What does it mean to imagine a transformed society? One of our distinguishing capabilities as humans is the ability to engage in hypothetical thinking, to see things and relations “as if” they could be different. Our immediate experience—whether of suffering or satisfaction—is not the last word, as Brazilian philosopher Rubem Alves eloquently told us. The elements of today can be challenged, unsettled, re-organized, and re-birthed. This imaginative capacity is central to our work as educators and as citizens.
The linked crises of global pandemic with uprisings for racial justice have brought the concept of imagination to the forefront of public discourse. In the past four months we have heard many reflections on how COVID-19 is reshaping our future, even as we struggle with intensified uncertainty in our day-to-day lives. We have also heard many calls—especially from activists and intellectuals of color—on the need to use the public momentum from protests over racialized police violence as an opportunity to deepen and extend the “radical imagination.” These activists evoke a transformed vision of social life characterized by mutual responsibility, community self-governance, restorative justice, and respect for the dignity of all.
Calls to renew our imagination of social possibility in the midst of multiple, intersecting crises are powerful and resonant. But they are also unwieldy and difficult. What institutional and interpersonal changes in the here-and-now will be “steps along the way” in building a world with radically transformed social relations? Or conversely, which reforms might block the longer-term futures that we imagine? Which alliances and tactics will grow movements for deeper social change, and which will dilute or coopt their message? If we take the bright vision of a transformed future as our orienting horizon, how do we keep from being paralyzed by arguments over the imagined pathways that may (or may not) lead us there?
I feel this tension keenly as an educator working with students who self-consciously seek visions and skills for transforming the world. At the Keough School of Global Affairs, we seek to help students dig under the surface of deeply entrenched global problems, from civil war and climate change to poverty, inequality, autocracy, and social exclusion. We invite students to take the long view, to look at the root causes of problems, and to think strategically about systemic change. At the same time, we want them to get jobs and become leaders in actually existing institutions, many of which are embedded in unjust local and global systems. While they can surely use the skills learned here to “do good in the world,” they are unlikely to be able to resolve these “root causes” anytime soon.
Between radical and institutional imaginaries
The tension between the deep change the planet needs and the smaller changes that seem possible to accomplish right now has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent wave of protests for Black lives. The calm brutality of the filmed murder of George Floyd by a police officer—in a city with a history of police abuses toward communities of color, as well as of grass roots mobilizing against them—triggered an unprecedented wave of disruptive uprisings in large cities and small towns across the country. These events have challenged our conventional images of what “peaceful protest” means. They have been unruly, heterogeneous, and complex, with familiar scenes of chanting marchers alongside those of burning police stations, vandalized businesses, armored riot police, community self-help efforts, and the confusing intermingling of anti-racism protesters with pro-gun militias and white supremacists.
As scholars of social movements know, this messy combination of conventional, confrontational and violent actions is par for the course; it’s what makes a movement powerful and visible. We should avoid dichotomizing violent versus nonviolent movements; peaceful marches can veer into violence at a moment’s notice, often due to sequences of interactions with authorities. Recent research suggests that the strategic advantage of nonviolent civil resistance comes less from moral principle than from protestors’ ability to confront powerholders and disrupt support for unjust regimes. Other scholars have argued that movements of poor and marginalized people only succeed when they generate massive civil unrest that makes them a headache for local and federal authorities.
The current uprisings have done more than simply flood the streets; they have also led to a challenging dialogue between radical and institutional modalities for imagining the future. A cohort of young, eloquent activists, in conversation with intellectuals and scholars of color, have stepped into the limelight with trenchant discussions of anti-Blackness, mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and anti-racist organizing. While these discussions are not new, the protests have brought them into our newscasts, op-eds and social media feeds. Calls to defund or abolish the police may seem unsettling or extremist to some, but this is their point. With their rejection of carceral logic, critique of materialism, and focus on mutual aid and right relationship, these proposals offer a horizon of possibility embedded in humanistic visions of dignity, community, and justice.
However, disruptive communitarian visions of a world without policing often clash with more conventional proposals for institutional reform, such as use of force directives, police prosecution, and civilian review boards. The list of proposed reforms in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder has been impressive. Yet many of these reforms have been seen before, including in cities where police killings of Black men continue. Reform can be a means of containment, tamping down on civil disorder and channeling leadership off the streets and into administration, often within organizations that sustain inequalities. Activists fear that these “reformist reforms” do little to challenge the underlying system and logic of policing, which assume that routine, coercive, militarized use of force is needed to control and discipline social life, particularly the lives of marginalized communities of color.
