What’s your “social imaginary”? In other words, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor defines it in his 2007 work Modern Social Imaginaries, how do you imagine your social existence, how do you fit together with others — including the natural environment, I would add — and how do you imagine things going on between you and others, the expectations normally met and the deeper ethical ideas and images that underpin those expectations?
What holds society together — or any social relationship? And what is your role in it? Friendship, intimate relationship, marriage, family, classroom, the Whitaker neighborhood, workplace, community, town, the city of Eugene, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest as an eco-region, a nation or a society of more than 320 million people marked by increasing diversity such as the United States?
There are no simple answers — and some societies are integrated in authoritarian, not democratic and egalitarian ways. But in this extraordinarily divisive election year, such questions seem strikingly salient.
In 2015, the U.S. Library of Congress awarded Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor the Kluge Prize, a $1.5 million equivalent to the Nobel Prize for people working across the humanities and social sciences.
After decades of thinking about such questions, Habermas, a leading German social theorist, says what holds democratic societies together is reason-based communication. For without the constant practice of open, public discussion and the readiness of citizens to submit their arguments to the gauntlet of rational criticism — where what counts is not your personal opinion but the ability to marshal the relevant evidence and argument — democracy is dead.
Taylor — who is not only a leading Canadian political theorist but also has been long engaged in Canadian politics — says what holds us together is active participation. This appears close to the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis on the importance of “presence” in intimate as well as social relationships.
So what holds society together — what kind of society do you imagine is worth living in — and what is your role in it?
With increasing disparities of wealth domestically and internationally, the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, more than seven billion people on a finite earth degraded by a fossil fuel-based industrial economy, global warming and increasingly scarce fresh water and arable land, along with intensifying refugee and immigration issues and so on, such questions seem to demand a response.
Trump in the United States and Le Pen in France offer one kind of response. But is their social imaginary the kind of society worth living in and working for? No, I would argue.
Rather, I’d point to a dark green, decentralized and egalitarian Democratic Socialism in the American tradition of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was able only to begin to articulate this social imaginary in practical terms during his presidential primary campaign. Part of the task now is working out the details — where both God and the devil always are.
It’s a humbling task, no doubt. But that kind of social imaginary does have roots in American political history — for example, in the Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and, not least, the mid-Western progressive tradition Oregon’s late U.S. Senator Wayne Morse exemplifies.
So wouldn’t it be nice — since she is famously pragmatic — if Secretary Hillary Clinton drew on her progressive United Methodist and civic humanist roots, cut her neoliberal ideological ties to Wall Street and built a presidency on Sen. Sanders’ breaking the American taboo on socialism in a way that fleshes out — through the American pragmatic tradition — that social vision?
Not likely, you might say. Maybe not. But shouldn’t we, as members of American society, at least try to push her in that direction? Or, if you have a viable alternative, I’m sure “we’d all love to see the plan,” as The Beatles sing in “Revolution.”