Monday, 9 April 2012

Dreampolitik - Imagination and Politics as the Art of the Impossible

Following last summer's riots the London School of Economics and the Guardian newspaper interviewed 270 rioters from London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford as part of their collaborative project Reading the Riots. Their findings suggest that 85% of participants believe that poverty was an 'important' or 'very important' factor, apparently with 68% of the general public in agreement. Additionally a compelling case has been made by both left-wing intellectuals and the people interviewed on the ground for the pressures of consumerism as a contributing factor:
Among some interviewees – such as the 19-year-old from Battersea who felt "revolutionary … against capitalism" – there was a sense that an opportunity to change society had been lost. "They fucked up big time, the opportunists," said a 19-year-old man from Tottenham, who observed the riots but did not loot. "If they went to parliament and stood up for what they thought was correct, they could have brought down the government, man. We could have changed the whole everything, the whole government, man, but people wanted Nikes and crap on their feet."
So had the rioters been duped into wanting the wrong things? In the words of one 16 year old girl who was interviewed:

"It was like Christmas; it was so weird"

Perhaps if they had known better, if the spell of the Nike fetish had been removed, perhaps then they wouldn't have made the same choices? The 'revolutionary...against capitalism' can suppose that the downfall of the Nike brand will help them realise that they actually want other things. Likewise, the enlightened liberal can suppose that better access to education will help show young people where they are going wrong, be more rational, and recognise their mistakes before they make them. In both cases we find the same assumption. Enlighten the youth and they'll realise that they actually want the same things as us. This was very much the argument made by Plan B (aka Ben Drew) in his recent TED talk. All sensible stuff! However, Josh Hall gave a great summary on the music blog Line of Best Fit where he wrote as follows:
Drew is the archetypical liberal. He believes that poverty can be solved through charity, and that the poor must respond to structural violence either by ignoring it, or by acting within strict parameters of acceptability. For Drew it’s bad that there are no jobs, that there are mothers skipping meals in order to feed their kids, that people are being forced to work for free in order to keep their benefits – but if you throw a brick through a window you’re on your own.
In practical terms the choice offered by liberal ideology is that There Is No Alternative. If you can't afford Christmas all year round you end up alone in ill Manors by default. But if that is the case does it not imply that Christmas all year round really is the true horizon of peoples expectations? Why wouldn't that be rational when juxtaposed with a life of deprivation? And if so, might the dystopian Urban Imaginary of ill Manors actually be more powerful in reinforcing this ideology than the critical message of the song is in displacing it?

In the video lecture above sociologist and activist Stephen Duncombe suggests that the central issue for political transformation today might actually be the atrophy of the imagination, not the failure of education or critique. In doing so he offers a highly accessible discussion of the ideological situation described elsewhere by Slavoj Zizek, following German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk's characterisation of Cynical Reason, as that of 'enlightened false consciousness':
[O]ne knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.
According to this view the rioters may be fully aware of the criticisms levelled at companies like Nike for using child labour in circumstances even more impoverished than their own. The may also fully believe that the Corporate and Social Responsibility programmes of such companies are nothing more than cynical attempts to distract consumers from their questionable ethical practices. The point is that knowledge of these facts and the strength of these beliefs don't necessarily make Nike trainers or the promise of a liberal consumers Christmas all year round any less desirable.

Following the argument of his book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy Duncombe argues that oppositional political programs inevitably reach loggerheads insofar as their political power relies on two assumptions about the efficacy of rational critique:

1. That there is an intrinsic value in knowing the truth.
2. That there is a false belief that must be removed in order to reveal that truth.

Duncombe accepts that these assumptions are justified in a situation where there is a scarcity of knowledge or a monopoly of power as in Hans Christian Andersen's story The Emperor's New Clothes. In that story the young boy frees the adults around him from their complicity in the pretence that upholds the Emperor's power by saying out loud what they all already knew: "But he isn't wearing anything at all!". However, Duncombe offers two arguments against the efficacy of critical practices.

Firstly he suggests that the democratisation of knowledge and our recognition of the collective production of truths today undermines the idea that the value of any specific truth, and hence the exchange of that truth for any other, might have conclusive political implications. The example he uses is the collective maintenance of open source information such as that held on wikipedia.

Secondly he argues that belief itself, whether true or false, is no longer required as the support for the political legitimacy of a society for which there is no alternative because there is no positive program to displace or supplant the established routine to which 'there is no Outside'. By way of example the reader might consider our own government's policy u-turn on civil liberties and the public ambivalence toward privatisation.

In the rest of his discussion Duncombe explores Utopian fiction and art as a way of opening a space of thought in which alternatives can be imagined. Crucially he argues that this Utopian space must necessarily be maintained against closure precisely by attempting to imagine the 'impossible'. Against Otto von Bismarck's proposal in 1861 of a Realpolitik according to which 'Politics is the art of the possible', Duncombe suggests that today 'politics is in fact the art of the impossible'.

This is not to claim that material poverty, rampant consumerism, and access to education aren't crucial political issues. Neither is it to claim the sufficiency of imagination alone for political change. The task of Dreampolitik would be to offer alternatives which inform particular political struggles by providing them with an aim, but without thereby functioning as their necessary end.

The challenge to progressive political art is that it needs to show what else there might be to look forward to other than Christmas in ill Manors.

No comments:

Post a Comment