would curb abuses of the market because those who profit from such abuses are indefatigable in finding loopholes in whatever legislation is put in place. And do you think offshore tax havens that serve the super wealthy, mafia banks and big corporations will be dismantled, despite the illegality of such dens of iniquity - as sock puppet dickhead former Prime Minister and bible banger Stephen Harper promised? Get serious. If the global credit crash, meltdown and bailouts of 2007–8 were not enough of a wake-up call to our phony “democracies” of the risks they are taking at public expense, then what would it take? The “what ought to be obvious to everyone reality” is this: our governments do not serve the people, but the rich oligarchs, financial parasites and mafia banking bastards. Democracy does not and never has existed as oligarchic or plutocratic elites have invariably controlled the state and other tyrannies of the past such as monarchies and theocracies. The mindset of the indoctrinated masses who internalize the values of their ruling elites has not really changed appreciably throughout history, and, predictably enough, Lewis’s verifiable claim that the market is rigged has met with a torrent of criticism from within the mainstream market community.
Anti-capitalist writers such as Naomi Klein, in her books The Shock Doctrine and No Logo released before the 2008 global crash, have written scathing critiques of global capitalism and the working conditions and wages that employees in manufacturing in the developing world have to endure. It is a situation that is all the more scandalous when it involves the production of high-profile branded goods that make the multinationals in question huge profits when sold to Western consumers. Nike, among countless others, is a frequently mentioned case, with Apple also coming under fire in connection with the manufacture of its cell phone and computer components in Asian sweat shops. As Klein and other critics point out, it is the multinationals that are the dominant partners in this arrangement, since they are free to move anywhere on the planet in the search for ever-lower taxes, labor and production costs. Countries can find themselves effectively held to ransom by the threat of withdrawal by a multinational, and if savings must be made then these will be at the expense of vulnerable factory workers, squeezing what little they receive in the “trickle down” gig economy stakes. There always seems to be some other poor often corrupt nation willing to undercut existing arrangements, no matter how impoverished and indebted they may be, and the multinationals can play the rivals off against each other to their own advantage. In addition, medical care and education in such countries are not up to Western standards, often being very inferior or all but non-existent in the more remote rural areas. However, we go on buying the mostly superfluous products despite the dismal conditions that prevail for their workers.
Even when we examine the West to consider what the impact of neo-liberal policies has been, the evidence hardly supports the claim that the poor are anything but minor or inconsequential beneficiaries compared to the rich. The gap between rich and poor throughout the West has widened quite significantly in the last few decades, especially in those countries which have been most fanatical about neo-liberalism - the USA and Britain where economic inequalities are the highest in the western world. Add to this the growing trend towards part-time and zero-hours employment contracts (a system whereby employees have no guaranteed hours of work such as the exploitive Skip the Dishes, Uber and Door Dash), but must be available on an on-call basis if and when their employer demands their services as a picture emerges of a culture where those at the bottom have little cause to view the future with any optimism. Instead, for an increasing proportion of people the more likely prognosis is one of long-term economic insecurity, minimal employment rights and rapidly dwindling career prospects, especially with the vigorous anti-union policies pursued by the larger corporate employers in the name of greater employment “flexibility”, a code word that should alert pessimists that this means wage slavery and exploitation at its worst.
 Erroneous connections the reader might make with pessimism are to confuse or conflate it with skepticism or even cynicism. Skepticism is a long-standing and well-established tradition in Western science and philosophy, and it can be misconstrued as encouraging pessimism since it promotes an attitude of hesitation, doubt and the degrees of certainty about what we are able to know. We may think we have infallible knowledge of the world, but to skeptics this is in most cases, other than perhaps in the case of mathematics, an illusion. In science, an inductive enterprise, a researcher introduces a hypothesis or conjecture, conducts tests and experiments, undergoes peer reviews and a probabilistic theory may be created based on the research facts. Science is not about certitude, but on the preponderance of evidence and probabilities, always vulnerable to challenge or even refutation.
