Rediscovering the Democratic and Economic Possibility Inherent in Imagination

In a new article, Department of Political Science Professor Laura Zanotti and I argue that several theorists recently have begun suggesting that international politics is so deeply complex that it is an exercise in misguided hubris for analysts, regime officials and funders to imagine they can know what precisely will occur or unfold when they undertake a development or peacebuilding action.[1] Following this line of thinking, we argue that in lieu of epistemological assumptions that presume linear causal sequences and that support the notion that actors initiating specific steps can know in advance their implications, would-be peacebuilders and international developers alike should develop ways of knowing that embrace the ambiguities and describe the micro-political contexts in which most meaningful social action occurs. That is, we contend that international agents who would intervene to influence human behavior and actions should adopt nonsubstantialist perspectives that recognize the inevitability of uncertainties and the persistent presence of plural interests and viewpoints. This conceptualization places a premium on the reflexivity and creativity of those seeking to catalyze potential change. In this sense, this theorization demands aesthetic sensibility and possibility, and does not pretend that ordained paths are likely when initiatives are undertaken. Dr. Zanotti and I investigated how two international arts organizations, Bond Street Theatre and American Voices, approached their roles in peacebuilding initiatives as purveyors of theatre and music respectively. We found that each nongovernmental institution had indeed adopted epistemic frames quite consistent with those now being offered by international politics theorists. That, we thought, was surely good news. But however appropriate and robust their preferred orientations to knowing, that fact constituted only half of the story. These organizations’ leaders also had to respond to government funders who demanded that each adopt an inapt and mythical conception of peacebuilding and development interventions. The entities supporting their efforts presumed these NGO leaders could know in advance the implications of their actions and predict precisely when and how social norms, values and behaviors would be transformed along a linear timetable.

This perspective, arising from a neoliberal imaginary, not only requires such thinking, but insists that it ultimately be oriented to only one valence or value—efficiency —irrespective of other beliefs or concerns that may be in play. This view stems from neoliberalism’s idealized vision of the market as premier social arbiter and guarantor. In short, the dominant worldview among state agents acting in global politics today not only is inconsistent empirically with the dynamics of that firmament, but it also goes much further to wish away that reality. Indeed, this perspective demands that those working on its behalf (major Western governments especially) ascribe to its mythology regarding causation and agency, and assume that the unknowable and indeterminate are actually readily deduced, and that causal chains can be both charted and controlled.

If this is an accurate description of the ideological conceit of the neoliberal impulse, it seems likely that this orientation is present in other domains as well, since this epistemic frame has dominated Western (and especially United States) politics for four decades. Indeed, this stance can be found at the heart of one of the most perplexing policy problems confronting the U.S. and other major democratic nations today: the slowdown in growth in these countries’ economies in the last 35 years as compared to the early post-World War II decades.

Economists have suggested all sorts of reasons for this turn, but most finally come to rest on the hard fact that innovation, and thus productivity, have flagged in this period (even in the United States, and despite the upward blip occasioned by the growth of the technology industry in the Silicon Valley in the 1990s). The difficult question then becomes, why has productivity growth slowed across the Western nations?

In a fascinating article in the August 13, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books, Edmund Phelps, a Nobel Prize winning professor of economics at Columbia University, addressed just this concern. In his essay, Phelps contended that American culture (and those of other Western nations) has shifted from one that encouraged what he calls “human flourishing” to one that continues to generate massive injustice, evidences a diminishing capacity to be inclusive and exhibits ongoing economic sluggishness. Here is how he describes his notion of flourishing:

Historically, as my book Mass Flourishing argues, prospering and flourishing became prevalent in the nineteenth century when, in Europe and America, economies emerged with the dynamism to generate their own innovation. Responding to the challenges and opportunities of an ever-evolving economy, the more entrepreneurial participants were immersed in the experience of solving the new problems and overcoming the new hurdles posed in the process of innovation: these people were “prospering.” Sparked by the            new spirit of dynamism, the more innovative participants were constantly trying to think of new ways to produce things or new things to produce: these people were “flourishing.”[2]


Put differently, but in keeping with Phelps’ arguments, these were nations whose cultures encouraged creativity and imagination and found ways to share the fruits of the application of those faculties with a diverse array of groups within their bounds. Today’s Western countries and cultures, however, in practice have little use for creativity or imagination. In lieu of seeking to encourage the same among all and to share their fruits with all, these nations instead seek to distribute wealth upward and to existing interests, and routinely embrace public philosophies that suggest that only ideas and constructs currently relevant to the “market” are to be venerated. These twin forces—the suppression of innovation by many existing elites and interests, and the redefinition of education as the immediately vocationally useful and its implications for cultural possibility—go far in explaining the productivity (and therefore economic growth and distributive justice) crises of the West.

