The Perversity of the Political and the Poverty of the Imaginary

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes is famous for his proclamation that, in a state of nature, there subsists a ceaseless “war of all against all”, and that, without a “Sovereign” (representing the figure head holding the renounced natural instincts of all citizens), humans would resort to an unfettered violence to get what they want, and they would naturally hoard resources at the expense of their neighbour’s needs being met. While it’s impossible to test this myth, and go back to a Hobbesian “state of nature” (as if it ever actually existed), these words – when taken out of enough context – could be seen to ring true at certain moments in world historical time, or even within one’s own life. With the vast chasm separating the truly rich from the poor, one wonders if there is not in fact a Marxian class war happening, a war which has raged, in one form or another from time immemorial. In an age when corporations have more “rights” than (some) human beings, it is difficult to argue that things are fair. In the last instance, it is the interest of multi-national corporations – whose only guiding ethical principle is the rule of the dollar – determining the course of the world. Who actually runs and benefits from these corporations?

In one sense it could be said that nobody benefits from them, that their rule has simply become naturalized and ideologized, and that people who earn business degrees are taught how best to serve these corporations, and do business on their behalf without critically analyzing anything according to the larger picture. When the very rules of the game are stacked toward the corporate interest, education itself becomes a form of indoctrination in the way things ‘are’ according to the self-interested reality of the corporation. The unquestioning, non-critical mode of the business school ensures the sustenance of the status quo, which is the health and vigour of the corporate interest itself. Hobbes’ Sovereign has become the corporation, and we have renounced our free-will, including our free thought, to the sovereign corporation.

While there are people in the position of running these corportations, nobody actually runs them beyond the symbolic representation of a person acting as nothing more than a place holder (what do CEOs actually do, compared to actual workers on the ground?), although it is well documented how much CEOs make. Last year Oxfam International warned that by 2016 the richest 1% will own more than the rest. Here we are.

There is an elaborate systemic structure in place that allows this state of affairs to flourish at the expense of the vast majority of the population. The banking system, the political system, the media, as well as the abstraction that the stock market affords through the buying and selling of speculative resources, are all aligned to benefit the corporation. It is as though the corporation is a monstrosity of capitalistic excess, and a particular way of reducing all aspects of life to the logic of the market. When the sci-fi genre imagines the machines humans create coming to life in the form of destructive robots gaining free will, and turning on their creators – encapsulated in the image of Frankenstein – this scenario is not far from the truth; although the monstrously inhuman corporation (created in and through the dictates of the market) is invisible, its effects are very real and devastating.

The Hobbesian framework works in the interest of the corporation by propagating the idea that, at their most basic (in a “state of nature”), people are at war with each other, rather than predisposed to working together. When we are all scrounging for scraps, we are not cooperating, but fighting against each other, instead of putting our strength together and fighting  against that which incarcerates and exploits us (both physically and mentally), and for what could actually emancipate us. When it is believed (out of fear) that we need certain repressive powers in place, and that otherwise we would indiscriminately kill each other, this belief dictates that the alternative – a peaceful existence without repressive and exploitative powers – is impossible, because, at root, people are selfish and violent. But what if, as some anarchists argue, people are naturally cooperative and altruistic? What if it is only the corporate structure that creates the conditions for a fabricated mode of being-together in which the competition for an artificial scarcity of resources is the only situation we are capable of imagining for ourselves? Is it possible to imagine alternatives to this situation?

The incapacity of the imagination to formulate alternatives is a symptom of the same system which controls media and other intellectual de-stimulating aspects of life. This poverty of imagination parallels the poverty of resources. Like Greek social critic and philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out in his The Imaginary Institution of Society, to combat this seeming lack of available alternatives to the current desolate political situation, what is required are alternative “imaginaries”, ways of viewing ourselves, and the world around us, including the possibilities inherent in our lives – possibilities for changing the way things are. In this view, things are the way they are by virtue of their very seeming to be that way. For Castoriadis, what he calls the “radical imaginary”, is not a mere faculty for idle entertainment, but a political tool that is utilized to displace the given (the way things ‘are’), through a re-configuration, and re-orientation of the familiarity of what he calls the ‘having-to-be’. “Within the having-to-be the radical imaginary emerges as otherness and as the perpetual orientation of otherness, which figures and [re-]figures itself, exists in figuring and in [recon]figuring itself, through the creation of ‘images’ which are what they are and as they are as figurations or presentifications of significations or meaning.” The radical imaginary is a “creating, bringing-into-being for the psyche/soma,” that de-centralizes the coordinates of the given, and re-centralizes them according to new ways of viewing the real (“Radical Imaginary, Instituting Society, Instituted Society” in The Imaginary Institution of Society Translated by Kathleen Blamey). This reconfiguration of the images that coordinate the familiar offers the possibility of imagining new ways of doing things, including modes of re-configuring the given, through the potential for meaningful and purposive political action.

Part of the value of Castoriadis’ position is that it suggests that all societies are built on an arrangement of images. These images are taken for granted in the sense that they are considered to be part of the very fabric of reality, and become disseminated and shared by members of a given community. They are upheld by the media and other institutions (educational, legal, economic) and enmeshed with each other in the process of being actualized as a world-view, which doubles as an impression of the limits of the real. In other words, the limits of one’s imaginary are the limits of one’s reality.

The limits of one’s imaginary dictates what is possible, insofar as the imaginary correlates to the conditions of reality in such a way that there is no reality ‘out there’ beyond the apparatus of the psyche. Reality is the result of a complex of images intermeshed in a world-view, or imaginary, without which there would be no vantage point from which to view the world, as well as no reality to be viewed, since reality is ‘always already’ configured according to the conditions of the arrangement of images constituting one’s imaginary. Reality itself is dependent on how it is pre-figured via the political and social imaginary. Since there is no one-to-one correlation between the world ‘out there’ and its experience ‘for me’, there is always – and necessarily – a perspective on that which is ‘out there’. The perspective, however, is all there is to such  degree that there is no outside perspective (there is no way of viewing reality outside of a perspective). The perspective is therefore productive (the imaginary actively produces and constructs reality, as much as it passively registers it); and constructive: even an oppressive state of affairs is dependent on the political imaginary that upholds it.

All this is to say that, since reality is dependent on images, the way things are (politically, economically, socio-culturally) is not necessary, but contingent, and therefore open to being changed. Since (political) reality is dependent on a series of images, which in turn construct a world-view and a constructive perspective, changing a world-view changes (political) reality, and perspective on what is possible to achieve. So the Hobbesian myth that in a state of nature there is a “war of all against all” is but one image that propagates a certain fear, and way of being together as a result. It carries with it a certain world-view and perspective that eventuates in the creation of a state of strife and perpetual violence. Just how far people buy into this as a real possibility is difficult to ascertain; whether our institutions are built on it, as their ultimate presupposition, is a relevant question to ask, since it is the institutions that perpetuate the myth by upholding certain world-views, and naturalizing itself as if it were true. Do the police protect us from each other, or do they protect and perpetuated the Hobbesian myth and the economic system (artificial scarcity) that goes along with it? At the end of the day, however, it is the radical imaginary that is the determining factor, since it is capable of breaking through the given, while offering up alternatives and possibilities of political action. It is thus that the perversity of our politics reflects the poverty of the imaginary, since the limits of the imaginary determine the limits of our political action.

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