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Drucilla Cornell on the power of the public imagination

February 10, 2021

I recently read a brilliant article by Drucilla Cornell and Stephen D. Seely, called ‘What has happened to the public imagination, and why?’. I found it so insightful, and such a powerful take on what the public imagination is and why it matters, that I wrote to Drucilla to ask if we might be able to have a chat about it, and she agreed. Drucilla is a professor of law, women’s studies and political science at Rutgers University. Our conversation covered so much ground, and was so rich and delightful, that I publish it here in its entirety. You could also listen the audio, marred occasionally by a skronky Zoom connection and by a small dog barking sometimes, but still fascinating.

What do you mean by the term ‘the public imagination’?  And how would you evaluate its state of health in 2021?

Drucilla Cornell.

In 2021 I think the importance of a public imagination has never been more significant.  I’m an old union organiser, and the way you get a public imagination is that you organise from the ground up, and you get people together to begin to see a common world.  That’s what a union drive is.  That’s what it means to be in a union.  In order to be in union you have to have that ability to get people together to begin to see a world in common.

In 2016 in the United States that happened to quite a degree.  In 2016 you saw the mobilisation of the Sanders campaign beginning to create that kind of public imagination.  An imagination which says that capitalism doesn’t rule the world, and that we can actually challenge economic structures.  And if we don’t have the ability to challenge economic structures, then we don’t have the ability to change the way we live together socially.  That’s what I mean by public imagination.

I’ll give you an example from my union work.  When we started the campaign we were working under terribly unsafe conditions.  I was working in the acid room, and the acid room was such that we had no protective clothing and no ability whatsoever to even work safely.  Things caught on fire all the time.  This is the Silicon Valley you never hear about.  It’s a Silicon Valley of slave labour and that’s where I began by union campaigns.

What we did is mobilise ourselves to call an Occupational Health and Safety Act.  Of course we don’t really have that any more.  What has happened in that moment we began to see ourselves as worthy of being treated safely.  That’s what I mean by a common world.  It always demands organisation, and that organising has to be democratic and from within because that’s what changes the way people see things.

Wonderful.  We’re doing this interview a couple of days after the fall of the House of Trump.  What would you say that the Trump years have done to the public imagination?  In your article you wrote that his government literally threatens the imagination with death, and I know Henry Giroux, who is an activist, he talks about the “Trump disimagination machine”.  Why does he threaten the imagination with death, and how did he do it?

He threatened the public imagination.  What did he appeal to? It’s the nostalgia for white supremacy and a world in which white men have their entitlement and feel like they can be men again.  And why?  Because we no longer have a unionised workforce.  In a way the public imagination was destroyed by Trump.

The white supremacist imagination, of the Confederate flag, that white people will once again rule – not people, men – will go back to the old ways, and women won’t get pregnant, they won’t have abortions, and people won’t have sex, and there won’t be sex education.  And men won’t run away with 22 year olds – that’s why women got involved in Trump.  He’s appealing not to a public imagination, he’s appealing to an imaginary, which is different, of a white supremacy, so you can feel like a man again.

If you look at who stormed the Capitol, it was white guys.  My daughter works at the PS1 Moma and the only people who don’t comply with wearing a mask are white guys. The workers have to say, “You know, you have to put your mask on”, and they’re told “I’m a man.  I don’t wear a mask!”  Because the unionised workforce no longer is there.  That was the middle class in the United States.  It was the unionised workforce.  And we have pretty much done that in.  Bill Clinton started it.  It’s not just Democrats versus Republicans.  The outsourcing of American industry is part of this story.

What did Trump do at that rally?  He said, “Be men!” And so they stormed the Capitol! But if you see what I’m saying, that’s an imaginary, that we can go back where black people aren’t people, and women aren’t people, and transgendered and gay and lesbians aren’t people.  And then it’s just men.  Because we can’t give them a stable job.  We can’t give them a job in a union with health insurance.

Photo by TapTheForwardAssist via Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

What does he do?  I want you to make that distinction between a forward looking public imagination, which builds towards a future and a different way of seeing things, and someone who appeals to a nostalgia of what never was, except we did have a civil war, and they were willing to risk everything to keep slaves, which is a crime against humanity.

