Collectively Imagining Change, Part 2

From Social Construction to Sociological Reconstruction

Brent Cooper
Jul 15, 2020 · 12 min read

In this trilogy of articles (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I interpolate Tomas Bjorkman’s magnum opus The World We Create: From God to Market, which is designed to awaken us to our own social constructions and develop a more conscious society based on evolutionary and complexity thinking, and ultimately reimagine monetary relations. I reviewed some broader themes of his book and the implications of the movement in an article titled The World We’re Creating (2018), which I followed up with The World That’s Emerging (2020). This is a process that invites our network as well as the whole of humanity into a collective imaginary generative of the paradigm shift. We need to collectively wake up and upgrade the social imaginary to match the shifting complex terrain of 21st century global civilization, while changing the money system at the same time.

Both our natural world and our collective imaginary today are in crises. We take pride in knowing we live in a socially constructed “matrix” of sorts, but ironically it still rules our lives while ruining our planet. Our culture can feel like both a prison and playground. We can’t seem to break free and help each other in our basic common struggles, regardless of what we try.

The constitutive rules of markets and governance have pitted groups against each other and concentrated inordinate amounts of wealth into a handful of individuals with more power than they know what to do with, and more control over the collective imaginary than we can afford to live with. We have a highly stratified society with manifold layers of social imaginaries in which we conspire against ourselves as a species. Our capacity for cooperation is also infinite when we change the nature of the game.

Culture is literally that which has been cultivated — improved or developed — whether its one’s mind, an artefact, or society. The product of the evolutionary advances in memetic iterations produce culture as collective subjectivity; our shared experiences become embedded in narratives. We inherit culture from people who lived long before us, and many living who we’ll never meet. In this way “culture bears our subjectivity”, our aggregate shared experience. What is needed is not just to consume culture passively in various forms of art, music, theatre, food, language, or even history, but rather we must co-create the values and behaviours of a new developmental culture in a sustainable direction (293). We must create new narratives and the new material conditions at the same time.

Taken from a macro-perspective, planetary culture can be found to be developing in clear stages. For example, our advanced socio-technical culture today could not have been understood in medieval societies, and likewise a future society would still be incomprehensible to us now (292). The more complex forms of social production, the more alien it is to simpler times, and we must live out this imagined future one challenging day at a time. The reality of globalization today provides some boundaries for our imaginary, guiding us to converge on pluralized cultures of development, education, and sustainability, while upending the fantasy of endless growth.

The most important part about any education is the meta-skill of learning how to learn. One can then apply that skill to anything, including culture itself, to become developmental, continuously improving. This fosters the generation of culture and the selection of good ideas. The modern social imaginary has long been developmental in an authoritarian sense, and corporations fetishize and exploit the value of developmental culture, applying it to employees. This has allowed the corporate sector to get ahead of academia and government, as well as to instrumentalize such developmental practices and monetize them in marketing, consulting, and lobbying. As a result of this neoliberal form of collective imaginary, the value of abstract labour has been demonetized. That is how even in a phase approaching full automation, labourers are working harder for even less income relative to past generations.

We can audit the philosophical foundations of our collective imaginary with a modern lens by exploring the three domains of reality — the physical, mental, and the social — given by what philosopher Karl Popper calls W1, W2, and W3, the three worlds. These are our human realms that emerged from our animistic embeddedness in W1. They all overlap and intersect but have seemingly irreconcilable differences as well. The “fiercest battles” have been the culture war between W1 and W3, nature and nurture, between the modernists and postmodernists (297). If we break it down further, the fault lines of this conflict also cut between biology/psychology and sociology, as well as genes and memes.

Bjorkman advises that both/and thinking in all three domains is the best approach, which mirrors the separation of powers (cf. Montesquieu). Differentiating the three worlds is rather novel and relatively new in our cultural evolution, considered by Weber as the hallmark of modernity (301). Bjorkman laments “they are yet to be properly synthesized” (302). It is a balancing act to build up a coherent and stable collective imaginary, but the mental can be the mediating plane between our physical reality and social fantasy.

People believe strongly in the imaginary rules we set up, almost like children, but in much more complex and adulterated ways. Our social reality is a world of ad hoc games and fantasies, and really exist only when people participate in them (305). Border crossings are one such arbitrary instantiation of our collective imaginary. Markets are also a good example because they respond to fluctuations in belief, not just supply and demand. We need to change the constitutive rules of markets and money, not merely tweak the regulations.

