Helping ourselves to imagine better
At the Scottish Green Party conference 2009, Robin McAlpine was one of the closing speakers. At the time, the party’s then two MSPs often held the balance of power at Holyrood.
Robin’s presentation was powerful and moving. His thesis was relatively simple: in their negotiations with the SNP, our MSPs should first prioritise those projects which help the people of Scotland imagine something different. We are all imprisoned by the lack of our social imagination, he told us. We are constrained by our inability to conceive of something better.
This idea has become popular over the last year or so. I don’t remember how many times I have read lefty bloggers cite the now famous quote: ‘the end of the world is seen as more conceivable than the end of capitalism’.
But what was more interesting about Robin’s perspective on this is that his response was not to resort to the banality of calling for revolution. For the radical left, this is always the easy way out. Many more call for revolution than offer a viable strategy to deliver it.
No, what Robin was talking about was how a small party with a specific set of powers could use the resources available to us to help build the social imagination of the people of Scotland.
And I sometimes worry that our progressive movements fail to do this. Quite rightly, we are currently desperate to defend the gains our grandparents made. Unless we do, people will die. But in doing so, we are dragged into a debate that moves very little forward.
When writing about political tactics, Trotsky talked about transitional demands. These are demands that are at once so reasonable sounding that few would deny they are a good idea, and at the same time in practice require revolutionary changes in order to deliver them (for example, full employment). I sometimes think this is true of calls to properly collect taxes from the mega-rich: while much more could be collected as things stand, as long as our economy is built to deliver a tiny number of people who control a huge amount of our wealth, they will have the power to protect much of that cash from the less powerful tax collectors. And so, I sometimes think, tax justice can in a sense be seen as a transitional demand: it requires much broader economic justice.
Contrast this with the tactic proposed by Robin that day. Rather than demanding that the government change something in the hope that this will expose the absurdity of the current system, Robin was suggesting that we develop what we might call transformative demands – demands which empower all of us to together transform our understanding and imagine radically different ways to run our communities.
He has a number of specific suggestions. But one key idea that he felt two MSPs with only limited power may be able to secure in negotiations over the Scottish budget was a quarterly yardstick other than GDP by which Scottish progress would be measured. And Robin was suggesting that this was more important than securing insulation for houses across Scotland, or any of the other spending proposals we had been pushing. He suggested it was more important because it was a practical way to help people re-imagine their communities, and how they might be organised.
Fostering the conditions for imagination is tricky. As my brother Gilbert has pointed out on Bright Green some civilisations or circumstances manage to foster genius remarkably well. Others don’t. The office in which much of the internet was invented is one place Gilbert points to, as is Ancient Greece:
It is a myth that the world contains only a handful of ultra brilliant people and that if one exhausts one’s stock of them, then one has lost one’s most important resource. Fifth century Athens, for example, produced in one generation some of the most important thinkers and writers of all time, geniuses like Plato and Euripides and Aristophanes. At the time, the population of the whole of Attica (most of whom were illiterate, of course), was about the same as present day Lowestoft. Humanity is swarming with geniuses. What matters is creating the circumstances to nurture them.”
I suspect that the circumstances which nurture the genius swarming through humanity are similar to those that help build our social imagination.
And so it seems that one way to help this process is to begin to build the architecture of radical democracy. One of the reasons there were so many geniuses in Ancient Attica was surely that a relatively high portion of people (despite the fact that they were all wealthy men) were involved in making regular and significant decisions about the organisation of their communities. By involving so many in these power structures, people became socially educated and so possibly more capible of imagining different societies.
We’ve banged on here on Bright Green before about our co-editor cllr Maggie Chapman’s £eith Decides event – in which she persuaded the council to allow local people to collectively choose how to spend a pot of money. But for me this demonstrates one answer – Maggie used the power she had to re-distribute power in a way that helps people see that things are as they are because a set of choices have been made – and different ones could be made in future: that helps people to build their collective imagination for their community.
I’ll be looking out for other practical things we can do to saw through the bars on our imagination. Let me know if you have any tips.
Hey Adam – really interesting post. Just thought I’d nudge you in the direction of Kevin Kelly’s piece on scenius, or communal genius – might be a useful addition to Gilbert’s musings.