Often reserving judgment on any proposition - or admitting you just don’t know - is the best option. Other than deductive tautological exercises in mathematics for example, absolute proof and certainty are rarely available to us, and never will be as explained above even within the realm of science which is inductive, that is, based on experience, probability and the breadth, magnitude and quality of evidence. In other words, we have only beliefs of a greater or lesser strength of argument or evidence. People are vulnerable to any number of literally dozens of logical fallacies including intuition, what typically passes for common sense, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, the Dunning-Kruger effect and motivated reasoning. Wanting certain outcomes to prevail has nothing to do with truth, fact or future events; this may be called “the desirability effect”. As one of the few intellectual American presidents said, “Facts are stubborn and whatever may be our wishes, inclinations or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Reality often sucks and as the great science fiction writer Philip K Dick once proclaimed, “Reality is that which when you stop believing it, won’t go away.”
 Check out my Curmudgeon’s Lexicon of Religion and Curmudgeon’s Lexicon of Business here:
 Near the end of his life, still reflecting on his early experiences, Schopenhauer wrote the following:
“As soon as I began to think, I found myself at variance with the world. When I was young, I was often very worried about this, for I imagined that the majority would be in the right… Then, after every fresh conflict, the world lost more, and I gained more. After I had already reached my fortieth year, it appeared to me that that I had won my case in the last instance, and I found myself more highly placed than I had ever dared to presume; but for me the world became empty and desolate. Throughout my whole life I have felt terribly lonely, and have always sighed from the depths of my heart: “Now give me a human being!” But alas it is in vain. I have remained in solitude; but I can honestly and sincerely say that it has not been my fault, for I have not turned away, have not shunned, anyone who in their heart and mind was a human being. I have found none but miserable wretches of limited intelligence, bad heart and mean disposition.”
Most philosophers are trying to convince you; but Schopenhauer is only stating what he thinks you ought to already know. There is a quasi-religious, mystical or mythical dimension to his philosophy, but without the faith in supernatural entities such as gods, demons and angels - and churches which he particularly despised. Schopenhauer doesn’t try to convince you of what he assumes you ought to already know:
‘If we picture to ourselves roughly as far as we can the sum total of misery, pain, and suffering of every kind on which the sun shines in its course, we shall admit that it would have been much better if it had been just as impossible for the sun to produce the phenomenon of life on earth as on the moon, and the surface of the earth, like that of the moon, had still been in a crystalline state.”
Schopenhauer from the age of his early teens considered religion delusionary, destructive, irrational and immoral and became an unapologetic unrelenting atheist. This is the case with me and my best high school friend. We intuitively thought all religion was bullshit, especially the inane fairy tale creation stories. But were provided with knock down arguments upon discovering Bertrand Russell’s brilliant collection of essays Why I’m not a Christian in our high school library. The central essay, which is the title of the collection of essays, can be read here. We were blown away by Russell’s compelling evidence and argument and shocked that the religious zealots in our small northern BC town had not burned the book. There was no turning back after Bertie, as we both became huge fans of Russell and lifelong heretics, contrarians and skeptics.
On creation myths Schopenhauer had this to say:
“Brahma is said to have produced the world by a kind of fall or mistake and in order to atone for his folly he is bound to remain in it himself until he works out his redemption. As an account of the origin of things, that is admirable! According to the doctrines of Buddhism, the world came into being as the result of some inexplicable disturbance in the heavenly calm of Nirvana, that blessed state obtained by expiation, which had endured so long a time the change taking place by a kind of fatality.”
“The Greeks looked upon the world and the gods as the work of an inscrutable necessity. A passable explanation: we may be content with it until we can get a better. Again, Ormuzd and Ahriman are rival powers, continually at war. That is not bad. But that a God like Jehovah should have created this world of misery and woe, out of pure caprice, and because he enjoyed doing it, and should then have clapped his hands in praise of his own work, and declared everything to be very good - that will not do at all!”… In its explanation of the origin of the world, Christianity and Judaism are inferior to any other form of religious doctrine professed by a civilized nation ; and it is quite in keeping with this that it is the only one which presents no trace whatever of any belief in the immortality of the soul. Even though Leibnitz' contention, that this is the best of all possible worlds, were correct, that would not justify God in having created it. For he is the creator not of the world only, but of possibility itself; and, therefore, be ought to have so ordered possibility as that it would admit of something better.
There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful being ; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere ; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. These things cannot be reconciled with any such belie£. On the contrary, they are just the facts which support what I have been saying; they are our authority for viewing the world as the outcome of our own misdeeds, and therefore, as something that had better not have been. Whilst, under the former hypothesis, they amount to a bitter accusation against the creator, and supply material for sarcasm; under the latter they form an indictment against our own nature, our own will, and teach us a lesson of humility. They lead us to see that, like the children of a libertine, we come into the world with the burden of sin upon us; and that it is only through continually having to atone for this sin that our existence is so miserable, and that its end is death.”
