Talking Radical Imagination with Max Haiven
By rob hopkins 8th October 2021
Max Haiven works in Thunder Bay, Canada as the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University, where he also directs the ReImagining Value Action Lab, a workshop for the radical imagination, social justice and decolonisation. He is author of, among other books, ‘Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons’, he’s the co-author, with Alex Khasnabish, of ‘The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity’ and most recently he published ‘Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts’. This conversation originally appeared on Rob Hopkins’ website and as a bonus podcast for subscribers to the ‘From What If to What Next’ podcast.
In your book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power you wrote, “Without the radicalisation of the imagination we have no hope of overcoming these crises.” Are we experiencing a crisis of the imagination? Why? And how is it manifesting around us, do you feel, in 2021?
I think we certainly are, and we’re feeling it acutely as, at least allegedly, we’re told we’re emerging from the Covid-19 crisis. It seems that even though this crisis in so many ways emerged from, or at least became severe because of years of market-orientated, neoliberal policy, those policies, even though nobody really believes they’re going to make the world a better place, still seem to be in force, and there doesn’t seem to yet be a unifying paradigm that could replace it.
Mostly we have the opinion leaders of the world either saying it’s going to be more of the same, but perhaps more competition between governments around the world, or it’s time for the rich to escape Earth entirely and go to space. So it feels like we are in the midst of a crisis of imagination on the sort of level of political leadership and economic leadership.
Also on the level of many of our everyday lives there’s a sense that we go about our routines as we have, not necessarily because we like them or we think they’re going to bring us to a better place in our personal lives, ecologically, socially, but simply because we can’t envision what a different world would look like and how we could get there from here. We are absolutely still in the grips of a crisis of imagination, and that is really compounded by the kinds of ways that our mediascape and the spectrum of ideas is so tightly controlled by a very few corporations, or orientated towards profit, in ways to limit us from communicating with each other and thinking about alternatives.
As somebody who has been involved in politics and change for clearly quite a while, what was it that started you focusing increasingly on this question of imagination rather than policy or activist strategies. Why imagination?
I always began from the position that it’s social movements from the bottom-up that change history, that change human life. I mean, sometimes we credit particular individuals with catalysing those movements. Often we credit political leaders who appropriate the momentum of movements. But really it’s when people come together and decide that they don’t want to live the way they’re living, or be oppressed the way that they’re oppressed, that things actually change.
Thinking about that is when I started becoming politically active at the turn of the millennium. I was faced with the fact that it seemed like, as a young organiser, it was really hard for me to convince people that that task was even worth it. One argument is that people are just happy the way things are, but that clearly wasn’t true, and people were even then having a growing awareness that the capitalist system on a global scale was headed towards ecological collapse, as well as social and cultural collapse.
But I had this constant sense that because there wasn’t a way that we could envision what the future might look, or what we might be capable of creating together, we weren’t able to muster enough popular power to actually make a change. To build enough momentum to then force changes in politics and policy which might come later. I wanted to focus on what I saw as the root problem, which was this crisis or absence or lack of imagination.
Where that led me was to the realisation, after doing some research and thinking about it, and collaborating with a number of other thinkers and activists, that actually, I got it a little upside down, because I had imagined that if we could only harness or cultivate the radical imagination in people’s minds, through conversations and debates, that would lead to the action I was seeking. But what I discovered was that in fact there’s more of a mutually reinforcing or dialectic relationship between the imagination and action. Our imagination are enlivened and grow and change to the extent that we come together with people to fight for things that we care about. And as we do that, that imagination then inspires us, and others, to fight for the things we care about as well.
What is the radical imagination? How do you define what you mean by it? How can we create the best conditions for it to emerge and flourish?
I’ll start by saying what the radical imagination maybe isn’t, because that will maybe make it a little bit clearer, and here I’m drawing on work that I did with my friend Alex Khasnabish, who’s a social movement scholar, when we were both living in the city of Halifax in Canada. We chose to live there and we chose to study that city, not because it’s a particularly radical place where some sort of revolution or major change inevitable. It’s actually a very conservative city. But we wanted to study what social movements do in moments when it seems objectively, if not exactly hopeless, then very unlikely that they’re going to get the change that they want, and how people maintain faith and persevere in those conditions.
