Dreaming Up New Politics

Thinking different in an age of fantasy

Stephen Duncombe

In the autumn of 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential election and in the middle of a typically bloody month in Iraq, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on the casualty of truth in the Bush administration. In a soon-to-be-infamous passage, the writer, Ron Suskind, recounted a conversation between himself and an unnamed senior adviser to the president: 

The aide said that guys like me were in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

It was clear how the Times felt about this peek into the political mind of the presidency. The editors of the Gray Lady pulled out the passage and floated it over the article in oversized, multi-colored type. This was ideological gold: the Bush administration openly and arrogantly admitting that they didn’t care about reality. One could almost feel the palpable excitement generated among the Times liberal readership, an enthusiasm mirrored and amplified all down the left side of the political spectrum on computer listservs, call-in radio shows and print editorials over the next few weeks. 

What worried me then, and still worries me today, is that my reaction was radically different. My politics have long been diametrically opposed to those of the Bush administration, and I’ve had a long career as a left-leaning academic and a progressive political activist. Yet I read the same words that generated so much animosity among liberals and the left and felt something else: excited, inspired … and jealous. Whereas the commonsense view held that Bush’s candid disregard for reality was evidence of the madness of his administration, I perceived it as a much more disturbing sign of its brilliance. I knew then that Bush, in spite of making a mess of nearly everything he had undertaken in his first presidential term, would be reelected. 

How could my reaction be so different from that of so many of my colleagues and comrades? Maybe I was becoming a neocon, another addition to the long list of defectors whose progressive God had failed. Would I follow the path of Christopher Hitchens? A truly depressing thought. But what if, just maybe, the problem was not with me but with the main currents of progressive thinking in this country? More precisely, maybe there was something about progressive politics that had become increasingly problematic. 

For years progressives have comforted themselves with age-old biblical adages that the truth will out” or the truth shall make you free.” We abide by an Enlightenment faith that somehow, if reasoning people have access to the Truth, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will see reality as it truly is and, of course, agree with us. But waiting around for the truth to set people free is lazy politics. 

The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told, and we need to learn how to tell the truth more effectively. It must have stories woven around it, works of art made about it; it must be communicated in new ways and marketed so that it sells. It must be embedded in an experience that connects with people’s dreams and desires, that resonates with the symbols and myths they find meaningful. We need a propaganda of the truth. 

Progressives like to study and to know. We like to be right (and then complain that others are not). But being right is not enough – we need to win. And to win we need to act. I propose an alternative political aesthetic for progressives to consider, a theory of dreampolitik they might practice.

Go to Grand Theft Auto school

Progressives need to study dreams. Fortunately, we have a ready-made laboratory at our disposal. Unfortunately, it takes the form of something progressives traditionally disdain: commercial culture. Recognizing the importance of commercial fantasies does not necessitate some sort of pseudo-populist embrace of the entirety of popular culture. But it does mean that we need to recognize that in these expressions some popular will is being expressed. How that will is being manifested in popular culture may be something to condemn – or applaud – but the will itself has to be dealt with. Acknowledging the present passions of people is not the same thing as accepting things as they are. Instead, current desire is the fulcrum on which to leverage future change.

As unlikely as it seems, progressives can also learn a lot from a best selling shoot-‘em-up video game like Grand Theft Auto. Yes, all the hand-wringing, wet-blanket, moralistic critics of video games are right: Grand Theft Auto is apocalyptically violent. But there is something else about these games, especially morally suspect ones like Grand Theft Auto, that demands our attention. They are wildly popular. Why?

Video games like Grand Theft Auto may appeal to our worst libidinal instincts – a bit of eros and a whole lot of thanatos – but these games also demand the participation of the gamer; new worlds open up to the player as he or she develops new skills, and characters respond based upon the player’s past actions. In video games, unlike almost all other mass media, the spectator also becomes a producer. 

This runs counter to much of how progressive politics is done these days. Consider the typical mass” demonstration. We march. We chant. Speakers are paraded onto the dais to tell us (in screeching voices through bad sound systems) what we already know. Sometimes we sit down in a prescribed place and allow the police to arrest us. While these demonstrations are often held in the name of people’s power,” they are profoundly disempowering. Structured with this model of protest is a philosophy of passive political spectatorship: they organize, we come; they talk, we listen. Progressives need to re-think our game. If people aren’t joining us maybe it’s because the game we’re playing just isn’t much fun to play.

With Reclaim the Streets (RTS) we tried playing by different rules. For five years I was an organizer with the New York City franchise of this international direct-action group. Beginning in London in the early 90s as an unlikely alliance between environmentalists and ravers, Reclaim the Streets merged protests with parties, taking over streets and turning them into pulsing, dancing, temporary carnivals in their demand for public space. 

The RTS protest model proved popular. From its relatively small first reclamation of Camden High Street in 1995, demonstrations grew steadily in size and scope; the model spread to cities across the United Kingdom and Europe, then Australia, Israel, South America, and the United States. 