For Schopenhauer, the human will is not a form of conscious awareness, either personal or in the Jungian collective sense but rather desire, the infamous hedonistic treadmill in which once one desire is met the satisfaction is transitory, making way for further desires. Schopenhauer considers the human psyche as split between rational thought and its universal, deep, directionless striving for reproduction and survival, anticipating Freud’s division of the superego, ego, and id. For Schopenhauer life is a never-ending circuitous path of pain, suffering, boredom and angst with only ephemeral periods of satisfaction and happiness. Moreover, there is no “salvation plan” and no utopia as we must navigate the perils of the world’s mostly unhappy realities by employing the intellect and conscience to the best of our abilities.
For Schopenhauer god, if by some remote probability exists, is clearly asleep at the wheel, on crack cocaine or simply doesn’t give a shit. This is clearly obvious, given the horrors of history and the miserable plight of 90% of humankind. As Schopenhauer asserts, “A man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbor with masts and rigging gone. And then it is all one whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than the present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.” [From Studies in Pessimism]
But even Schopenhauer’s dark clouds have rays of sunshine peaking through. After completing his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation he pursued ways of attenuating the effects of an uncaring world and of achieving intellectual and psychological distance from its pervasive influence. One way of doing this lay in aesthetic experiences. He had a lifelong love of music, played the flute almost every day, and regularly attended concerts, operas, and the theatre. In this way he felt that we could temporarily disengage from what he perceived as a heartless world. As he declared in On the Sufferings of the World, “Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.”
Schopenhauer’s extensive eclectic reading brought him into contact with Eastern philosophy and religion. After discovering a translation of the Upanishads, the final chapter part of the Hindu scriptures called the Veda dating from between 800 and 400 BCE, he read parts of it almost every day for the rest of his life. He was the first Western philosopher to study them and the Buddhist texts carefully, and he came to realize that they incorporated some aspects of his concept of the Will. He concluded that the only lasting escape from the cosmic Will lay in rejecting any and all desires for earthly gratification by losing oneself in mystical contemplation, like a Western saint or an Eastern holy man. The reader will surely enjoy Arthur Schopenhauer as he is no obscurantist like Hegel and Heidegger; the clarity and elegance in his writing style I consider one of the best.
On a less exalted level, in his view of ethics one should exhibit a universal compassion: “Injure no one… and help everyone as much as you can.” In his own life, however, he gave no indication of abstaining from earthly pleasure, seeking sainthood, or even helping out his neighbors. Indeed, a court once ordered him to pay compensation and maintenance to an elderly neighbor who alleged that an irate Schopenhauer had assaulted her during an argument. No one is morally or intellectually perfect and there are aspects of Schopenhauer’s primarily solitary life that are contemptible, such as his misogyny. In the 19th century overpopulation was not a problem as it is today but nevertheless Schopenhauer had an opinion indirectly related to it:”If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?”
Recommended Reading and Viewing:
All of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer such as: The World as Will and Representation (Vol. I and II), Studies in Pessimism, Essays and Aphorisms, On the Suffering of the World with introduction by philosophy professor Eugene Thacker (and read Thacker’s Infinite Resignation), The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion, Parerga and Paralipomena, The Art of Being Right, The Essays Of Arthur Schopenhauer: The Wisdom Of Life and others including some excellent biographies of the man.
Other writers on Pessimism are Eugene Thacker, Thomas Ligotti and the great novelist Herman Melville who discovered Schopenhauer late in life, influencing the writing of Moby Dick, Billy Budd and Bartleby the Scrivener. The former two were made into movies and are excellent, especially the moving 1962 movie Billy Budd in which the great Peter Ustinov wrote the screenplay, directed and played the part of Edwin Fairfax Vere. A very young Terence Stamp was exceptional as Billy Budd with several other well-known actors at the time in supporting roles.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, 2010
You tube presentations worth watching:
- Ted Talk “The Happy Pessimist” by two Swedes:
- Schopenhauer: "A Pessimist IS an Optimist":
- The Wisdom of Pessimism
- Arthur Schopenhauer - How to Be a Pessimist (Philosophical Pessimism)
- Are Intelligent People More Pessimistic?
