Understanding and critiquing fatalism is a crucial task for political theory today. The bourgeoning array of writing on fatalism, despair, and resignation in relation to the ongoing climate catastrophe attests to this. Thus, a plethora of warnings against climate fatalism abound, spanning from Andreas Malm and Rebecca Solnit to The Economist and the British Medical Journal (Frumkin et al., 2022; Hassol & Mann, 2022; Malm, 2021; Solnit, 2023). This should not come as a surprise. After all, a global poll by Ipsos/Futerra found that a fifth of under-35s think it is ‘too late to fix climate change’, significantly higher than older age groups (Ipsos, 2024). Fatalism is a major problem and therefore requires a lot more attention by political theorists.

Meanwhile, despite widespread desire for ending exploitation, domination, and oppression, social transformation seems difficult to both imagine and effectuate. How can the world be improved if the people who inhabit it do not believe they can transform it in any meaningful and fundamental sense? What precisely stands in the way of such social transformation? Is it a lack of class consciousness, the fear and exertion of violence and domination, the pervasiveness of ideology or hegemony, the difficulty of coordinating collective action, or the mute compulsion of economic relations? All of these accounts provide variably compelling answers to the obstacles of emancipation historically and contemporarily.

In this article, however, I explore a different avenue of explanation that cuts across all of these: the problem of political fatalism, understood as a commitment to the belief that human agency cannot effectuate social transformation. Offering a better understanding of fatalism and its implications can contribute to combating despair in times of transformational impasse around climate change, far-right politics, and growing economic disparities. Rebecca Solnit contends that “despair, defeatism, cynicism and pessimism…are generally both wrong in their analysis and damaging in their consequences” (Solnit, 2023). Can we add fatalism to this list? Or is the charge somewhat different, namely that in order to proclaim their misguidedness and perniciousness we must first understand their structure and origins, treating them like a symptom? Yes indeed.

Political fatalism is a conservative position. As Annie Ernaux narrates in her portrayal of the straitjacket imposed by the anti-imaginative parliamentary politics of necessity, “all was derision and gleeful festive fatalism. The banlieues would blaze again, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was incurable. The planet was headed for disaster with global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps and the death of bees” (Ernaux, 2018, pp. 213–214). The foreclosure of alternatives requires the foreclosure in turn of acting to make those alternatives possible. Instead of political actors who can make the world in an emancipatory image, such antipolitical visions turn agency into the preserve of technocrats and bureaucrats who simply manage the economy like the CEO of a company. While it is true that the forces of capital restrict the ability of ordinary people to determine their own lives, by committing to this idea in a more extreme sense—i.e. that they have no ability whatsoever to affect their own lives—there is no point in even trying. There must be a space for bounded political and social self-determination. One of the tasks of political theory is to locate, explicate, and advocate for this space—as well as finding ways of expanding it.

In order to do so, understanding fatalism is crucial. Fatalism has long been a subject of attention for philosophers and theorists. Thus, in On Interpretation, Aristotle considers philosophical fatalism in its most abstract sense when analysing truth statements about the future. He uses the example of a sea battle to suggest that while a sea battle will necessarily either happen or not happen tomorrow, it is not possible to make a truth statement about whether a future event will or will not take place. Rather, it is a future contingent, in which even though it is certain that a battle will take place or it will not take place, this possibility is difficult to express as a claim about what is true and what is false. Contemporary philosophers likewise consider such fatalism mostly as an abstract problem. Hugh Rice defines fatalism as the view that ‘we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do’ (Rice, 2023). Similarly, Mark Bernstein understands fatalism as “the thesis that whatever happens must happen; every event or state of affairs that occurs, must occur, while the nonoccurrence of every event and state of affairs is likewise necessitated” (Bernstein, 2005, p. 65) and that things could not have turned out otherwise. Robert Solomon likewise argues that fatalism can be understood as “the idea that what happens (or has happened) in some sense has to (or had to) happen” (Solomon, 2003, p. 435). When a person defends fatalism, they are implying that it does not makes sense for them to consider what they should do to change the outcome, because their agency plays no role in affecting that outcome. While such fatalism in a broad sense is a long-standing problem in philosophy and political theory, its political implications remain relatively unexplored by political theorists. This opens a space for also theorising the socio-political, rather than merely epistemic, content of fatalism.

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, social theorists have considered more embodied forms of fatalism. These concern the individual’s relationship to larger structures in their daily lives as well as how to negotiate everyday agency under structural constraints. In what amounts to little more than a few pages, fading in contrast with the much more extensive and well-known treatment of anomie, Émile Durkheim discusses the importance of structural fatalism in explaining social behaviour. He is particularly concerned with fatalistic suicide as the kind of suicide motivated by overpowering regulatory structures which mean the individual experiences their life situation as one without any agency (Durkheim, 2005, o, 239n). This is structural insofar as it concerns the larger socio-political structures which constrain individuals to make certain highly bounded choices. In contrast to Durkheim’s structural fatalism, Gabriel Acevedo considers “cosmological fatalism” (Acevedo, 2008). This refers to the kind of fatalism that is often theologically grounded in the belief in a higher or external power, i.e. more cosmological or metaphysical belief systems which “socialize adherents to accept specific fatalistic world views” (Ruiu, 2013, p. 105). These two types of fatalism correspond to what in the empirical data analysed by Acevedo is phrased in questionnaires as, “How strongly do you feel that you are in control of what you would like to do in your life?” and “No matter what I want to do or be, there is much more superior power that fully determines the course of my life”, respectively (Acevedo, 2008, p. 1721). While cosmological fatalism leads its subjects to ideologically internalise one’s fate, structural fatalism involves not internalisation but (often reticent) acceptance.

