Revolutionary Imagination

We need movements that unflinchingly stake out and bring life to what we are fighting for.

Let’s do a brief thought experiment.

For a moment, imagine a typical weekend at a nearby popular shopping area or mall that you are familiar with. Think first about how people get there, all the cars on the roads and freeways, the bustling seats on mass transit. Think about the crowded parking lots and parking garages, and all the awkward stopping and starting, the waiting and cajoling, the swearing at each other from behind glass. Think then about the inside of the shopping area itself, the store fronts and kiosks, the loud colors and mingled smells of pretzels and body lotions and fried whatever. Imagine the throngs of people, parents and kids pulling each other in different directions, small groupings of young people wearing the best they can afford of their particular chosen styles. Imagine catching patches of conversation: “Can you believe she just posted that?” “We can get ice cream after Daddy gets his ties.” “I love me some Jamba Juice.” “That rent-a-cop is following us again.”

“radical imagination…is one of our movements’ most tragically under-utilized tools.”

Take your time to picture it—for real, give it a try, or even go to a mall and read the rest of this in the food court—and then zoom out your view to the thousands of similar scenes playing out each weekend across the country. Think about all of those people.

If we, over here in our social movement corners and cubbies, believe that a better world is possible, what does that mean for all of those busy shoppers? What kind of different world are we imagining for them, what is their role in shaping it, and how will their lives be different as a result?

One easy, all too common response is, “well it’s not for us to decide, it’s up to all those people themselves.” That sounds so democratic, but I think it can also be kind of a cop-out. It’s like saying that there’s a party, everyone’s invited, but it’s up to each person to decide where, when, and what to wear—which basically means there ain’t gonna be a party. If we’re willing to go so far as to say that a better world is possible, then people have a right to expect at least some cursory sketches, at least some hint of an invitation.

Here’s my own cursory sketch. I imagine a world where hierarchical, competitive, and individualistic values have been washed away by community-based values like freedom, cooperation, equality, participation, creativity, curiosity, physicality, spirituality (of some sort or another), and ecology. I imagine a world where collaborative, democratic structures of free association have replaced all systemic forms of oppression, exploitation, and violence—be it capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, religious domination, or ecological destruction. I imagine a world where a good majority of those mall goers—coming from their same original lives, relationships, and background interests—have embraced the creative challenge of transforming the stifling social barriers around them. I imagine those same youth, parents, and pushy cellphone vendors leading projects to redesign their schools, neighborhoods, and jobs. I imagine the Apple Store geniuses and loading dock custodians huddled together in neighborhood assemblies or workers councils, collaborating around how to improve major problems in their communities. I stagger as I try to imagine each person’s unique and winding journey toward a personal empowerment that is interwoven with collective liberation across areas of gender, sexuality, race, ability, and work. I am humbled as I imagine these people giving up many of their favorite consumer goodies—from ipads, to the newest shoes, to cars—in a bargain to help ease the transition to a more just, non-capitalist economy. And, with a little kid grin, I am thrilled to imagine that same mall space taken over and converted into something like a free community university, or a vast community art studio, with those thousands of people taking diverse classes, tending rooftop gardens, showcasing elaborate citywide graffiti exhibitions, or just playing a massive game of tag.

In short, I imagine a world that has been drastically remade—from the bottom-up, in an anti-authoritarian way, and ideally with as little violence from our end as possible. And because achieving anything like this vision would certainly require a process of both institutional and cultural revolution, I proudly consider myself a revolutionary.

I think the rest of us should proudly call ourselves revolutionaries, too.

In my view, radical imagination like this is one of our movements’ most tragically under-utilized tools, and it’s where this proposal finds its first footing.

