As I write these words, the Russo-Ukrainian war has raged for a week. To a great many people, crises like these make the theme of my recent posts here—the potential of the human imagination—seem wholly irrelevant. That’s a common mistake, but it’s still a mistake. To begin with, let’s please remember that wars and the political and economic crises that drive them are normal parts of human experience. Granted, for the last three quarters of a century there’s been very little open warfare in the industrial world, but in the nonindustrial world—which is after all where most human beings live—insurgencies, civil wars, and wars between nations have been very nearly as common as ever.
The industrial nations have been relatively peaceful because they’ve been subject to the global hegemony of the United States. That hegemony is cracking around us, and the Ukraine war puts the decline in American power into high relief. As something like 225,000 Russian troops drive deep into Ukraine, supported on the ground by tanks and artillery and from the air by waves of fighter-bombers and cruise missiles, and Ukranian military units and civilian irregulars confront them on battlefields scattered across Europe’s second largest country, the US response consists of moving a few token forces to countries well out of the line of fire, and imposing yet another round of financial sanctions aimed at Russian politicians—you know, the sort of meaningless gestures that have reliably failed to accomplish anything when used against other hostile nations for decades now. It’s a good question why this response remains so rigidly glued in place, despite its abject failures. I suspect that America’s ruling class is so monomaniacally obsessed with raking in money that it has never occurred to most of its members that the leaders of other nations might put other goals ahead of personal profiteering.
Yet one thing that’s been made very clear by the current crisis is that the US and its European vassal states no longer have anything like as much influence over events as they like to pretend. How soon that influence will finish its decline into irrelevance is a good question. As the global hegemony of the United States comes apart, wars are inevitable, just as they were when the global hegemony of the British Empire started coming apart a little over a century ago. Just as the globalized economy of the Victorian era went to pieces as the British Empire lost its grip, the globalized economy of the American era will go to pieces as the United States loses what’s left of its ability to force its will on the rest of the world. Wars, revolutions, economic crises, and the rest of it? Already being dished up for us by a short-order cook named Tomorrow.
What makes all this relevant just now is that most of the great works of imagination our species has produced came out of times no less tumultuous than the present. I’m not just speaking here about literary and artistic works, either. Consider the constitution of the United States, that astonishing work of political imagination. The convention that crafted it met in the wake of a long, bitter, and destructive war, and that conflict in turn was simply one round of an age of struggle between the British and French empires, which was kicked off by the outbreak of the War of the Grand Alliance in 1688 and didn’t finally wind down until the Napoleonic wars ended at Waterloo in 1815. Global warfare—the Seven Years War of 1756-1763 saw British and French forces clashing across a battle zone that stretched from North America to India, and included every one of the world’s oceans—along with explosive political and economic turmoil were the order of the day, and yet somehow the delegates who met in Philadelphia found time for a work of visionary politics that still shapes much of the collective structure of today’s world.
So the mere fact that the world is lurching through yet another crisis hardly counts as an excuse for the disastrous failure of the imagination I’ve discussed in previous posts. Yet there’s another point to be made here. The crises of our time are being driven by the failure of imagination just noted, and will not end until enough people shake off the geriatric delusions that still define the notional future of our time, and imagine something different for a change.
It’s been pointed out quite accurately that politics is downstream from culture. In less gnomic terms, this means not only that changes in the political sphere are always preceded by cultural shifts, but also that the cultural shifts in question define the landscape of possibility within which political change takes place. It’s much less often noticed, however, that in exactly the same sense, culture is downstream from imagination: that is, changes in the cultural sphere are always preceded by shifts in the collective imagination, and these shifts set out the landscape of possibility within which culture then changes. This does not necessarily mean that what happens downstream is determined by the changes further up. One of the great collective facts of our time is the hard fact that cultural change can generate political blowback.
Consider the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Cultural change driven by the importation of Western customs and values into Muslim-majority countries redefined the political sphere, but not in the way that Westerners expected—that is, Muslims in those countries didn’t quietly put their religion on a shelf and become good little materialist consumers, ripe for exploitation by Western multinational corporations. Instead, customs and values that had been a matter of personal choice turned into hot-button collective political issues as people identified them as instruments of American and European hegemony. The Iranian revolution of 1978 and the fall of Afghanistan last year are just two of the many consequences. There are plenty of other examples, including the one that’s currently making a mess of eastern Europe, but we can leave discussions of that point until the bullets stop flying.