My paper on pessimism from a few years ago…
The Power of Pessimism and Negative Thinking
Deprogramming the self-help happiness addiction
By JR, January, 2019
The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true - James Branch Cabell
The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little. - Mark Twain
I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it ‘the backwards law’. When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float … insecurity is the result of trying to be secure … contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves – Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Future, n: That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates
BORIS: Nothingness. Non-existence. Black emptiness.
SONJA: What did you say?
BORIS: Oh, I was just planning my future.
From Woody Allen’s 1975 movie Love and Death
The power of positive thinking movement has been with us at least since the early 20th century and became a cult with Norman Vincent Peale’s popular book The Power of Positive Thinking. In more recent years we’ve been bombarded by inane books directed at people with the mentality and intellectual sophistication of pre-schoolers such as Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Secret by “Help Me Rhonda” Byrne and latest being the ultra-conservative Ayn Rand style hyper-capitalist social Darwinian drivel from Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Many of Peterson’s puerile adages and conservative pieties such as personal accountability, cleanliness, neatness and organization should have been learned from your mother by the time you started the first grade. 
The positive thinking movement is essentially a continuation of the futile efforts by human beings to control the future, especially their own. Although we have limited control over our immediate environment within confined time constraints, such projects are, at the very least, delusional. This is primarily because the normal state of the universe is uncertainty and randomness - even chaos - which is beyond our control. It is wise to heed the words of Johann Wolfgang Goethe who advised, “The happy do not believe in miracles.” But Goethe would surely find nothing wrong with setting realistic goals within the parameters of our physical and intellectual capacities. One of the enigmas of life is happiness; and despite its sanctification in the Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right”, even the stoical pre-Socratic philosophers argued ironically that if you do pursue happiness as an actual goal, you’ll never experience it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, and much earlier than him, Plato, attempted to account for the paradox of happiness as follows: The single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness is intrinsically selfish and emotionally chaotic – a reduction of life to a narrow, stifling obsession with the immediate gratification of self. This narcissism destroys our ethical connection with other people and with nature by first isolating each person in the lonely prison of the self; and second, reducing our rational faculties to vacillating desires and emotions. It may have been George Bernard Shaw who said it best when he quipped, “Unhappiness is not getting what you want; the other is getting what you want.” [1a] Conceptual problems with happiness notwithstanding, conflation of causation and correlation is a perennial problem with studies on happiness and which social and political groups are claimed to be happier. I can recall several years ago a study that claimed conservatives are happier than liberals. By definition, conservatives tend to be happy with the status quo, which for most of them is understandable, given that they are generally at or near the top of the socio-economic pyramid, many like George W Bush and Donald Trump, having been born with the proverbial silver spoon in hand. From my experience, conservatives I have know have either been evangelical Christians, wealthy or both. Moreover, their social conscience extends no further than their own family and circle of privileged friends. They rarely are frozen into despair and anger, agonizing over the daily news about barbaric imperialist wars, grotesque economic inequalities, systemic poverty, cruelty and greed of humankind, corruption and fascistic nature of our capitalist corporate and political leadership (of which there is a symbiotic relationship), political red tooth and claw of nature and the desecration of our ecosystems as they circle the drain.
According to Tolstoy as exemplified in many characters of his novels and short stories, the pursuit of happiness through social status exposes one to constant angst and envy of those above you, contempt for those below and fear of failure. There’s no peace of mind or serenity in any of Tolstoy’s fiction or non-fiction narratives. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan realizes this, but only on his death-bed. His obsessive love on wealth and careerism caused him to disastrously neglect his family, friends and psyche. More generally, Tolstoy seems to be saying that directly pursuing happiness is futile because it culminates in narcissism, and narcissism fatally reduces the vast and numinous universe to the narrow bounds of the ego. Tolstoy’s political outlook was both socialist and anarchistic as he detested the greedy business classes who ignored the noble ideal of the common good and respect for the dignity of the exploited and poor. Tolstoy’s response the enigma and paradox of happiness throughout virtually all his works is that happiness consists in living for others and that our great error and the source of our misery is assuming that happiness is attained by satisfying our own hedonistic desires, primarily those of pleasure, wealth, and status. Some may describe Tolstoy’s views as extremist, but his accurate insight is that the single-minded pursuit of one’s own happiness (however defined) brings narcissism and enslavement to chaotic desires, which in turn brings disharmony, frustration, conflict with others; the very antithesis of what most would consider happiness. On the other hand, pursuing a larger moral meaning, such as sharing, peace, kindness, compassion, justice and or human flourishing, gives us transcendent purpose in life and thus a long-term sense of satisfaction. 
