Beyond capitalist authoritarianism, the radical imagination

My short essay “Beyond capitalist authoritarianism, the radical imagination” appears in the collection We Resist: Defending the Common Good in Hostile Times, edited by Cynthia Levine-Rasky and Lisa Kowalchuk and published in May 2020 by McGill-Queens University Press. The text  is below and is only one of a great number of intriguing essays from luminaries in Canada and beyond.

Beyond capitalist authoritarianism, the radical imagination

Max Haiven

The power of the imagination: financialized or radicalized?

My activism, my academic research and my writing have been dedicated for some years to the problem of the politics of the imagination. Generally, this has led me in two directions: the imagination that reproduces power, and the imagination that reproduces resistance and reinvention.

In the first case, a lot of my writing, teaching and public speaking over the last few years has been dedicated to trying to understand the imagination behind finance capital, by which I mean that aspect of the capitalist economy that is known as the FIRE sector (Financial, Insurance and Real Estate) (Haiven 2014b). Ultimately, the matters this field deals in are basically imaginary: there is no such physical thing as a credit default swap or collateralized debt obligation. A deed to a house or a piece of land is ultimately a piece of paper with some words on it. I’m interested in two things: first, how is it that, as a society, we are in the thrall of this imaginary stuff; second, how does the power of finance transform our imaginations more broadly. Somehow, today everything has become an “investment” or an “asset,” from education to relationships (See Martin 2002, 2007).

But such questions lead one to a broader realization that most of our social institutions, norms, and power structures are always at least somewhat imaginary (See Castoriadis 1997). Money today is just really tokens (or, increasingly numbers in a database) given functional value by our shared belief. Police are just an armed gang except to the extent we imagine them to be legitimate public servants. Racism is, ultimately, based on imagined hierarchies. All these forms of power are deeply and tragically material, political and institutional, but are also solidifications of the imagination.

Thus the second dimension of my work focuses on the radical imagination. Radical here implies both a legacy of political radicalism, but also the word’s Latin etymology, referring to roots. The radical imagination is a force that questions and resists social institutions and power from the roots. Along with my colleague Alex Khasnabish I founded the Radical Imagination Project in Halifax (2010-2017), an activist-research initiative (see Haiven and Khasnabish 2014). We theorized the radical imagination not just as something an individual has but something we, as a society and as collectivities, do together. The radical imagination sparks and burns bright through activism, debate, conflict, struggle and transformation.

For this reason, we as researcher-activists couldn’t be content to just observe the radical imagination; we felt a responsibility to trigger or catalyze it. Thus, our research took the form of working with a diversity of social movements in the city to organize debates, talks, events, trainings, workshops, film-screenings and free schools to create an ecosystem for the radical imagination. We wanted to see if activists-scholars could work outside but alongside social movements for social justice in ways that were additive and collaborative, rather than extractive.

Capitalist authoritarianism and its monsters

As much as I am dismayed and heartbroken at the recent resurgence of authoritarianism in recent years, I am hesitant to characterize them as a threat to democracy for two connected reasons. First, I have never believed we have lived in a democracy. While our governmental system provides a veneer of democratic participation, the reality is that decisions continue to be made by a small political elite and political participation is laughably minimal. Further, while we might aspire to greater democratic modes of government, the capitalist economy is ultimately authoritarian, with a tiny elite claiming almost all the power and benefits. Indeed, I am of the belief that the authoritarian nature of capitalism has always fatally undermined substantial democracy wherever they have sought to coexist. It is certainly true that some democratic institutions have been stronger in the past than we find them today. I prefer to see these institutions as part of a yet-unsuccessful democratic project, or the results of a compromise between that radical democratic project and capitalist authoritarianism. Their decline is the result of the weakness of a radical democratic project, and that weakness has a lot to do with our failure to adequately challenge the economic authoritarianism of capitalism. This weakness has allowed for the recent rise of political authoritarianism as well.

