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A Time for Re-Imagining

photograph of empty New York City street at dawn

As coronavirus continues to change the world, and as some places begin to contemplate tentatively easing distancing measures, the implications of this event for societies everywhere are still being shaped. We are learning how to comprehend and respond to this new challenge.

What can we understand about the character of this new, unanticipated world, and what can we decide about how it takes shape from here?

It seems that we are being shifted, by big political, social, and environmental forces, into a new way of being. What we can understand and what we can decide about it will depend upon what we can imagine.

Fredric Jameson said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Interrogating this idea yields different possible interactions between acts of imagination, the end of the world, and capitalism. If the point was a rhetorical one, it was also always a serious charge: that capitalism may be such a reckless, powerful force because it is simultaneously ruinous and desirable. It may now seem not so much rhetorical as a statement of fact. If we can truly imagine the end of the world more easily than the end of capitalism, this is a grave fact. They are of course connected–we are forced to imagine the end of the world because of our failure to imagine the end of capitalism. If the operative concept here is not capitalism, but imagination, then the problem surely is that we have failed to sufficiently imagine both the end of the world and the end of capitalism.

The global pandemic has been a massive disruption to global ‘business as usual.’ But the climate and ecological crisis is still bearing down on us. So what does this global disruption mean for us in the era of climate and ecological emergency, and what are we going to do next?

Rebecca Solnit writes in, Hope in the Time of a Crisis, that, in the altered reality brought on by global pandemic, we are “adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.” Our task, she writes, is to “understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.” I think we could reflect on Rebecca’s questions in the context of the role of the imagination in comprehending and solving the bigger crisis we face (and, therefore presumably imagining the end of capitalism).

We appear to be entering a paradigm shift–a process which was beginning, I think, before the pandemic but which is now, as a result, accelerating. This is a time of great existential danger, and of great change; the social, political, and moral concepts within which we operate are at issue in fundamental ways. We need to redress these failures of imagination to critically examine the concepts with which we have become used, in the current status quo, to order our world.

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to understand how scientific work is conducted at any given time and how science/scientific knowledge progresses, especially through big, revolutionary discoveries.

A paradigm is the prevailing conceptual structure within which scientific work is practiced; it is the whole set of assumptions according to, and by virtue of which, the scientific activities of experimentation, theory-building, evaluation, and verification take place; and which, taken together, constitutes the ‘world view’ in which science operates. The ‘everyday’ activities taking place within the overarching set of assumptions, Kuhn calls ‘normal science’. Normal science works within and further articulates or elaborates the paradigm. Anomalies can exist, but they are small or disparate enough not to put pressure on the whole system.

There is a clear application of this concept to a social paradigm, where a set of prevailing concepts, norms and values–which might be political, moral, economic etc., constitute the paradigm in which ‘normal life’ is conducted.

As with scientific paradigms, if anomalies multiply or magnify, if experimental outcomes, or experiences, can no longer validate the core assumptions, the integrity of the conceptual structure is weakened. When the overarching set of norms or concepts is put under strain, a crisis can emerge in which it is apparent that the paradigm is no longer supporting, or supported by, normal science or normal life. The resolution to the crisis is a shift to a new conceptual structure–a paradigm shift.

A ‘scientific revolution’ takes place when the old conceptual structure is replaced by a new one.

A crisis in the conceptual system of our social paradigm has been coming for some time, and gathering pace as we see the realities of the climate emergency begin to unfold; the conceptual system of, the (let’s call it) neo-liberal capitalist, neo-colonialist paradigm, has been experiencing pressure and disruption as normal life comes increasingly to seem impossible within its conceptual structure. The global pandemic has created a rupture in the system, so significant that normal life will not be able to resume.

If the breakdown of one conceptual structure is going to be followed by the adoption of new or re-ordered foundational concepts, we have to be able to imagine a new reality capable of replacing the old one.

A core part of this is the concept of value itself. The current socio-political paradigm, and its attendant economic paradigm, tends to be constructed around the economic unit as the fundamental anchor of value. Therefore, in our society economic values have been taken as foundational. But economic rationalism only serves a very shallow concept of well-being. Solving the climate crisis will require a renegotiating of these fundamental concepts of value, and will require a grounding of value in environmental and social goods. Solving the climate crisis calls for a ‘re-evaluation’.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is instructive here: the re-valuation of values must occur when the realities that hold them in place shift. A restructuring of the moral, social, political concepts of value that hold our worldview, of the norms and practices in which we operate in normal life, is needed if and when the ground shifts.

Nietzsche endorses a kind of radical acceptance, which I read as a moral orientation to the world, and as the antithesis to resignation. We can take control of our destiny but only if we let go of our illusions. The point for Nietzsche is that we orient ourselves within the world as we find it.

Letting go of illusions is difficult, and the neo-liberal, colonialist/capitalist paradigm is largely built upon them. It is difficult to shake off a worldview in which we have been comfortable, and the fact that so many of us recognize this while also recognizing that it is ruinous, is disquieting. And there are two distinct failures of imagination at issue here–the failure to imagine the worst excesses and also the solutions to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world into a dramatic encounter with large-scale response to an existential threat of global proportions and it is instructive. There are things happening right now, which would have to happen to address the climate emergency. A new paradigm that was post-carbon, post-capitalist, post-emergency would necessitate a general powering-down of life, slowing of travel and activity, shrinking of production, contraction of the economy around sustainability rather than growth.

Events that create an interruption to normal life, a disruption which can not be adequately described or accounted for within the conceptual structures that ground the norms and habits of normal life, bring us glimpses of something else: of what altered reality looks like, forcing us to confront the adequacy of our understanding and actions. An episode such as the global shutdown offers an opportunity to reflect upon what is really important. And these glimpses, these reflections are vital for the task of re-imagining.

The Moral Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution

A vintage photo of a Bolshevik protest in Russia

November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (it is alternatively called the “October Revolution,” but this is because of the mismatch between the Julian and Gregorian calendars). It is arguably the most influential event of the 20th Century, and it is celebrated by leftists worldwide. Yet strangely, Vladimir Putin himself has no intentions to host big ceremonies. His leadership may rely on Soviet nostalgia in his confrontation with the West, but in fact, he is much closer to the Czarist style of authoritarianism, and correctly sees that the revolutionary ideology of 1917 is more dangerous than valuable to him.

Continue reading “The Moral Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution”

Freedom and the 2016 Electoral Season

‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.

Take Donald Trump, for instance.

In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:

While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.

Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.

Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.

Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”

And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.

But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.

But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.

In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.

This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”

Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.

This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).

Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?