This country was built around slavery, including the Constitution.  It’s why we have the federal courts, the Electoral college, all of these are institutions to keep black people out of politics.  That’s a distinction I really want you to make.  He appeals to an imaginary.  I want to build a public imagination.  So Trump and I are at odds with one another…

You are the opposite.  The yin and the yang!  You’ve talked about the decline and contraction of unionism.  Are there other factors that you think are damaging to the public imagination?  What are the other factors in 2021 that would be additionally causing it to contract? 

You’re talking to a union activist, so one of the things that unions do – I mean, not so much in 2021, although my daughter was a union leader at PS1 Moma, and then was on the negotiating committee – we have lost a lot of our basic rights.  The right to strike is fundamental to a strong union movement.  We no longer protect that.

You don’t have the right to strike, then you have to do ‘all offs’. ‘Six ways to Sunday’ forms of manipulation, Sick ins, you know, there’s creative ways to handle it.  We’ve lost most of our labour rights.  In my day, a wildcat strike which I led with another woman in Silicon Valley could be declared a legitimate strike by the United Autoworkers.  You couldn’t do that today.

What’s happened is we’ve chipped away, chipped away, chipped away, chipped away at union rights.  Now are there other forms of organisation?  Absolutely.  And Black Lives Matter for me is a major insurgency.  Not just a demonstration.  It’s an insurgency against the history of white supremacy and the failure at black reconstruction after the civil war, which was to create an agrarian democracy.

The failure in the deep sense of the civil rights movement which was completely undermined.  We finally get the Voter Rights Act and it gets completely undermined.  We’re in a third movement, which I would call a third reconstruction, where black people can finally be equal citizens.

How are we doing?  Well, not great, but Biden is not an outright nutcase, which is what Trump is.  But is Biden someone who is not going to go back to neoliberal capitalist policies?  No, he’s a neoliberal capitalist.  He’s just a more decent person.  I mean, he’s sane.

Black Lives Matter was formed by three women who had such hair-raising, hellish stories about their lives.  And what did they do?  They built Black Lives Matter, and that is a classic example of capturing a public imagination against the nostalgia for white supremacy.

Black Lives Matter protest on September 20, 2015, against police brutality in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons, C.C. by 2.0

You quote Spinoza.  You say Spinoza teaches us that the imagination is always collective, and you suggest that is vital to the public imagination is more and more contact with others.  Can you expand on why this is good for the imagination?  Why more exposure to difference and people unlike us is so vital to a healthy public imagination?  And why increasingly social media and everybody going into bubbles where they just speak to people like them is so potentially harmful?

Well, you’re talking to a technological dunce.  I didn’t even know how to hear you!  I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do Twitter, I don’t do any of it.

Good for you.

Here’s the problem with it.  There’s two kinds of freedom.  Freedom to actually collectively transform your social world.  That’s freedom for me.  Where we come together and we democratise the economy and end our horrific inequality.  That vision is called socialism.  Nobody knows what socialism is, including me, but that vision, that there’s an alternative, I would call socialism, like Rosa Luxembourg.

What happens when you have all the social media is people feel free.  You can put your rear end on Facebook.  You can put what you’re eating for lunch.  You know, and your dog went to the bathroom and it’s really exciting.  It makes you feel free, but it’s not freedom, because that’s the difference between a public notion of freedom, where relations are together.

And, you know, all this ‘cancel culture’.  Now people cancel their boyfriends.  They cancel their friends.  They cancel people they don’t like.  It just makes you feel like you’re in power.  And who are you cancelling?  You’re cancelling other people who don’t have any power!

The Facebook, Twitter culture has given young people a sense that they’re free.  Meanwhile, they don’t have jobs.  They don’t have unions.  They don’t have health insurance.  They live in a totally precarious world where you can say, “Oh, I had a hamburger for lunch” and everybody’s like, “You like that?” “I like that!  “Wow that’s so tight!”

I think we really have to see how in an odd way this was Trump’s world.  Now he’s been cut off everything because he incited a mob riot where the idea was to kidnap Nancy Pelosi.  Fortunately she got out of the building in time.  So you see what I’m saying?  The difference is that isn’t about imagination.  That’s almost like falling into the worst kind of empiricism.

If you were to be advising Joe Biden and he was to say, “We are going to make our intention for the next four years to ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, or to help America become more imaginative again…” What would you suggest he do?  What would be the key steps to build a public imagination?