What we discovered is that when we went into it, a lot of the writing about the imagination and the radical imagination, political imagination, tends to have a very individualistic focus. This is the idea that’s familiar to most people, that your imagination is like your personal property. It’s your own internal landscape that you exist in part of the time. And that radical imagination is a matter of simply having radical ideas that you, as an individual, have a Eureka moment while reading a book or watching a movie, or doing something and you say, “Aha, I realise that the entire world can be changed.”
We proposed that the radical imagination isn’t something that individuals have, but something that people do together. The radical imagination is something that emerges when, as I was mentioning, people come together to struggle against the reality that they’ve been forced into. The social reality specifically, although sometimes the social reality masquerades as biological reality or physical reality, when in fact it’s something that we’ve created. When people come together and say, “This isn’t right. The system that we live in doesn’t value the things that we value” – whether that’s people’s lives, whether it’s a notion of equality, whether it’s ecological sustainability – when people come together and insist that they wish to live by a different set of values, and live in a world that values things differently, we say that the imagination sparks into existence.
And that spark can then sometimes spread into an enduring fire that can carry movements forward. It has in the past sometimes also flamed out of control in various ways. But the radical imagination in this sense is something that exists sort of underneath our social interactions. Probably the theorist that inspired us most around the radical imagination is the French Greek philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis. He speaks about the radical imagination as a magma, sort of like lava that is flowing underneath the surface of the earth.
And you know, the surface of the earth itself that we walk on and that everything grows on, most of it was originally magma that erupted to the surface and then cooled in its chemical reaction with the atmosphere. And we take the Earth as we see it, as this eternal landscape that’s always been here. It’s actually in geological terms quite recent. And it’s changing all the time. And likewise the sort of structures of our society we take for eternal and that they’ve been handed down to us and there’s no escape from them and that they’re natural and inevitable, that markets are the only way to organise human co-operation.
But that’s a very recent invention too. Much more recent than the geological formations of the Earth. And likewise it came out of eruptions of the imagination, and it will be eventually washed away by eruptions of the imagination as well, which will then in their turn harden, and will need to be swept away and changed.
That’s a beautiful analogy. You write very beautifully in the book about creativity and imagination, which are often used interchangeably, but you pick the two terms apart and distinguish between the two in a way I find really useful. Could you say a little bit about that?
Yeah, absolutely. I trained in a literature department, and I teach in an English department still today, so as an Anglophone who grew up speaking English, I’m always fascinated by the strange hybrid weird imperial language that I live in. I often go back to the etymology of words and the way that they evolved. And it’s interesting that both imagination and creativity are relatively recent terms.
They were not words that were widely used until the early modern period. In fact the idea of a creation or a creature, from which we get the word creativity, was largely reserved for God’s powers to create. And the imagination at a certain point was actually a crime. The crime of imagination was to imagine the murder of the Regent. You could actually be hanged or at least imprisoned for the imagination. And then as we have this transition from the feudal period to capitalism, these words take on a different meaning and a different value.
At a certain point, as the world shifts, or at least as Europe shifts towards an idea of human centred cosmology, where humans create change in the world rather than God, notions of the imagination and creativity are developed. Sometimes these are quite triumphant. You know, the idea that humanity can conquer nature, can conquer the world, and create of its own will a kind of reality. And sometimes these are quite pessimistic. You know, at various points conservative forces in society have been very distrustful of both creativity and the imagination, as things that might disrupt the social order.
Recently I think what’s happened with both terms is that they’ve been reappropriated by the forces of capital accumulation. Now we have ‘creative cities’, the ‘creative class’, what Bill Gates used to call ‘creative capitalism’. And the idea that only under a capitalist market-driven system will creativity truly be unleashed because it allows for a field of competition that brings out the most creative individuals who first invent new companies and then shoot themselves into space.
The imagination likewise has been harnessed by this culture to suggest that, rather than having the power to imagine a different society together or create one, we should limit ourselves to personal acts of the imagination. You know, making TikTok videos, or doing all sorts of other things that fit into a very limited framework for the imagination.
I think the distinction between the terms, because of this kind of history that I’ve sketched really quickly, they often get really conflated, but I think it’s useful to keep them separate to a certain extent. The imagination is a really useful term for describing, as I mentioned, not just the quality of mind that allows people to dream of things that they haven’t seen, but that thing that exists between us, in a way. That thing that’s sparking in our interactions. The imagination as the social force is key not only to our ability to think about future possibilities, but also to empathise with people that are not like us, which I think is key to any decent society.
