A new political imagination: creating realistic utopias


Andrés Lomeña | Patricio Cabello

Jun, 2021

We live in troubled times. We are witnessing how the climate crisis threatens life and jeopardizes the sustainability of the political and economic models in which we have operated for the last hundred years. There are great masses of refugees moving around the world to escape from war and famine, only to encounter fences, walls and ditches. Combined with the devastating impacts of the pandemic, the panorama resembles the end times, which summons and challenges us to herald a new future, via a new political imagination.

The project of promoting this new political imagination would be unnecessary if the old way of thinking about politics were healthy. But this does not seem to be the case. Not only do we need a new language, we need new goals. This is not an easy task, and it demands that we articulate new ideas, with old ideals. The Spanish sociologist César Rendueles recalls how artificial loyalties have been forged between wage earners and other economic actors that destroy our political imagination. This prevents us from fighting for a more egalitarian society, and condemns those who do not live in privilege to depend on the privileged. Consequently, a project for a better society, for a less polarized and unjust world, must be articulated through rehabilitating the political imagination project. This entails rehabilitation, or demolition and then reconstruction of social constructs.

Photo_ Matthias Haemmerly_ CC BY NC ND 2.0
From various perspectives, the poignant need for transformation emerges. The Chilean constituent process provides one example of how citizen demands find a democratic, institutional and deliberative channel. The current Chilean constituent assembly was elected to debate and draft a new constitution from scratch, and more than a third of the body is made up of representatives who do not draw from old or even new political parities, but rather from social organizations that advocated for a process of social transformation without major intermediaries. In this sense, it is a redesign from the bottom up of the political architecture. Although this carries enormous risks, it introduces an unprecedented horizon of possibilities in a country that never seems to finish its transition from authoritarianism to democracy. A process like this certainly allows us to imagine possible futures, and as it was written on the wall in several places, “Neoliberalism will end where it began. Change Chile, change the world.”

A project that leads us to dream of social conquests must consequently leads to the materialization of a realistic utopia. Simple mention of the word “utopia” as a synonym for impossibility leads us to political realism that can only represent brutalization of social, economic, political and cultural life. The reactionary political imagination has constructed powerful myths, from the Laffer curve to the growth delusion (a David Pilling expression). Or, it attributes cycles of economic prosperity to the management of conservative governments, which have too often served out economic jargon in order to sell an outdated development model. A realistic utopia begins with less visible public gestures: free meningitis vaccinations for infants, free higher education, removing toll road charges, or redefining the common good. Of course, these measures practically resemble privileges when there is a constant violation of human rights, or weakened democracies.

The search for alternatives that would guarantee fundamental rights has met with opposing economic and political powers that manipulate public opinion through the media, transforming political tensions into judicial battles, criminalizing social protest and waging legal war on progressivism.

Meanwhile, corruption and tax evasion continue to nurture the powers that be. Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of “Utopia for realists” (a book arguing for universal basic income, a world without borders and a 15-hour workday), scoffed at the Davos Forum, as the altruistic commitments were rendered hypocritical as they avoided mentioning taxes. In that sense, benefactor capitalism becomes undisguised and shows itself for what it really is: empty words. In moving forward, it is key to discuss taxes, infrastructure, and life’s material furnishings. Needless to say, shedding light on these issues comes with costs. Bregman himself joked on social media that he had not received an invitation to attend the Davos Forum the following year. There are other, much more dangerous costs: political repression, and the attack on freedom of expression. The search for alternatives that would guarantee fundamental rights has met with opposing economic and political powers that manipulate public opinion through the media, transforming political tensions into judicial battles, criminalizing social protest and waging legal war on progressivism.

Here we are talking about infrastructure in both the literal and symbolic sense. There are structural ideologies (racism, xenophobia) and material structures (investment, public health, education) that condition ideology. For example, the supply and raw materials crisis affecting the United Kingdom and much of the world will establish new patterns of priorities and political concerns, even though we have not yet resolved the pandemic crisis (although the two are likely related). The fossil fuels industry is an enemy to conquer, although how to do this has not yet been fully articulated. Data can help in this renewed conversation regarding public affairs. For example, there is easy-to-access, hard data on how the working day was shorter until around the 1980s; delving into these socio-economic trends can help in supporting hopeful pilot projects like the four-day workday. Paradoxically, Russia declares non-working days in order to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, leisure time will increase as a result of the pandemic’s labor shocks and systemic effects, and this will not be a result of increased productivity or a major union victory.

Change that affects infrastructure can be inspiring. In Italy, several viaducts have been demolished in order to adapt to new legal frameworks addressing seismic activity. We have to learn from mistakes in planning an ambitious, but credible program for change. Possibility is not solely a matter of political will; in order for this will to shift, it must be guided by a scientific vision far removed from polarized emotions and feelings. Sentimentality is an affliction among institutions. Frankie, the computer-designed dinosaur that forms part of a UN awareness campaign, manifests as an involuntary self-parody, given countries’ inoperability in the face of an unprecedented ecological crisis. Environmental catastrophism seems to be as damaging as willful ignorance of the new climate regime. Clearly, critical consciousness does not represent an ideal that solves the situation if no action is taken. In other words, fundamental decisions must be made about which development model to adopt if we want to survive.