Well the first thing, just because I’m an on-the-ground type, is pass all eleven of Bernie Sander’s legislative proposals.  A Green New Deal, the erasure of all student debt, his $2000 a month which he put forward first in the economic recovery.  Why is this important?  Because people need to see that what get called now Progressive Democrats actually have gotten much more empowered because of Bernie Sanders.

The first thing we do is we continue to march in the street for Black Lives Matter, because black people continue to be killed by the police.  Nothing’s changed.  And the police haven’t been defunded and we haven’t reorganised what we think of as security.  All of that needs to be done.

In a certain way we have to be out in the streets and then to the degree you’re into electoral politics, pass the Sanders bills.  Biden is a moderate, but he’s been pushed so far to the left.  Kamala Harris was a prosecutor, who was for the death penalty in California!  Hardly are we going to see from them the leadership that I’m calling rebuilding the public imagination.

But Sanders, the Squad, the young people in the house – to the degree that you want to be in electoral politics, and I think we have to at times – they are challenging the institutional structures.  This is why insurrection, insurgency have been captured in the media by the right.  An insurrection is against the fundamental institutions and values.  What we saw was no insurrection.  It was a mob riot, men – white men – carrying Confederate flags, wishing that the Confederacy won and black people were slaves.  “They were so much better as slaves!”  That’s not an insurrection.

I’m actually writing a book now called, ‘Today’s Struggles, Tomorrow’s Insurgencies’.  We have to keep the insurgencies going.  Part of that is electoral.  Part of that is saying, “Pass Sanders’ bills”.  Medicare for all.  Enough of people not being able to buy insulin.  Just enough.

Is it socialism?  No, but it’s social democracy.  I mean Trump calls everybody a socialist.  In fact most of the people aren’t socialist.  It’s very important to me that we keep the momentum of movements in the streets.

You talk about the importance of public spaces.  Can you expand what you mean by public spaces?

It’s very difficult.  This takes us back to Facebook and Twitter.  Those are supposedly public spaces.  But nobody’s face to face and nobody’s organising and nobody’s meeting and nobody’s debating.  So I think the question of public space has never been more difficult.  Again, getting back to my union activism, when you organise a union you create a public space within the employment area.  Now of course that’s not possible any more.

When I first started organising, employers had to have meetings with the union in the property during work hours.  That was the National Labor Relations Act.  I live in Greenwich village. One of the most interesting things that’s happened in the pandemic is restaurants opening outside spaces.  Those outside spaces are often used for meetings in a pandemic when everyone is quarantined.  I don’t know if you’ve seen it – we’re the only city that’s really done this.  We need to create public spaces where people can meet.  Ironically one of them is now outside restaurants where people can get together and talk about the way Black Lives is going, or the Sanders bills…

We have to be very creative about it, and get people off the internet.  You might say, “Well, she just wants everybody off the internet so she never has to go on it again.”  I would admit that probably is the case! But we need to be really creative right now about what public space is.  In my experience when you get a union drive across the States because we no longer can turn a workplace into a site where the employers have to meet the union people, we have to think creatively about it.

I’m very proud of my daughter for organising PS1 Moma.  I don’t know if you know the museum, but right now it has a prisoners’ abolitionist exhibit up, which all the art is done by prisoners.  90% of it.  That, the content, and the form, and the way the workers are treated, of course were completely different.

Could PS1 be a public space?  Well the answer is, it sort of is, and it sort of isn’t.  It does Nights at the Museum. It attracts young people.  But could it be a much more political public space – which is what it was set up to be, by the person who founded it – yes.  She took over a school that was deserted and turned it into a free studio space for artists who were leftist and then worked together.  We have to think very creatively about where and when we can find public spaces.

Is it fair to suggest that people on the left tend to be more imaginative that people on the right?  Is there any evidence to back up such a suggestion?

[Laughs] Let’s say some people on the left are more imaginative.  In my youth I was in four Marxist-Leninist organisations and I was kicked out of all of them.  One of my favourites was I was a ‘deviationist idealist’!  And a deviationist idealist is definitely somebody who is trying to build a public imagination.

I think the left has a horrible time moving forward because it became very, very fancy, and entitled to do critiques, and nobody wanted to do old fashioned things like programmes.  Like C.L.R. James, you know, he laid out a whole programme, created a movement in Antigua and Trinidad which almost took power, called the New Beginning Movement.

