Cultivating Radical Imagination: Envisioning Alternatives to Ascendant Reactionary Movements and Neoliberal Self-Destruction

Setting the Stakes

Every historical moment contains risks for social retrenchment, for exploitation, violence and attempts by one or another group to dominate others. However, simultaneously, there are always possibilities for collective liberation. Human social, cultural and political history unfolds not as the overused metaphors of a circle of repeated mistakes nor as a straight line of progress. Members of every society in all times and places contend with unique contexts and constraints as well as the reality that human beings have a nearly infinite capacity to create, but also to destroy.

The challenges societies face today are acute, sharing continuities with past struggles, but also exhibiting new and different contours. Most pressingly, human-induced climate change and overall environmental degradation—caused by global patterns of resource extraction, polluting production and private-profit-driven disposable consumption—and the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons are threats that exist at a scale unique in human history (Wuebbles et al. 2017). The technologies that societies could distribute to provide safety and material comfort for everyone instead have been employed in ways that have brought us to the brink of self-annihilation as a species.1

Intertwined with and exacerbating these twin crises is the current ascendancy of reactionary political movements in the United States and elsewhere around the world (Bond and Chazan 2018; Tharoor 2018).2 The individuals now in control of all three branches of the U.S. Government are committed to maximizing short-term profits for their primary supporters through carbon-fueled exploitation of natural resources and human labor (Eilperin, Dennis, and Mooney 2018) and to dismantling international agreements of all sorts, including efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation (Bump 2018; Doubek 2018). Further deepening these crises is the inability of the primary electoral opposition in the United States, the Democratic Party, to offer a robust challenge or propose genuine alternatives to the GOP’s reactionary vision, even when in power.

The American electoral spectrum is narrow and the leadership of both major parties is committed to perpetuating the joint projects of neoliberal capitalism and global U.S. military hegemony.3 While the modern Democratic Party has been more willing than Republicans to enact limited regulation to mitigate the consequences of capitalism’s inherent instabilities and inequalities, it has done so with the commitment to “save capitalism” rather than with the objective of altering or dismantling it as a political-economic or social system (Yglesias 2018).4 Moreover, in the past two decades, the Democratic Party has supported a borderless and limitless war against terrorism accompanied by a concomitant expansion of mass surveillance, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and ever-increasing military spending (Bamford 2016; Herb 2017).5

For those of us who wish to see an end to the catastrophic consequences of both projects, the task is urgent and multifaceted. First, it is crucially important to reclaim the intellectual, moral and political terrain from reactionary movements and from the impoverished politics of technocratic liberalism. Second, we must expand our moral and political imaginations to envision alternatives to ecologically devastating “free markets” and perpetual war. I argue here that we need to draw resources from emancipatory traditions, working to turn radical visions of the future into practice and reality.

Cultivating Radical Imagination

Reclaiming this terrain and expanding the horizon of moral and political alternatives requires cultivating and exercising a radical imagination to envision fundamental transformations in the present organization of life in American society. This intellectual exercise is revolutionary because it is rooted in a commitment to join with others to work toward individual and collective liberation (Freire 2005, p. 39). It is crucial to begin from the intellectual position that human creativity is boundless. There is no reason to believe that the limited set of policy prescriptions presented by political parties, media and defenders of existing institutions are the only available choices. Observers should deeply question the notion that capitalist liberal democracy is the pinnacle of human achievement; societies can always be freer, more democratic and more just.6 While change is always constrained by historical, social and material realities, envisioning utopian alternatives allows analysts to search for the most progressive directions to push within, against and beyond those boundaries.