As long as there is even the most remote possibility of unaccounted contributing factors (which could include a meteor strike, an alien invasion, or simply the power of collective agency), then fatalism is objectively incorrect. Further, if these factors are significant, then fatalism is implausible. Only by having a high degree of confidence that nothing unknown or human agency can contribute to the outcome of events is it possible to conclude that events cannot take a certain path (e.g. achieving socialism). As Hal Draper (1963) points out, stormy weather affecting the outcome of the Peloponnesian War does not mean that storms are meteorological accidents but rather historical accidents. Natural forces are mediated by social forces into a causal role. Likewise, lack of knowledge about future contingents does not mean that they are fully undetermined, it simply means that we do not have sufficient (i.e. full) knowledge to judge the chains of causation which will determine the outcome. Draper contends that “socialism is not realizable ‘by itself’, but as a result of the struggle of living forces, classes and their parties” (Draper, 1963). Fatalism is therefore also a problem of agency.

Yet the problem of fatalism is not just one of whether humans have free will or not, whether future events are predetermined, nor reducible to old debates on structure versus agency. In the philosophical definitions above as well as the sociological examples, fatalism is not necessarily confined to a political domain but can appear in and apply to a much wider range of phenomena and situations. The free will debate in philosophy concerns a metaphysical claim about fatalism tout court, as a condition of perhaps not only human but possibly even biological existence altogether. Yet I am concerned only with political fatalism, that is to say fatalism as the futility of political action. I explain below how such fatalism involves both cognitive, affective, and practical orientations towards the world. Before returning to the relationship between these distinct yet intimately related orientations, as well as offering potential solutions for overcoming them, I first distinguish the two main types of political fatalism, which each poses a threat to emancipatory politics today: fatalism of impossibility and fatalism of inevitability. Whereas fatalism of inevitability is all but gone today, fatalism of impossibility is rife. Let me therefore sketch the former before turning to a more detailed discussion of the latter.

Fatalism of inevitability

Fatalism of inevitability holds that positive social transformation through concerted human agency is necessarily going to come about; it is predestined. This can be grounded in a series of different commitments or propositions, mostly associated with organised religion or the most deterministic and mechanistic iterations of Marxism—thus, it can both fall in the cosmological and structural camps distinguished above. Bernstein notes that “for centuries, the driving force behind most discussions of fatalism has come from religion” (Bernstein, 2005, p. 75). Religious fatalism of inevitability can either be in an individualist or a structural form. On the individual side, fate and predestination for the devout person contains a strand of agency—being able to act positively towards the likelihood of salvation. In a structural form such as a redemptive millenarian eschatology, religious fatalism takes the omniscience and omnipotence of a monotheistic god to mean that while there could be tightly bounded individual agency, the overarching historical trajectory is outside the control of individuals within the larger structure. This in turn is distinct from theological fatalism, meaning attempts to reconcile the foreknowledge of god with human free will, a subject outside the concerns of this article (Fischer, 2016; Rowe, 1996, 2002).

Curiously, neither Bernstein nor most political theorists consider the role of fatalism in relation to questions of social transformation from a political perspective. This is the case even though Antonio Gramsci argues that the role of fatalism “could really be compared with that of the theory of predestination and grace for the beginnings of the modern world” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 342; Slothuus, 2024). The most mechanistic and economistic versions of Marxism hold social transformation to be inevitable because of the scientifically comprehendible structural conditions which necessarily will lead to a radical rupture in the mode of production. Here, the laws of motion of capitalist production generate a contradiction between the interests of the capitalist and working class. The ever-increasing rate of exploitation leads to the ever-increasing immiseration of the working class, which means their incentive to revolt gradually increases. Ultimately, wage labour keeps being further and further reduced to the basic social reproduction of daily life in order to facilitate the extraction of more and more surplus value. In Marx and Engels’ memorable formulation, “what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Marx & Engels, 2010). The class relations between bourgeoisie and proletariat are contradictory insofar as their interests are mutually exclusive, existing in an antagonistic relationship that is inherently unstable and eventually will break. However, even if social transformation is necessarily going to come about, it might not be the case that this happens like clockwork at a set time but rather that a concerted intervention into such a process can hasten its arrival. This can mean careful direction of the struggle through e.g. a Leninist vanguard party as a highly disciplined cadre.

However, inevitability need not imply determinism. Cohen shows how the “consistency problem” between Marx and Engels’ proclamation of inevitability is consistent with their call to arms in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere (Cohen, 1986). He argues that “the proposition that something will happen inevitably neither entails, nor is entailed by, the proposition that it will happen automatically” (Cohen, 1986, p. 80). While Marxist fatalism of inevitability is committed to capitalism eventually collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, it is possible to simultaneously hold that this will not happen independently of human agency. Precisely the character of human sociability and collective human activity can make the inevitability prediction meaningful. Cohen explains this further:

Marx and Engels thought socialism was inevitable, not whatever people might do, but because of what people, being rational, were bound, predictably, to do. It is therefore no more irrational for Marxists to struggle for the goal they regard as inevitable than it is for an army of overwhelming strength to fight and thereby achieve its inevitable victory (Cohen, 1986, p. 65).

Since capitalism is not a natural law but a human construct, the very forces that created it will be the ones that lead to its demise.

