Is there any deeper wound to humanity than despair, the loss of all hope or certainty? It rots you from the inside and renders you incapable of the most basic of tasks; the simplest moments of pleasure fade away. And in the world we’ve inherited, despair looms stronger than ever. Whether it be the systematic erosion of our rights, the impending deluge of climate change, nation-scarring civil wars and famine, or alienation from our labor or the most basic sense of community, despair has an omnipresent grasp on humanity. This loss of certainty and freedom destroys our hope that life will improve or that we will find salvation. However, the depths of despair and the uncertainty that comes with it illuminate the necessities and depravity of our society. While despair can push us into reaction or self-destruction, it can blossom into revolution through faith in collective struggle that rejects capitalist necessities and truths.
Despair In Itself
For those in despair, it certainly doesn’t feel like a blossoming of possibility. Regardless of the source, despair is parasitic, sapping away at every ounce of your essence. You find yourself incapable of functioning on a normal level, completing basic tasks, defending yourself, or even finding joy. Your senses are dulled, your body is weakened, illnesses last longer, and your thoughts are slowed or self-destructive. You’re tired, wounded, and afraid, and the despair wants nothing more than for you to surrender yourself to that anguish and waste away. I myself have surrendered to despair and sought death. Lost and hopeless, I could not envision a future in which I could contribute to humanity, and attempted to end my life. It was only by a stroke of luck, or an act of God, that I awoke on the floor of my basement. This attempt was the result of years of trauma, despair, and material decline accumulating without relief, and despite treatment and support, those thoughts constantly haunt me even today.
I am not alone: you do not have to look hard to find either someone in despair, or the sources for their desperation. Even in imperial America, “deaths of despair,” defined as deaths from suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol abuse, have grown. They are highest among indigenous, LGBT (especially trans), and non-college educated white communities. African American and Latin American communities in the imperial core have also experienced a rise in deaths of despair, owing to historically and consistently being subjected to poor material conditions, state violence, and exploitation, despite typically having lower suicide rates, maintaining stronger community ties, and being conditioned to expect these injustices. In perhaps one particularly overlooked crisis, young Asians and Pacific Islanders are the only demographic in America to have suicide as their leading cause of death. And while psychiatric treatments have shown some successes in soothing the mental anguish, they can’t affect the material and unavoidable sources of our despair, and that’s assuming we can even afford them. Psychiatry cannot alleviate poverty, war, famine, or terminal disease. It cannot house the homeless, feed the hungry, or end exploitation. We must understand and build a front against the material and societal sources of despair.
Despair has a myriad of endemic and seemingly unceasing material sources. Exploitation, poverty, material decline, war, starvation, homelessness: the list is unending. For many, our world racing into disaster from the effects of climate change is enough to send us spiraling into despair. The systematic annihilation, exploitation, and displacement of indigenous communities has blighted the survivors with incessant despair. They remain marginalized into destitute ethnically and culturally segregated enclaves reminiscent of South African Bantustans. Women and trans people have to survive constant attacks on their bodily autonomy and rights, as we see with abortion or gender affirming care; they also live in fear of violence or eradication. African Americans must fear the same rejection of their rights, as they face institutionalized marginalization and state violence at the hands of the racist police. Material decline in neglected white communities has led to the complete loss of jobs and opportunities, especially during the austerity and outsourcing of the 1990s, which only resulted in inflated profits for the capitalists in the imperial core and the further exploitation of countries in the Global South. A particularly stark example is Appalachia, which has been left with largely automated residual coal mining that blights their streams and communities with cancerous toxins. Americans in general are forced to reckon with exponentially rising rent levels nationally, which has only worsened the homelessness crisis nationwide.
In the Global South, exploitation, famine, and war at the hands of imperialist powers and their interests has helped lead to an epidemic of suicide by pesticide that accounted for a staggering 30% of suicides globally before many of these pesticides were banned. It continues to account for one-in-seven suicide deaths every year. War and exploitation in Ukraine has resulted in a crisis where workers see their hard-fought rights erode at the hands of their government as they are caught in the crossfire of ultranationalist ambitions. Yemen faces a crisis from the conflict there as well, where nearly half of the population starves from its genocidal imperialist neighbors perpetuating an endless sectarian civil war. War and poverty pervade in Iraq and Afghanistan as their countries still suffer from their occupation and desecration by their supposed “liberators.” History gives us examples of Africans jumping from slave ships to escape their fate. Escaped slaves drowning or hanging themselves when caught. Peasants driven to rebellion and supposed cannibalism against their feudal lords during times of plague or starvation, or in retaliation to exploitative laws.
Capitalism is grounded in material sources of despair much like the systems it replaced. However, it has exacerbated many of these issues to an extent never seen before. The exploitation and alienation of those forced to sell their labor needed to maintain its dominion only increases as profits begin to fall. At the same time, landlords and other parasitic actors extract profit from the very necessities of human life, creating an inescapable cycle of theft. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a particularly stark moment for this, as exploitation has accelerated and deepened to an extent we haven’t seen for a very long time. How are you supposed to have hope when the society you experience breeds despair?