Second, I think there is a danger in suggesting that the recent rise of explicit political authoritarianism is not “democratic.” Sadly, most of the “new” ugly authoritarians around the world today enjoy widespread “democratic” support, as for instance in the case of the US, Turkey, the Philippines or India. The problem for me is not so much that authoritarianism has hijacked democracy, but that our already mortally flawed oxymoronic system of “capitalist democracy” has unleashed its own inevitable demons. In moments of crisis, when capitalism is imperiled, we should not expect anything less. So long as we accept, as we generally have, that capitalist economic order that is fundamentally authoritarianism can coexist with formal political democracy, the former will consumer the latter as capitalism undergoes its inevitable periodic crises, which is what is happening now to a large extent.

The crisis of capitalism which opened the gates to authoritarianism is not only the financial crisis that became apparent in 2008. It is also a series or cascade of intertwined crises. On the economic level, the 2008 financial crisis is, in reality, the tip of an iceberg of unprecedented inequality unleashed by neoliberal policies since the mid-1970s, which has gradually made a huge number of people dependent on debt as real wages fell relative to inflation (Brown 2015). Relatedly, it is a crisis of masculinity as the patriarchal ideals of the post-war economy have fallen apart thanks both to changing economic realities and the vitality of feminist and queer rebellions (Fraser 2013). It is a crisis of race and racism as, on the one hand, precariousness and exploitation continue to disproportionately negatively affect non-white people and, on the other, resilient narratives of white supremacy offer convincing answers for many dispossessed whites (Taylor 2016). It is a crisis of settler colonialism as the unfolding financial crisis drives an ever-more frantic race to extract and monetize the world’s “resources,” necessitating the removal of Indigenous people from their land (Coulthard 2014). It is an ecological crisis, for obvious enough reasons (Klein 2015; Moore 2015).

Overall, it is also a crisis (or many crises) of the imagination as well (Haiven 2014a). Neoliberal ideology and culture, which insists that there is “no alternative” to capitalism, has led to what the late Mark Fisher (2009) called capitalist realism which has robbed us of our utopian visions of liberation and convinced us resistance is futile. Meanwhile, the existential pressures of living amidst so many interlocking crises grows, and we seek a release for the anxieties and rage of constantly failing to thrive amidst such incredible wealth. For some, mostly those who had imagined themselves entitled to some share of capitalism’s booty (largely white, straight, “able-bodied” men), authoritarian politics provides the answer based on a misrecognition of the problem (Kimmel 2015; Hochschild 2016). Cultural and economic efforts to make capitalism slightly less unequal, exploitative and oppressive are reframed in the authoritarian imagination as the cause of both declining economic vitality and increasing alienation.

Like all phobic reactions, today’s authoritarianisms are ultimately murderous to the imagination: they must vanquish the possibility of other alternatives for social organization, relationships and ways of being. Such authoritarianisms necessarily always narrate themselves as the right and inevitable course of action based on a fabricated notion of history, spirituality, economics or human nature. Religious fundamentalist authoritarians of all types retroactively justify their politics with recourse to their interpretation of tradition or scripture, insisting it provides iron-clad rules for how gender and society should be governed.

Neoliberal economic authoritarians make recourse to the myths of the market, and of inherently competitive human nature to justify the inevitability of free markets and the pathology of any alternatives. Ultra-nationalists hallucinate a (categorically racialized) history of the nation-state to legitimate a “return” to what is imagined to be normal. In all cases, the imagination is put to work precisely to kill the imagination, to stifle curiosity and empathy, and to dehumanize human beings. All authoritarianisms violently insist that their formations of the imagination are not only correct, but that to question or challenge them is heresy: morally or materially dangerous to the social fabric (Giroux 2015).

Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that all these forms of “new” authoritarianism have emerged under the economic authoritarianism of financialized neoliberal capitalism. While many obtain power by mobilizing antipathy towards economic “elites,” the reality is that these new authoritarianisms often work hand in glove with, or at least do nothing to challenge, the overarching economic authoritarian regime of global capital. It should also be noted that, in spite of some charismatic female or gay leaders, all these new authoritarianisms depend on reactionary gender politics, usually tying their project to a “return” to some mythic bygone patriarchal fantasy. Meanwhile, all these “new” authoritarianisms also mobilize race and racism, often by mobilizing a myth of the betrayed generosity of those now cast as the “silent majority,” who, we are told, was too accepting, patient and welcoming to late-coming “others” (See Mackey 2016; Razack 2004).