Nevertheless, on a less optimistic view fatalism of inevitability in its hastened form can also mean recklessness, impatience, and adventurist spontaneism, which can be used to justify insurrectionary action serving to accelerate the move towards social transformation. An expediency approach involves a commitment to voluntarism, i.e. purposeful direction of the course of historical development through conscious intervention. This, for instance, is found in ultra-leftist and anarchist insurrectionism (The Invisible Committee, 2009; Tiqqun, 2010, 2011). Here, impatience with the slow progress of social transformation can lead to the temptation to try to consciously intervene by sharpening the contradictions of capitalism, e.g. through forms of direct action that intensifies the antagonistic relationship between capitalists and workers. This emerges from the emboldened confidence of knowing that change is necessarily going to come about, which then means the possibility of defeat is slim. Even if a fatalistically inspired adventurist action fails, the overall direction of movement is such that it is merely a blip rather than a general setback or reversal of direction. Jolting a movement into action or onto the right path is therefore consistent with fatalism of inevitability.

Judging these two forms of fatalism of inevitability touches on long-standing structure-agency debates in Marxist and critical theory and cuts to the core of historical materialism (Callinicos, 2004). In Marx’s well-known words from the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it in present circumstances, given and inherited. Tradition from all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (Marx, 2002). In other words, historical processes are driven not merely by structurally determined forces but also by agential interventions through forms of struggle on the part of the revolutionary subject of capitalism, i.e. the organised working class. This is one of the key takeaways of Engels’s Anti-Dühring and its revised derivative Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, both of which warn of the danger of underappreciating the materialist basis of struggle in favour of idealist and moralist persuasion. While Albert Dühring contends socialism is the “natural system of society” governed by a “universal principle of justice”, Engels (and Marx) consider that “class antagonisms” are what will give rise to socialism (Engels, 1970).

Yet theorists disagree on the extent to which the political-agential is distinct from the economic-structural (Wood, 1981). If one were to subscribe to the entirely mechanistic version of this analysis, agency and struggle are superfluous because social transformation is inevitably going to happen through structurally determined social and economic conditions. A commitment to inevitability can therefore lead to complacency, a point emphasised by Draper too (1963). If social transformation is inevitable, one can merely sit back and wait for it to arrive like a “thief at night”, to invoke C.L.R. James’ paraphrase of Marx (James, 1982). One day society may simply be emancipated because the structural processes that necessarily will play out have come to their natural and logical conclusion. This is in contrast to the traditions within Marxism that emphasise the importance of political struggle, from Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg to the Political Marxists who reject overly deterministic and structuralist accounts.

This kind of fatalism is concerned with a positive view of the future. In the Marxist account, capitalism will necessarily crumble due to its internal contradictions, which will usher in a socialist and ultimately communist society. The idea of progress is therefore central to fatalism of inevitability in this form. Marxist fatalism of inevitability is about the emancipation of humans from the exploitation and domination of capitalism, and the transition to a better form of organising human social relations. Furthermore, such a view is conditioned by the very idea that if socialism and communism are possible, this might say something about the character of humans and their capacity for cooperation, mutuality, sharing, and benevolence. In other words, inevitability is specifically historical inevitability, given the relevant facts about human history and the character of social relations in human society. For Marxists, then, fatalism of inevitability is therefore fatalism of historical inevitability (Draper, 1963). Reckoning with the force of historicism is important in the emergence but also the dispelling of fatalism, as shall become clear at the end of this article.

Fatalism of impossibility

Yet there is a second kind of fatalism in contrast to the positive religious or Marxist eschatologies above—a negative version. It is possible to think that any positive fundamental change is impossible and therefore that any social transformation that will occur will be of a disastrous or at least negative character. The most prominent example of this today is probably climate apocalypticism, i.e. that humanity has reached beyond the crucial tipping points that would allow a halting if not reversal of climate catastrophe and that there is no possibility of human agency that could avert such a course of action—in short, that we are doomed. Such a vision of doom can be found in literary works like Omar El Akkad’s American War (El Akkad, 2017) or what Srinivas Aravamundan calls “catachronism”, meaning a form of creeping catastrophic determinism that “re-characterizes the past and the present in terms of a future proclaimed as determinate but that is of course not yet fully realized” (Aravamudan, 2013, p. 8). Such a vision is in contrast to an anachronism, which is essentially the opposite—a form of being out of sync with time. Catachronism is about being not yet in sync with a (fatalistic) future.

Such catachronism is particularly pertinent vis-à-vis climate apocalypticism. Aravamundan emphasises how “catachronism cannot function without the operational assumptions of a theological grasp of time, whereby anticipation, belief, and application on the present are integrated as inexorably leading to a known and inevitable outcome, especially after the bombshell dropped by the 2007 [IPCC] report” (Aravamudan, 2013, p. 8). Current climate apocalypticism thus has connections to the earlier nuclear apocalypticism of the Cold War era insofar as “climate change continue[s] the same nuclear logic of planetary obliteration except slightly more slowly” (Aravamudan, 2013, p. 8). Here, the threat is a mutual destruction of the nuclear superpowers and the risk of total obliteration of life on earth, whereas in its present form it mostly deals with anthropogenic climate change brought on chiefly by fossil fuel emissions. In both cases, however, the fear of destruction involves a kind of fatalism of an impending disaster; a negative fatalism of the impossibility of changing course away from catastrophe.