Meanwhile, the notion of creativity can be used in a slightly more limited sense to speak to those ways in which we express our imaginations through, for instance, arts and culture. Through writing. Through dance and performing arts. And those things that we more conventionally associate with creative expression.
We’ve been led I guess over the last two, three hundred years to believe that the imaginations we celebrate tend to be the imaginations of straight, white men, painters, writers. How do we set about decolonising the imagination? What does that term mean to you, or what might that look like as a practice?
It’s such an amazing and difficult question. I suppose I would begin addressing it by simply pointing out that the structures that have shaped colonialism and imperialism are themselves deeply indebted to the imagination. Like this story we have that you can categorise human difference by race, and that race is a physiological fact, a genotypical fact, that has something to do with people’s capacities, that’s a completely imaginary construction that Europeans developed from the fifteenth century through various phases into the twentieth century in its more scientific and culturalist forms.
Race is this kind of fiction that becomes real through the way that it constrains people’s actions and reactions. The imagination isn’t just a force for good. It’s also a force for ill. Even something like money … even when it was still made of precious metals, it’s still kind of based in the imagination. Because after all most precious metals have very little use value to most humans. So the value, the outsized value that we give to money, and its ability to control how we co-operate with one another and build and reproduce our world, is a structure of the imagination.
Beginning with the dangers of the imagination, it alerts us to the kind of task ahead of really taking responsibility for the power of the imagination. Maybe more specifically to that question, one thing that I think anti-racist and anti-colonial critics have been pointing out for a long time is that these systems are really dependent not only on physical force, you know, the use of police, the use of militaries, the use of economic pressures, but also on conscripting the imagination of many people.
Specifically in our world historical moment, conscripting the imaginations largely of people who have been understood to be white. Or understood to be European. Although both of those categories themselves are imaginary. But imaginary and given real form by, again, the way that they inspire and shape people’s actions. Overcoming those kind of imaginary hierarchies is crucial. And also realising that then there have been and continue to be many other ways of organising life on this planet that don’t revolve around the kind of accumulation and competitive logics that emerged from imperial and colonial Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. And that those logics have a huge amount to teach us about what it might mean to leave sustainably on this world.
I’m really fortunate in many ways to live in Thunder Bay, which is a city in Anishinaabe Territories. And there are lots of Anishinaabe activists and elders who have been fighting to retain a living memory of the ways that Anishinaabe people organised life on these lands in very sustainable ways for millennia before Europeans arrived. What we’re struggling towards in this part of the world are ways of addressing the histories and continued impacts of colonialism, imperialism and racism that still dramatically affect people’s lives here, and also trying to find a pathway forward.
Nobody wants to go back to something that is imagined to have existed before. But to recognise that there’s an incredible power of the imagination that can emerge from the meeting points of Anishinaabe world views and practices with the kinds of world views and practices that now also exist on this land thanks to those of us whose ancestors settled here, or squatted here, because, you now, it’s not like they were invited by the Anishinaabe to settle here.
It’s like in Permaculture, that idea of ‘edge’, where two things meet is always the most fertile bit isn’t it? I love how you talk about how the radical imagination not being a thing that we have as individuals but you say, “It’s a shared landscape or a commons of possibility that we share as communities.” Where have you seen the best examples of people creating the conditions, or using particular tools to foster and nurture that, to bring people together to spark that kind of radical imagination?
The most inspiring examples to me are places where groups have managed to reclaim space and land, and use the space and land, and their interactions with space and land to build something different, and I’ll give a couple of examples in a second. But it’s really important, and I think it doesn’t just necessarily happen in sort of rural areas, kind of back to the land thing. It also happens in urban areas.
I mean, on the large-scale, there’s the incredible example of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, the state of Chiapas in Mexico, where Indigenous people reclaimed a huge territory and then over the last 30 years have transformed it into a zone where they can experiment with doing politics on a very different level, building an economy based on reciprocity with the land and with one another. This again integrates older Indigenous traditions with global wisdoms.