This exercise in critical thinking requires moving beyond “common sense” that insists we accept the limited confines of social and political life in its current manifestation and that forecloses alternatives pejoratively deemed idealistic.7 This practice of reflexivity necessitates instead, as Said has argued, a constant alertness and unwillingness to allow cliché and half-truths to guide intellectual inquiry (1996, p. 23). It means deeply exploring a wide range of historical and contemporary attempts and approaches to create better societies to identify strategies, tactics and insights for social change. To imagine in this way also entails continued reflection on one’s commitments and actions to avoid falling into determinism or reproducing the injustices one hopes to ameliorate. Exercising radical imagination is the creative act of critically examining and deconstructing ideological assertions. For example, the notion that individualism, entrepreneurship and private accumulation of wealth are synonymous with freedom and the belief that violence is an immutable aspect of human nature needs to be challenged.8 Contra these assertions, analysts should imagine social and political structures founded upon principles of cooperation, mutual aid and nonviolence as alternatives to current structures and conditions.

Importantly, however, radical imagination prefigures the processes of creating detailed plans and schematics to develop alternative institutions. Proponents of change should resist the mandate from so-called realists that any critique of existing structures must come with fully developed, implementable strategies. Often couched in the language of pragmatism, recourse to feasibility and practicality is a discursive tactic that too often proscribes the potential for radical action. The task for partisans of change is to identify structures of domination and to demand that those who support and benefit from those arrangements justify their continued existence. The burden of proof should lie squarely with those who defend social and political norms and institutions that create and sustain inequalities, oppression and violence.9 For example, it is the responsibility of corporate chief executives and stockholders to justify the morality of continued environmental destruction in pursuit of profit, and leaders of nuclear-armed states must explain the rationality of maintaining weapons (and/or expanding their stock of them) that could end life on the planet.

Optimism Motivates Praxis

A critique of this kind does not arise from a position of pessimism. Rather, radical imagination is at root an exercise in optimism and hope. The foundation to envisioning a better world is the belief that human actions can change conditions and that society can be made more just. It is difficult to remain optimistic in the face of cataclysmic long-term prognoses for human societies and daily assaults on the rights and lives of vulnerable people. The fragmented, atomized individualism of neoliberal capitalism exacerbates feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of right-wing attacks. Collective action is the antidote through which advocates for change can move from imagination to a praxis that confronts these forces. Hope can be found by coming together with others in common struggle to fight these assaults and to build new organizations and institutions (Davis 2016, p. 49). Without committed struggle, there can be no progress. Those facing oppression must, in Frederick Douglass’ famous formulation, collectively demand liberation (1857, p. 22).

A commitment to building more just and democratic societies means those seeking change can reject the racism, misogyny and cruelty of the right-wing, tout court. Americans must also reject as a barrier to substantive justice the neoliberal individualism that insists upon equality of opportunity as its highest moral and political goal (Seitz-Wald 2018). Instead, those seeking change must demand nothing less than a society that guarantees the resources to live healthy, happy lives to every member without caveat or precondition. Achieving this goal requires working toward radical democracy in our homes, workplaces and governing institutions. The most vulnerable people worldwide are already suffering the consequences of inaction on the pressing issues facing humanity at large. Nothing short of a fundamental transformation of global political-economic structures and patterns of state violence is needed to ameliorate human suffering and avert looming disaster.


1 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—an organization founded in 1945 by scientists involved with the Manhattan Project nuclear weapons program—publishes an annual report on pressing threats to humanity. The nonprofit is known for its “doomsday clock,” a visual metaphor for humanity’s proximity to catastrophe caused by “nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains” (“It Is 2 Minutes to Midnight,” 2018). Midnight on the clock face represents “apocalypse.” In 2018, the Bulletin’s editors moved the hands of the clock from two and a half to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since the 1952 U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests.

2 In order to obtain and maintain power, U.S. President Donald Trump and many other leaders within the Republican Party have mobilized xenophobia, racist and revanchist discourses of reclaiming the country from enemies internal and external (Riotta 2018), advocated political violence against opponents and journalists (Holmes 2018) and courted support from white supremacist organizations (Newkirk II 2018; Onion 2018).

