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]
The 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]