Voices: In 2023, things can only get better

As a professional miserabilist, it would be difficult for me fully to embrace Antonio Gramsci’s famous motto “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, even if I understood it properly.

Like most Marxist stuff, it’s quite the effort. Still, having sat through the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special, persevered with Elon Musk’s Twitter cesspit and generally surveying the mess the world is in, we have to remind ourselves that, as Gramsci suggests, the human will can overcome the most dismal of realities, despite our minds telling us the odds are against it.

In that spirit, then, and in the words of those of those post-Gramsci visionaries D:Ream: things can only get better. These are the breaks in the clouds.

First off, Putin. It is quite hard to envisage the fall of a brutal dictator who controls the means of production, distribution and exchange of information, but it’s happened before (not least in Russia’s own turbulent history). He is plainly in a war he cannot win, and is losing.

The “special military operation” in Ukraine failed, his troops have been beaten back and the only weapon they have left is to terrorise the civilian population. In doing so, they only strengthen Ukrainian resistance and make any eventual occupation (increasingly a remote possibility) impossible. Putin is systematically pulverising the “prize” he covets into rubble; and resentful, ungovernable rubble at that.

Those around Putin – the ones not being felled by freak accidents, that is – understand the reality of the situation very well. They may act. They may do so in concert with the people who inevitably are becoming more aware that the campaign is failing – since such once unspeakable things are now being aired on state television. They feel the international isolation and the economic impact.

We can’t know how Putin will fall, or his fate (not that it matters much), but when it happens the war will end, peace talks can begin in earnest, sanctions can ease, and the food and energy crisis will start to subside. With that will come lower inflation and a shorter, shallower recession, and the removal of a major threat to peace in Europe and the Middle East. The Somalis and Egyptians will be able to afford bread, and the Germans and the British can heat their homes. Most of all, the lives of many Russians and Ukrainians will be saved.

Nor is Vladimir Putin the only despot in trouble. In Iran, the ayatollahs should be terrified by the new craze of “turban tossing”. A cleric is bumbling down the street dreaming up new ways to punish the protesters when a young woman skips up behind him and knocks his headgear away, and she dashes off before the scholar’s turban hits the Tehran pavement. Naturally, she’s not wearing appropriate coverings herself, and the whole thing is videoed and uploaded for the nation to mock.

The mystique a theocracy needs to impose its authority is being dissolved, turban by turban, bare female head by bare female head. The scenes of dissent at the Qatar World Cup from the Iranian squad and fans were a confirmation to the world that change in Iran is coming. It is a pre-revolutionary situation, where the will of the people is overcoming the clumsy oppression by the few. It is spontaneous, and though sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini by the religious police in September, the disturbances have been growing for years.

An oil-rich nation with vast potential is wearied by fuel shortages, medievalist orthodoxies and international isolation. Iranians cannot be proud that their country is exporting deadly drones to Putin to slaughter civilians in Ukraine.

When the ayatollahs are forced to loosen their grip on power, and Iran rejoins the international community, then – as with Russia – the benefits, not least the oil, will flow far behind one nation’s borders. The proxy wars with Saudi Arabia and Israel may wind down, the nuclear treaty can be resumed, and both the region and the world as a whole will become a safer place.

It might not even be too much to hope that something of the same might happen in Afghanistan with the Taliban. The long war fought and lost against the Taliban by the West and so many Afghans may not have been in vain, because the experiences of freedom and modest social and economic progress over two decades can’t be erased by the Taliban so easily this time around.

The more brutal the religious police are, the more the resistance grows. The more women and girls the leadership deprive of education and human rights, the more they endanger the future of their regime. Things might actually improve in Afghanistan, against the odds, because of the will of the people there, who, given the poverty, have to be optimistic.

So there are reasons to be cheerful, because people can and do make a difference to the counties they live in. In the West, the nationalist populists and the neo-fascists haven’t disappeared, but democracy allowed people of the United States and Brazil to push back. There are signs, being parochial, that the full magnitude of the Brexit disaster is starting to change minds.

Sooner or later the public mood will be reflected in elections and policy. In other countries, there’s no alternative to more revolutionary methods. The very fact that in so many places things are so bad means that they must get better – the darkest hour comes right before the dawn. Happy new year.