Despite this, thousands of New Age genre books are pumped out every year on how to achieve happiness; they all belong in the trash can. If you follow your primary interests and passions in life, happiness will very likely be a secondary offshoot. A cannot recall who said this and, although I don’t hold to it, I think it’s very likely true of most people; it’s that “states of happiness are the brief intervals between extended periods of unhappiness.” The master of pessimism is German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who had it pretty much right when he said, “A man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something that he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he is happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.” I would say that it’s quite normal for homo saps to have brief periods of being under a dark cloud of doom and gloom but if the episodes become frequently extended in this condition for more than a day or two – or it becomes permanent – you are in deep shit psychologically.
In recent decades literally thousands of so-called self help books on the power of the mind to alter reality have flown off the shelves of bookstores and devoured by the credulous masses. It’s always advisable to heed Philip K Dick’s famous statement that “reality is that which won’t go away when you stop believing in it”. Adding to the plethora of bright-sided writers, there are the many snake oil gurus who make a lucrative living on speaking tours promoting this unscientific pabulum. From Chopra to Oprah, many have become wealthy with their silly books, high five “everything is beautiful” speaking spectacles and motivation seminars.
Some people it would seem need a kick in the ass just to get up in the morning and when they finally do crawl out the sack, claim to be bored with nothing to do. As Albert Camus suggested, there’s always the option of suicide. I wonder if Camus would agree with the contention that it is pessimists may think of committing suicide but it is only the optimist who actually carries it out.
But is there any evidence that by thinking positively, one can expect constructive results when elementary science and common sense dictates that reality is mind independent and not something that can be altered by the power of the will? You can believe anything you want; that your tennis game is like that of Roger Federer, your IQ is 160 or that you will become happy and wealthy with the correct thoughts. But reality bites. The scientific evidence for such claims is ZERO. Sorry folks; the positive thinking movement is pseudoscientific psycho babble. Not only is there no benefit from positive thinking, I would argue, and the research tends to confirm my hypothesis, that the effects of positive thinking and an optimistic disposition are primarily counterproductive and work against your ability to succeed in whatever it is you want out of life.
Accomplishments are the direct result of assessment of the probabilities, risks, pitfalls and unexpected events that can have a detrimental effect on success. Ultimately it is preparation, planning, action, effort and old fashioned hard work, not the purity of positive thinking that will manufacture what you want out of life. Positive thinking is not only not effective, it’s a waste of time and effort that redirects you from scepticism, pessimism, probability and the critical thought that is required before any plan of action toward your goals are undertaken.
Pessimism, scepticism and even cynicism are antidotes to high expectation and the usually dubious reliance on others who will most of the time disappoint and fail you. And remember to keep in mind Murphy’s Law: "Anything that can go wrong will".
Pessimism correlates with higher earnings, fewer personal problems, more effective communication, greater allowance for contingencies, accidents and unexpected disaster, greater generosity and, as mentioned, less disappointment and depression. Excessive optimism can also lead us into taking a careless cavalier approach to our aspirations and projects that will set us up for failure, frustration and disenchantment. Pessimists generally meticulously double check and look both ways. Our mothers and teachers told us to stop, look and listen, a vanishing adage with many people behaving like distracted zombies perpetually locked into their self-lobotomizing cell phones and tablets as they attempt to navigate the normal duties and responsibilities of everyday life. Moreover, most people overestimate their abilities and intelligence. Research has confirmed it is generally the least intelligent and knowledgeable among us who overestimate their abilities whereas those with the highest intelligence and knowledge tend to exercise more humility with regard to their capabilities, both intellectual and physical. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The problems with the positive thinking movement have similar problems as more recent variations of it such as the misconstrued self-esteem and superfluous leadership horse manure.