From glowing horizons to concrete pathways
The relationship between radical and institutional imaginaries is often framed as an opposition between long- and short-term futures, or between prophetic, utopian visions and sturdy, institutional pragmatism. This is a false dichotomy, albeit a living tension. The shape, staffing, and practices of formal institutions—especially, but not only, state institutions—matter vitally for human well-being. Institutional work entails highly detailed, focused, and contingent foresight and planning, not captured by our derogatory associations with the word “bureaucracy.” Supplying communities with housing, health care, schooling, transportation, recreational facilities, and access to vital goods and services requires committed, creative people attentive to the complex coordination challenges of institutional life, including the interplay of expertise, material resources, and local needs and visions.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to dismiss the more radical imaginaries offered by abolitionist projects. Radical and utopian visions are important in at least three ways: they subvert, they heal, and they guide. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur tells us, utopias challenge systems of authority and provoke a rethinking of forms of social organization; they “expose the undeclared surplus value of authority and unmask the pretense common to all systems of ideology” (p. 184). At the same time, as Ernest Bloch writes, they provide a balm and light of a “new beginning” to those traumatized by such power: “That glow deep inside. . . rises from our hearts, unbroken in spite of everything, from the deepest part, that is, the realist part of our waking dream” (p. 3).
Finally, prophetic, disruptive visions can guide us by pulling action forward in the face of paralyzing uncertainties as well as violence and suffering. Political theorist Alex Zamalin writes movingly about how Black utopian thinking fuses a sense of realism and tragedy with a reclaiming of humanity and community flourishing:
If most utopians in the Western tradition struggled to envision a subject capable of disrupting the flow of political common sense, black utopians needed to seize space of imagination from which they were barred, and imagine a new humanity from which they were excluded. . . In black utopia, a sense of committed struggle in the face of the unknown was coupled with a realistic sense of subversion and collapse. Citizens of color were imagined to be free from the fetters of white supremacy and racial violence. But they chose the terms under which they would flourish according to their own desires without white expectation (pp. 11-12).
Utopias have their weaknesses; as Ricoeur notes, they have “a tendency to subordinate reality to dreams, a fixation with perfectionist designs. . . disdain for intermediary stages and. . . blindnesses with respect to the contradictions inherent in action” (p. 185). In response to these objections, modern-day abolitionists insist that their visions are not “simply” utopian. Rather they offer both a radically communitarian vision of long-term social transformation and an organizing strategy to move in that direction. They understand that most reforms will fall short, and they offer criteria for evaluating whether a given institutional “step” is likely to broaden or narrow the struggle to achieve this vision.
Whether or not we agree with the specific assessments of these reforms—and these should be a matter of vigorous public debate—the questions these activists ask are critical. Is a given reform likely to expand or legitimize a system we believe is destructive? Does the process of struggle mobilize those most affected by reforms? Given what we know about how movement gains can be coopted or reversed, we should take these questions seriously, and listen carefully to the concrete institutional alternatives that these movements propose.
Working for change from multiple points
As educators and researchers concerned with systemic change, we need to prepare our students to use their critical imaginations both inside and outside of existing institutions. To build just societies that truly support human dignity and flourishing, we need what movement scholars call “insider-outsider strategies.” Activists and allies inside the state are critical for formulating the resource streams and regulatory mechanisms that ensure services and protections for communities. But they need help—including provocation and pressure—from challengers outside of the state who are impatient with half-measures and insistent that short-term steps be compatible with longer term visions.
Working for social transformation means living with the generative tension between imaginaries and time horizons that seem, at times, to be incompatible. Disruptive visions and pragmatic strategies must live in uneasy and challenging dialogue, subject to continual reflection and collective inquiry.
This can be uncomfortable and frustrating, and we will all make mistakes. At the same time, the past months have shown us that opportunities for change can open in sudden and breathtaking ways. We need to help students navigate these times with both conviction and flexibility, with clarity of purpose and with acknowledgement of the messy, unruly, partial, and ongoing nature of real-life struggles for dignity and justice.
Kellogg Faculty Fellow Ann Mische is associate professor of sociology and peace studies at the Keough School of Global Affairs. Her research focuses on communication, deliberation and leadership in social movements and democratic politics.