So-called neoliberalism has not only served as an economic project, but also a cultural one. The sooner we understand the cultural impact of anarcho-capitalism, illiberal democracies, and other variations of the old, singular thought process, the sooner we can build a viable political horizon. One of the most complex facets of neoliberalism is its vision for an atomized society, which does not reconcile individual needs with the common good. This causes destruction of the social fabric as it builds a myopic political image, which only distinguishes between the market and the state. These and other questions are what we are concerned with in this issue of metapolis.

Below is a varied selection of articles linked by a common theme: possible contributions towards a reimagined future for democracy.

This issue’s discussion begins with the article, “Pandemics Occasion the Rethinking of Shared Technology,” by historian Jo Guldi. Based on cases like that of cholera, Guldi traces the continuity between sanitation networks of the past and the shared technologies of today, allowing us to telecommute. Public broadband at first seemed a caprice of technological experts, but after the events of 2020, it seems it has become a structural necessity in maintaining society. This can assist us in reexamining judicial decisions in the very recent past, including the condemnation of some Spanish city councils offering free Wi-Fi.

Maysoun Douas then advocates for a redefinition of the framework of political coexistence in, “Towards a New Social Contract for the 21st Century.” In her opinion, it is imperative that we devise a roadmap allowing for open and inclusive participation, in order to effect systemic change. Charting this new course means incorporating inclusion as the central axis, as exclusion and structural inequality cause profound democratic deterioration, if not completely disabling democracy. The concept of citizenship and social peace are bereft of meaning if successive migratory crises are approached as merely chance and transient. Likewise, the promise of technological revolution should not be translated into an intensification of surveillance capitalism. Douas writes an ode to the courage of those who seek to refashion social ties in order to make relationships more horizontal and less hierarchical.

Ideas must continue to spring from the new political imagination, although these proposals now additionally require the capacity to attract, convince, and above all, be endowed with profound realism that allows for their implementation in the short term.

In “A Modern Debt Jubilee,” economist Steve Keen proposes a pragmatic way to avoid drowning in our debt. This means a new economy that understands the true role of banks, rather than the outdated model of neoclassical economics. Keen has dedicated his formidable intellectual work to demystifying the economic paradigm governing us and the role of private debt. Recently, he has decided to bring visibility to the tremendous errors of those who have attempted to calculate climate change’s economic impacts. The Jubilee is not a panacea, but he proposes a model that can be complemented with other measures, so long as banks and other institutions do not attempt to revamp the very problems they are trying to correct. Therefore, this serves not only as a guide to reduce debt, but also to cease certain banking operations. Economic sustainability will be key for ecological sustainability.

In turn, Jesús Rey Rocha and Emilio Muñoz Ruiz co-authored “Science and Democracy: Institutions in Search of a Sociopolitical Identity.” The authors demonstrated the need for reinforcing concepts like community. The energy transition or risk analysis could benefit from collaboration between scientific and technological institutions if they remain committed to a plural democracy. The work advocates for reinventing worn expressions like sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, green economy or digital transformation. In order to rise to the occasion, the welfare state cannot bend to the demands of the market.

Then, Concha Roldán brings historical perspective regarding how to achieve scientific progress, and ultimately gain understanding of the other in multicultural, globalized societies. In “Historical notes in a reflection on tolerance for a new political imaginary,” she traces the etymology and history of the concept of tolerance, noting its origins in modern thought. The philosophy professor emphasizes that tolerance does not translate to relativism or monolithic beliefs. Rather, it is a methodological tool with which to exchange knowledge as we move towards a tolerance that allows for true understanding of the other, alongside rational criticism, in our current and future societies.

For his part, Joost Smiers takes us to a little-frequented corner of reflection on the materiality of our lifestyles. In this sense, he writes about noise pollution in “Roaming Noise and Other Unwanted Sounds: Protecting the Public Domain.” The Dutch political scientist appeals to the political imagination in order to signal an issue that goes unnoticed: noise as a source of inequalities and conflict. Noise is an indicator of political and urban tensions. Undesirable sound may be found at an airport, which in turn represents a mass tourism model with an ecological footprint. Car traffic noise overshadows other forms of mobility, which could be less pollutive or dangerous in terms of accident rates. In short, noise is an existential key with which we can provide new sensitivity (and new acoustics) to our societies.

Photo_ Iafos_ CC BY 4.0
The old political imagination was an intentional thought experiment: ideas sprang from a wellspring of social desires in search of the good life. Ideas must continue to spring from the new political imagination, although these proposals now additionally require the capacity to attract, convince, and above all, be endowed with profound realism that allows for their implementation in the short term. This entails making explicit what was previously only dreamed of in a more or less abstract manner. In short, great societal demands must crystallize in a present that cannot wait any longer.