Fatalism of inevitability was clearly more prevalent and plausible before the burdensome weight of variably failed, degenerated, and thwarted twentieth-century revolutions questioned the promise of emancipation and social transformation. For example, the German state suppressing the communist 1919 Spartacist Uprising and 1921 March Action weakened the plausibility of revolution in the most industrially advanced parts of Europe, and the descent of the Soviet experiment and the successive divisions within the communist movement (the Sino-Soviet split, the Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring, the Polish solidarity movement, and Tiananmen Square to name a few key schisms) stands as a monument of disappointment for contemporary revolutionaries. The unredeemed promise of fatalism of inevitability produces morbid symptoms, including widespread left-wing melancholia towards the time at which such fatalism was still genuinely credible (Traverso, 2016). Yet, in contrast to the widely celebrated conceptualisation of this problem that sees such melancholia as the cause, not symptom, fatalism must be placed at the centre (Brown, 1999). All of this points to the demise of fatalism of inevitability in its positive version today.

In contrast to such fatalism of inevitability, however, fatalism of impossibility is currently rife. It holds that negative social transformation is bound to come, or that positive social transformation cannot happen. The overwhelming scale of the ongoing climate crisis, for instance, can breed fatalism of impossibility as the solutions seem to be so far away—evidenced by the repeated failures of truly global cooperation, solutions, and negotiations. Yet the climate crisis can be the breeding ground of fatalism on a much more basic level. The possibility of a mass extinction event, in which anthropogenic climate change leads to countless species disappearing from earth—perhaps in the ultimate instance including humans—might sow doubt about the very tenability of sustained human life on the planet. Naturally, this course of catastrophe would mean that fatalism has been redeemed, insofar as social transformation away from the current course of action was seemingly impossible.

However, such fatalism of impossibility can be either absolute or contingent. Absolute fatalists are committed to a transhistorical and universal belief in the futility of action and a fated impossibility of positive social transformation, despite the particular historical juncture or political context within which such a claim is made. One example might be advocates of social democracy as a response to the purported failure of communism, leading to only the gradualist and reformist path towards moderate social change being open. Likewise, a severe form of capitalist realism—a full interpellation of the neoliberal slogan “there is no alternative”—can manifest as a kind of absolute fatalism of impossibility. The ever-increasing integration of the economic world-system is then seen as such a strong straitjacket on structural change that all that can be hoped for is piecemeal changes or slowing the inevitable forward march of immiseration and dispossession. Indeed, at the turn of the century in a critique of materialism, Pierre Bourdieu pointed out how the “fetizishation of the productive forces” found in the most economistic forms of Marxism “is to be found today, paradoxically, in the prophets of neoliberalism and the high priests of the Deutschmark and monetary stability”, what he summarises as “bankers’ fatalism” (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 126, original emphasis). Yet not all absolute fatalists of impossibility hold this view explicitly—conservatives, for example, might simply hold an implicit normative commitment to non-transformation rather than any kind of explicitly worked out claim about whether or not this is possible. Moreover, as is often the case with critiques of Marxism’s ‘economism’, this is in large part a strawman without references to any concrete examples, an empty signifier adept at discrediting Marxism tout court.

Contingent fatalists, on the other hand, might think that action in principle could cause social transformation but for a variety of contextual reasons it is not possible at a particular conjuncture. Without a (transformative) subject or an agent of change, fatalism can be rife. The supposed demise of the working class as a class in and for itself, with class consciousness of an uneven and combined form, would jeopardise the possibility of a working-class revolution overthrowing the capitalist class. The growing salience of individual and group identities, from the (then-)new social movements of the 1968-generation and its successors, ostensibly means the social basis of an emancipatory and transformative subject as the agent of change is growing increasingly unclear. The immiserated urban industrial working class of the early parts of the second half of the twentieth century was more clearly identifiable as a coherent subject capable—by virtue of the internal contradictions of capitalism leading to the production of its own gravediggers—of overthrowing the capitalist mode of production. Yet in the present age, the more diffuse character of the wretched of the earth can give rise to a fatalistic view even among those who want social transformation. This kind of contingent fatalism of impossibility is therefore based on a sober social analysis of the possible avenues of social change.

Other more subtle reasons for contingent fatalism could include the prevalence of a debilitating instrumental rationality, loss of confidence in conventional radical predictions for the future, or resignation in the face of repeated failures in attempting to challenge the status quo. In the latter version, many if not most of those committed to emancipatory social transformation in principle will fall into this category at various points. For example, Gramsci points out how fatalism of impossibility is often a symptom of a movement in retreat and on its knees after successive defeats: “one should emphasise how fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position. This is why it is essential at all times to demonstrate the futility of mechanical determinism” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 337). This point weighs importantly on the affective dimension of fatalism, because while absolute fatalism is difficult to challenge, contingent fatalism need not be a lost cause beyond repair—it can and must be ultimately dispelled.

Fatalism as a cognitive problem

Having distinguished the two main types of fatalism, I now develop a vision of its three constituent dimensions: cognitive, affective, and practical. For cosmological forms of fatalism, Acevedo stresses how a key component is to see it as “cognitive orientation” (Acevedo, 2008, p. 1741) involving some degree of active choice rather than simply a predetermined given transmitted down during the individual’s upbringing. Since I have explained how fatalism of impossibility is the more pressing contemporary concern, the following analysis is concerned primarily with this type of fatalism. Fatalism of impossibility often intersects with a lack of imagination on a cognitive level. Those who see emancipatory change as impossible might do so out of the belief that no matter how much this change would be desirable, it is simply impossible both to imagine what it looks like and how to get there. The most dangerous threat to social transformation is therefore the twin position that action is futile and that alternatives are unimaginable. Conceiving, elaborating, and proliferating an adequate account of faith is a crucial step in dispelling fatalism undergirding the futility of action position. Such a move clarifies how resistance is a central part of shaping history by cutting to the cognitive and affect motivations underpinning political action. This then points to the importance of the interplay between theory and practice. If fatalism is in part the product of particular theoretical conceptions of the world, these conceptions can and must be changed.

