The failure of political imagination

In an essay published in French in 1990 the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) wrote (in one of his most profound moments):

After the movements of the 1960s, the project of autonomy seems totally eclipsed. One may take this to be a very short-term conjunctural development. But the growing weight, in contemporary societies, of privatization, depoliticization, and "individualism" makes such an interpretation most unlikely. A grave concomitant and related symptom is the complete atrophy of political imagination. The intellectual pauperization of "socialists" and conservatives alike is staggering. "Socialists" have nothing to say and the intellectual quality of the advocates of economic liberalism over the last fifteen years would have made Smith, Constant, and Mill turn in their graves. Ronald Reagan was a chef d'oeuvre of historical symbolism (pp. 39-40 of World in Fragments).

A lot of what Castoriadis said here is context-setting, though the context in 1990 was the same one as the one we faced for the whole period after 1980 and toward the beginning of this year. But the most striking part of this quote is the little matter in the middle of the "complete atrophy of political imagination." If our civilization collapses, and some of our climate scientists seem to think it will, and Craig Collins can find good reasons for it to do so, then this lack of imagination is what we can blame.

Take for instance the mainstream pseudo-solution to the current, compound crisis. "Oh we're going to elect Joe Biden, with a 48-year-old record of giving away the store to the Republicans, because that will solve everything," the Democrats tell us. "If it doesn't," they continue, "we'll push him to the left while proclaiming to the skies our intentions to vote for him anyway." And then, if future behavior can be predicted from past behavior, once having elected Biden, said Democrats will spend the next four years supporting President Biden regardless of his policy decisions because (as the standard excuse appears in the Daily Kos) "the Republicans (whom he supports) are worse." This is all the imagination the Democrats can muster at this time.

Here it needs to be said that practically nobody in America can anymore imagine a national politics that has anything to do with issues. Today it is all about whether or not you can support the "worst President in modern American history," certainly an exaggeration, or fool yourself into thinking he's any good at his job. which he's not. Bernie Sanders, in his two runs for President, attempted to make American politics about issues, and then, as soon as he disappeared from contention, American politics went back to being an activity unrelated to issues. The paradigmatic election in revealing American politics as unrelated to issues was the 2012 Presidential election. In that election, Barack Obama won by broadcasting anti-Romney ads in swing states, whereas a Wall Street Journal poll of July 2012 revealed that most of Mitt Romney's base didn't care who he was as long as he was not Barack Obama. Voting in America is now, and has been for the past thirty years at least, about opposing one of the two parties rather than about issues. Conversely, campaigning in America is about raising money from wealthy sources and using it to broadcast negative advertising about one's opponents, to stimulate such negative votes.

Even the choice of Joe Biden for next President, to oppose incumbent Donald Trump, appears to be fatally infected by the failure of imagination. Why Joe? He wasn't, and isn't, a particularly innovative legislator or spectacular campaigner. Saagar Enjeti, leaning on the New York Times, has a well-substantiated clue:

That's right, folks. We were, and are, asked to choose Joe Biden for the sole purpose of making Barack Obama look good in the history books. And, thanks to the dexterity and skill of Barack Obama, enough of the voters complied to make the charade look convincing. It isn't about, "gee, maybe we should think carefully and imaginatively about what sort of policies should guide the ship of state in the future, in a time of compound crisis in which the survival of civilization is at stake." It is, on the other hand, about "we like Barack Obama, so what choices will allow us to continue to like Barack Obama?" The failure of imagination, from the political parties to the mass public, suggests itself once again.

It might appear to some people that American politics is trapped in delusion, that our problem is that our day-to-day politics has nothing to do with the reality it is required to cope with. After all, many Republicans believe that COVID-19 is harmless, a delusion not substantiated by the medical situations in which they control governorships. But delusion is only the surface appearance of the problem with American politics. When they can be isolated from their golf courses or everyday lives and cajoled into saying anything of substance, our political figures dream out loud in terms of some idealized past which can be appropriated wholesale. For Trump it's the Fifties or the Reagan era, for Biden it's Obama's tenure, and for Sanders, the best of a bad bunch, it was FDR and the New Deal. But we are headed into a future in which none of those models apply. Here's a video which explains the problem.