Acting autonomously, activists adapted the London model to local conditions. In New York, RTS protested everything from the privatization of public space to the World Trade Organization, throwing demonstrations to draw attention to the destruction of community gardens and highlight the exploitation of Mexican American greengrocery workers. Political targets shifted with location and over time, but the method of protest – and the philosophy behind the method – remained constant. RTS believes that political ends must be embodied in the means you use. Giving the idea of demonstration” new meaning, protests should literally demonstrate the ideal that you want to actualize.

When RTS organized a protest what we were really organizing was a framework for activity. We would decide upon a place and time and put out a call. We printed up propaganda and press releases, trundled in a sound system, and set up legal teams to get people out of jail if they get arrested. But the actual shape the protest took on was determined by who showed up and what they did. We saw what we were doing as opening up a space: literally, in terms of reclaiming a street from auto traffic and specialized use, but also metaphorically by opening up a space for people to explore what political activism could mean for themselves. We turned spectators into producers.

Think different

Violent video games aren’t the only popular fantasies that progressives can learn from. As much as it might pain us to acknowledge, we can also learn a great deal from advertising. Progressives traditionally respond to the fantasies of Madison Avenue as reactionaries. We’re against it, and we want to oppose it with what we know: reason. But perhaps there are other ways for progressives to think about advertising. We need to burrow deep into it, drilling past the sizzle into the steak. There we’ll find its DNA, the code that guides its various permutations, no matter what product is being sold. From these building blocks I believe we can reassemble a model of communication and persuasion that is true to progressive ideals and effective in today’s world. In brief, we need to heed the call of Apple Computer’s grammatically challenged campaign and think different” about advertising, and our politics.

All advertising is about transformation. The product advertised will transform you from what you are (incomplete, inadequate, and thoroughly normal) into what you would like to be (fulfilled, successful, and completely special). Transformation was once the property of progressives. What were democracy, socialism, anarchism, civil rights, and feminism if not dreams of a world transformed? Advertising is, in essence, a promise – often a false promise, sometimes ironic, but a promise nonetheless. Progressives need to work on our promises. 

Too often, we progressives pitch our cause in reactionary terms of hanging on to what we have and holding the line. Or we make appeals to guilt and sacrifice, asking people to give up what they already have so that others might have a piece of it. These are appeals to the past or to a diminished present. They take for granted that the best we can do is redistribute what we have already attained and that we cannot all gain more. Because of this they are doomed to failure. 

For a moment imagine an advertisement that asks you to stay where you are, to accept things as they are, or, if you are looking for social change, promises to make things personally worse for you. Progressives often do this and, tactically speaking, are insane for doing so.

Advertising also requires us to think different” about the very way we think. We like to think we derive our truths through linear logic, but the trick of advertising is its ability to circumvent such logic, substituting associations for equations. A picture of a happy family is placed next to a picture of McDonald’s: Bingo – Big Macs are familial bliss. The goal is to equate unlike items, collapsing difference into unity.

How can progressives hope to appropriate such a principle as association? Why would we want to? To answer the second question first, we must. Linear logic belongs to the age of the sentence and the paragraph; associative logic is in tune with the present visual era. If progressives wish to communicate in the present, they need to learn the language of association. 

Conservatives use it all the time. Think of the propaganda of the second Bush administration in preparation for their war in Iraq. By constantly referring to Iraq in the same sentence as terrorism, and Saddam Hussein in the same breath as al-Qaeda, the administration effectively forged an association that continues today. 

But is that what progressives should do: elide the truth and play a cynical game of realpolitik? I don’t think so. We can find ways to harness the power of association without slipping into a moral morass. Associations conjure up an ideal, not an equation of facts. But this does not mean that associations must be built upon lies. 

Lines of connection and association have been traced by progressives before. These were the lines that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted us to follow when he asked us to consider where we get our sponges, our soap, our coffee, tea, and toast: Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.” Associations were what King was describing late in his life when he drew out the connections between the war in Vietnam and poverty and race hatred in the United States. More recently, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, in their provocative 2004 white paper The Death of Environmentalism,” argued that the environmental movement needs to articulate a wider set of associations, articulating (and publicizing) links between industry and weather, resources and war, nature and values. The principle of association is an opportunity for progressives to move past the timid linear logic that inspires no one and to harness a powerful tool of persuasion. 

But it’s not enough to draw connections between things we do not like; associations can also communicate what we are for and what kind of world our policies might create. 

Reclaim fun

Progressives can use association at the level of organization building as well. I learned this in mid 1990s working with the Lower East Side Collective (LESC), a community activist organization I co-founded in New York City. We didn’t fundraise by applying for grants, sending out direct-mail appeals or badgering people on the street. Instead, we raised money for our organization by throwing huge, raucous dance parties. We goofed around and socialized while tabling for causes. We prided ourselves on our cleverly worded signs. And, working with groups like Reclaim the Streets and More Gardens!, we turned our demonstrations into festive carnivals. In brief, we enjoyed ourselves.