It isn’t just physical danger and economic vulnerability that breeds despair. Our cities are split in half by colossal highways and partitioned according to class and race, while we are told to idealize living in residential suburbs that are designed in a way to detach us from community and accessibility. We are taught to make ourselves marketable and employable, to fully devote ourselves to our exploitation. Those who don’t fit what the market desires or are “broken” are cast aside. Victims are told their trauma is human nature, the natural order, their fault. Our media plays into reactionary cultural fears and socialization of those fearing the loss of the “familiar” and “normal”: the gender roles they were raised to hold sacred, and the superficial values that uphold their moral system. Intensely alienated young people are manipulated into misanthropic cults and drawn to radical views because they have been dissociated from their communities and exploited at every turn. They are made easy prey by loss of faith, of identity, of power, and of community. But recognizing these sources of despair offers no solution. It only opens our eyes to the everpresent torment we face every day.
Shestov and the Philosophy of Despair
Lev Shestov (1866-1938), a turn of the century Jewish philosopher from Empire-period Kiev, lived in an era of intense violence and revolution, losing his son in the first World War – another time of great despair. In his suffering, he devoted himself to attacking society’s truth, necessities, and use of reason. He argued that the truths found through human logic had left us constrained to the possible. He outlined how these truths constrain us through reason, stating that:
“he who tries to lead all men to his unique truth is not thinking of his fellow man. But he does not dare, he cannot himself, accept his truth as long as he has not obtained its recognition, real or fictional, by all others. For it is less important for him to possess truth than to obtain universal recognition. That is why the theories of knowledge and ethics occupy themselves so much with limiting as much as possible the rights of questioners.”
The very process of finding truths, whether it be scientific truths or those invented to justify our society, by the process’s nature, constrain us by defining impossibilities and projecting these truths as unalienable.
We are conditioned and taught of impossibilities, told of absolutes and commanded to stay within the reasonable. We are told of God’s law, but as dictated by the reason of man, and what is God if he is subordinated to reason and order? It is these very truths and necessities defining life and reality that foment despair. But even as we are tortured and left lost and hopeless, we are suddenly able to look beyond. The depravity and sickness of our society becomes apparent and universal. Shestov identifies this process of looking beyond our sick reality in the deepest pits of despair as faith; he pointed toward Scripture as his definitive source of faith. In Athens and Jerusalem, he explained that faith ultimately is “that dimension of thought where truth abandons itself fearlessly and joyously to the entire disposition of the Creator.” The Creator here is greater than just the God of Scripture; it is the experience that everything is possible. Faith in possibility is the crux of survival in a state of despair. He implored us to put our faith in possibility and struggle, break down the shackles of necessity and truth and envision a reality beyond necessity, beyond human reason and truth. Without despair, this reality cannot exist because we cannot see the injustices of our own. How does one question a reality where they enjoy the fruits of exploitation; what despair do they feel in their ivory towers? Even some of the exploited are blinded by the promises of capitalist reality cruelly dangled in front of them. This reality beyond ours is not bound by necessity, by impossibility, by truth; in this reality, everything is possible.
In our current world, this attack on necessity and truth is more important than ever. Exploitation, war, genocide, poverty, and the the state have all been justified as necessities, as truths, or human nature. The ruling class have lectured us on the end of history and the best possible systems, how they’re better than the alternatives, and how we must work our lives away to have even the faintest glimmer of hope. The God they uphold is a god of money, of exploitation, limited to the constraints of humanity and applied to our interests. In our despair, what loyalty do we owe these truths? What loyalty do we owe to their God or their human nature? We have inherited a society plummeting toward disaster and stripped of meaning. What do we have but our despair, our knowledge that we suffer? We see in our suffering the crimes and injustices of our world, the cruel reality of necessity. Why shouldn’t we devote ourselves to the attack on necessity, a force which seeks to subordinate us to the absolute? We must look beyond the absolute and put faith in our struggle, because struggle is what drives progress. Shestov echoed this in the last words he gave us: “Philosophy is not Besinnen [looking backward] but struggle. And this struggle has no end and will have no end.” Our struggle is universal, it is the only truth we know. And what is more revolutionary than struggle? What is a revolution but a challenge to human necessity and truth?
Faith in Struggle
In a concrete sense, despair allows us to question the legitimacy of every institution and belief system because it forces you to see the corruption of our world. There is no longer any certainty of justice or hope in despair. If there was certainty, you would have hope and trust in the world as it exists, and would not be as inclined to fall into despair. Material wealth is certainty; the ownership of capital is certainty. For some, identity, religion, and culture are certainties; unalienable foundations of life. They give you and your descendents security and instill faith in what is or will be. For those of us without certainty, security and faith seem impossible. Our existence is one of a constant struggle to endure, but it is this very struggle that allows us to wield our despair. It is what allows us to inspire others and find meaning, and turn impossibility into inevitability. This creates hope that is much stronger and more real than what our society advertises, because the certainties of our oppressors inherently exclude struggle. There is no struggle in the power and wealth that comes from their exploitation of others. They do not face the alienation that plagues us. Our struggle to end exploitation and alienation is given meaning because our struggle is forced upon us by exploitation and alienation. Without this, questioning necessity and truth and negating them is impossible. This struggle leads us to movements which seek to break the status quo, but only the materialism and revolutionary struggle of socialism provides us with the strength to completely destroy the necessities and truths of capitalist society.