You can see Richard Wolff's dilemma from this video. He can describe the problem, and he can show how the problem is beyond everyone's quick-and-dirty models of what to do. But he can't imagine a solution himself. Here I am suggesting that the place to start is through the political imagination. The problem then becomes one of where to find the imagination necessary to cope with circumstances -- because it will have to be created from scratch, from within the recesses of our large and versatile human brains.

And, in arguing this, I do mean OUR brains. The most imaginative political campaign of our time is the Movement for a People's Party -- the brainchild of Nick Braña, who is so low on our political totem pole that he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. But what are the alternatives? If you wait for someone with a bad 48-year-old political career (i.e. Joe Biden) to imagine your political future for you, it's not going to happen.

Now, of course, once upon a time, we used to be able to declare the solution to be "socialism." This is, of course, a term appropriated by Bernie Sanders, but that's more or less a side-discussion. The problem now with calling the solution "socialism" is that doing so has become a form of shorthand which tells us little about what socialism is and even less about how to get it. And then you have a rather recent reflection of David Harvey, well-published Marx scholar:

Now, Richard Seymour, well-known Marxist and author of the famous blog Lenin's Tomb, whose post on this matter is behind a Patreon paywall (and so most of you will not be able to see it), has a comment on the David Harvey podcast in which he, Seymour, proclaims that Harvey has a point. "Should we not, perhaps, face up to this dilemma? When our own praxis implies it, we have no right to be offended by someone putting it in so many words," Seymour argues most reasonably. The problem in this regard is that we can no longer imagine a world beyond capitalism. "Socialism" in this day and age means social democracy, in the same sense in which Bernie Sanders used the word. "Socialism," then, has become a type of capitalism. Any simple historical examination of what the word "socialism" used to mean will reveal the failure of imagination embodied in the Sanders definition. Can we imagine socialism beyond social democracy?

The solution which comes immediately to mind is that we should try to create the new society right here and now, because only in such attempts will we achieve some sort of clarity about what we will have to do. It is really only through the continual exercise of the political imagination that an alternative to our current, doomed, politics can be created.

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bondibox's picture

To break the deadlocked stalemate we need congressional term limits, and there's zero chance that the current congress will pass legislation which dooms them. The first thing we must do is elevate a viable third party. But we all know it can't happen in the current climate where they are lucky to receive 3% of the vote.

The good news is that each state has the authority to run its own elections. Ranked choice voting has been adopted for federal elections in Maine, and for local elections in a handful of other locations. We need to pressure our local and state representatives, and our Governors, to adopt ranked choice as a first step.

The next step is to make it easier to vote, either by mail or online. Here in Kentucky extenuating circumstances allowed us to vote by mail in the last election, and in-person voting was available for the week prior to Election Day. We had record participation.

The third step is to insure the integrity of voting, with a system of verified voting. Distributed ledger technology (blockchain) is ideal for this purpose.

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F the F'n D's

@bondibox
Term limits just encourage political carpetbaggers who collect as many kick-backs and bribes as possible before they are forced out of office. The term limit movement is predicated on "We don't want professional politicians", a romanticized notion about the the Founding Fathers wanting farmers and shopkeepers to run the country.
Do you want a four year limit on a lawyer's career? A doctor's? An engineer's? A scientist's? Do you see how absurd that is?

Yes. We DO want professional experienced politicians, because government is not a side job that just anybody can dabble in and do well.

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6 users have voted.

We are so screwed.

Cassiodorus's picture

@bondibox then it's almost assuredly not going to happen. But I'm writing here about something more fundamental -- the failure to imagine anything other than old non-solutions to new problems which defy the easy categories in which they are assigned for political convenience.

I have already written in detail about one of these problems -- climate change. If you want to read the PDF, the password is: AddletonAP2009 .

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"There is no good future for the US if neoliberalism, and neoliberal elites, continue to rule." -- Ian Welsh

From the Google response to that phrase:

Capitalism is defined as private ownership and control over the means of production, where the surplus product becomes a source of unearned income for its owners. By contrast, socialism is defined as social ownership of the means of production so that the surplus product accrues to society at large.

