Max Haiven, a writer, teacher and organizer in Halifax, Canada, recently posted an essay on the website of ROAR magazine that is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Crisis of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons (Zed Books). It’s a fascinating piece that dissects the formidable capacity of global capitalist systems to control our sense of the possible.
It seems that Haiven has been thinking quite deeply about how the “financialization of culture” for some time. He writes: “…the system is more invested than ever in preoccupying and enclosing our sense of self and of the future; our hopes, dreams and aspirations; and our capacity to imagine.” A sense of futility preemptively neutralizes any threats to the system without the need to use visible force. Modest incremental improvements within the existing system are the best that anyone can aspire to.
“From this perspective,” writes Haiven, an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College or Art and Design, “radical social movements that seek to transform society can only be interpreted as vainglorious or pathologically ideological. It is also this fatalism that enables radicalisms to be co-opted and internalized within the system: if the system cannot actually be overcome, the only horizon of dissent is an inadvertent improvement of the system itself. Radical demands for the re-imagining of value are tamed and made to offer piecemeal solutions to capitalist crises; attempts to live out anti-capitalist values are transmuted into commercialized subcultures; anti-racist or feminist movements are co-opted into opportunities for a select few to enter into the middle class.”
So what to do? Haiven brilliantly explains how commoning can be effectively “jam” the usual cooptation strategies deployed by the Market/State:
“Overcoming fatalism, futility and cynicism, then, is not simply a matter of ‘thinking differently’ — although education remains a key part of the transformative process. Instead, the radical imagination and the ability to dream of and build towards different social horizons beyond the fog of capitalist unreason, depends on doing differently; on creating alternatives spaces, times and modes of reproducing ourselves, our communities and our world. This is a process of ‘commoning,’ of building living alternatives not in the sense of future utopias, but in the sense of radical models and zones to reproduce our relationships and our lives based on shared values.”
“In the first chapter of the book [Haiven continues], I argue that in order to do this we need to re-imagine the idea of value and pay attention to the way capitalism isn’t just a system for stealing economic value from workers, from the environment and from communities. It is also a system that drives and depends on the transformation of how we imagine social, cultural and moral values (as individuals and as communities). The system’s reproduction, in turn, corrupts and undermines the reproduction of our own lives as we become increasingly overworked, privatized, alienated and enclosed in debt. In this way, capitalism’s inherent and recurrent crises are externalized onto individuals and communities.”
The problem with the conventional “reform speak” of liberals is that it willfully ignores the systemic corruption of the democratic and policy processes by corporations and investors. Nowadays even Democrats parrot the neoliberal shibboleths about free markets, deregulation, government austerity and privatization lest some corporate bully decides to attack them. The Snowden relevations provides plenty of evidence that the system is rigged and without the capacity for genuine citizen self-determination or government accountability.
In light of these realities, Haiven shrewdly recognizes that our most urgent need is to reclaim and safeguard is our “collective creative cooperative capacity.” As he writes:
“….In order to overcome this vicious cycle [recurrent capitalist crises], we need to reclaim value. This doesn’t just mean redistributing social wealth in its already materialized form. It also means taking back our collective creative cooperative capacity, no longer lending it to the reproduction of capitalism but instead directing it towards the constant rebuilding of a society based on the values of solidarity, equality, individuality, empowerment and peace. In the second chapter, ‘Publics, Commons, Occupations’, I suggest that to do so we blend a concept of the commons with a concept of the public. In addition to more socialist strategies, which promise a public system based on state-managed social reproduction, and anarchistic strategies, which advocate a radical horizontalism where social reproduction is held in common, I suggest that we need to imagine ways to make the commons public and the public common.”
“We can imagine the struggles against austerity today, characterized by the strategy of occupations, as having two simultaneous dimensions. The first is an attempt to create new commons of social reproduction outside the command and control of capital, including new and rekindled forms of community care, horizontal and grassroots democratic decision-making and local production. The second is a double attempt to (a) defend and reclaim public institutions (schools, hospitals, public works) from the market by reclaiming them in the name of the public; and (b) increasingly democratize and render these institutions common, so as to avoid the enclosure of ostensibly public bodies by bureaucracy and crypto-capitalist models of ‘efficiency.’”
You can read Haiven’s full essay here. Here's a summary of Haiven's new book:
“In this stirring call to arms, Max Haiven argues that capitalism has colonized how we all imagine and express what is valuable. Looking at the decline of the public sphere, the corporatization of education, the privatization of creativity and the might of financial capital in opposition to the power of the imagination and the growth of contemporary social movements, Haiven provides a strong argument for creating an anti-capitalist commons. Capitalism is not in crisis, it is the crisis, and moving beyond it is the only key to survival.”