The cognitive dimension is closely related to reason. We can give all kinds of reasons as to why fatalism makes sense as a commitment. These include observations about the failures and defeats of real-world movements to realise social transformation, i.e. that the empirical record seems to suggest that there is no outside or escape from the status quo. Another reason might be larger logical or structural explanations about the stabilising force of the existing social structure. Posing fatalism of impossibility as a cognitive problem raises the question of where such a cognitive aspect of fatalism is produced—what are its origins? Who or what has an interest in a commitment to fatalism? This correlates closely with ideology. One of the major functions of ideology is to suggest there is no alternative, no way out, no escape.

While ideology is a key component of cognitive fatalism, there are at least two other ways in which fatalism in a cognitive sense can gain hold: coercion and mute compulsion. Coercion, usually in the form of the implied threat of violence, can mean that the physical force of state apparatuses is so overwhelming that any fundamental change is not just futile to attempt but logically possible. In other words, if social transformation involves the abolition of the status quo in order to reconfigure and restructure social relations and the production process, then those status quo forces will be unlikely to give up such power voluntarily. This implies the central role of struggle. Unless this is entirely political, i.e. through representative democratic institutions with which the capitalist class fully complies regardless of the decisions they impart, struggle goes beyond the merely political into an antagonistic confrontation.

Such coercion can be either (inter)personal or structural. In its (inter)personal form, the coercion is literally of one person coercing another—for instance, the owner of a factory pointing a gun at a striking worker, impelling them to go to work, or the implied threat of such a gun, i.e. by hiring an armed private security guard who never has to load their weapon yet by virtue of their mere presence secures compliance. In its structural form, this can be the implied threat of organised and coordinated violent groups like the police, paramilitary groups, or the military, or even some abstract notion of the state as containing a potential deployment of force even if hypothetical. Fatalism can take both of these forms: coercive or ideological. Coercive fatalism means the threat of violence, domination, or another other kind of coercion impels people to subscribe to a view that these stand in the way of any social transformation of society. Ideological fatalism means the internalisation of dominant values and principles, rather than the (real or implied) physical aspect of such domination that leads to consent, engenders a fatalistic worldview where this domination is legitimate. Coercive fatalism is resistant or reluctant that might recognise the desirability of non-fatalism but sees it as impossible, whereas ideological fatalism is enthusiastic or at least irenic and more genuinely committed to the non-possibility of social transformation. What unites the two, however, is the cognitive dimension.

In contrast to these two, there is a third kind that does not rely on coercion or ideology but can also foster fatalism: mute compulsion. Rather, as a form of economic power, such mute compulsion compels by virtue of the economic processes that ground capitalist society (Mau, 2022). As Søren Mau contends, coercion/violence and ideology do not account for the sum total of how exploitation and domination are made possible in capitalism. Rather, there is a third force, namely mute or dull compulsion, which compels people not just as an economic relation but as a more generalised economic dimension of social relations tout court (including economic relations): ‘economic power is a distinctive form of power which cannot be reduced to either ideology or violence, and that it forms a part of what Marx calls the “core structure” of capitalism, i.e. that it is at work in all variants of the capitalist mode of production’ (Mau, 2021, p. 5). Such economic power is a form of mute compulsion because it is indirect in contrast to the direct power of ideology and coercion—since it works “by remoulding its social and material environment in a manner that forces it to act in accordance with the logic of valorisation. Economic power or mute compulsion is thus a form of power which is rooted the ability to reconfigure the material conditions of social reproduction” (Mau, 2021, p. 6). This has a crucial bearing on fatalism and moreover takes it in an affective rather than purely cognitive direction.

Coercion or violence constitutes a direct form of domination because its avoidance requires a cognitive understanding of the undesirability of such coercion and a corresponding set of conduct. Ideology also constitutes a direct form of domination because it also requires a set of cognitive beliefs and relies on getting subjects to think in a certain way, whereas mute compulsion functions by a much more basic and not necessarily cognitive function. Economic power does not require knowledge or understanding of the processes that go into producing the compulsion to participate. Rather, by sheer necessity of socially reproducing one’s life, one has no choice but to participate in the economic system. This is not primarily a cognitive problem because social reproduction is a more immediate and embodied set of practices that do not require explicit reasons in order to be undertaken.

Fatalism as an affective problem

Therefore, while fatalism clearly involves a cognitive dimension, insofar as it concerns a form of reason-giving that commits to a particular predictive or future-oriented understanding of the unfolding of social processes in the form of coercion or ideology, it would be a mistake to confine it merely to this dimension. Instead, a part of the way in which fatalism plants its roots in the people is through an affective dimension. Here, “affects” should not be understood simply as immutable biological processes that give rise to particular emotions over which humans have no agency. I take affects to mean the experience of emotions lodged in webs of social relations and structures which influence and are influenced by cognitive and bodily states (for a narrower version, see e.g. Shouse, 2005). To separate the affective dimension of fatalism from the cognitive is not a claim about their independence: “the cognitive and the affectual are not distinct, and especially not opposed, spheres, but are rather inseparable aspects of each other” (Barker, 2001, p. 176). Rather it highlights the importance of the dimension of the mental realm that is not reducible to cognition alone.