I had an internet debate on a message board maybe ten years ago with a university professor in Australia about the relevance of socialism in the 21st Century. I purposefully inflated my own skepticism about socialism in hopes of provoking a thoughtful response about revolutionary praxis. I was surprised to find that my rather simple observations about the silence of global socialism on how to reverse climate change, end wars and eliminate systematic racism and systematic poverty turned out to be stumpers for my interlocutor from Down Under.

My Aussie friend was incensed that I would argue against socialism and, after quoting the ancient tag line about having The People take over ownership of the means of production, he refused to continue the discussion -- claiming that I was being disingenuous.

That was not true. I was sincere in wanting to hear a committed socialist tell me what a socialist political triumph would look like. I want to get behind something, anything, that might reverse the insanity of our current world disorder.

I argued, first, that the word, "ownership" is archaic and meaningless in a world of corporations that are run by "managers" but "owned" by stockholders and investors. More than half a century ago, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that the class of managers have a separate and discrete interest from the stockholders and there is occasional litigation between them and their putative bosses, the stockholders.

Asserting that The People should reap the benefits of surplus production is a laudable goal, but what does that really mean? Do the managers run their businesses with the goal of maximum short term "profit" so that The People will get the most stuff possible? Put differently, do the managers shift their problematical allegiance from Stockholders to The People?

How do The People collectively impose climate change policies on individual corporations? That begs the question of what the socialized goals for the corporations should be? Less production? An absolute necessity for the future of life on earth.

This brings into sharp focus the other loaded term in the traditional conception of socialism, "surplus production."

In order to make meaningful changes in how we live, a Socialist Society has to overthrow the idea of surplus production and replace it with something new and different, some as yet unimagined means of producing less but delivering more useful stuff for The People.

But what kind of stuff? More lawn mowers and barbecues? More fine wine and exquisite perfume? I would suppose that most socialists would agree that consumer goods production will have to be re-aligned. Re-aligned how?

Asserting State power over the means of production, by itself, begs the most important questions. What do we produce? How does it get distributed? Those are now chaotic "market" decisions and I am with the socialists 100% in condemning the current regime.

But "ownership" of the "means of production" does not provide any answer at all the key questions other than making them political.

So why does the political control over the means of production have to involve "ownership" of the means of production? Taxation and iron fisted regulation of corporations, their managers and their owners are indistinguishable from Full Monty Socialism in terms of actual effect, and the argument about "ownership" is irrelevant.

One other possibility exists. Destroy the corporation as a business association. Enterprise becomes totally localized and meets human needs directly. Something like that will have to happen if our species is to survive. You can call that socialism, but it is not ownership of the means of production.

Our far bigger problem than who "owns" the means of production -- it is too much production of stupid shit that nobody really needs. Our current version of capitalism (neo-liberal) rules the question of what people really need out of bounds -- deeming it elitist oppression of the individual. Capitalists are always ready to show how their hearts bleed for the individual.

We have to break the paradigm in which capitalists claim to be the true populists, giving the people what they want rather than what liberals think they need. That is the political challenge before us.

You don't hear much from socialists this century because they are stuck with an ideology that is more than 150 years old when scarcity was still the major problem for humanity. Now we have too much shit, distributed perversely. Saying that Uncle Sam now owns all the shit in the country does nothing to disentangle the web of dysfunctionality and corruption that we face today.

How to live peacefully while taking from the rich and giving something new and different to everybody else is the problem. Socialism from Marx until now offers no vision of how to do that or what it would look like.

Thanks for an interesting essay.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

@fire with fire

I argued, first, that the word, "ownership" is archaic and meaningless in a world of corporations that are run by "managers" but "owned" by stockholders and investors. More than half a century ago, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that the class of managers have a separate and discrete interest from the stockholders and there is occasional litigation between them and their putative bosses, the stockholders.
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3 users have voted.

We are so screwed.

Cassiodorus's picture

@fire with fire we start with this notion:

Asserting State power over the means of production, by itself, begs the most important questions.

One question would be, "why does socialism have to take the form of the state?" You might alternatively start with co-operative businesses, or revolutionary armies or parties (see e.g. the Zapatistas). Also:

You don't hear much from socialists this century because they are stuck with an ideology that is more than 150 years old when scarcity was still the major problem for humanity.