The Zapatistas have also opened up their territory to be a training ground for others. That’s an amazing large-scale example. And similar things are happening now with the revolution in Rojava in Kurdistan, in the territories between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, what are now those states, which are very, very promising. I’ve also seen a lot of it here in the territories currently known as Canada, and also the territories currently known as the United States, with Indigenous uprisings where as part of resisting pipelines or environmentally destructive projects, people come together and often Indigenous people will welcome non-Indigenous people into resistance camps.
In the space of that protest camp they actually begin to develop a whole new way of life, whole new sets of relationships and modes of co-operation that again draw on older traditions – including the tradition of the commons, from Western European origins and Indigenous practices – to create these living experiments. What is so inspiring about those experiments is that they are transformational on multiple levels. They’re transformational of the land and the relations on the land. They’re transformational of the individuals. They instantiate different ways of governing ourselves, outside of the kind of the order of the state and capitalism and its police and its prisons and its markets.
They are, not in and of themselves, enough to save the world, but are certainly great examples. There are other both more and less militant examples going on around the world of people also coming together and saying, “We’re going to care for this land that cares for us.” So the imprints of pamphlets that I published with Pluto press called Vagabonds is just publishing a pamphlet coming out this fall from Jay Jordan and Isa Fremeaux of the ZAD, the Zone to be Defended near Nantes in France, where based on rebellion against an airport a bunch of traditional farmers and also post-urban radicals came together to defend the land and build a different way of life on it.
I think your network of Transition Towns and Transition communities is another great example, where people are coming together around a sense that they want to live by and defend other values and that practice is grounded in territories and built out of relationships that are evolving.
Those are the ones that I see as most exciting. But I guess I would just maybe close the question by also saying I think this happens in an even smaller way, in other forms of resistance that we don’t necessarily always associate with it. I think about the incredible last summer of 2020 here in North America, and the incredible uprisings that were under the banner of Black Lives Matter. These uprisings were direct confrontations with police, and often had as their tip of the spear specific demands around policy.
But they also reclaimed space, and they were spaces where lots of people who were shouting “No” in unison came together and realised they had something in common, and discovered that if indeed they wanted to live in a world where Black lives indeed do matter, that would mean a much more massive transformation. There was a sort of connection there to the abolitionist movement which seeks to create a world without prisons and police.
These broad radical visions and radical imaginaries sort of emerged, but again it’s about people coming together in space, co-operating in new ways, and through co-operating in new ways to take and hold space, developing new visions of what might be possible.
In that work, what for you is the role of visioning? Of really trying to dream of, and speak of, a different kind of future than the one that currently seems to be on offer? What’s the role of that tool?
It’s vitally important, and it’s something that often movements forget to do, for a variety of reasons. I mean mostly movements are very busy, and they’re made up of people who are made artificially busy by capitalism trying to earn enough money to survive. Often it feels like there isn’t enough time when you’re really struggling to get together and be like, “Why are we doing this? What’s our vision? Or what are our many visions of what could be?”
But in the absence of that often movements lose their soul, to use a kind of romantic terminology. There’s an easy way that the struggle itself and the adrenalin, and other emotive forces of movement building just sort of run on their steam, or run on their own momentum, and you get huge problems of burn-out. There are different ways that movements cultivate this ability to do future dreaming or cultivate the radical imagination.
It’s kind of frowned upon or it seems a bit tacky to get together and talk about what my ideal future would look like. Often movements are based around a sense of self-sacrifice, so people feel indulgent for taking the time or the space to do that. But increasingly we’re seeing, and this is especially the case if I think about North America, or as we call it, like Turtle Island, it’s especially the case in Black and Indigenous organising. There’s a whole new emergence of a generation of Afrofuturists and Indigenous-futurists who are using films, novels, short stories, graphic novels, music, performance, dance, in order to create spaces that are outside but alongside social movements, for that kind of imagining of the future.
Partly thanks to the incredible capacities and affordances of digital technologies, that’s something that feels like it’s really blossoming in fascinating ways. Other movements have ways of doing that too but sometimes they need to do it indirectly. Like it’s not okay to just get all of your comrades around and be like, “What’s the future going to hold?” I’m doing a project right now for instance that will launch later this year to try and create reading groups and film groups with Amazon workers, to try and ask them what their visions of alternative futures are. You know, from within the belly of that beast! Because Amazon as a firm is very dedicated to crafting a certain kind of capitalist future. So perhaps the workers within it know something about other futures as well.