Moving beyond coercive and ideological frameworks, mute compulsion explains how fatalism takes hold in a way that is not only cognitive but also affective. The imploration of a fatalistic worldview can be grounded in the more immediate bodily requirements of the social reproduction of the valorisation of life. Such social reproduction gives rise to all kinds of affective aspects of social life—once we are confronted with the production process and how to survive in it as individuals within a web of social and economic relations, we may become angry, resentful, sad, despairing, resigned, or deflated, or subject to a host of other emotional and affective states. These can both ground and/or be grounded in fatalistic worldviews. While some affects do not lend themselves well to fatalism, others do. For instance, anger is unlikely to generate a fatalistic attitude. As feminist theorists have shown, anger implies a desire for change because it puts a demand on individuals or structures to be different and end the cause of anger (Lorde, 1981; Srinivasan, 2018). This is in tension with fatalism, which is about the inability of change.

In contrast, feeling despair or resignation is particularly conducive to fatalism. Resignation, for example, can actually be understood as the emotional response to the cognitive belief in fatalism. Such resignation therefore contains both a cognitive belief most likely acquired through political defeats, which then moves from merely cognitive to affective when the subject holding it is confronted with the material world of social reproduction, bodily encounters, and the forms of exploitation and domination which give rise to alienation and social suffering. Resignation, on such a view, is a fertile breeding ground for fatalism because the overwhelming and overpowering force of the seeming inelasticity of the social world lends itself well to fatalism about the impossibility of ever overturning it. In line with Gramsci’s point above about fatalism being political will in a weakened position due to successive defeats, the attitudinal dimension plays a major role as to how political actors—social movements, party cadres, union organisers, and so on—respond to losing battles without having lost the war. This connects to how Solomon sees fate “not as the expression of any mysterious agency or as an inexplicable necessity but as part of the larger narrative in which we live our lives” (Solomon, 2003, p. 452), i.e. a kind of meaning-making through narrative experience and story-telling about our present condition and the possibility of changing it.

Affects in themselves are not by definition governed by fatalism—i.e. unmalleable or perhaps even unchangeable. Using a materialist lens, while such affects are structured by the prevailing social and economic forces in society, there is scope for agency and struggle on the part of individuals and collectives alike to change them. As Sharon R. Krause contends, “a better appreciation of the material, distributed quality of human agency can illuminate subtle dynamics of domination and oppression and reveal resources for potentially liberatory political action”, indeed, “understanding the corporeality of agency may help us to exploit more effectively the grounds for the emergence of emancipatory political action” (Krause, 2011, pp. 299, 318). Unfortunately, Krause’s starting point is to place such a material embodied element of human agency in a rival position to historical materialist account as found in e.g. Marxism. This is a mistake, and Krause does not elaborate on why she thinks the ‘old’ materialism of Marxism is incompatible with the ‘new’ materialism of embodied politics and corporeal agency. A more promising path is to embrace the contributions of a dialectical and materialist theory that do not see a disconnect between the two to the problem of human agency, in this case particularly against fatalism.

For the individual, the mute compulsion of capitalist society forces them to engage in the valorisation of life under conditions of surplus value extraction in a class-determined market exchange. Yet there is still space to at least act upon affective responses. Through political struggle, such forces can be ameliorated if not entirely overturned—and even on a more quotidian level can be resisted. Because affects are socially constituted rather than equivalent to a counterfactual of atomised individual emotions, the social structures and relations within which they exist are within the reach of the individuals which constitute them. Fatalism is therefore partly an affective problem because the cognitive dimension gets lodged in a more complex web of feelings, emotions, and ultimately affects.

Fatalism as a practical problem

Yet ultimately fatalism is a problem of political practice, since the cognitive and affective components interact with practices to debilitate action. The purpose of an ideological, coercive, or compulsive fatalistic apparatus is precisely to prevent or preclude any kind of action to destabilise and ultimately overturn the existing order—to naturalise it. On this dimension, fatalism is an obstacle to action. Fatalism of inevitability is more likely to breed spontaneism and adventurism in order to hasten what will necessarily come about anyway.

Fatalism of impossibility can lead to paralysis because no action can salvage redemption. If positive change is foreclosed by definition, action might not make much sense. Indeed, psychologists link fatalism to a higher incidence of depression, pessimism, and debilitation (Roberts et al., 2000). As mentioned above, Durkheim famously charted the prevalence of suicide, yet not just egoistical suicide but also fatalistic suicide, i.e. the kind of terminal decision to end one’s life in the face of a seemingly unchangeable set of circumstances (Durkheim, 2005). Today, this kind of suicide is often termed a ‘death of despair’ precisely because it stems from a lack of belief—cognitive or affective—in the ability to influence the future. Here, the only thing that can be changed (in the eyes of the person in question) is the very fact of life itself. In other words, once a person subscribes to a fatalistic worldview (of impossibility), this is likely to lead to action paralysis and both an unwillingness and inability to engage even in melioristic efforts to marginally improve existing conditions.

Thus, the problem with fatalism of impossibility is not simply that it stands in the way of radical social transformation but also that it discourages or even prohibits small-scale political organisation and progress. The track-record of defeat and success affects the behavioural patterns of actors, such that even intellectuals committed to emancipation find it difficult to escape a fatalistic attitude of action paralysis. This is a particularly germane issue in relation to climate change, which may seem so overwhelming that it is not just difficult to locate where to intervene but can lead to action paralysis. For example, even people who are deeply committed to living within planetary boundaries may find the scientific evidence so overwhelming that even minor behavioural changes become blocked.