Phelps does not so state in his essay, but it is clear that both of these claims arise from and are sustained by the dominant neoliberal public philosophy or imaginary, which continues to marketize all U.S. and Western social institutions. In the name of this ideology, education at all levels has been redefined increasingly as a capacity to pass tests and a mastery of technical subjects perceived as likely to allow individuals to secure a job in the prevailing economy. In effect, the United States and other Western nations have decided to raise generations of individuals with little understanding of human history and still less awareness of literature or even of their own politics, information that could equip them with a deep knowledge of human frailties, capacities and values. The arts, meanwhile, have also been declared “superfluous” in countless school systems, despite their power to unleash imaginative possibilities.

In compliance with the stilted and stunted epistemological view that is neoliberalism, Western nations, led by the United States and Great Britain, have elected not to provide generations of their citizens with the critical wherewithal to imagine and innovate. Instead, these countries have sought to prepare their youth to continue to produce the equivalent of buggy whips as a new automotive age dawns. Phelps concludes that this situation must change if Western nations are once again to become flourishing cultures, and vibrant economies:

We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.[3]

While Phelps’ conclusions concerning shriveled social consequences for our nation’s culture and economy make enormous sense, I want to emphasize several other implications of neoliberalism:

  • Broad swathes of populations taught to limit their horizons, both because individual mobility appears unlikely in societies that persistently tell their poor, vulnerable, minority and middle class citizens that they are “unworthy” and “lacking,” even as those societies redistribute wealth upward so as to ensure “market viability.” This perspective results in a social schema that creates persisting, pervasive and deepening economic and social inequality
  • A nominally democratic citizenry increasingly unable to access educational opportunities to develop the reasoning and imaginative capacities necessary to play its rightful deliberative role. This self-imposed orientation to an instrumental and commodified view of education persists despite the obvious reality that higher levels of economic vitality and cultural flourishing occurred historically without the need for such a wholesale supplicatory stance to the perceived current vocational demands of a mythologized “market”
  • A substantial share of the population in persistent fear of losing its place in the economy, which makes it susceptible to charismatic, but antidemocratic leaders who degrade freedom and self-governance, directly and indirectly
  • The creation of elites who believe themselves entitled to exalted social status and who press regime leaders relentlessly by means of their economic resources to maintain and deepen their privileged standing.

Phelps has done a service to all who care about the trajectory of American and Western society, and his academic discipline, by making plain the reality that markets are not something “out there” to be worshipped as a part of an ideology, but are instead very much the products of their cultures. Whatever their virtues, they will only be as strong as the ways of knowing and living of the people who create, nourish and sustain them. They are not important for themselves, but only for how they result from and can contribute to a population’s welfare and way of life, including its collective capacity for self-governance. As Laura Zanotti and I have argued in our analysis of international politics theory and peacebuilding and development, widespread adoption of this frame has imposed assumptions and claims unrelated to empirical reality while simultaneously placing difficult constraints on already taxed program implementers, making it exceedingly challenging for them to engage in the sorts of imaginative and creative experimentation their context demands. More broadly, neoliberalism has not only artificially redefined international and all other forms of politics in its image, but it has also recast education in ways that virtually ensure a citizenry less well prepared to exercise the creativity, probity and inventiveness that democratic governance and economic growth demand. The regnant Western neoliberal frame is not now conducing to human flourishing in any broad gauged way, and we must soon collectively realize that fact. As Phelps’ essay suggests, the costs of not doing so are likely to be immeasurably high.




[1] Max Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti, “Exploring the Nexus of Aesthetics, Agency and

Peacebuilding,” Paper prepared for delivery at the International Studies Association 56th annual convention, New Orleans, La., February 18-21, 2015.

[2] Edmund Phelps, “What is Wrong with the West’s Economies?,” The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015, p.54.

[3] Edmund Phelps, “What is Wrong with the West’s Economies?,” p.56.