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The Capitalist Imaginary

One of my many pet peeves (yes in my grumpity blog I have many pet peeves), as I'm sure should be evident by now because of multiple posts, is the whole capitalism-end-of-history discourse where we're expected to accept that liberal capitalism is synonymous with reality.  The ideology that capitalism is the final chapter of human history, and that it is impossible to transgress its limits, demonstrates how capitalism functions to diminish our imagination.

And yet every mode of production that has dominated the historical landscape has inscribed its supposed limits upon the human imagination.  Before capitalism emerged to subordinate the entire globe to its nightmare, other disparate societies––most often tributary (many of which still linger, their ruins incorporated in capitalism's worldwide machine)––made the same claims about their nightmares.  Every historical mode of production projects itself infinitely into the future, socializing its subjects into believing that there is nothing beyond its walls.  Or, more accurately, that there are no walls, no limits, and that it is the universe itself.  Capitalism, therefore, possesses the same banal approach to humanity's collective imagination.  So just as our global ancestors imagined in accordance with their societies' confined aspirations, we also often capitulate to our historical period's logic.

Thus, in a previous post about imperialism, I was not entirely surprised when an irate commenter decided to inform me that, in case I didn't know, the best we can hope for is the "liberal empire."  And then I was informed that I was "confused" and guilty of "cold war thinking"––that in order to make the commenter feel better, I should just stop posting.  Apparently any rejection of the capitalist imaginary, no matter how minimal, is offensive for those who refuse to think beyond its boundaries.  The capitalist imaginary, this nightmare that for some is a compelling fever dream, demands loyalty.  It is Baudelaire's "oasis of horror in a desert of boredom" that from afar, and like a mirage, appears beautiful.

What is interesting is that I was accused, simply by presenting complaints, of demonstrating cold war thinking.  And yet the refusal to accept the capitalist imaginary is not a product of the cold war: it emerged precisely when capitalism emerged on the part of those who refused to accept the logic of capital; it became concrete in the First International, again long before the cold war.

The concretization of the capitalist imagination, however, the ideology that capital was eternally victorious, did not receive its full coherence until the final stages of the cold war when it believed it could claim that all challenges to its authority were doomed to failure.  If anything, then, the belief that capitalism is the end of history, that the best we can get is liberal democracy, is more in accordance with cold war thinking than a rejection of its machinic rationality.  If anything, adherence to the capitalist imagination is utterly and sadly dogmatic.

But those of us who want to imagine something beyond capitalism are often told that we are being dogmatic.  A strange charge when it is clear that dogmatism, if we actually examined the meaning of the concept, is that which demonstrates mindless adherence to the doctrine of the status quo.  Priests who reject science because it challenges the strictures of their supernatural universe dogmatically burn heretics; the dogmatists always define reality.  Capitalism is that reality which is reinforced, dogmatically by its priests and its worshippers.  Those who resist this doctrine are not the dogmatists, though we sometimes might reflect dogmatic logic, but the heretics.  The hegemonic doctrine is not ours; adherence to the claim that capitalism is the end of history is the prevalent dogma.

And this dogma can be reinforced by citing the failures of any attempts to reveal the limits of its imaginary.  We are reminded that the Russian and Chinese Revolutions did not work.  The cliched "communism is good in theory but bad in practice" claim masquerades as an argument.  But how many failures preceded the emergence of capitalism?  And, more to the point, how many of these socialist failures were also successes, also moments that changed society, moved history forward, and at the very least forced even capitalist societies to grant concessions?

We are taught, however, to focus only on the fact that these revolutions failed and that only capitalism can be triumphant.  And this teaching, bludgeoned into our minds from the very moment we begin to ask questions about our society, affects even those of us who want our imaginations to be more than the limits prescribed by capitalism.  Since it is difficult to imagine beyond what is presented as imaginable, we often settle for the confined "socialisms" within this reality's boundaries: more liberal reforms, welfare capitalism, social democracy, sinking "to the level of a liberal who utters banal phrases about 'pure democracy,' embellishing and glossing over the class content of bourgeois democracy, and shrinking, above all, from the use of revolutionary violence by the oppressed class." (V.I. Lenin, Proletarian Democracy and the Renegade Kautsky.)  The geography delineated by capitalism sometimes defines the terrain of our rebel imagination so that, instead of thinking about its limits and beyond its limits, we think within its box.  Sometimes we imagine the walls will fall on their own, or hope they will fall in the distant future, and maybe only content ourselves with prettying the enclosed landscape.

But still: it is the end of history and nothing except capitalism works.  The moments of liberation that ultimately failed are just failures, their successes must remain unrecognized.  We cannot even mobilize their memory as the memory of success: we are ordered to imagine, from the moment we approach the two great world-shaking anti-capitalist revolutions, that they are horrendous failures.  So in the end there is nothing but this oasis of capitalism in the desert of history and we are told, dogmatically and emphatically, that it is wrong (that it is even "dogmatic" or "idealist") to imagine otherwise.  Hence the irate pronouncements about how it is offensive to speak of anything beyond the boundaries of the "liberal empire."  Hence the permanent war on our imagination...


  1. I need you to stop blogging so that I can feel good about voting for Obama in 2012 please. This communist stuff is weirding me out. STALIN SHOT PEOPLE!!11!


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