Hence, if fatalism reigns supreme, this places severe restrictions on the kind of emancipatory action that is possible. As Wendy Brown notes, the conviction that social transformation is foreclosed can breed a resigned collapse into milquetoast reformist individualist human rights discourse:

Is the prevention or mitigation of suffering promised by human rights the most that can be hoped for at this point in history? Is this where we are, namely, at a historical juncture in which all more ambitious justice projects seem remote if not utopian by comparison with the task of limiting abuses of individuals? Is the prospect of a more substantive democratization of power so dim that the relief and reduction of human suffering is really all that progressives can hope for? (Brown, 2014, p. 462)

This would be a mistake. Indeed, Brown claims that fatalism of this sort is a kind of “anti-politics” in which “a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power” is all that can be achieved (Brown, 2014, p. 453).

Yet perhaps counter-intuitively, fatalism of impossibility can also lead to excessive voluntarism of the kind mentioned above under the spontaneism rubric. This is because if all is lost and the sentiment that nothing matters prevails, a morbid nihilism can lead to destruction for aesthetic or libidinal reasons—as in the proto-fascist Futurists’ slogan “fiat ars, pereat mundus!” (create art, let the world perish!) (Benjamin, 1968, p. 242). This is a form of nihilistic destruction because it is rooted in a sense that the world is beyond saving and therefore pleasure can be taken from the show of power involved in destroying it instead. Seeing the fire and flames of a downfall and the descent into bare life might be an aesthetic nihilism of pleasure that embraces suffering. In more emancipatory directions too, however, one can find insurrection spontaneism based in fatalism of impossibility committed to non-impossibility, i.e. that spontaneous action can be a form of insurgence leading to a broader rise-up against hegemonic power. In contrast, forms of action rooted in a genuine nihilism of despair can lead to aesthetic or libidinal desires to destroy or sabotage for its own sake.


How can such fatalism be overcome? How can theorist or intellectuals help break the hegemony, debase the ideology, and capture the power that instils fatalistic visions? More concretely, how can this be done while navigating the space between “economism, syndicalism, spontaneism” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 123) on the one hand and an oversimplified vanguardism on the other? The transformation of society with its necessary antecedent, concurrent, and subsequent transformation of minds and hearts requires not proselytising the good word but acting in political struggle and resistance as a kind of prefigurative recipe for envisioning and acting out a different kind of existence. This is simultaneously a very difficult and very important task, given the perils of fatalism in the face of a burning planet ridden with economic inequality and far-right politics on the rise. In order to approach possible solutions, interventions must ideally address all three levels—cognitive, affective, and practical—in order to be credible and effective.

On the cognitive level, a major intervention against fatalism is critique. This is the classic weapon in the inventory of the critical theorist for dispelling ideology and likewise functions to dispel fatalism, since it can be expanded to include the coercive and mute compulsion dimensions of fatalism. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello propose that only a renewed form of social critique can dispel fatalism: “the only hope for reopening the field of possibilities consists, in our opinion, in a revival of critique” (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007, p. 535). Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Édouard Louis heed this call in their Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive, arguing for a “principle of intervention” in which left-wing intellectuals should try “as often as possible, to intervene, to occupy space. In short, to bring the left to life” (de Lagasnerie & Louis, 2015). Importantly, this is not an argument for critique as the only driver of social transformation. Rather, critique is the only hope for dispelling the cognitive dimension of fatalism, i.e. the sociological assessment that social transformation is impossible. Moreover, social critique is wider than the production of intellectual tracts and encompasses forms of social organisation such as an organised labour movement and political activism. These contribute to social critique because they challenge the status quo through political practice. Similarly, Roland Bleiker contends that “discourse” is the best way to approach questions of “human agency”, and that this need not succumb to fatalism about the all-encompassing and co-opting power of even critical discourse (Bleiker, 2003, pp. 25–26). Such critique must deploy a degree of historicism.

Fatalism must be historicised, such that its contingent character is brought to the fore. This can be done through a dialectical understanding of politics. By showing that the past was not only different but that the present came about in unpredicted and unexpected ways, future presents can do the same. As Charles Rappoport points out (1911), “the dialectical method is therefore quite the contrary of fatalism. In making us cognisant of historical necessities, it makes us able to effectively combat the fatalist decree of capitalist ignorance that there always have been poor, and always will be! No, replies the dialectical method. Capitalist poverty is an ‘historical category’, which will disappear with the historical conditions which create and nourish it”, This echoes Draper’s point on the Peloponnesian War around contingency and specificity. By showing that fatalism is historically situated and emerges in response to defeats or weakness, it can be combatted.

While there is a crucial role to be played by what both they and the broader tradition of French sociological critique, chiefly Bourdieu, propose, namely an integrated programme of scientific inquiry to chart the bases of exploitation and social domination, this cannot be the full answer because it only tackles the cognitive domain. One way to broaden the potential of such critique is to move it beyond this cognitive domain by embracing what Boltanski and Chiapello call “artistic critique”, yet this has severe limitations because of the power of capitalism for co-optation of challenges (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007). Therefore, a slightly different path is to target the affective domain specifically. Here, the work of Gramsci is instructive. He points out how it is insufficient to know and understand; these must be complemented with a connection to the feelings of people. For a more detailed exposition of how Gramsci’s work can contribute to understanding and dispelling fatalism, see (Slothuus, 2024) .

