Image: © IWM Art.IWM ART 1146
Painting by Paul Nash „We are making a new world“ from 1918
by Aitana, student of social economics at Hamburg University
Imagination does not only operate in the arts, it can be and has been a powerful political tool. Political imagination allows us to look beyond our pitiful reality and imagine new alternatives as we start questioning what we consider universal truths. If you keep yourself informed and perhaps spend too much time online, then it is very likely you have asked yourself the following question: is there really no alternative?
Thatcher’s words represent the spirit of neoliberalism quite perfectly. The thing about neoliberalism is that it does not only shape our economic system, but is meant to take over every form of social interaction or relation in the form of capital in the same way a tumor spreads into every last corner of a body. Fisher explained this wonderfully in his most known work Capitalist Realism, which is a book that rightfully took over the internet recently (at least this is what my algorithms tell me) and which I will never stop recommending. I think we see such maneuvers of capital in our daily lives. Social movements such as antiracism and feminism were commodified to the point that they became nothing more than labels in the form of hashtags you could just use to put on your Twitter bio, in the same way you wear trendy shoes to express who you are. Or worse: it became an effective marketing strategy, which is why brands love to embrace rainbows during pride month.
So given the circumstances, in which it seems like we basically breathe neoliberalism in every second of our existence, it becomes rather difficult to work on that political imagination of ours, especially since every time there has been an attempt to defy the system, the essence of the movement has been commodified and transformed into a product meant for consumption. Nevertheless, there must be a way to avoid getting eaten by neoliberalism. Perhaps, what happened with Occupy Wall Street can teach us a very valuable lesson. The main issue with modern social movements is the lack of a program, or an alternative, meant to match the needs of society. What comes after we destroy everything? To exercise our political imagination, we cannot just criticize and attempt to destabilize the system, we have to go further. It worked for the Bolsheviks. But how can we think of alternatives that do not mirror discredited systems of state control?
It is important that we take advantage of the contradictions of the system itself. By identifying its weak points, we can start questioning the common sense that was taught to us as soon as we “entered the system”. Those who passionately defend the status quo and the mechanisms behind infinite growth are also those who base their understanding of human nature on the idea of the homo oeconmicus. This economic man is expected to act rationally and to unexceptionally prioritize his self-interest when making decisions. However, is it not our ability to communicate so effectively with each other and therefore be socialized by others what makes us miraculously different from animals? So isn’t the fact that we need each other, as social beings, exactly what led us to this point of technological advancement and prosperity? As soon as we understand this, we start understanding how our extreme form of individualism used as a source of energy to keep the system working does not make sense at all. And once we overcome this extreme form of individualism, we can start working on developing alternatives based on the same collectivism that has shaped civilizations.
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find the contradictions in our economic system—academics and activists have been doing it for years and yet, we still have to face the same reality. The question is, how do we come up with something better? You see, this is what Fisher meant by how ideology has blurred our capacity of thinking of an alternative. But it is also what Alexei Yurchak meant with hypernormalization, which was also the approach Adam Curtis took for his documentary of the same name. Curtis argued that when the Soviet Union was evidently collapsing, people decided to pretend the system was working just for the sake of it. They just could not imagine another alternative different from the status quo. I believe we find ourselves At that moment of the life cycle of capitalism. We are all aware there is something wrong with the machine that navigates through our space and time, but we put the pieces together to make it work in the short term, and then restart it once it collapses to the ground again. We do this over and over.
What can we do to finally jump off the machine? We face something that our past generations did not have the “luck” to even think of, which is climate demise. If we continue to make the deteriorated machine work, we will eventually fall over a cliff and declare the end of humanity as we know it. However, the main issue with the climate crisis is that we are unable to perceive it as an immediate problem. We are very skeptical about the encroaching catastrophe and you do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to doubt what for many scientists seems obvious. But when there are so many other immediate problems in the world, especially in the global south, it is nearly impossible to think of the far future. Besides that, many people will (luckily) not live to see the world they know collapse, so why even think of it?
But contrary to popular belief, we are already living the consequences of climate change not only in our environment but in our social structures as well. For example, climate catastrophe is a reality for those who have been displaced due to natural abnormalities in their homes, so for many, the status quo is already falling into pieces. The question is: are we going to continue pretending it is working?
Those who were here before us also struggled to imagine a better world, and nevertheless, they made history by not only standing up against the system, but by demanding substantial changes. There are plenty of reasons to think that change is possible, we just need enough people to believe in it.