Another question would be: so why would socialism have to be an ideology at all, and not, alternatively, the goal of a type of inquiry? Three historical developments would be important to know here: 1) the creation of "Marxism" as a civic religion, 2) the collapse of the Second International and the creation of the Soviet Union, and 3) the US-directed war against "Communism." Anyway, as regards your well-constructed comment:

Socialism from Marx until now offers no vision of how to do that or what it would look like.

Old thinkers can show you the way to approach a problem, the imaginative working-through which once was but which now is not. But it is not as if you can take every problem in the universe and solve it by quoting them.

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"There is no good future for the US if neoliberalism, and neoliberal elites, continue to rule." -- Ian Welsh

@Cassiodorus @Cassiodorus Thanks for an interesting reply. I have no beef with the word, socialism. For it to live, it has to evolve. I like the resonance of the word, although it has been hooked up to more than a few odious connections besides the big honking example, National Socialism.

It connects to the idea of "society" -- the collective network of relationships that make life possible. We must now construct organizational principles for a new kind of social order, rules which we all live by; toward ends we all understand.

Our work is cut out for us.

If it gets called socialism, its OK with me.

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4 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

@fire with fire that enterprise should become localized. Doing things at the local level might be the best chance we have to meet people's needs. We have been shown that our federal government will not help us. It's been forever since I read E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful but perhaps some of those ideas may be useful. I'm all for cobbling the best ideas from the best sources to make a new structure.

On a side note, I don't think we have to worry about producing excess stupid shit, we will be fortunate if we can produce what we need.

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Not Henry Kissinger's picture

It's not that political imagination is lacking. It's that the vocabulary we use in promoting solutions is hamstrung by its own historical baggage.

All these nineteenth and twentieth century labels ending with -ism (fascism, communism, socialism, etc.) get casually thrown around with very little understanding of what they originally meant, let alone what they mean when someone attempts to apply them to the socio-economics of today.

Invoking these labels in pursuit of policy goals inevitably leads to fruitless historical debates that only serve to distract from any real discussion of important issues and place a distorted, politicized filter that obscures and negates any attempt to find innovative solutions to current problems.

Case in point: Universal Health Care is not inherently socialist or communist or fascist. It's simply Universal Health Care, and should be promoted own its own merits rather than as part of some larger ideological agenda that allows critics to instantly conjure up pictures of labor camps, purges and pogroms.

In order to create the circumstances for a more freeing, creative future, we first need to release ourselves from the straight jacket of these tired, out-dated groupthink ideologies, and move to a new, more inclusive language that respects individuals for their own unique perspectives instead of treating them merely as faceless soldiers in some permanent ideological war.

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The current working assumption appears to be that our Shroedinger's Cat system is still alive. But what if we all suspect it's not, and the real problem is we just can't bring ourselves to open the box?

@Not Henry Kissinger @Not Henry Kissinger
is that out politicians will gut and divert it and tax it like they have done with Social Security,
I can envision the worst of all worlds, a government single payer healthcare system with management farmed out to for-profit insurance companies.

EDIT: "Medicare for All" with everyone being on some insurance company's part C plan. You do know that there is a movement to eliminate Part B to "save money and eliminate government drones" so that everyone can "save money" by having their claims processed by insco drones with orders to cut costs.

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4 users have voted.

We are so screwed.

Cassiodorus's picture

@The Voice In the Wilderness who don't think they can take the money from private interests, fool the publics, and keep their jobs. Another thing to imagine are publics who are pickier about the politicians they will vote for.

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8 users have voted.

"There is no good future for the US if neoliberalism, and neoliberal elites, continue to rule." -- Ian Welsh

@Cassiodorus
They were believed to have existed in my youth, but I have never seen them in the long decades of my life.

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2 users have voted.

We are so screwed.

perhaps in mainstream logic this holds water
to free thinkers everywhere this is just more bunkum
some of us old hippies still have the ability to sift
thru shit and shinola, see the difference
now is less different than the reconfigured then once
balanced for truth

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RantingRooster's picture

Why do we need Coka-aCola? Or even consumer products like Pepsi or candy bars or other "junk food"?

What human "need" to these product serve? Are they healthy? Heck, I use coke to dissolve the that crusty, green, brownish shit that forms around the battery terminals on my truck battery.

Who cares if a coke can is recyclable, why the heck do we make products like that in the first place?

