Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power

[Max Haiven. Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Black Point, NS and Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Pubishing & London: Zed Books Ltd., 2014]

It's not a new question: How can we talk about the working of the social world such that we don't reinforce the dominant rupturing of what is actually a single flow of practices into various dualisms patterned on the Western insistence on a mind/body split? That is, how do we recognize that the material and the cultural, the visceral and the imaginary, the objective and subjective (in their Marxist senses), are all part of one social world, and that we need to analyze the world and intervene in it in ways that recognize that, and refuse to fall into caricatured and simplistic materialism that pretends the (so-called) immaterial is irrelevant or entirely derivative, or voluntaristic liberalism that makes agency and will all-powerful? The work of some prominent radical thinkers can be read as wrestling with these questions: Gramsci's notion of hegemony, for one, as well as cultural studies and all of the other approaches that draw on him; Foucault and those who take up his approach; Dorothy Smith's ontology of the social; and I'm sure lots of others that I'm not aware of. I can't pretend that my own reading and thinking about this question have been more than arbitrary and partial, and I like and have been influence by aspects of all three specific examples I mention, in my own completely unsystematic and non-rigorous way. But for all of that, when faced with understanding and intervening in some real-world problem of the interflow of (what gets unhelpfully reified as) the cultural and the material, I don't think we yet have very good tools. And as Haiven points out, the neoliberal/post-New Left evolution of capitalism places ever more emphasis on recapturing what once might have been insurgent imagination, creativity, and desires for its own reproduction, so it is arguably more important than ever to have such tools.

This book, unfortunately, is not a source of final answers either. But it does contribute some useful explorations, both in terms of examining related questions in some specific areas and in terms of modelling an approach that looks like a useful step down the road to a more general framework for answering them. Haiven's quest for "what might be called a materialist theory of the imagination" (13) takes him first to an exploration of value which brings together an autonomist approach to Marx's writing on that question, an attempt to knit together artificially divided "economic" and "cultural" struggles through the multiple meanings of "value", a theorization of radical imagination that puts it in a dialectical relationship with values, and an argument about how certain contemporary struggles fit into that nexus. He then talks about the idea of the commons and its renewed appeal for radicals in recent years, its relationship to the notion of "the public", and the recent global wave of struggles that have been using occupations as a tactic. The following essay is a creative exploration of how finance capital and the financialization of our social relations should in part be understood as being "about transforming value, imagination, and social reproduction beyond the confines of capitalist accumulation" (105). Then there's a short, critical piece on the university as a laboratory for the transformation of work and its attendant disciplines, followed by a fascinating chapter on history and memory, a critical genealogy of creativity and its present status as both source of inspiration for the continual adaptation of capitalist power and energy for resistance, and finally a look at the history of radical imagination (based on some earlier work by Haiven and Alex Khasnabish).

I won't respond in detail to all of the essays in the book -- essays which were apparently written separately but which hang together quite well as one volume -- but I'll say a few things about a couple of them. The chapter on the public, the commons, and occupations was a good reminder of the potential of "the commons" and "commoning" as ways to frame experiments in social reproduction that are collective but neither state/public or market/private. I particularly appreciated the book's practical, non-sectarian approach to struggles that focus on the public, struggles that focus on the common, and the actual and potential connections between the two. In principle, I think that giving priority to the commons is the only way to find our way free of the state/market impasse; in practice, I agree that a big part of that will have to be both defending the public realm from neoliberal attack and simultaneously nudging the state and the public realm towards more "common" forms of social organization, because we have yet to demonstrate that we can create non-trivial commons from nothing. My biggest political concern with the book fell in this chapter, however. It talks about the recent wave of struggles that have used occupations as a central tactic, and in particular focuses on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement that spanned North America (and beyond). And the way in which the book did this inadvertently highlited the problems with talking about the "commons" as path and tool and endpoint for liberation on Turtle Island if you don't make it anti-colonial from the word go. The last couple of pages of the chapter do focus on indigenous struggles and do raise some of the key anti-colonial and anti-racist critiques of OWS that emerged from and with it, but given that those critiques emerged essentially simultaneously with OWS itself, it seems like a missed opportunity (and a repetition of the perpetual deferral to which struggles against racism and sexism and colonization seem to be subjected in mainstream left contexts) to put this in the last two pages instead of the first two. Yes, this would have inevitably changed the conversation and the politics through the rest of the essay, but that's precisely the point. Those of us who see potential for justice and liberation in politics that prioritize an expansive understanding of the commons have to wrestle right from the word go with the fact that our starting point for thinking about the commons on Turtle Island is colonization, and the indigenous/settler relationship must be a primary structuring element (likely through treaties and the idea of the treaty commonwealth) of any revived notion of the commons, whether overtly land-based or not. That anti-colonial focus has to be included right at the start.

The other chapter I want to highlite is the one on history and memory. One important piece of my work has been history-from-below that has been done outside both the institutional and the epistemological confines of the academic discipline of history, and I really liked Haiven's overall framework for thinking about the past. Though our languages are somewhat different, it is quite consistent with things I have written, and even more so with things that I talked about in the launch events I did for the books. His application of the idea of the commons and of "commoning memory" to thinking about history is an interesting one, and one that I will definitely be reflecting on as I inch my way towards plunging into a new and quite different-for-me historical project later in the year. The amount of space the essays gives to using "radical events", with particular attention to May '68, to explore some of its ideas about how memory and history work makes me a little concerned, though I'm not sure it should -- I worry that centering instances of spectacle and militance in thinking through how we do history might smuggle some version of "the cult of the militant" into our history-from-below, and further reproduce the marginalization of everyday life and everyday forms of resistance, though I can't say with any confidence that this is happening from the way that "radical events" are talked about here. And I think his discussion of commoning memory would have only been strengthened if it had included some explorations of actually existing practices that either do what he is suggesting or at least contain seeds and gestures from which we can build this new approach to the past. That said, though, while I hope that all of the essays in this book spark future work, from Haiven and others, I hope that for none more than this one.

I feel like I should say more about the book's overall approach, but I'm not sure I can. I liked it, certainly, and its political sensibility felt quite consistent with my own. On the topics that will be familiar to many lefty book nerds -- value, the university, history and memory, finance -- he adds useful new insights, and those that are central to Haiven's overall project that have not received the same attention from left writers in the past -- creativity, imagination -- he challenges us to radically reconsider what they mean and what place they have in our overall analysis. It doesn't (and doesn't pretend to) offer a final answer to the questions I listed at the start of this post, but it is an important step on the path of developing a materialist analysis of imagination that might meet our needs in this era when our most resistant imaginings and counter-hegemonic desires so often get recaptured by capital.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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