Imagining postcapitalism: an introduction

Published online 24 January 2011.

This diary will argue the necessity of imagining a world after capitalism in this era.  This is so because the left, in America and elsewhere, currently finds itself in a cul-de-sac both of intellectual and of social proportions.  Centrally, I criticize the left for not using its imagination to fight what Antonio Gramsci called the “war of position.”  This will be part of a diary series, “Imagining postcapitalism,” which will be posted here and elsewhere, as the foundation for an online think-tank of sorts.  The “postcapitalism” group on DK4 will be one of a number of foci for this online think-tank.  Other contributors will be encouraged to post diaries as part of this series, to infuse a variety of perspectives into the project.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

If this is the prevalent imaginary of humankind in the contemporary Western world, the rebirth of the project of autonomy requires tremendous changes, a real earthquake, not in terms of physical violence but in terms of people’s beliefs and behavior.  It involves a radical change in the representation of the world and of the place of human beings within the world. The representation of the world as the object of increasing mastery or as the backdrop for an anthroposphere must be destroyed.  (Cornelius Castoriadis, from “Figures of the Thinkable, p. 149)

What would it take to have a real revolution?  And, here, by “real revolution” I mean a revolution that really changed the shape of society, and not merely a coup d’etat or election or other such procedure which put a different group into power while leaving the overall trend more or less the same.

The above quote by Cornelius Castoriadis was written in an essay titled “What democracy?”  Castoriadis wrote those sentences in the wake of the early-1990s collapse of the eastern European regimes, as well as of the supposed “democratization” of much of the Americas.  His argument was a familiar one: the extension of formal democracy to much of the world was a legal nicety, since “from the standpoint of effective social-historical reality, not of the letter of the law, we live in highly inegalitarian societies, including and above all, with respect to power of all sorts.” (p. 122)  Much of the argument in “What Democracy?” critiques the idea of representation, using arguments which should be familiar by now: real power rests in the hands of the political parties, the politicians themselves are unimaginative conformists , the rich are the ones with real power, the real decisions are the ones being made in secret, and the choices being presented to the voters are fundamentally unimportant.  Thus voting does not really decide a whole lot.

Castoriadis did not view present-day representative democracy as a sufficient condition of fundamental social change, of any sort of real revolution.  In fact, from his perspective democracy as such did not really touch (much less change) the “regime of liberal oligarchy” (p. 145) which is bringing planet Earth to ruin.

Castoriadis saw the “social-historical reality,” of our time and of other eras, as largely determined by the “project of unlimited rational mastery,” in which the competition of various powers to produce the most effective methods of domination determines the shape of society.  (We’re going to hear more about this “competition,” of course, in the forthcoming State of the Union address.)   The ultimate end of the project of unlimited rational mastery appears to have been a global capitalist system, which lost its last ideological contender when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991.

Castoriadis thought that the only event which would really change the “project of unlimited rational mastery” would be a change in the “social imaginary,” thus the quote at the top of this diary.  The definition of “social imaginary” given in Wikipedia is a bit vague — what is at stake in the idea of the social imaginary is that the social order is not merely constituted by buildings, institutions, and physical forces, but must be consistently imagined and reimagined by those who play its social roles.

An example I typically use to illustrate the social imaginary is that of law.  The law is indeed constituted by courts, cops, judges, jails, statutes, lawmakers, and other material artifacts of “the law,” but for all of the legal authorities to do their jobs in the everyday function of “the law,” the substance of the law must be consistently imagined and reimagined for it to have any substance at all.  Typically we call the legal imagination “legal interpretation” or perhaps “jurisprudence,” but insofar as doing its work involves acts of imagination, it is part of the “social imaginary.”

My example of law, above, can thus be applied to the whole of the social order.  The social order is constituted by networks of communication, transportation, energy, administration, money, and so on, but all such networks are kept going by a social imaginary, a symbolic order, with which we create and recreate the power of the United States, the global wealthy elites, the corporate economic order, and so on.  The social imaginary is the part of the framework of the social order which it will be most necessary to change if we wish to change the social order itself.

We can see what change would be necessary to achieve the aim Castoriadis laid out by thinking of the science of ecology and its role in present-day world society.  Ecology is a science mostly studied in academic departments, but rarely applied in real life.  What if all of our endeavors were applications of ecology, and we applied ecology in our everyday life with the ultimate goal of preserving Earth’s ecosystems?  What would that look like?  This is the sort of imagination I have in mind here.