Another problem with positive thinking quackery is that by its very design, it preys upon the poor, the destitute, the needy, the uneducated, ignorant and the down-and-out. What these people need more than anything else is not a gospel of faith, hope, optimism and a belief in cosmic justice that sets up a feedback loop of perpetual failure, but a course in reality therapy, rationality, logic and critical thinking skills. But those who have power over you do not want the latter; it’s not in their interests. They prefer docile obedient workers who never question anything, especially systemic injustice and inequality.
Forget about the counterproductive positive thinking horse crap and search out a good book on philosophy, scepticism, logic, rationality, mathematical literacy including probability theory, the scientific outlook and critical thinking. People who are unhappy are typically hopeless optimists, expecting that everything will work out for the best. Pessimists and cynics accept and expect nothing from anyone because the norm for homo saps, regardless of how passionately they promise you that you can rely on them is “they screw up” and repeatedly let you down. One of the benefits of expecting the worst is you'll never be disappointed. Positive thinking and its corollary, the Pollyanna principle, are especially pervasive in the fantasy bullshit worlds of religion, politics and business. Expect the worst case scenario and you’ll never be unhappily agonizing over frustration from optimistic expectation and promises unfulfilled. The Lord will provide, we’ll spend more on education and health care and that stock is heading for the stratosphere. Yeah, and a hippopotamus can fly.
Some of you may have attended (but hopefully not) Tony Robin’s seminars or perhaps saw this clown on TV as he wildly runs up and down the aisles high fiving people in the audience who were worked up into a state of almost religious frenzy over his message of “where there’s a will there’s a way” optimism and positive thinking. Think yourself to wealth was one of his vacuous mantras. I often thought that one of the worst aspects about being a motivational speaker, Christian Evangelical prosperity preacher such as Joel Osteen or any other kind of advocate for the power of positive thinking and faith must be the constant pressure to appear cheerful and upbeat. After all, if anyone ever catches you in an angry negative state of mind, grimacing, stressed out or feeling sorry for yourself which are normal episodes for anyone, it threatens to undermine everything you stand for. How do you maintain a smile and attitude of exhilaration for two hours?
The intellectual cess pool of poor and misleading information, bias, logical fallacy, superstition, religious nonsense and distorted, false and useless information and mind viruses have always been part of popular culture. For starters, avoid the corporate controlled cultural wasteland and brain rot like it’s a plague.
 Jordan Peterson’s book conveys a core common sense message that life works well if you take responsibility for your acts instead of blaming others. No one will disagree with this truism but he doesn’t explain what to do if your parents are a crack heads and alcoholics, Peterson considers axiomatic the fairy tale existence of a just world hypothesis and the meritocracy. Other motherhood recommendations are honesty and truth telling – although clearly truth telling is not an ethical absolute, as in cases in which doing so would endanger lives of others. He promotes the pursuit of “meaning” over transitory gratification, to make plans and structure your day to some utilitarian purpose - and by all means clean up your room. If distracted, directionless and clueless young men and women are listening to him then perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. But if they’d listened to their wise mothers and avoided the harsh rigidities and dogmas of the churches, they’d be far better off and likely wouldn’t need Peterson’s facile advice and childish guidance.
Although he is an educated articulate man with a few interesting things to say, some of his views are very disturbing, if not potentially toxic and even dangerous. Perhaps the best illustration of this is his position on economic inequality and notions of social injustice as if they were inevitable conditions that cannot be altered by human intervention. Because something is “natural” (like death, disease and tsunamis for example) doesn’t necessarily mean they are desirable. Capitalism surely is not “natural”, but rather a human construct. In 2018 for example, as a result of con man capitalist Donald Trump’s tax windfall to the rich driven primarily by the plutocratic impulses of the Republican Party, Warren Buffet alone was the recipient of $574,000,000 in tax savings. Walmart pocketed an extra $1.6 billion, Bank of America $2.4 billion and Apple $4.5 billion. Working people of the United States got less than zero due to wage slave pay slips and thousands of layoffs. Much of what Jordan Peterson advocates, especially his brutal ethos of competition for workers and socialism for the rich are a reflection of his cruel conservatism and capitalist libertarianism, not only would support these tax concessions but they fly in the face generally accepted moral principles such as the Golden Rule and the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. In short, Peterson is an intellectual fraud – an academic courtesan for wealth and power.