The projection of fun” was part of a conscious strategy on our part to counteract the public perception of leftists as dour, sour, and politically correct – a stereotype that had some validity, at least in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the mid-1990s. 

LESC had a standing working group whose function was fun. We called it, with tongue firmly in cheek, the Ministry of Love.” Within a year of our founding we had more than 50 activists working with us and were engaged in six simultaneous campaigns. We also had been attacked by several on the sour left for being too joyous. That’s when we knew we had succeeded in transforming the association of progressive activism from sacrifice to pleasure. 

The importance of fun in politics is not just the luxury of the privileged activist. In the middle of the murderous civil war in El Salvador, Salvadoran women would immediately create three committees when setting up new refugee camps: one on sanitation and construction, another on education, and a third, comité de alegría, on joy. Yes, activism involves sacrifice – a sacrifice of free time as well as the bliss of ignorance. But activism is also social, exhilarating, rebellious and fun. Which make better selling points?

Modern politics is about appealing to people; you need to attract activists into an organization and supporters to your cause. The hair shirt wearing, self-sacrificing progressive may be a suitable candidate for sainthood, but politically they are a liability. Branding is the new buzzword in advertising; it’s the set of associations attached to a product or corporation. Politics, whether we like it or not, are branded too. The important question is what sort of brand we want to build.

Advertise desire

The most valuable lesson progressives can learn from advertising, however, has to do with the power of desire. Advertising circumvents reason, working with the magical, the personal and the associative. A journey of emotions rather than an argument of fact, advertising’s appeal is not cognitive, but primal. This emotionality, perhaps all emotionality, disturbs progressives. As heirs to the Enlightenment, progressives have learned to privilege reason. Feelings are what motivate the others: Bible thumpers, consumers, terrorists, the mob. All true, but emotions also can motivate progressive politics. The problem is not desire, but where desire has been channeled

Progressive desire (as well as some rather more base ones) has provided material for copywriters and creative directors for decades. In its own convoluted way, and for its own pecuniary objectives, Madison Avenue has been an invaluable propaganda bureau for progressive ideals, keeping hope alive. Each advertisement, along with this or that product, sells the dream of a better life. Now it is time to turn the tables. Advertising has provided us with sophisticated techniques to reach people and connect with their desires; now progressives need to use these tools to redirect progressive passions back into progressive politics. Karl Marx once argued that only socialism could unlock the material promise of capitalism; today I believe that only progressive politics can free the fantasies trapped within advertising. 

Have a dream

Embracing our dreams does not necessitate closing our eyes, and minds, to reality. Progressives can, and should, do both: judiciously study and vividly dream. In essence, we need to become a party of conscious dreamers. 

Right now the only people flying this flag are sequestered to the far fringes of progressive politics. Some of this marginalization is of their own choice. Many street activists and political performers are suspicious of more mainstream progressives who, in their eyes, have abandoned the utopian dreams that once directed and motivated the left. They also have contempt for the tactical (non)sense of a bumbling, fumbling Democratic Party. At least we shut down Seattle and opened up a discussion on the politics of globalization,” they brag (an estimation shared, with some concern, by the editors of the Financial Times). Disgusted by the conciliation and incompetence of their more moderate comrades, these progressives often keep their own company. 

But this marginalization is not entirely of their own making, for progressives ensconced in the center show little interest in their left flank. Here conservatives have something to teach us. The Republican Party learned to look to its margins. Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove, Ronald Reagan – all these men at one time might have been described as people whose fringe politics guaranteed their irrelevance. They are also the very people who led the Republicans to power over the past few decades. During the same decades groups like the Democratic Leadership Council argued that the Democratic Party needed to abandon its margins and move to the center. They were successful. As a result the Democrats have virtually no connection to the aesthetic and political fringes of the progressive movement today. 

It’s a shame because these activists – in all their marginality – have a better understanding of how the center operates than do the centrist professionals inside the Beltway. They understand the popular desire for fantasy and the political potential of dreams, and they know how to mobilize spectacle. They have a better read on the attractions of popular culture and the possibilities of harnessing this for progressive politics than the pragmatic” center who, secure in their sense of superiority, stick to their failed script of reason and rationality. 

It is time to cut our losses and try another tack by moving the strategies, tactics, and organization of the margins to the center. This will take convincing on all sides. Those on the margins need to take power seriously, giving up the privileged purity of the gadfly and court jester and making peace with the dirtier aspects of practical politics: the daily compromises that come with real governance. Those in the center have to be open to a new way of thinking about politics that challenges some of their core beliefs about the sufficiency of judicious study and rational discourse and the efficacy of a professionalized politics. The centrists need to acknowledge that their model of politics is, ironically, out of touch with the cultural center of our society. They must be willing to dream.

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Stephen Duncombe is an associate professor at New York University’s Gallatin School and a life-long political activist. For more on the politics of dreaming see www​.dream​poli​tik​.com.
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