Thus the name of my project, here, is “imagining postcapitalism.”  I want to see the capitalist system changed through a change in the social imaginary, hopefully at some point before the capitalist social order destroys itself and takes out the ecosystems of planet Earth with it.  My project starts from the presumption that there is a necessary role for the imagination in creating the revolution which will replace the capitalist system with something better.  Before a world without capitalism can be created, it first needs to be imagined: imagine a world without capitalism.

So what would it look like?  How are we going to the corporations into bankruptcy while setting up our own economic system based (perhaps) on local currencies, sharing, and affinity groups?  How would we deal with the environmental mess the capitalist system left behind?  How can we end the prison-industrial complex?  Urban poverty?  Hunger?

“Imagining postcapitalism” is not an exercise in what Friedrich Engels called “utopianism.”  The utopian blueprint, as discussed in marxist literature, is a plan for “how it’s all going to work out” once the revolution happens.  The standard marxist critique of “utopianism” as such takes its cue from Engels’ Socialism Utopian And Scientific, and the standard blueprint for utopia is usually ascribed to Charles Fourier, who was largely an inspiration for 19th-century communes because his plan had everyone living in giant hotels which he called “phalansteries.”  Engels disdained Fourier and the other utopian socialists for what he called “scientific socialism.”

Now, Fourier was a very imaginative man — a reading of The Theory of the Four Movements will tell you that.  And of course many of his ideas seem kind of foolish.  However, we can see from actual applications of so-called “scientific socialism” that neither the social imaginary, nor the imagination, disappeared when the 20th-century socialists tried to create a better world than the one ruled by the capitalists.  Even the gray bureaucrats of the Soviet Union had to employ some form of imaginative thought to do what they did — though for Cornelius Castoriadis the Soviets counted as just another symptom of the intellectual conformism of our time.  (Thus for Castoriadis there was no fundamental difference in the social imaginary of Soviet life from that of the life of capitalist society — just a difference in the form of government the Soviets employed.)

Nor is this a matter of mere philosophy — for when we imagine postcapitalism we’re imagining the revolution itself.  Is there only one cut-and-dried way of conducting a revolution, good for all times and places?  The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci pictures social revolutions, in general, as occurring in two stages:

  1. The war of position, fundamentally a culture war in which cultural entities are recruited and fortified to promote social change
  1. The war of maneuver, an open insurrection against the capitalist system.

Currently, we are in the culture war, the war of position, and if anything, the “left” version of the war of position in the US is sorely lacking in imaginative details.  “Progressives” write their Congressmembers, participate in campaigns, and so on — it doesn’t seem as organized (or half as imaginative) as the “war of position” being waged by the Right, with its connections between mass media, churches, local organizations, think tanks, and so on.  One of the strengths of, at least in its DK3 version, is that it could serve as a base for the promotion of a unified culture of the “left.”  I can’t really say how that will work with DK4, with its emphasis upon “groups.”

Thus we are back to imagining postcapitalism.  Now, I am not clear that we are, as a human species, making very much progress in this at all.  Perhaps there are organizations here and there who have imagined a postcapitalism — three come to mind (the Zapatistas, the MST in Brazil, the MAS in Bolivia.  There’s also “21st-Century socialism” as a movement in the Venezuelan context.)  As Kees van der Pijl argues at the end of his recent book Nomads, Empires, States, world politics appears to be headed for a resurgence of tribal (see e.g. the former Yugoslavia) and nomadic (see e.g. Turkish-origin residents of Germany, or Mexican-origin residents of the US) modes of social organization, and most of these social units aren’t really organized into any mode of social being far beyond that of survival in a world of 793 billionaires and 3 billion people earning less than $2.50/day.

And then you have the balkanized small-group “left” in the United States.  I intend to create a “postcapitalism” group when DK4 starts, but at this point I feel that it will end up as just another small group in a sea of small groups.  What I’d like is for there to be another place to go on the Internet which could be effective as a base for the creation of a broader united “left” in the US context.  Can such an internet site be created?


So far, I have two diaries in mind for this project:

  1. Political economy, in which I will discuss the original separation into politics and economics of a field known as political economy, and why a rediscovery of political economy would be helpful to imagine the economic order as something not set in stone.
  1. Rhetoric, in which I will discuss what really counts as “persuasion” in the capitalist social context — having of course to do with money.

From there I would be interested in hearing your ideas.


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