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“Public Imagination: The Challenge of 21st Century Populist and Authoritarian Politics”.


Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The book is titled ‘On Public Imagination’ and subtitled ‘A Political and Ethical Imperative’. It is edited by Victor Faessel, Richard Falk and Michael Curtin. It is a Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group publication out of New York and London. The introductory thematic essay is by Richard Falk and Victor Faessel and its title lets us straight into the problem that is sought to be tackled. “Public Imagination: The Challenge of 21st Century Populist and Authoritarian Politics”.

The date of publication of the slim volume is 2020. It is classified as Politics/Current Affairs, while in the descriptive text on the back cover the publishers place it more specifically in the category ‘Political Thought’. In the sphere of Politics/Political Thought, it deals with the most important theme or problem of the current period in world history.

I was lucky to get the volume in the mail in Moscow and have it collected from Customs the day before I left. I read it all the way through on the flight back to Colombo. It is co-edited by the man I most respect intellectually and am proud to call a friend, who was also the primary author of the volume’s Introduction, namely Prof Richard Falk.

Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. Victor Faessel is managing editor of The Oxford Handbook of Global Studies as well as the four-volume Encyclopedia of Global Studies. Michael Curtin is Distinguished Professor of Film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

On the flyleaf the publishers had identified the book’s emphasis as dealing with problems of public imagination “in an era paradoxically marked by intensifying globalization and resurgent nationalism”.

Typical of Falk, whose ethics and lucidity are welded together and wielded like a light-saber, the introductory essay gets right to the point. It hopes to “heighten sensitivity to the wider political and historical context of our time”, at “this critical juncture in human history”. Falk and Faessel sound the alarm that “this regressive trend visible throughout the world signals what may be an epoch-defining abandonment of post 1945 commitment to democratic forms of governance and advocacy of human rights.”

Falk and Faessel pull no punches while describing the tectonic shift: “…the election of autocratic and demagogic leaders adhering to ultranationalist agendas…the rising populist backlash against globalization in many societies has been marked by resurgent right-wing nationalism and in many cases, authoritarianism…Rightwing populism and nativism warn us that more primitive, chauvinist forms of collective political imagination are asserting themselves over what now appears to be a vanishing veneer of tolerance and political civility…and [have] engendered toxic forms of polarization…”

Catherine Keller, Professor of Constructive Theology at Drew Theological College recapitulates the main point of the Introduction in its identification of the problem: “…what Richard Falk and Victor Faessel call in the introduction to this anthology, the ‘regressive politics’ of rightwing populism and nativism, ‘intensified by disinformation, fake news and corporatized media’ ”.

This is by no means a purely Western progressive humanist or left-liberal perspective. Professor Emerita of Political Science at Delhi University, Neera Chandhoke opens her essay on ‘The making of an Indian Public Space’ endorsing and extending the diagnosis: “The important introductory chapter by Richard Falk and Victor Faessel in this volume lays out clearly and cogently the dangers that stalk our world today: rabid intolerance, fear of the stranger, and the closing down of minds. Across the world people seem to inhabit frighteningly blinkered worlds…Since the end of the twentieth century religious identities have made more strident demands and engaged in state-breaking and state-making endeavors.”

This is echoed by Luis Cabrera, Associate Professor at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, who writes of “this era of populism and nativism, when battles for some of the most basic principles of rights and equality must seemingly be re-fought daily…”

The main thesis of the volume is that neoliberalism, liberal democracy and the left lost– actually forfeited– their appeal to the public imagination, because of the failure, falsity or obsolescence of their “stories”, their narratives, their myths and legends, while the authoritarian rightwing nationalists succeeded in appealing to the public imagination. The challenge for progressives is to come up with the elements of a viable alternative appeal to the public imagination which can rival and displace the hold of authoritarian rightwing nationalism and nativism.