Towards the commons: actuality, ethos and horizon

If the radical and anti-authoritarian imagination is to awaken, it will need to emerge not from platitudes or isolated intellectual activities but, as mentioned earlier, from actual on-the-ground activism, solidarity-building and struggle. The way out of the present suicidal deadlock of authoritarianisms will emerge from a direct struggle for collective liberation, from building a difficult alliance among freedom-seeking people.

Such a struggle would be dedicated to more than “resisting” avowed authoritarianism in order to return the deposed “liberal” capitalism to its tyrannical throne. It would, to my mind, need to begin with the recognition that the present moment is not the exception but the culmination of the contradictions of a system of racial capitalism that has always been authoritarian at its core. It would need to link the authoritarianism of settler colonialism to the authoritarianism of hetero-patriarchy to the authoritarianism of racial capitalism (Taylor 2017; Walia 2013).

Rather, what I am dreaming of is already being built in the proverbial streets, although these streets are also daycare centres, bingo halls and prisons. It stems from one of the strange gifts this moment has given us, which is the recognition that there is no turning back, that things will not get better, that we can only rely on ourselves. While no doubt there is an important role to be played by the state in whatever comes next, and while struggles over policy and programs are important, the struggles that will change the world will be those that are based not only on ideology and protest, but also on practicing life and care differently.

Ultimately, capitalism is a poisonous and exploitative methodology for orchestrating human “cooperation,” for organizing our work as a cooperative species. Here I mean both “productive” labour (the production and exchange of things) and “reproductive” labour (the recreation of life biologically and socially), though really the distinction is artificial (Federici 2012; Bhattacharya 2017). But cooperation and work are not only physical; they are also imaginative activities. Capitalism, like any system of domination, has always conscripted our imagination not only for its legitimation, but also to shape how we cooperate. Resistance, then, to capitalism and other systems, is fundamentally about reclaiming and reinventing how we cooperate and relate to one another. For this reason, and also because life is likely to get a lot harder for all of us in the context of the assassination of what remains of the welfare state and imminent ecological breakdown, the task before us is to re-imagine and re-build living infrastructures of care and relationality on the level of neighbourhoods, communities and ecological zones.

For these reasons, I have kept faith with the radical notion of the commons, as developed by theorists including Silvia Federici (2012) and Massimo De Angelis (2017) and others and as implemented by, among others, the inspiring Jackson Rising movement (Nangwaya and Akuno 2017). The commons takes its inspiration from the shared lands seized from English peasants during the transition to capitalism, and today can be used to name the way certain lands or what we call “resources” can be held and cared for in common, not under the regime of private property. For instance, there are powerful movements around the world demanding that water be treated as a commons, or the internet, or urban space itself: these are things we must share and also care for collectively, not commodify (See “Patterns of Commoning” 2015).

There are several challenges for the notion of the commons. First, it has been adopted by and incorporated into neoliberal thought as a means to address “market failures” (see Haiven 2016). Second, here in Canada and in other settler colonies we need to work very diligently to square the notion of the commons with the reality of the ongoing genocidal theft of Indigenous lands and “resources” (Fortier 2017; Pictou 2017). These challenges often stem in part from a kind of confusion of many different notions of the commons.

For this reason, I have sought elsewhere (Haiven 2016) to distinguish three conjugations of the commons: first, the actuality of the commons, by which I mean the existing resilient examples and experiments in holding and caring for the “natural” and the “built” environment in common; second, the ethos of the commons, by which I mean the dispositions, beliefs, practices and skills for “commoning” that cut through all those different examples and experiments, and are also a sort of underground reservoir acting within, against and beyond the capitalist society in which we are forced to live; finally, the horizon of the commons, which means for me the concrete utopianism and pragmatic strategizing for wholesale transformation that emerges from the active experience of commoning – in other words the radical imagination. All three of these must be present in movements for the commons if we are to succeed.

Works cited

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