Taking back the imagination

Of the many myths propping up capitalism few are more essential than the carefully tended concept of “imagination.” Capitalism supposedly unleashes the human imagination, enabling individuals to fulfill their potential and continually “disrupting” older systems to bring forth the new and improved. Shattering this mythology is one of the tasks of movements.

The ever active engineers of capitalist ideology, to be sure, possess the ability to shape human consciousness through the ability to exert decisive influence over of myriad of institutions. But to what end? Is the massive failure to meaningfully grapple with the myriad of crises not a failure of imagination?

It is imagination that is stifled under capitalism, argues Max Haiven in his engaging book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons.* The crisis is capitalism, Professor Haiven argues: The fundamental amorality of the capitalist system itself is the cause of the world’s difficulties, not a lack of regulation nor the greed of individuals.

That message is present throughout the book. In the opening pages, Professor Haiven writes:

“[C]apitalism relies not only on the brutal repression of workers in factories and fields; it also relies on conscripting our imaginations. On a basic level, it relies on each of us imagining ourselves as essentially isolated, lonely, competitive economic agents. It relies on us imagining that the system is the natural expression of human nature, or that it is too powerful to be changed, or that no other system could ever be desirable. … While the system is ultimately held in place by the threat and exercise of very real violence and the concentration of very material wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class, its imaginary and imaginative dimensions cannot be ignored.” [pages 7-8]

Crises of ImaginationThe book is mostly a series of essays written for various publications that have been revised; this format is both strength and weakness. It is a strength because the author is able to present arguments on aspects of capitalist domination that receive less attention that they should, such as the neoliberal assault on education and the enclosures of the commons, not as a historical crime of the past but as an ongoing process happening today. It is something of a weakness because the various pieces of a full picture are not necessarily welded together, however much the cumulative effect of the author’s strands of thought do add up to a powerful argument.

One of these strands is a needed discussion of narrative — that is, the Right’s success at manipulating emotion versus the Left’s difficulties in gaining footholds in the popular imagination. There is not a level playing field here, of course. It is the very lack of content to Right-wing “values” that makes its rhetoric effective, Professor Haiven argues, because terms without content stand in for emotions, phobias and feelings. The Right uses emotion to get people to hate, whereas the Left is more “abstract, general and preachy.” Facts and statistics are important but insufficient by themselves. What is necessary are common values as the “bedrock” of revolutionary change.

Imagination as building block of social movements

Values should be flexible and negotiable, rather than fixed or dictated. Movement work and the creation of values should be a mutually reinforcing process. A central task, the author writes:

“is to imagine and build social formations that make the constant renegotiation of values central and operative. This is, for instance, the value of horizontal organizing and diversity in social movements: they force a constant questioning and recalibration of values not as hard, fixed and eternal ideals but as working models for collaboration.” [page 55]

Within capitalist logic, we are worthless and replaceable cogs, set at one another’s throats.

“[T]he Chinese teenager becomes a threat to my job because she can work for less and her company can attract the corporation that used to employ somebody like me. Meanwhile, it is my anonymous consumer appetites, driven by my dislocation from community and my need to survive in an austere world, that demands the conditions of that Chinese worker’s exploitation. And the unfortunate fact is that I’m effectively worthless in this equation too: I could choose to not buy the iPod, but someone else will. Everyone is utterly replaceable in this system.” [page 55]

And on their own. Financialization shifts risks to the individual, his or her retirement dependent on the mercy of stock markets far beyond his or her control; universities are reduced to neoliberal showpieces that convert students into individualized debtors with no mission beyond issuing a ticket for a future job; language is debased to co-opt the meaning of “creativity” to twist it into underpaid labor in a neoliberal workforce that does nothing more than hype mindless consumerism; and mass culture is reduced to the buying of corporate products.

The author produces compelling arguments detailing these and other outcomes of modern capitalist society. But the underlying economic processes and structures underlying neoliberal assaults on ever more aspects of public life are largely missing from Crises of Imagination. This is perhaps not an entirely fair criticism because the book is a philosophical work, not an economic one. The author himself concludes his introduction by humbly writing that “I cannot claim to have done anything particularly innovative” nor, he says, is the book an attempt at a systemic theory. Fair enough.