You write, “Movements rarely take the time to talk about the imagination explicitly”. You have also written “While contemporary capitalism may cynically solicit our imaginations at every turn, what cannot be imagined is an end to the economic system as we know it” which seems to boil down a lot of what you’ve said. That we’re in this time where what we have is a suicide pact, in effect, and so we need to profoundly reimagine.
My last question is what your suggestions or what your advice is for the wider sort of movements for change that are faced with this. It feels like we’re in a time where the model of capitalism and the politicians that we have are so utterly shameless. All the people I know in Extinction Rebellion are asking, “How do we shift this thing?” All the people I know in Black Lives Matter are askin “How do we shift this thing?” Capitalism seems to be incredibly resilient, especially when combined with surveillance capitalism and all these other things. Max, what’s the magic key we’re all missing? Come on, tell us!
I wish I knew! I don’t know. I don’t know. There are lots of reasons to be hopeful. One of them is that the kind of buffoonery and also the cruelty of these politicians is a kind of symptom of a massive legitimation crisis in the system. You know, not even the most doctrinaire neoliberal at this point really believes that if we just allow markets to run society everything’s going to get better.
All of the major neoliberals who are still alive who are actual serious thinkers have semi-recanted that and go, “Oh maybe we need to rethink this a little bit.” You know, notably Mr End of History himself, Francis Fukuyama. But others as well. There is a huge legitimation crisis in the system. That is dangerous and hopeful.
It’s hopeful obviously because now there’s not as many ideological barriers to get through, to just have an honest conversation about the future of the planet and the species. But it’s also very dangerous because that legitimation crisis in an era of profound political illiteracy and isolation also can easily feed reactionary and fascist forces, as we’re seeing. The people who are attracted to those also realise that the system is at a dead end and something needs to change, and the narrative being offered by the far right – even though it’s completely contradictory and paranoid – is very seductive.
I also think there’s reason to hope because, you know, and here I’m thinking about Kier Milburn’s work, who’s also done really great work on the imagination, that the younger generations, people under the age of 30, have no problem talking about the critiques of capitalism. People are very amenable to thinking about ideas. The big challenge though is that everyone is asking, like, “Okay, no, capitalism, yes, what?” And as yet nothing’s really emerged to really catalyse people’s imaginations.
What I’m looking at these days is the way that young people, pending a vision of a different society, are actually developing different kinds of collective and communal practices, which is quite interesting. I’ve been doing a project recently on the so-called epidemic of student anxiety, which is something that everyone who works in the university knows intimately well, because their students are, you know, in many ways falling apart. And you can’t really blame them. They’re about to inherit a pretty messed up world and they’ve been fed a lot of lies and cynicism throughout their entire lives.
But one of the things that me and my colleagues are noticing is that students have become very adept at building communities and building forms of support for one another. And new forms of solidarity, to kind of survive this crisis, that are very small and often not explicitly political, but they somehow speak to the way that people are realising that to defeat capitalism will require some sort of large mass movement, but that mass movement is going to build on the strength of the commons and the strength of people’s relationships, and their ability to care for each other and support one another. In what is going to be – I don’t think we can avoid it – a very rocky transition, in which we’re going to need one another in ways that I don’t think we could have imagined before. I see those as very hopeful signs but I don’t have the magic formula. The movement of movements.
It might also be different in different places. Here in Canada we saw, just before the pandemic, a massive Indigenous uprising against pipelines that had attracted a lot of support from non-Indigenous people, especially non-Indigenous youth. Together they were shutting down the entire logistics grid of the country. They were blocking trains. They were blocking ports. They were blocking highways. They were taking over the centres of cities, and just grinding the economy to a halt.
That’s still continuing in some ways throughout the pandemic, but that was amazing, not only because we saw so many people engaged in it, but also because a plurality of polled opinionators, and opinion polls actually supported it. That’s something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, because essentially what those protestors are calling for is a form of decolonisation that implies, often explicitly, a rejection of capitalism and a complete change in our way of life to restore land to Indigenous ownership, and to forego Canada’s dependency on mining and extractive industries and logistics industries. There is something quite promising about what’s brewing.