We Must Imagine Better

December 20, 2016

Poet Ken Chen challenges us to reconsider our current political paradigm, and poses the question: How do we imagine America into greatness?

"Make America Great Again," Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Wyatt Gallery.

“Make America Great Again,” For Freedoms. Courtesy of For Freedoms and Wyatt Gallery.

We imagine the left to be the party of dreamers, intellectuals, and artists, but the right is the more imaginative party. Consider the conservative wing’s repertoire of invented bogeymen: the welfare queen, the crack baby, the illegal immigrant, the anchor baby, the Muslim terrorist, and, most terrifying, the wrathful God of the Christian evangelicals. In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio invaded immigrant homes riding atop a tank—an Arpaio-branded tank!—driven by the action star Steven Seagal. In Texas, new laws require doctors to follow abortions with funeral services for the fetus: cultural ritual as patriarchal control. And if the right’s ascendancy began with Ronald Reagan—a Hollywood actor who sold out left-wing actors to the House Un-American Activities Committee—we follow this farce and tragedy by electing a man known best for simulating an executive on TV and licensing his own name, Donald Trump.

Democrats can thus only position themselves as a vote against Republicans…they are a marginal utility, a milder apocalypse, a friendlier ruling class.

Nationalism, according to Benedict Anderson, is how communities imagine themselves into being—which I’ve always taken to mean that the nation is a hallucination that we perform together. Dreamed by our greatest performance artist, Trump’s hallucinations work because they accurately mirror our country’s history. The story of the United States is the story of a small but invasive colony that slaughtered native people, seized their land to grow cotton farmed by black slaves, and erected a global plantation economy that profited our country’s founders, funded our cities, corporations and universities, and created modern capitalism and the West. We have barely imagined America beyond the trauma of Reconstruction’s failure. So when Donald Trump promises to make America great again, arousing the white middle class’s libidinal revanchism, we know exactly what he means: white settler-colonialism. If either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had offered to make America great again, one would be totally confused—what America would they imagine? The Democrats ended “welfare as we know it,” criminalized blacks and immigrants, and supported the big banks that destroyed the economy. Democrats can thus only position themselves negatively—as a vote against the Republicans. The personification of instrumental reason, they are a marginal utility, a milder apocalypse, a friendlier ruling class. Trump imagined a xenophobic community into being. Clinton couldn’t imagine beyond transactions that excluded a deplorable third of the country. Liberals, in other words, lack imagination. But guess what? Leftists lack imagination too! Resistance can confine our political horizon to reaction, our critique to intellectualization.

"Rally," by Joe Boruchow, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

An interpretation of a Trump campaign rally. “Rally,” by Joe Boruchow, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

We must imagine better. Against Trump’s colonial nostalgia, we must imagine what America would look like if it achieved greatness for once. Let’s depose our slaveholding Founding Fathers and canonize Eugene Debs, Ida B. Wells and the Iroquois matriarchy that created participatory democracy. Let’s imagine an America whose founding date was, say, 1865 (the year of Union victory) or 1965 (the year of black suffrage)—or even 1968 (the year the Tet Offensive threw back American empire). Take a moment, incidentally, to realize that black suffrage is a vulnerable and recent phenomenon, one younger than RuPaul, Russell Crowe and Amy Grant. We must imagine ourselves beyond the circular firing squad that separates liberals, people of color and the left—and have some fun hallucinating how radical an American collective identity could be. Lately I’ve been thinking of Alasdair Gray’s dystopian novel Lanark, published in the early days of Thatcher, which begins, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” We may feel as if we live beneath the shadow of a collapsing empire, but Bernie Sanders and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests showed how powerful the left can be when its tactics are concrete and when it images a new political horizon into being. If Langston Hughes rebutted Trump’s slogan by writing, “America never was America to me,” then what could America actually become?

We must imagine full democracy for all people.

After Trump we must imagine an American mythology beyond neoliberalism and beyond the trauma of Reconstruction’s failure. Trump lost the popular vote; his ascension required various forms of democratic suppression, from the Electoral College and extremist gerrymandering to gutting the Voting Rights Act and intervention by James Comey and our state police agency. But Clinton would have similarly installed a ruling body of financial elites, and the most desperate tactic for thwarting Trump relied on faithless electors, rather than voters, determining who should rule this country. Against Trump’s authoritarianism and the oligarchism of Clinton and our Founding Fathers, we must imagine full democracy for all people. Full democracy means hallucinating new futures in two rather different contexts: an American settler empire that colonized those within its borders and an authoritarian capitalism whose nature is global.

First, we must imagine a more fertile vision of American citizenship, a democracy whose love can embrace those whom we’ve subjugated within our borders and without. We must imagine an America that had actually fulfilled Emancipation—the greatest redistribution of wealth in American history. Many liberals and leftists think it’s now time to abandon the struggle for racial justice in favor of a more “universal” program of class emancipation. But such a program will require exorcising whiteness as a seemingly natural ethnic identity. The American ruling class invented whiteness to divide poor workers. We must dispel it with a more universal identity, one that whites and people of color, Muslims and immigrants can recognize themselves in. This is the imagined community implied by slogans like “the 99 percent” or “Power to the people!” and by Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. I find myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The poet gazes at a bust of Apollo and finds himself wanting, ending with the words, “You must change your life.” At a recent event held by my organization, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), the black experimental writer John Keene said that this line, perhaps Rilke’s most famous, could also be translated as, “You must make yourself an other.” What struck me as most profound is how the two phrases could mean the same thing.

If Frederic Jameson famously wrote that we can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, then Trump furnishes us the opportunity to imagine the latter while living in the former.

Second, we must imagine emancipatory futures that do not simply argue for a better position for workers within an oppressive capitalist system. We must imagine political economy as a genre of science fiction. What if we let go of the idea that you can get only what you have earned? What if we were all emancipated from work? What if money, that ultimate hallucination, did not exist? A few years ago I was walking along the fjords of Stockholm when my friends pointed to a row of waterfront houses. The social democratic state had given these houses to the workers, my friends calmly explained, since it seemed plainly unfair for the workers not to possess beachfront vacation cottages. While I had comprehended the more obvious gifts of Scandinavian social democracy (e.g., affordable housing, state-paid maternity and paternity leave and free child care), I found myself struck by the pure surprising joy of this: vacation homes for the workers! Similarly, in his new book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase considers Star Trek as a model for a future society in which both scarcity and hierarchies have been abolished: a vision of communism made possible by automation and artificial intelligence. If Fredric Jameson famously wrote that we can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, then Trump furnishes us the opportunity to imagine the latter while living in the former. Against fearful Trumpist hysteria, we must perform what Vijay Prashad called—at a recent Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung event held at AAWW—“a nationalism of leisure.”

Let us look at America and say, “You must change your life.”

Imagine better.

Imagine you must make yourself an other.

Perform your nationalism of leisure.

And work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.