The intellectual goal the editors set themselves is indeed ambitious. To rectify the present lack of “any sense of a feasible alternative that extends the social democratic ethos…into the future” and “…above all to liberate public imagination from largely nationalist frames of reference that have fueled the surge of ultranationalist populisms…”

Does the volume work and how does it work? In the editorial reviews, Craig Calhoun, former Director of the LSE and currently Professor of Sociology at Arizona State University writes that “without imagination our public debates are inanimate and our politics mere power struggles. This book brings 30 exciting perspectives on how to renew public imagination”. Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia and visiting Prof at the LSE says “this is a much-needed angle into the larger debate about the decay of liberal democracy”. Manfred Steger, Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii opines that “our 21st century world is in desperate need of collective action based on a pluralistic public imagination. This highly readable anthology presents the concise and innovative views of dozens of influential intellectuals on the critical role of an ethical imagination…”

The volume is divided into five parts, covering ‘Imagination: Theory and Engagement’, ‘Imagining Communities and Rights’, ‘Ecological Imaginations’, ‘Rupture and Revolution’, and ‘Across the Border’. The contributors include two respected former Foreign Ministers, Celso Amorim (Brazil) Ahmet Davutoglu (Turkey), iconic futurist thinker Johan Galtung, top journalists and writer Victoria Brittain, famous civil society figure Chandra Muzaffer, and respected senior academics Fred Dallmayr, Stephen Gill, Marjorie Cohn, Mary Kaldor and Neera Chandhoke.

The contributors as listed in alphabetical order in the volume are: Celso Amorim, Akeel Bilgrami, David Bollier, Chiara Bottici, Victoria Brittain, Luis Cabrera, Julie A. Carlson, Neera Chandhoke, Allen Chun, Kevin P. Clements, Marjorie Cohn, Drucilla Cornell, Michael Curtin, Fred Dallmayr, Ahmet Davutoglu, Victor Faessel, Richard Falk, Tom Farer, Johan Galtung, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Stephen Gill, Anna Grear, Penny Green, Abdellah Hammoudi, Dayan Jayatilleka, Paul W. Khan, Mary Kaldor, Catherine Keller, Sara Lafia, Chandra Muzaffar, Stephen D Seely, Vandana Shiva, Kamal Sinclair and Elizabeth West. I was privileged to be invited to contribute.

Mary Kaldor, the renowned writer and scholar of global militarization, identifies with enormous lucidity in her chapter, the responsibility of the left for the catastrophe that has befallen humanity with the triumph of the nationalist right. Her analysis is true of all countries, except, I would argue, for those such as Argentina and Mexico in which the left adopted a Left Populist strategy and program. “It was a failure of the left—the belief by representatives of the left that they needed to compromise with market fundamentalism in order to capture power—that created a gaping hole in the creative imagination. So it was that the new, claiming to be old, scions of the right were able to manipulate nostalgia for a time when our institutions seemed to work and to attribute blame for the breakdown of our institutions on the so-called newcomer, ‘the other’ who spoiled our golden past. In the 1930s, this kind of thinking led to the rise of fascism and culminated in a war…Currently the dominant narratives are polarized between a rightwing nationalist populism and global neoliberalism. The left is divided between the old nationalist left and those, like Clinton and Blair, who compromised with neoliberalism. What we need is a new global emancipatory narrative that is global, green, socially just, and realistic, another way of seeing the world…”

Fred Dallmayr, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Notre Dame recalls at the conclusion of his contribution ‘Public Space: thinking at the Edge of the Cave’, that the antidote to the ultranationalist public imagination of our time has been Richard Falk’s long standing (2002) advocacy of the archetype and mentality of the “citizen pilgrim”. For his part, Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former Foreign Minister and Defense Minister under President Lula, counterposes the conceptual-cum-value cluster of “national sovereignty”, “human rights”, “democratic governance” and above all “solidarity”, against the “conservative nationalist ideologies of the kind represented by Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen.”