An example of a constitutive change is given in Sweden changing the side of the road that cars drive on in 1967, which had to be achieved over night (306). The rules of the road make driving safe because we all participate in the social construction, to make the abstract real, but they aren’t natural laws. We take for granted how this knowledge is pre-given, universalized, and shared by all on the road.

In the back of our minds is a faint sense that it could all go wrong in a split-second, as accidents do happen. In the Sweden case, everyone had to adopt the new imaginary synchronously for it to work. The first days were hard, but thereafter it became normal. When we can realize how social reality is made up, we can understand how it shapes us, and how we reproduce it (307). From here, we can aim at higher ideals still, for how to transform culture and society in short order.

Some societies are far less free than others, and the blame and liability are often unfairly distributed, but we are all bound by a collective fate. Sociology can help us understand capitalism as a cultural industry that unconsciously reproduces certain memes and values to sustain its appetite for growing consumption. Breaking out of the capitalist stranglehold is difficult, because there is always the compulsion to earn a living one way or another. As cultural and professional actors, when we fail to converge on social and political solutions we are doing capital’s work for it, right down to perpetuating petty epistemological arguments that would otherwise be solved but provide a profit opportunity to be squeezed.

Market ideology exerts hegemony over our collective imaginary and through our identities. The organizing principle of profit co-opts our thinking, and we become constitutive nodes of an abstract machine of capital. Earning money is liberating, but the mind is not freed simply because one does a job. The blind spots and loopholes in our taken-for-granted social architecture reveal flaws at the constitutive level that repress the emergence of a more holistic worldview and self-organizing society. In other words, our cultural imaginaries become captured and reified by the very financial logic that claims to subvert them, bringing us to a crisis of faith.

We must reconstruct the market, yet again, to reflect an updated evolutionary perspective of the world. For Bjorkman, three crucial aspects are the focus of the physical, social, and mental worlds, respectively; efficiency, fairness, and meaning (315). They need to be cultivated, so this brings us back to culture, psycho-spiritual development, and the need to do it together, collectively (316). Human civilization has achieved many remarkable things, but it is still yet to find a truly sustainable and peaceful way to live together in complexity. We may seem close, but inaction on climate change and inequality are driving us apart.

How change happens must be further unpacked. In the article Social Imaginary in Social Change, Canceran highlights the role of the sociological imagination. This is typically a power inculcated in the classroom, as it resists simplification, but it is necessary for the entire public to possess this vision and capacity. Canceran draws parallels between Mills’ sociological imagination and Sartre’s psychological imagination. As per Sartre’s definition of self-consciousness, it requires a certain freedom to spend the time reflecting, “to withdraw from the world”. To withdraw is to abstract. This frees our imagination to critically construct alternative scenario, reminiscent of Indy Johar’s expression ‘freedom to care’ (as argued in Emergentsia #5).

This psychological potential is the requisite counterpart to Mills’ sociological imagination, to imagine one’s role in changing society through a dialectic of biography and history, which is arguably much harder. Cornelius Castoriadis’ radical imagination means that the imaginary is essentially a creative force. It has to fundamentally innovate something that doesn’t exist, ex nihilo. Humans do this all the time through art and literature, but most of these imaginaries don’t become instantiated in the real world. That doesn’t stop us from bringing these dreams to life in this playful speculative artistic sense, to inform our present and guide our future. But only through self-awareness of the creation of our actual society can we change it.

It is by knowing itself that a society can distance the older and current imaginaries from the new. The processes of psychological and sociological imagination must be fostered in tandem, and used to study society as an object, albeit one in flux. The imaginary as given never quite corresponds to the rational or real, but refers to a field of meanings created by societies before us. Learning history is part of knowing ourselves and deconstructing the power that the past has over us, particularly through constructed ignorance about history.

The imaginary includes the idea of society itself, and its study through sociology, which drives the creation of it. For Castoriadis, the social imaginary has collective agency in meaningful world-building. Individuals make and remake the world, which is more complex than ever. History is often a guide, but our era is characterized by erratic historicity and new frontiers. Nevertheless, by confronting our collective in the mirror, we can see the truth about society and change it.

Bjorkman refers to the “meandering path” (459) to a more conscious society, the reflective and reflexive march of progress. That could also be read as a euphemism and pleasant alternative to our otherwise ‘blundering path’, to acknowledge the dark history of globalization and basic externalities of capitalism. Walter Benjamin’s dark reading of the ‘angel of history’ is useful here, the image of a stormy leviathan plowing backwards into the future, aghast at its own wake of chaos, thrust forward by the collective will in all its divine conflict.