The foundation of the economics of our society is based on "the threat of death", if you do not work you will die. We are forced, by our economic system, to work to earn money, to pay for the essentials of human life to survive. Shelter, water, food, clothing, security.

Capitalism didn't fundamentally change the master slave dynamic. Heck, I don't mean to sound callus, but some slaves even got free healthcare, of course when it was profitable to their masters.

What is socialism, if your just going to re-create the same capitalist, unhealthy products? Who cares who owns the means of production, if you just producing the same shit to begin with, no?

So what if all the employees of Coke get an equitably share of the surplus value, and are shareholders, owners, everything Dr. Wolf happy place democratic work place, everyone gets a fair share of the pie and everyone is in their happy place.

So what? Coke is not good for human consumption and shouldn't be produced in the first place, no?

Personally, wouldn't want to try to "innovate" a new soft drink. Not because of the competition, market dynamics, or opinion surveys, but because it is not needed for human survival, full stop. It doesn't provide a "greater good to society", ie for mass consumption. It's not healthy!

Coke and other products like it, serves no real societal purpose, other than to make money, off a product that produces unhealthy people, which drives up costs of healthcare.

9173664_orig.jpg
How many brands are really necessary? Look at all the mass, over duplication. Same shit, just tons of different brands. Is that really "necessary"?

What products are produced that really aren't necessary or provide anything other than, profits and unhealthy people? Why make them in the first place?

What good does a democratic workplace do, if they make the same unhealthy products? So what you're sourced raw materials are eco friendly, it's still unhealthy.

Then there's the way we design shit. I'm like, hey if that shit ain't gonna last at last 50 years, fuck it, it's not worth mass producing. Think about all the "big appliance", stoves, washers, dryers, stoves that end up in land fill because they don't last very long. Or you have to sell because you new apartment has it own.

I do not disagree with the idea to create our own, new society now, but understanding we're trapped in this paradigm, work or die survival fundamental, that must be addressed for greater society to move forward as a species.

And then there's the "vision" of where a society should go / could be? Of course I've always been partial to that Start Trek future, where the pursuit of knowledge, science, and exploration as the driving force of society, while all the fundamental human needs are provided. No gun to my head to work to survive.

To get there, I saying that seeing that our human, most basic needs are met, imho, should be the fundamental driving force of our society, not a gun to our heads (work) to (make money) buy products to survive (consume) or die.

(apologies, I posted when I thought was previewing, and then made a bunch of changes.)
Drinks

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"Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance;" - Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Cassiodorus's picture

@RantingRooster clearly need a vote on what it is they're going to produce.

Nobody needs Coca-Cola. The point of Coca-Cola is that carbonated, caffeinated sugar-water with flavorings and phosphoric acid can accumulate value if accompanied by advertising and refrigeration. If there were no autonomous process of value-accumulation motivating the economy, Coca-Cola wouldn't exist.

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"There is no good future for the US if neoliberalism, and neoliberal elites, continue to rule." -- Ian Welsh

RantingRooster's picture

@Cassiodorus I think you replied, when I thought I was previewing, but posted my comment. I did make some changes, but I think your comment here is still very valid, and I completely agree. But I wanted to update you, my comment you replied too, wasn't quite finished yet, and I fucked up by posting and not previewing.

o/t a bit

This is documentary by John Pilger about Coke and Pepsi, and influenced my comment to your essay. Just how Coke & Pepsi took over the world, and their influence on US foreign Policy, in Chille, Soviet Union.. etc.. It's pretty interesting, I think you'll like it.

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"Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance;" - Thomas Paine, Common Sense

"old non-solutions to new problems," I'd say getting the problems widely identified is where vision walks into the scenario.

In practical terms, one has to start with the reality that the 1% (remember them anyone?) has substantially complete control on narrative making. That's why everything, and I mean everything, is couched in useless old terms, with an either/or withus/aginus spin. The narrative machine constructs Democracy's Deathtrap.

So here's vision one for y'all. Break into and break up the Big/Social Media Complex what's strangling everything good. "How" is the thing I'm astonished people don't brainstorm upon. Myself, I think it could be done within months, if not weeks, were there a common will to, and the old idea that Big Media is unassailable was just dumped in light of the necessity if we're to thrive in a sane land.

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Orwell: Where's the omelette?