To a very large extent, of course, these repeated displays of collective stupidity on the part of the neoliberal Western states are direct results of the tolerance for elite failure that John Kenneth Galbraith anatomized so mordantly in his fine and lively book The Culture of Contentment. In today’s industrial nations, the rule that overrides all others is the insistence that people in the upper end of the managerial aristocracy must never be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. That’s what lies behind the stunning incompetence of neoliberal governments and corporate C-suites in recent decades. No matter how clueless their actions, no matter how disastrous the results, the decisionmakers know they won’t have to pay any price themselves, so why should they care?
Yet that simply points out the depth of the failure of imagination that underlies the cultural and political failures just discussed. A ruling elite that fails to accept responsibility for its failures doesn’t remain in power indefinitely, because its incompetence quite reliably wrecks the society that it rules. (That was Galbraith’s core point—he compared today’s government and corporate elite, in fact, to the French aristocracy of the prerevolutionary era, and showed that the former is making all the same mistakes as the latter.) This is precisely what the managerial aristocracy of today’s industrial nations cannot imagine. Confident of their supposed status as destiny’s darlings, sure that they and their lackeys are uniquely qualified to lead humanity forever onward and upward toward the best of all possible tomorrows, they are incapable of conceiving of a future that fails to pander to their collective sense of entitlement. It has never occurred to them that the future might just be more imaginative than they are.
In an important sense, the comfortable classes of today’s industrial world are busy acting out on a grand scale the trajectory of the New Age movement that budded, blossomed, and went to seed in the second half of the twentieth century. The central theme of that movement was the claim that each of us creates our own reality. There’s an important truth in that statement, but over the years it got dumbed down into the claim that reality is whatever you want it to be. That’s not what the people who framed that teaching meant, but it’s the way that the teaching has been taken far too often, with results ranging from the embarassing to the catastrophic.
What the teaching originally meant is that your own thoughts, words, and deeds, though their consequences, play an immense role in shaping the world that you experience. Most of us, most of the time, go through life blaming other people and the world at large for miseries that we ourselves set in motion. That can be overstated—it simply isn’t true that every source of human misery comes about that way—but it’s true often enough to be a valuable insight. Look at the difficulties you face in life, remember that the one common factor in all your problems is you, and quite often it becomes possible to notice that a good many of those problems will go away if you stop doing the things that cause them and start doing something else instead.
In the hands of pop culture, on the other hand, the teaching that you create your own reality got turned into an insistence that the consequences of your thoughts, words, and deeds only matter if you want them to, and therefore you can keep doing the same thing and expect different results. That way lies disaster. If you decide that you create your own reality in this latter sense, to make up an example, you might convince yourself that it’s perfectly safe for you to go take a stroll across a freeway at night because you’ve decided that cars don’t exist. Do this and there’s a very good chance that you’ll create your own reality, all right, but the reality in question won’t be a pleasant evening stroll across the freeway. You’ll create the reality of being splattered across the pavement by the first eighteen-wheeler to come barrelling along.
As in small things, so in great. “When we act, we create our own reality,” neoconservative guru Karl Rove is credited as saying to reporter Ron Suskind. “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” That attitude didn’t exactly work out well in practice—the conquest of the Middle East that Rove and his fellow neocons launched with US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ranks high on the list of history’s abject flops—but it remains at least as widespread on the leftward end of today’s political mainstream as it ever was on the right. It’s also, in the strictest and most clinical sense of the word, insane. Yet in one form or another, it’s the standard conviction of ruling elites in a society on the way down. It never seems to sink in, until the final crisis arrives, that the eighteen-wheelers of history will run them down whether the elites believe in them or not.
There’s an alternative, though it’s probably not one that the failing elites of our society will be willing to adopt in time, or at all. It starts by discarding the delusions of omnipotence so deeply rooted in the comfortable classes these days, but it can’t end there. Just as believers in perpetual progress like to become believers in instant apocalypse when things don’t go their way, avoiding the middle ground where something useful might be done, people who believe that the universe will do whatever they tell it, when that doesn’t work, like to insist instead that they can’t do anything at all, and neither can anyone else. In both cases it’s a convenient evasion, meant to run away from dealing with the need for significant change.
