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09 January 2018

The Limits of Political Imagination

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It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

What is the relationship between imagination and politics? What are the limits to imagination and how does this affect political agency? On the political horizon of this 21st century, can we imagine a different society to the current one, not necessarily Utopian in the bad sense of the word, but structurally different?

Political agency or “making the possible possible”

Imagining the future in the long term, in terms of political projects, does not sit well with many philosophers and politicians. The strongest argument came from Karl Popper, who believed that holistic projects are just senseless predictions, because history is contingent, to some extent unintended effects of those very projects which just results in a piecemeal engineering of local aspects of reality. Can a political agency be developed that goes beyond the local-holistic dichotomy and allows political imagination to be exercised autonomously?

Agency, in terms of theory of action, can be defined as a human ability to “make the possible possible”, which implies a clear and epistemic awareness of possibilities (physical, technical, social and moral) and an explicit will to overcome any internal and external resistance to the possibility of possibility.

A classic problem of political philosophy is pinpointing where politics starts. There are usually two levels: management, or institutional administration, and large-scale political plans and projects.

One reason for calling into question the local-holistic division is because both are merged in everyday life. Small town planning decisions, for instance, can result in global discord over ways of life and living in a city. Political agency when it is not purely managerial starts with the minor details, where great views of the world and how to organize it are already evident.

Small town planning decisions, for instance, can result in global discord over ways of life and living in a city. / Imagen: pxhere

Politics, in the form of collective projects, day-to-day activities and speeches and arguments, is always about the possibilities of possibilites and about the ability to determine and realize those possibilities. That is precisely what political and social programs boil down to: a program is the offer of a possibility to society; society must then analyze it and set about executing it. Programs are subject to many moral restrictions, but also, and especially, to the limits on society’s ability to carry them out. In knowledge and ability there are many dimensions of will at work, but also of imagination and desire. When it comes down to it, politics, like so many human actions, shape landscapes of efficiency, locally setting maximum and minimum limits on the ability to make the possible possible.

Imagination in the political program

Imagination, just like creativity, are people’s ways of transcending reality. Kant was the one to unite the issue of imagination and human agency or spontaneity, in terms of the theoretical, practical and creative mind. Transcendency happens in the first inkling of a problem: knowing that something could be a different way and thinking about the solution is in itself a way of transcending reality. It therefore follows that political imagination emerges as soon as a problem is seen as a problem, in other words, as soon as reality (or the market, or time) is not allowed to define future possibilities.

The problem of political imagination, thus considered in terms of agency, leads us to the question of which models (utopias, if you like) are possible and what are the conditions of possibility. This is something that cannot be done collectively. A program is not an engineering design, it is a rational exercise of transcending the reality of a group or society. In this sense, surpassing the limits of imagination means surpassing the external and internal limits of agency.

This takes us to contemporary situations in which citizens feel individually and collectively powerless to change the world and so they allow the changes to happen naturally, at the mercy of the big powers and markets. To a large extent, the aim of political agency goes in the opposite direction, bystrengthening communities to fulfill their potential to bring about change.

Fernando Broncano

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

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