More generally, critique should be supplemented with harnessing the power of the imagination. Fatalism can be dispelled through the identification and acknowledgement of the real possibility of future alternatives. This can come in many distinct forms, e.g. Erik Olin Wright’s real utopias, David Graeber’s everyday communism, and Mathias Thaler’s appeal to the power of science fiction utopias. The basic idea here, following Thaler, is that the imagination can generate alternate visions of the world, which can in turn dispel fatalism and engender a degree of optimism about the possibility of things being otherwise. Specifically, Thaler proposes three kinds of utopian cases: “what if”, “if only”, and “if this goes on” to suggest how science fiction stories can make us find hope in narratives that portray an alternative world (Thaler, 2022). The “what if” kind raises the possibility of things being different, “if only” proposes that things would be better if they were different, while “if this goes on” warns against the dangers of inertia and staying on course, in other words proposes the urgency of social transformation (Thaler, 2022). All three challenge forms of fatalism, particularly in relation to climate change.

While critique and imagination are crucial for tackling fatalism, properly addressing the affective dimension of fatalism also requires attention to material conditions because although the ideological element of the cognitive dimension can arguably be addressed in large part through culture, this is not as straightforwardly true for the affective dimension. Affects are not simply a by-product or downstream consequence of cognition. It would be a mistake to place cognition and affect in that kind of hierarchy. Considering the twin character of fatalism as involving both the attitudinal or cognitive dimension of a belief, a key aspect to explore is therefore the mutual constitution of collective action and the production of hope. This can be done through a circumscribed or measured adventurism or spontaneism. As Andreas Malm puts it, it is “better to die blowing up a pipeline than to burn impassively—but we shall hope, of course, that it never comes to this. If we resist fatalism, it might not” (Malm, 2021, p. 151). Malm’s incendiary call to arms no doubt has a key role to play in rabble-rousing as a political strategy, particularly in relation to climate change where the shutting down of a coal-powered factory or plant has a direct and tangible effect.

This relates back to Cohen’s point about the consistency between fatalism of inevitability and nevertheless engaging in action to bring about the inevitable, what he calls the consistency problem. Cohen argues that there is indeed consistency, because the inevitable is not arriving at a fixed point in time and with a fixed amount of suffering or sacrifice (Cohen, 1986, pp. 66–67). Rather concerted action can speed up, simplify, or smoothen the process of social transformation. A similar principle applies to fatalism of impossibility—on a cognitive level, even if one thinks it is impossible to fundamentally change society, this does not mean that any and all action is entirely pointless. Delaying climate catastrophe even slightly might significantly reduce the suffering involved, and even if someone thinks that overthrowing capitalism is impossible, this does not mean that targeted and melioristic action cannot soften the blow. However, as much as such spontaneism can generate hope and dispel fatalism, a promising additional path is the long-term work of building collective emancipatory organisations such as trade unions, party cadres, grassroots community action groups, and internationalist solidarity movements. This avoids the dangers of voluntarism and spontaneism, which can easily be overlooked when searching for any possible way out of the fatalist impasse.

Most importantly, such social and political movements should be led by the dominated and exploited. Thus, trade unions not only increase direct worker power in negotiations and conflicts with their employers, they also bolster the political imaginaries and political will of its members—building trade union consciousness and contributing to political education. In contexts of extensive coercive crackdowns on organised labour this is of course very difficult. Eli Friedman explains how while wildcat strikes are commendable and politically effective, they can lead to a situation which does not build long-term worker power:

Workers are therefore forced to take radical autonomous action in order to have their grievances addressed, often in direct opposition to union representatives. This means that when workers secure marginal material improvements, the legitimacy of the union is not enhanced, leaving the working class unincorporated within the polity (Friedman, 2016, p. 5).

Altogether, spontaneist action must be combined with long-term organisation to dispel fatalism.


Fatalism is a major problem for those in favour of radical political and social transformation. It stops people from acting to emancipate themselves, resigning instead to making peace with the status quo. In this article, I have offered a typology of the key types and aspects of such political fatalism. This is crucial in order to understand and critique the problems with such fatalistic worldviews. From the initial distinction between cosmological and structural fatalism, I focussed on the important separation between fatalism of inevitability and fatalism of impossibility, locating the former primarily in theological and Marxist forms. While fatalism of inevitability is rare today, fatalism of impossibility is rife, for which reason I dug deeper into its component parts: cognitive, affective, and practical. I suggested how the cognitive and affective are distinct but closely related, and that the practical dimension is usually a result of the interaction of the former two. Finally, I offered possible solutions for overcoming political fatalism, particularly of the impossible variety, including critique, imagination, and combining restrained spontaneism with political and labour organisation. All three can contribute to dispelling both the cognitive and affective dimensions of fatalism.

The problem of fatalism has widespread implications for debates across contemporary political theory. How is democratic participation and the power of the demos affected by a large section of society refusing to believe that things can get better? How do social movements take on a particularly spontaneist dimension when they can see climate catastrophe unfold in front of their very eyes, and how does this make previous scholarly debates on civil disobedience less relevant today? Can racial and gender oppression be understood in part as a problem of fatalism? Finally, does the climate catastrophe really change the character of fatalism or is it simply another manifestation of its old forms? The lack of existing scholarly answers to these questions attests to the need for further inquiry by political theorists into the perniciousness of political fatalism.