The New Age movement had another concept that’s relevant here. It didn’t get anything like as much publicity as “you create your own reality,” and for good reason—it didn’t feed into the toxic sense of entitlement that’s dominated the collective imagination for so many decades now. The concept is co-creation. Yes, it means what it sounds like: your life as an individual and our lives on various collective scales are created jointly, by the mutual actions and interactions of the individual or community in question and the world at large.
Co-creation doesn’t mean you get whatever you want. It means that you can negotiate with the world to get the best available results under the circumstances. It starts by recognizing that all the entities involved in the ongoing process of creation, human or not, have their own desires and aversions, and that making sure that the other participants get at least some of what they want out of the situation is a necessary part of getting what you want out of it.
Gardeners do this all the time. If you have a garden, you already know that if you put a plant that needs full sun in a shady patch, it’s not going to thrive there, no matter how loudly you insist to it that it’s just being difficult and should hurry up and grow. You know equally well that if you’ve got acid soil, either you’re going to have to plant things that like acid soils or you’re going to have to add a lot of alkaline soil amendments: the mere fact that you decide that you don’t believe that soil pH matters, because it’s inconvenient for you to take that into account, will not convince plants that need alkaline soil to thrive in your garden. These points may sound like common sense. They are common sense, but ignoring such things and demanding that the world conform to the expectations of the privileged is far more popular just now.
I think this realization is very slowly beginning to dawn on a great many people who convinced themselves that the world was supposed to be whatever they told it to be. To my mind, that explains better than anything else the way that the comfortable classes of our society have doubled down so frantically on the future we’re not going to get. It also explains the way that so many of them have become so obsessive and so shrill about finding something to fear and hate—Trump! Covid! Russia! Anything, anything at all, other than the still small voice reminding them that the world doesn’t notice their existence and couldn’t possibly care less about what they want. The dream is over, the wonderful future of fusion plants and flying cars isn’t going to arrive, and what mockers have termed “fully automated luxury space communism” was never more than a rather silly daydream in the heads of a privileged and clueless minority.
Meanwhile, the future is waiting for the rest of us to make it. The managerial aristocrats who think of themselves as the movers and shapers of the future aren’t going to play any noticeable role in that—they’re too busy pushing on a door marked “pull,” trying to force the future to give them the world they want rather than working with the cosmos to co-create something less dreary. In a very real sense, that’s convenient for the rest of us. While the managerial class is still placing all its hopes and wasting all its efforts on the geriatric daydreams I’ve critiqued in past posts—space travel, fusion power, ftying cars, automated this, virtual that, and of course the perpetual rule of the managerial class itself over all, leading humanity toward bigger and better things and inevitably helping itself to the lion’s share thereof—those of us who don’t belong to that class, don’t share its values, and are unmoved by the tacky plastic Tomorrowland it offers, can get to work building something else instead. That work, in turn, starts with the imagination.
Politics is downstream from culture, but culture is downstream from the imagination. It’s with the imagination, therefore, that cultural and political change has to begin.
The condition of stasis that has gripped the modern industrial world for decades now is the direct result of the failure of imagination I’ve been discussing in recent posts. Collectively, we created our own reality—but that didn’t mean we got the reality we wanted (or thought we wanted), it meant that we got the reality created infallibly by our own collective thoughts, words, and deeds. If that didn’t have much in common with the Tomorrowland fantasy, why, the reality created by the man who went strolling on the freeway in my example above didn’t have much in common with what he wanted, either. We let ourselves get stuck in a mental rut, pretending that the only two alternatives were perpetual progress and sudden apocalypse, and that mental rut is one of the main forces that has created the bleak gray landscape of political dysfunction and economic decline in which we spend our days.
That doesn’t have to be the shape of the decades to come. Get out of the rut, stop trying to pretend that the Tomorrowland fantasy hasn’t failed, and we can build something different. Of course that’s going to require different ideas, different visions, different angles of approach, but that’s been inevitable all along.
Among the most important resources we have in the quest for a future less dismal than the present are the paths that didn’t get taken in the past. Central to the mental rut we’re in is the notion, as pervasive as it is false, that there was never more than one way that things could have unfolded. Au contraire, there were many points at which we could have done something else and ended up in a different world. One of the reasons that alternate-history novels have become so popular in recent decades, I would argue, is precisely the half-repressed awareness that we don’t have to keep trudging down the track set in motion by the failures and bad decisions of the past. Things could have been different then—and they can be different in the time ahead of us.
Different in what ways? We’ll start talking about that in two weeks.