3 In the United States, there are substantive policy differences between the modern Republican and Democratic parties, particularly domestically. The Democratic Party has not employed the overtly misogynistic, nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that Republicans have. And, for example, the Obama White House, after initial reluctance to take a strong position, pushed for and secured significant expansions of rights for LGBTQ Americans (Horsley 2016). It is important not to discount such material improvements in the lives of millions of people. However, such gains cannot be disconnected from both parties’ economic and military policies. On such matters, the parties differ only in degree. While specific policies vary, both are broadly committed to the right-wing, neoliberal economic ideology—advocating private ownership and control of profit-driven firms by capitalists, deregulation, austerity and privatized public services and individual over collective action—and militarist foreign policy (Cooper 2018a, 2018b). For example, Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, entrenched private, market-based insurance coverage as the central mechanism to meet Americans’ health care needs, rather than create public or socialized universal provision of care. Obama also authorized expenditures of $1 trillion to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons during the course of the next 30 years (Wolfsthal, Lewis, and Quint 2014), took over and dramatically expanded the global drone assassination program begun by Republican George W. Bush (Scahill 2015), deployed American special forces to more than 130 countries around the world (Turse 2015) and  supported the devastating Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen with record-breaking arms sales, intelligence and coalition warplane refueling (Emmons 2018).

4 U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, widely considered to be on the left-wing of the Democratic Party declared in 2017, “I love markets—I believe in markets!” (Foer 2017) and in 2018, “I’m a capitalist to my bones” (Grim 2018).

5 In Donald Trump’s first two years in office, Democrats in Congress have overwhelmingly voted with Republicans to increase the U.S. military budget. In 2017, the majority of Senate Democrats voted in favor of a $700bn military budget, authorizing $37bn more than requested by the Trump Administration (Stolberg 2017). In 2018, Senate Democrats unanimously voted in favor of a short-term spending bill to increase the 2019 Pentagon budget $17bn (Werner 2018).

6 The late novelist Ursula K. Le Guin—whose work The Dispossessed sketches a detailed vision of a cooperative, left-anarchist society—noted in a 2014 speech at the National Book Awards, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings” (Le Guin 2014).

7 The 2016 Democratic Party primary season serves as an illustrative example of the closing of moral and political imagination. U.S. Senator and self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders campaigned on an essentially Keynesian, New Deal platform of improving infrastructure and expanding social program spending including free at-the-point-of-service universal health care coverage (Purdy 2015). Eventual Democratic presidential nomination winner Hillary Clinton, who ran as a “pragmatic progressive,” dismissed this proposal declaring its consideration a “theoretical debate” that would “never, ever come to pass” (Chozick 2016). Far from a speculative proposal, dozens of countries around the world operate such programs (World Bank 2013). Clinton also called Sanders’ proposed tax-funded, tuition-free college education “pie in the sky” (Merica 2016). Again, many nations around the world, including poorer societies such as the U.S.’s southern neighbor, Mexico, have tuition-free or very low-cost tertiary education programs (Jilani 2014).

8 One-hundred years ago, well-known figure Helen Keller identified what she understood to be the fundamental problem with American society. Keller, a committed socialist and supporter of radical unionism, argued that America was not democratic because its society was founded on the wrong basic principles of “individualism, conquest and exploitation, with a total disregard of the good of the whole” (1967, p. 55). Informed by her activist work with women and children forced by circumstances to toil in dangerous, health-destroying factories, she argued that American capitalism prioritized the “output of a cotton mill or a coal mine” over the “production of healthy, happy-hearted, free human beings” (Ibid.).

9 On this point, I draw particularly on Chomsky’s articulation of anarchism as a tendency toward suspicion of all forms of authority and hierarchy. The task for the anarchist is to identify systems of domination and oblige them to justify their authority over others. If they cannot—which is often the case—such systems ought to be dismantled and replaced with structures that are freer and more just (Wilson and Chomsky 2013).


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Jake Keyel

Jake Keyel is a Doctoral Candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, democratic theory, and global ethics. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University. Jake serves on the editorial board of Community Change, a peer-reviewed journal housed at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance. He is also a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.

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