I believe that social movements—especially radical movements—are strongest, and most long-lasting, when we seek beyond the narrow realm of scattered, short-term, defensive fights aimed at wresting reforms from power-holders, and instead root ourselves in a broader, bigger vision of what we are fighting for. One need only look at some of the greatest hits of historical social movements to see how a visionary scope and reach can open up room for transcendent political moments: the beloved community and the “march to freedom land” of the U.S. civil rights movement; the Industrial Workers of the World’s call to “build a new society in the shell of the old;” the 10-point program and platform of the Black Panther Party and their free breakfast and healthcare survival programs “pending the revolution;” the Freedom Charter that galvanized generations in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement; the early Spanish anarchists’ vision of a revolutionary worker’s syndicalism that they called “The Idea;” the autonomist dream of a “world where many worlds fit” of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico; the simple yet earnest call to “occupy everything” that echoed through general assemblies across the Occupy movement. These movements resonate and echo well beyond their limited times, places, and day-to-day struggles because they have dared to conjure a revolutionary imagination that we can still connect with today.

At their core, at their roots, our movements should be able to declare what they want with contagious verve and confidence, yet with broad enough brush strokes to avoid dogmatism and sectarianism, so that any person from any background—any shopper in any mall—can imagine shaping a meaningful place and meaningful contribution for themselves. Our revolutionary imagination, the fact that our hope actually has audacity, should be one of the first things that people know and whisper about us. Because once we get them even whispering, we’ve already invited them to ask, “what if?”

This bumps us up against a rather large problem, though. As it stands, far too many us—especially those of us who are older, more experienced, and actually often quite well-positioned to make big impacts—are far too timid about saying what we really want—the r-word, revolution—beyond our own close circles.

Currently, our movements, and the subcultures of activism and organizing that underlie them, are gripped by a deep cynicism that we rarely name or notice. This cynicism tells us that our society’s general population is not yet politically developed or politically open enough to engage with and commit to big revolutionary ideas. Out of this cynicism, and an accompanying fear of rejection or repression, we try to be “strategic” in our activism and organizing by essentially hiding many of our core beliefs, goals, and motivations, and we put tremendous work into rationing out our politics into bite sized chunks of issues, campaigns, reforms that we hope—crossing our fingers and closing our eyes—might be gateways for non-activists into some vague pathway of slow radicalization. In the meantime, we end up reserving much of the good stuff, the rich world views that actually keep us dedicated for the long-haul—both our most beautiful visions and our most razor-sharp analyses of the interlocking oppressive systems at the heart of this mess—for only select and small groups of friends and comrades, creating small enclaves of self-importance and righteous isolation.

I think it’s time to make a tough shift past this cynical outlook, by considering that maybe the biggest reason that non-activist people don’t engage with our bigger, wilder ideas en masse—and instead usually only briefly participate in movements through short-term fights to win immediate gains in their lives—is because we aren’t creating enough quality spaces and opportunities for them to consider, experience, and chew on those bigger ideas in the first place. If our public face—both in messaging and in the actual structures of our groups, meetings, and trainings—is mobilize, mobilize, mobilize, campaign, march, picket, fight the target to win the demands, go, go, go, but our more closed and exclusive private spaces are where the more rich, more personal, more visionary questions are explored, then it should be no surprise to us why our retention rate is so dismal.

Nonstop fighting for scraps is not fun; not for most of us. It’s draining, it’s often demoralizing, it’s uncomfortable, it can feel humiliating when targeted around issues that are framed as our fault, and victories take too long while also usually winning too little. Who wants to stick around and keep doing that, unless they are involved and supported with a deeper community, with a longer-term vision and purpose that helps them muster their resilience and perseverance?

It’s time to try a shift toward creating more movement environments that better trust people at all levels of political experience, consciousness, and capacity with considering, playing with, experimenting with the whole gamut of questions that spring from a revolutionary imagination. After all, revolutionary imagination can only start making strides toward reality when it is owned and honed by people like those thousands of mall goers whom we have been thinking about.

This brings us to the second key idea that grounds this piece: building toward a scale that can allow millions of people to move us from revolutionary visions to revolutionized practice, and then onward to a revolutionized society.

Continue to section 2: Mass Scale

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