Stephen Duncombe's political questions: "What does that look like?  What does that feel like?  What is the joy in that?"

Rob Hopkins, visionary co-founder of Transition Towns, has another brilliant interview on his blog, which contains his research for a forthcoming book on the power of imagination in politics.

This week he is talking to the director of the Centre for Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe, who is an American cultural studies academic who wants more literacy about symbol, sign, desire and narrative in activist and civic movements.

There’s a fabulous passage below which shows how he gets them to do this:

What worries me is that half the population has a very unhealthy and vibrant collective imagination, and they are the people that are saying “Britain for the British”, “America for white people”, “Kick the Jews out of Hungary” and so on and so forth.  All of which are absolute fantasies.  None of which are actually going to happen, right?  But it is a fantasy.  They’re quite a vibrant fantasy.

It’s just horrific.  Whereas I think those of us who are horrified by that, we have an atrophied imagination insofar as our imaginations are being set by and large reacting against the right wing.  Which is, “No, we want a multicultural society” but what does that look like?  What does that feel like?  What is the joy in that?  And so on and so forth.

I tell you an exercise we do in our workshops.  We go around with these professional activists that we work with, and we ask them, “What would winning look like?”  They usually say something like, “Well, I’m working on a campaign…” and I remember this particularly working in Houston, Texas with a group of mothers whose children had been incarcerated.  They said, “Well, what a win would look like is the passage of House Bill No. 217 which would allow families to have more rights and access to their children who are incarcerated.”  Which is reasonable.  That’s what they wanted.  That’s what they were working on.

We said, “Okay, that’s great.  Guess what.  We’re here from the future, and you did it.  Now what do you want to do?”  Then they would say something like, “Well, laws are fine to be passed but you really need to have them implemented.  So we need to have them implemented and respected by law enforcement agencies all across Texas.” 

We waited a beat, said, “Well, guess what?  You’ve done that as well.  So what’s next?”  And slowly, literally over 20 minutes, they would say, “Well actually I want a world in which my kids don’t have to turn to crime or get pulled into crime.”

Okay, well that’s happened.  Then, I want a world without crime.  Then I want a world without police.  Then I want a world without prisons.  And we got to a place where you’ve gotten rid of prisons, what happens now?  And they said, “Well, we’d actually just live together, and we’d enjoy each other.  We wouldn’t worry.  Then we asked them to describe what that would feel like.  What that would look like and what that would sound like.

They get into vivid detail of literally the sound of children laughing.  The smell in this case of waffles.  What the sun feels like on their back.  Then we’d stop them and say, “This is where we start.  You start with the dream.”  That is, nobody gives a rat’s arse about HR Bill 217 except for you and your opponents. 

But if you want to reach the majority of the population, you have to create this greater dream, because they can access it at all sorts of different points and go on there with you.  But that’s a hard work for activists to do because oftentimes they’re very much caught up in reacting to the world which is around them, instead of envisioning and imagining a better world.

Duncombe’s book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy is available for purchase on his home page.