Kevin Clements, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, NZ, argues for a ‘Politics of Compassion in an age of ruthless power’, pointing to the familiar reality of “a deliberate cultivation of existential fear and anxiety by opportunistic leaders and their media allies. This has been used to justify the expansion of dominatory and authoritarian politics.” The new category he mints— ‘dominatory politics—may be profitably deployed to understand the unilateral redesign of the politico-Constitutional and social (ethnic, religious, linguistic and gender) relations that is being attempted by right-wing nationalist authoritarianism the world over. In his definition “dominatory politics/processes refer to all those exchanges that result in the intentional or unintentional subordination of others and the development of persistent hierarchies based on age, race, gender or class.”

Clements posits instead a Politics of Compassion comprising “genuine paradigm shift…from ‘power over’ others to ‘power with’ others…The politics of compassion, therefore, is the opposite of dominatory, fear driven, xenophobic politics based on a monopoly of force and coercion…more attention should be directed to enhancing the power of unifiers in communities and diminishing the power of dividers. The challenge however, is understanding and combatting all the dynamics which threaten to undermine these values—possessive individualism, neoliberalism and elite-driven politics… For a new, socially driven imaginary to succeed it must first, however, analyze and negate politics and practices of domination everywhere.”

My only point of disagreement is with the bottom line of the impassioned essay by Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton in his contribution to Part IV, the section on ‘Revolution and Rupture’, in which Stephen Gill, Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University, and I have had our contributions housed by the Editors. Ghamari-Tabrizi draws a distinction in his essay on ‘Revolutionary politics and Public Imagination’ between “possible realities” and “real possibilities”, and counterposes them, arguing for fidelity to the former and lamenting the latter. Prof Gill and I, writing totally independently of one another, have both leaned heavily on Antonio Gramsci. It is from a neo-Gramscian perspective that I demur from that contradistinction and would argue instead that the “late-modern Prince” or “post-modern Prince/Princess” (this latter is Stephen Gill’s coinage) must be capable of mediating and managing adroitly the dialectic of “real possibilities” in the short term and “possible realities” in the longer—thus able to think of a “feasible utopia” (Gill), “a new realistic utopia” (Kaldor).

In the concluding ‘Coda’ written with lyricism and passion, primary co-editor Victor Faessel urges that “…In an age of authoritarian and populist politics, of recrudescent nativism, racism, and revanchism and of ecological calamity’s arrival…The social facts of justice, equality, tolerance, freedom –to the extent that they actually exist where one happens to live—are only ‘facts’ in this sense that they have been and continue to be fought for by coalitions of conscience and commitment…medleys of cooperative ethical passion become concrete acts toward a future…”

I prefer to read Victor Faessel’s ‘Coda’ together with the concluding passage of the contribution to the volume by Drucilla Cornell, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Women’s and Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at Rutgers University, who deploys the luminous term ‘political spirituality’ and reminds us of the stakes and risks, and the appropriate attitude with which to view them. “…For us the challenge of political spirituality is to dare to risk the kind of ‘danger’—and it was Foucault who said that everything is dangerous, but this means we always have something to do—that our imagination of a more just world can only be opened in and through actual struggles that expand our material possibilities”.

Or if you prefer, the last word or words are the first words, right in front, on the cover of the volume. It features a photograph of the London Extinction Rebellion mural at Marble Arch, widely thought to be by Banksy. It is a wall, with a sketch of a little girl holding a small placard with the extinction symbol, while the writing in chalk on the wall reads: “FROM THIS MOMENT DESPAIR ENDS AND TACTICS BEGIN”.


(Dayan Jayatilleka is author of “The Great Gramsci: Imagining an Alt-Left Project”, in Part IV ‘Rupture and Revolution’, “On Public Imagination: A Political and Ethical Imperative” eds. Victor Faessel, Richard Falk and Michael Curtin, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, New York and London, 2020, Ch 23, pp 92-95.)