 Shaw was also cited as having said that, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”
 It is a truism that all humans like to be happy, but isn’t this more or less a tautological statement devoid of any insight and void of conceptual content. Yet this is the central thesis for the cult of happiness; we are happy about happiness. Happiness it would seem can be bought and paid for in measured and predictable doses, but is it the best value to strive for, and should we seek it as an end in itself when we can’t even define it? It’s like arguments for the existence of God, a concept so opaque no one has come up with a coherent definition for which a case can be made. Certainly all of the other emotions serve functions and should be valued. Our greatest art is commonly grounded in negative emotions and is produced from the states of mind of artists nearer conditions of angst and despair, not elation. What kind of paintings would Van Gogh have produced on weed or anti-depressants? Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of the past 150 years, wrote on numerous topics, including happiness. The title of his insightful book, published in 1930, was The Conquest of Happiness, suggesting from the outset that happiness was something to be defeated. Russell, in addition to being a very popular public intellectual, had a strong sense of injustice and during his long 98 years of life frequently suffered from bouts of depression, and it clearly influenced his views on the enigmatic concept of happiness. While he thought the absence of unhappiness was a necessary condition for happiness, he did not see it as a sufficient condition; rather, happiness was something one had to acquire, indeed, conquer, as the title suggests. In addition to the human propensity to boredom, ennui and fatigue, he cited the unhealthy obsession with wealth and pursuit of money inherent in capitalism and the Christian notions of sin and guilt as two major sources of unhappiness. What Russell called “zest” for life, including curiosity, an intellectual life, love of truth, hobbies and other pursuits that provide joy, including meaningful work are vitally important to the contented life. Russell would probably agree with the statement “the only thing more terrifying than the person who has nothing is the person who has everything.” After all, conditions can only get worse for the latter since the more you have, the more you have to lose.
Happiness is the god of a modern cult. Its promoters are lined up to sell us the secrets to its attainment and millions of willing consumers, like the disciples of a religion, will hand over their money, time and reverential veneration to those who would teach them its secrets. But happiness is an abstruse un-definable, unquantifiable notion and more importantly, no measure of ethical behaviour. It isn’t a new belief system; it dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. The Stoics considered contentment as the basis for living the good life. They considered our own mental states to be the masters over our circumstances and put the focus on personal action and responsibility for our attitudes to the vicissitudes of life. In modern times the happiness cult has spawned a pharmaceutical industry dedicated to overcoming any psychological discomfort as well as a seemingly endless supply of charlatans such as Tony Robbins and countless other well-known figures now supposedly legitimized by the positive psychology and the prosperity movement. Much of what passes for contemporary Christianity is devoted to the same agenda.
Perhaps what we need is simply a sense of humour in dealing with the idiots, ignoramuses, psychopaths and assholes of the world. Donald Trump will not be around forever.
 More dark wisdom from the prince of pessimism Art Schopenhauer:
Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. – Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism
There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful Being; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. - Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism
 I have reason to call to mind the distinction Albert Ellis made between a very bad outcome and an absolutely disastrous one. Imagine a worst-case scenario such as death or a fate even worse than death such as dementia and losing your intellectual faculties to the point of not even recognizing your spouse. If you were to attempt to answer rationally and honestly the question “What would be the worst thing that could happen to me”, the answer is very likely going to be extremely depressing and even terrifying. If it is finitely dreadful, rather than infinitely dreadful, there is perhaps a possibility of coping with it. Ellis once wrote: “If you are tortured to death slowly, you could always be tortured to death slower.” Stoicism can have benefits such as not holding to delusionary fables about an ethereal pain free eternal existence on Cloud Nine with Jesus after our death.
An infinite dreamless sleep and escape from a world gone mad is perhaps not so bad?
(i) Links that I found on a Google search:
A Zen Master trashes positive thinking.
Why Positive Thinking Is Bullshit
(ii) Three curmudgeonly web pages on this theme from www.skeptic.ca that I put together several years ago:
(iii) I highly recommend a book titled Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, all of whose books are worth reading.
(iv) George Carlin on Self-Help Books
On the Existential Challenges we face you may find these links useful:
Dr. Nate Hagens on Humanity, Mythology and Reality:
Dr. Nate Hagens on the Post Carbon Institute web site:
The 2020 documentary Planet of the Humans by Jeff Gibbs is an important contribution to the realities of what we face.
Richard Heinberg who appears in Planet of the Humans is the head of the Post Carbon Institute:
The Most Colossal Planning Failure in Human History from May 2021