Professor Haiven is correct when he writes that confronting capitalist power today requires far more than cutting down the size of banks, that it is too simple to believe that finance is merely a force imposed on society from above, and that financialization imposes shifts in corporate behavior that lead to faster recourse to layoffs and moving production to low-wage havens. But it is puzzling to read that “the new paradigm subordinates capitalism itself to the increasingly short-term, ruthless and pathological imagination of ‘the market.’ ” [page 108]

I have no argument with that description of “the market,” but it obscures that such markets are indistinguishable from capitalism. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers, and can not be anything else. The very process of financialization — whereby financiers, acting as both whip and parasite, impose discipline on corporations to act ever more ruthlessly while simultaneously grabbing larger shares of the profits extracted from employees — is the product of the natural development of capitalism, not an intervention. Capitalism can not be separated from markets, much less “subordinated” to its own engine.

Taking back our imagination to overturn the concrete

But let us not go overboard with critiques. Crises of Imagination, while not necessarily, per its author, an innovative work, does formulate its arguments very well, with some original conceptions. For an example, in one of the book’s strongest chapters, on the “edu-factory,” Professor Haiven wittily draws an analogy between the subordination of the university to the interests of neoliberal capital accumulation and the show trials of the 1930s. He writes:

“The desperate self-privatization of the neoliberal university is the late-capitalist equivalent of the Stalinist show trial. The broken university, after years of secreted economic torture, is made to confess its own profligacy and lack of obedience to the austerity regime. Yet even this gaunt, emaciated, broken figure, which has betrayed all its once proud (perhaps vain) values, is not spared the cuts. The constant and unending attack on the university is a grim warning to all institutions and individuals from the oblique, unapologetic totalitarian power of global capital: ‘We do not care if we are wrong or if our policies are ineffective in their stated goals. We do not care if we have to kill you all and destroy the planet. We do not care if you know it. Money will rule.’ ” [page 139]

But we do not have to accept the permanent rule of industrialists and financiers. A radical rethinking of society can’t be accomplished without our taking back our imagination, although, the author cautions, current social relations are not simply ‘imaginary’ but are rooted in concrete power imbalances. But we can’t imagine or create a blueprint for the future because the future can’t be planned and any such blueprints would contain some of the poison of today’s world. As capitalism accelerates exploitation and dislocation, the possibilities for future forms of struggle also accelerate, although they will not automatically be liberatory.

The radical imagination emerges out of radical practice, but no single practice can be sufficient on its own, the author writes. Imagination is a process of collective doing; imagination creates reality and reality creates imagination. Professor Haiven concludes:

“A revolution is not made of good ideas, but rather by good ideas materialized in social spaces. Solidarity is not a matter of having the right political ideals and sympathies, but of building real, tangible relationships. … [I]magination as a shared capacity grows out of social cooperation, alternative-building and the establishment of a new commons.” [page 265]

The reader seeking an analysis of capitalist economics can find works more on point. But anybody wanting a sweeping polemic on the totalizing effects of capitalism — and polemic here is meant in the positive sense of the word, as a constructed argument logically built — will find a well-written, engaging weapon in their hands. A fine use of the imagination engaging with concrete reality.

* Max Haiven, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Zed Books, London and New York; Fernwood Publishing, Black Point, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Winnipeg, 2014]


8 comments on “Taking back the imagination

  1. John Strachen has several excellent chapter in his 1933 The Coming Struggle for Power explaining how capitalism suppresses creativity in all intellectual fields of endeavor – particularly science and literature.

    • A reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. Several years ago, after reading Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of reformism, written in 1899, I marveled that the article could have been written that year, so relevant was it still.

