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:
David Harvey here arguing passionately *against* the "communist fantasy" of revolution and for the continuation of *capitalism* which "we cannot allow to fail". pic.twitter.com/L5xbxXiUL5
— Louis (@Louis_Allday) June 21, 2020
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.