If we’re to cut across the meandering path, the shortest distance between two points is actually a straight line, but there is a point to the meandering, as it is our social way of experimenting in attractor basins and living out the drama of primordial forces in tension. The moral arc of the universe may be long, but we should ‘flatten the curve’ in the same way that we must mitigate pandemics. Now that the meta-crisis is becoming increasingly salient for everyone, amidst the continual unfolding of our collective struggle under a terminal capitalism on pause, we have a window of opportunity.

Getting a glimpse of the metamodern stage attractor is just beginning, and we have adaptive maps to guide us through the process (497). The perception of complexity and sense of global responsibility both have ancient roots and future fruits, but in the constant present, progress is restricted by a politics of fear, a climate of denial, and a culture of mammon. We are nearing the end of two decades largely defined by the global ‘war on terror’ from a declining American empire, and are now looking down the barrel of various climate and social collapse scenarios unfolding in cascade fashion.

In 2009 the UN published a Global Green New Deal and in 2018 reported that we have 12 years globally to build consensus and reach strictly defined sustainability and degrowth targets. In this context, we had foresight, now have hindsight, and have only this decade to transition to the new relative-utopian collective imaginary before more dystopian ones start to come true.

For the general public, myths still play a huge role and must evolve. In Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries, Gérard Bouchard describes four levels or dimensions of collective imaginaries; the 1) unconscious, 2) cognitive substrates, 3) analytical categories, and 4) cultural patterns. The (1) psyche contains the rumblings of our primal drives. Our (2) psychological base is programmed with archetypal forms. Our (3) intellectual mind separates out different categories and concepts to make sense of the world. And our (4) cultural patterns constitute the highest level of the imaginary, our “socially produced collective representations” which will always be some incomplete form in the imagination of a given person. Across these layers we are all bound to share some common aspects, but also have differences.

Gaffield, reviewing Bouchard, notes the “sociological mechanism” played by myths in sacralizing imaginaries. As myth becomes more based on emotion than reason it becomes harder to disrupt. Myths structure the continuity of past and present in order to create desirable futures. Bouchard stresses the importance of myth in the collective imaginary. It is precisely the imagery of such narratives that helps guide societies through difficult transitions. Myths weave reality and fiction to mobilize people by stories, and into creating more stories. Bouchard argues imaginaries are rarely coherent, and are characterized by hidden contradiction.

The contradictions of capitalism are manifold, exploitation and negative externalities being among the top. We are still stuck in a capitalist imaginary, where extreme wealth inequality is naturalized. Craig Browne highlights the focus of hierarchy in the modern political imaginary, describing how it masks its own constitutive operations that reproduce hierarchy. In his paper, he argues that rational critiques of hierarchy overlook the deeper sources that generate and reproduce hierarchy.

Looking through Charles Taylor’s lens allows us to construct a secular humanist imaginary that erodes hierarchy, but Browne argues that capitalism reconstitutes hierarchy in new ideological expressions. Astonishingly, even after the financial crisis of 2008 and the global Occupy movement in 2011 bringing salience to the issue, the super-rich like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have increased their unearned fortunes by an order of magnitude, while maintaining a disrespectful distance from progressive politics.

In the context of coronavirus, Benjamin Bratton writes about the overlapping webs of epidemiology and geopolitics through 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism on our social relations, technology, and the new normal of our strange times. It includes summary insights on conceptual hybrids like tropic cascades, strategic essentialism, and the need for Greener New Deals. Bratton can imagine a very ideal form of politics, but laments the human tendency to believe alternative facts that suit a preferred narrative, subverting basic consistent progress. For this reason, he eschews both politics as usual and new narratives in favour of reality itself dictating our collective agenda.

Bratton’s final lesson is on how the global pandemic has revealed the incompetence and negligence of traditional ideologies and bureaucracies, not least the evils of privatized healthcare. It demonstrates how our meaning making narratives can be instantly shattered by reality. As Bjorkman is advocating for new collective imaginaries and narratives, Bratton argues that reality has other plans and we need planetary coordination on a massive scale through responsive technocratic “everyday geoengineering” to avoid us collapsing into a permanent state of emergency.

It would seem that there must necessarily be a congruence between imaginary and the real. Our imaginary must be dynamic and evolving to keep up with the exponential power of technology, and so far we have been lagging, but technology can enable this imaginary leap as well, if we can just come up with the political will to pay for it.

Read on… Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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