And What About You? Quick Notes on Political Imagination

“The events in Ottawa and at various points along the US-Canada border are setting the stage for a liberal, pro-police, pro-civility backlash that will hit us as well.” (Crimethinc 2022). As I was reading this report on the situation in Ottawa Canada, which reportedly involved a lot of honking (not ducks) and trucks (not truckers), I was taking breaks and looking out my window. I wondered what I would be thinking and doing if there were horns honking day and night outside my window. I then wondered what my housemates, my family living nearby, and my neighbours would think and what they would do. I then extended this to wondering what my different groups of friends and peers would be thinking if such a phenomenon were on their doorstep. What would you do?

Broadly speaking I don’t see people as naturally good or naturally bad. To do so would be to believe  popular myths about the origins of civilization. We are capable of both. Only last night I was introduced to beautiful stories of the Thai cave rescue and that of Phillipe and Abdel. Whatever the implicit politics these film imply, they both remind us that people are capable of beautiful things, but also not. However, despite the dual capabilities of humans to be caring or brutish, I do see that there is such a thing as political imagination and an unfortunately, I at least, see a general lack of it, and that many of the people I professionally hangout with as an anthropologist have not really thought about how political ground shifts, largely sticking to narratives of how ‘this politician’ or ‘that country’ wants this, as if we already lived in some violently simplified universe, where a few men’s egos get to dictate reality or that there is some kind of clear national will. True, a few old white men’s ego’s often are at play. You only have to remember Elon Musk’s horrid and ludicrous intervention in the Thai cave rescue, later reflected on screen in Don’t Look Up. But as the Crimethinc report is at pains to explain, its really not so simple and such thinking only helps to bring such a possibility into existence. Critical or not, engaging in this lack of political thought is just repeating courtier gossip.

So the question for me then is what would you think and do if political upheaval visited your doorstep? Unfortunately I reckon, as it stands, many would get sucked into reproducing old political categories of thinking and in doing so feed into new but coercive political ground. Political imagination and attention to the dynamic multiplicity of such events seems to me to be limited. Instead cheap narratives pumped through our junk-information diets and shared in nonchalant conversation seem to abide. A common one being that it’s the police’s job to sort out disruptions that inconvenience life. But, this just is not how shit works. Law and order are not some kind of apolitical perfect force for tidying up messes. They are messy humans, which is fine, but shot through with violence and coercion, not fine.

Perhaps I should start by answering my own question: what would I do? What becomes clearer is that waiting for those moments is not adequate. I must care more about preparing myself, my family, my neighbours, and my friends, by increasing cultivation of networks of human connection and mutual aid. These can be digital, as money travels fast, but your best bet is to also have at least some proximate mutual aid relations, because you cannot eat the mutual aid of digital friends in moments when money doesn’t buy everything.

The purpose of these mutual aid networks, as experienced in the first lockdown in the UK, is that when moments of crisis do turn up in our neighbourhood we already have some trust in each other and start from there rather than from caricaturish ideas of politics that rile us up to demand more coercion of some kind, for or against whatever the moment of mobilization is about. This is what I learnt from how Rojavan’s work. Under the Syrian State they held reading groups, arts and crafts workshops, food coops, and formed a fabric of assemblies that prepared people to step in when the Syrian state started collapsing in the face of civil and proxy war. It prepared them when the racist insurrectionary ISIS forces then attacked them. Now the question is turning back on how to defend themselves from the attacks of the Turkish state, one in which NATO member and EU member states are materially complicit.

In addition, as an anthropologist, my answer to what I can do, is to see what can be learnt and sensed about what new political ground is emerging by listening. Something I started working on with regards to the gilet jaunes back in 2019. Something I should have continued more proactively doing as these very mobilizations in Ottawa have some relation to those back then in France. And it’s not just a question of what would I do, but what would I think? In this regard there is no better augmentation to start thinking about the potently deep premises that we ideologically wield in our thoughts to justify our actions, than recent work on political imagination. Which is about how to start seeing ourselves as capable of doing something beautiful together, with are fellow humans and life on earth. Not just waiting on the police to be given more powers to coerce or national leaders to make up bullshit solutions to global crises. Or, following dog whistles that are turning inward to re-form old political ground in a new context.

When a new variant of covid or the next pandemic strikes how will you respond to reactionary forces, national or insurrectionary? Because as it stands the utter shambles of the global response to this pandemic does not mean it is going away. How will you avoid getting sucked into faux-revolutionary responses, when you do get round to rejecting manufactured nostalgic pasts, and instead be capable of actually being a caring and free human in moments of political shift? In sum, at the very least, and this is a big ask, I ask myself and my readers to not get sucked into the two sided vortex of more police to protect me from these noisy people versus more police to protect white unity, neither is a happy ending. If you cannot join the thin social fabric of mutual aid across humankind, try not to undermine it.

This is not a rendered piece of writing, but rapid notes that may form crafted work in the future.

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