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Crisis of Imagination, Crisis of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons

picture of a pink brain with the book title crisis of imagination crisis of power: capitalism, creativity, and the commons

The following is a synopsis of some of the ideas presented in Max Haiven's new book, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power, that he will be discussing at the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn, NY on March 27th at 7:30PM.


Capitalism is in crisis, a crisis of imagination. The many crises we see today (the economic crisis, the social crisis, the food crisis, the educational crisis, the ecological crisis) are all inherently bound up in, and ultimately driven by, the systemic crisis of capitalism. Of course, we all know capitalism has been amidst a major financial crisis since 2008, but part of the argument here is that capitalism is and has always been in crisis, though usually it has been successful in privatizing its crises onto the poor or exploited. So even in “boom” economies, we still have incredible levels of ecological exploitation, skyrocketing anxiety and stress, brutal poverty and widespread alienation, even in the richest nations. One person’s crisis is another person’s profit; the crisis of imagination comes from the intentional and unintentional forgetting of this fact.

Another meaning of “crisis of imagination” is the idea that we imagine the crisis in highly individualized ways: we blame ourselves or others for lack of success when in fact it is the system as a whole that is responsible. Debt is a key example: we are, today, heavily in debt because the costs of the capitalist crisis has been displaced onto individuals, yet we fail to comprehend the broader context and, instead, castigate ourselves and others, transforming a political-economic issue into a moralistic and individualized one.

It is a crisis of the imagination of the ruling paradigm, which is utterly bankrupt. One of its main levers of power (the financial sector) proved itself to be constructed out of what (at least first glance) appear to be completely imaginary assets: credit default swaps, derivative contracts and the like.  Of course, these imaginary assets have very real power over our lives, but the 2007/8 crisis has allowed us to see—if we have the courage to do so—just how much of global wealth is speculative and immaterial, and also how much power that wealth has over our imaginations as individuals, and as communities.  And of course this wealth is largely controlled by a tiny, ruthless, competitive minority.

Another crisis of the imagination is the ideological rot at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist paradigm. In today’s “age of austerity” this system insists that it is the only show in town, that no other systems are possible, yet it is also unable to justify or legitimate itself.  We are told we must cut and sacrifice, but unlike a few years ago, there’s no promise that the future will be better for anyone except the very wealthy.  We seem to be lacking all realistic alternatives.

I can’t say Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power answers all of these questions, but I do try and pose them in ways that might help stimulate discussion and imagination. This isn’t just a feel-good book about the magical commons and the delight of the imagination. It’s an attempt to unpack how capitalism relies on how we imagine what and who is valuable, and how we might change that.

Broadly, I approach the idea of the crisis of imagination as a question of how we imagine who and what is valuable. Today, money has become the supreme arbiter of this question, with financial concerns overshadowing questions of ecology, equality, culture, ecology, happiness, even human survival itself. Yet we are not the only ones to notice: around the world the far right has made great strides calling for a “return” to purportedly traditional (religious, national, cultural) values, which is extremely dangerous.  We need to develop a radical and new way of talking about both economic value and social values in the same breath, one that empowers us to reimagine wealth and relationships.


The idea of a “crisis of power” has (at least) two overlapping meanings. First, it refers to the crisis of capitalist power today, which is finding it harder and harder to maintain order the world and maintain profitability. Uprisings (some inspiring, some unsettling) are now occurring everywhere, and international competition amongst capitalists is escalating into frightening economic and military warfare – not to mention profit’s war on the earth itself.  There’s a sense that the form of capitalist globalization that was painted in such rosy hues around the turn of the millennium (“trickle down” economics and the End of History) has devolved (or shown its true colours) as a form of frenetic global chaos, but one where the rich still always come out ahead.

 And so this moment is also a crisis of power for us, the commoners. We need to figure out new ways to retake our lives from the enclosure of capitalism. By this I mean we need to find ways to empower ourselves at the grassroots level, rather than waiting to be saved by this or that political promise. Our crisis of power is linked to our crisis of imagination: how can we envision and actualize resilient and powerful alternatives? How can we build everyday commons, from community gardens to housing cooperatives to worker-owned factories to grassroots participatory democracies?  How can we fight against the commodification of the idea of the commons itself, as represented by the new corporate enthusiasm for the “sharing economy” that seeks to use the commons to sustain capitalism in social spheres where the free market has failed? How can we at once defend what few “public” institutions we have left (education, transportation, civic spaces, some places healthcare), yet make them more common, more open to grassroots democratic control?  How can we build social movements powerful, well-organized and resilient enough to overcome capitalism?  How can we confront the power of right-wing backlash movements, who merge vindictive moralism (which is usually racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic) with policies that make capitalism even stronger? 


Capitalism has enclosed and commodified notions of creativity and imagination and transformed them into highly individualized things. So we are told that we must leverage our creativity and imagination, use them to compete with others for some of the few decent jobs that still allegedly exist. An example is the privatization of the university, which has been transformed from a “public good” into a private “investment in the future” which compels us to go in debt for a degree which is, ultimately, just a dubious lottery ticket. But in this book I want to approach creativity and the imagination as collective activities, not as individual possessions. I want to see if we can imagine the imagination itself as a commons, of a sort.  That means we need to create more and more circumstances in which we can imagine, together. 

This is why things like Occupy Wall Street and its various evolutions like Strike Debt are so very exciting. For everything else they were or are, they are also commons of the imagination: people can assemble and debate, can experiment with new ways of cooperating without coercion, and can sometimes catch a glimpse of another world yet to come. When we are isolated, our horizons narrow and hopelessness reigns.

Which is not to say that simply imagining a better world is or will ever be “enough.”  We must think practically, strategically and militantly about how to mobilize the popular power we need to replace capitalism with a different system.  I hope that this revolution can be achieved peacefully, though it’s difficult to imagine how.

Max Haiven is an author, teacher and activist who lives in Halifax, Canada and teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. 

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