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Your blog is one of the primary sources for helping me to understand the amoral nature of capitalism and the need to focus on the big picture, the systemic disorder if you will of the officialdom, rather than the political stooges of the day who are mostly interchangeable parts. I wholeheartedly agree that imagination is one of the casualties of capitalism and nowhere is this more evident than in public education.

    On it’s worst day, public education functions as an extension of the state but it’s still capable of revelatory breakthroughs. The schools set the tone for integration in the U.S. and are the incubator for the creative minds that will one day inherit this planet. Here is where the adults in the room have failed these minds by repressing their creative and individual natures for the sake of standardization in curriculum, assessment and instruction. The profession is paying and will pay a heavy price for this short sightedness.

    Louise Rosenblatt found that there were two types of readers…aesthetic or efferent. Efferent readers seek information or discrete knowledge. Aesthetic readers do so for pleasure and to experience the reading, itself. Rosenblatt wrote, “In aesthetic reading, the reader’s attention is centered directly on what he is living through during his relationship with that particular text.” This could be a good working definition of imagination…when the focus of our attention is centered on what we are living through during our relationship with a particular idea, concept, event symbols or text. The mediums for applying a canvas to our imaginations is limited only by our, um, imaginations.

    You might find this article interesting called, “Stalinizing Amercian Education”: http://www.lawrencebaines.com/Stalinizing%20American%20Education.pdf

    • Education is one of the many institutions in which capitalists have come to dominate with their ideology. It is heartening, however, that so many people are fighting back against reducing education to standardized testing.

  3. Alcuin says:

    I haven’t read Max Haiven, though I have read that his work is a “must read”, so I’ll add his work to my already long list. But I have a bone to pick with his argument as you’ve laid it out. It seems to me that he is separating the effects of capitalism and then positing the existence of some kind of capitalist class that is pulling the puppet strings of the “actors” as the cause of those effects. To do so is a grievous error and one that Marx, I think, did not make. Marx said that the imperative of capitalism, driven by the profit motive, is to constantly innovate and “creatively destroy” all existing institutions and technology. Yes, capitalism does unleash human creativity, but to capitalist ends, not to human ends.

    Human beings are creative and ingenious animals but unless we connect the dots between “progress” and survival, I fear that we are looking at a very bleak future. The odds are stacked against us because we so enjoy new and shiny baubles that we don’t recognize the downside of them. A prime example of this phenomenon are cellphones and the Internet. Are we any better off because of either or both of them? Has community been enhanced or have we become further atomized? I’d argue that the answer to both questions is “no”. At some point, we have to just say “no” to “progress”.

    A serious study of the shattering impact of capitalism on social networks is in order, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. We focus on the effects of capitalism without understanding that the very system of capitalism is the cause of those effects.

    • My read of the author is that he is not separating the effects of capitalism in the way that you are suggesting; he does challenge the reader to see capitalism as a totalizing system that penetrates all aspects of human life. But as the book under discussion is a philosophical work, it does lack in the economics. Whether that is a weakness or not depends on the individual reader and what a reader wishes from the work. But I found the book clear that the very system of capitalism is the cause.

  4. Lushfun says:

    Imagination is only helpful if you focus and go for the change you desire. The problem is outcomes are governed by the laws of unintended consequences so when you design and implement something others imprint upon it what they desire and the morphing in the structure of the action goes through society. Sadly nobody realizes this until it is already underway and changing or re-directing something you dislike is attempted from a position of weakness when the overall action should have been on creating a self-reinforcing direction. In reality movements and actions are in spurts and it is easier to achieve something little by little rather than grandiouse ambitions which will eventually be hi-jacked and reshaped by someone else.

    • We need only look at the Bolshevik Revolution to see the laws of unintended consequences in action, and that is far from the only example. I believe that critical to the imagination we need in forging a better world is a better understanding of the social forces and complex politics that led such revolutions to take directions never intended. If we understand why past revolutions took the unfortunate turns they did, or why they were crushed by capitalist powers, then we have a better chance of creating structures and systems better able to withstand the inevitable strains that accompany social and economic upheaval.

      To forget history is to be unable to understand the present and to forget the future.

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