Struggle is the foundation of every creed and faith; it is faith. Even in the darkest moments, we call upon our faith in the righteousness of our struggle, and suddenly impossibility is gone. This faith is the foundation of transformation and revolution, and has been since the dawn of man. It is God who consoled Habakkuk to have faith in times of great evil, assuring him “the righteous shall live by faith.” It is Jesus proclaiming to his disciples “humanly speaking it [salvation] is impossible, but with God everything is possible,” or subjecting himself to persecution, crucifixion, and death in the name of eternal salvation. It is Rosa Luxemburg declaring “your ‘order’ is built on sand,” even as the German revolutionaries suffered betrayal and defeat at the hands of the Weimar government and its fascist enforcers. It is what allows the embattled revolutionaries of Colombia and the Phillipines to continue their struggle despite decades of brutality at the hands of the state. They all struggled against the necessities and truths that plagued their societies and cursed them with despair, persevering through faith in their struggle and faith in progress. They knew that their victory was and is inevitable, no matter if they lived to see it, because it is not tied to necessity or truth. This is only made possible by despair; they saw the wickedness of our world and resolved to defeat it at its roots.
Obviously, it is easier said than done to place our faith in struggle or question the foundations of now. When you are at the mercy of exploitation and alienation, it is easier to resign yourself to despair. It is not enough to individually struggle and agitate against necessity and impossibility; this is hopeless. There is no one person who ever had or ever will have the strength to challenge these forces alone. The brutality of these forces will drive you insane. Violence at the hands of desperate individuals plagues our society, whether afflicted on others or themselves. We must work together to build a collective struggle which can spread this faith to the masses; this is the essence of any truly progressive movement. Together, we can build community and trust between ourselves, expose the injustices and depravity of society, and collectively challenge necessity and truth. Every successful union, revolutionary party, or guerilla front is upheld by their faith in collective struggle and their communion with each other. With this faith and strength, we can criticize every institution, every instance of “human nature,” and every necessity in confidence and strength. No matter how much these forces try to crush us and how long we must struggle, we are able to stand true and continue our struggle, because we are not limited by impossibility and our struggle is eternal.
In negating truth and necessity, we must avoid what Shestov referred to as Besinnung, or looking backwards. He believed it to be the ultimate failure of philosophers, asking in Athens and Jerusalem “will they ever understand that inertia, the law of the inertia which is at the foundation of the thought which looks backward and is always afraid of possible surprises, will never permit us to escape from the somnolent, quasi-vegetative existence to which we are condemned by the history of our intellectual development?” It doesn’t just leave us paralyzed in the name of truth and necessity, but also serves reaction. It is the ultimate enemy of progress and struggle. We must not hold on to the incorrect ideals and failures of the past; despair still ran rampant in those times of nostalgia, and humanity was still plagued by necessity and truth. The Ancien Régimes were not toppled by those adhering to a nonexistent ideal past. It is easy to get caught in the nostalgia of a past where you felt you were more valued by society, but these times were a lie. There is no ideal to return to, no past which was more real and true than now; if there had been, it would’ve persisted today. Reaction feeds off the despair of those who yearn for long-lost certainty and faith from a time they can’t even remember, where society upheld morality and justice. There is no struggle, no criticism, no faith in nostalgia; it becomes another truth to shield necessity and injustice, and another source for despair. Besinnung is one of the greatest enemies of struggle and progress, and something we must attack ferociously. You may even accuse Shestov of falling into nostalgia, as he seems to yearn for a time when the word of God was held above the reason of man, as Abraham did when he offered his own son Issac as a sacrifice, but in the Bible there is consistent criticism of what was true or necessary and persistent faith in struggle. Are Jesus’s attacks on the Temple authorities not criticisms of their truth and necessities? Does God not urge us to keep faith in times of struggle in Isaiah, assuring us that “my mercy and justice are coming soon”? We must know that faith that our struggles and perseverance in despair will be worth the progress and salvation to come. We must not yearn for our days in the mythical Garden or wait endlessly for our salvation to come; it is only through our collective struggle against our oppressors and against “human nature” that we achieve salvation.
Despair, even as it pierces the deepest parts of us, tears away the facade of capitalist society and reveals its inherent depravity and injustice. Instead of resigning ourselves to our fate, we must place our faith in collective struggle and possibility. Regardless of my suffering, I am grateful that my despair gave me the clarity to have this faith. We must viciously attack every single necessity and truth of capitalist society, human nature, and precedence, and tear down the instruments which justify exploitation and alienation. Our struggle is eternal, our despair is revolution, and our victory is inevitable. It is as Shestov said, “The kingdom of God, as it is written, is attained through violence”.