The New Beginning Movement is a classic example of a left imagination.  They organised in two of the islands and almost took power.  They were on the ground.  Now New Beginning, I love the title, but this is a real movement.

What happens in the left in the United States, particularly the academic left, it became, you know, the idea is theory is to critique, and then we fight for hegemony.  What do we fight for hegemony for?  New Beginnings says we fight for some version of socialism and against racialised capitalism, and for a kind of egalitarian participatory democracy which no-one’s ever experienced.  But they did it on the ground.

We need to remember our nostalgia is not nostalgia.  It’s to look at the great revolutionary movements in the seventies and eighties.  My guess is you’ve never heard of New Beginnings because it was an all black movement on an island in the Caribbean!  The whole way that theories become… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Afro-pessimism, or ‘all politics is heteronormative’?

When you’re an academic and you have a job and health insurance, it’s really easy to say, “Black people are socially dead.  I’m married to a nice white girl and I’ve got health insurance.  What’s the problem?”  “I’m not going to march in the streets.”  You have Lee Edelman saying, “All politics is heteronormative.”  You know, he has health insurance too!

The way in which the Academy pulled back and said, “All these dreamers.  We can’t really deal with them.”  What did that do?  What is Afro-pessimism?  You say black people are socially dead when they’ve created a movement that’s a major insurgency in the United States?  You’re socially dead!

That’s a problem with left academics.  They withdraw, retreat.  Like Janet Halley taking a break from feminism.  I’ll take a break from feminism when women finally have reproductive rights and maternity leave!

As a union organiser I fought and fought and fought and fought for maternity leave.  And I never won.  We need to look at movements like the New Beginnings and the incredible influence they had in two islands in the Caribbean, and think about their forms of organising, and their forms of participatory democracy.  And then we see a leftist imagination.

We do not need any more Marxist-Leninist parties.  That’s done.  We do not need any men telling us, like Stalin, “I know the truth.”  Dialectical materialism.  We don’t need that.  I do think right now the left often backs away from real alternatives.  We need alternatives!  We need answers to things like are we going to have a stock market in socialism?  We need answers to those types of questions.

The answer is the left needs to be pushed.  I’m writing a book after this current one called ‘Thinking like an activist’.  Activists constantly push open spaces for the imagination.  I would encourage you to look at the New Beginnings Movement.  It’s not like 1650.  It was in the 1970s and 1980s!

I’m always very interested in movements that manage to keep really big bold ‘what if’ questions alive, which is what you’re talking about I think.  I love things like the prison abolition movement who’ve kept that ‘what if’ question alive for so long in the face of a society which just thinks it’s completely unimaginable.  What would be the key learnings from that, about how to sustain big and bold audacious what if questions alive over time?  Like you were saying about getting maternity cover and prison abolition is a bigger what if question I guess.  How do we sustain those over time?

Maternity leave should hardly be a revolutionary question!

Not really.

[Laughs] I never won it. There’s a wonderful book by one of the women who started Black Lives Matter.  She writes about ‘stardust people’, which is an accurate description of a human being.  The universe is not only with us, it’s in us.  We literally carry cells of dead stars.

We have to think like stardust people, like she did.  Black Lives Matter is not just about police violence.  It’s about black people being equal citizens in the United States.  That shouldn’t be a big idea either.  That should be like maternity leave, but unfortunately it’s not!

What we have to do is think like an activist.  Think like someone whose whole life is about building a transformed world.  Therefore your theory is about what you learn in the street.  Not what you learn in books, but what you learn in the street.  That’s exemplary in Black Lives Matter.

We’re not going to get bold ideas from people who are in universities and don’t like to go to demonstrations because they might be hit by the police.  We need people who have the courage to be in the streets.  I’ve been an activist all my life.  I consider being an academic not that important.

I’ll give you an example because I think examples help.  After 9/11 in New York city the Patriot Act was passed which basically ended our constitutional rights.  Fourth and fifth amendment.  I had a friend, Ann Snitow, and we wanted to support the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women.  Another one of those groups with big ideas.

Yes, they ran gynaecological clinics under the Taliban, and yes, they ran schools, and yes, they did armed self-defence.  Because you imagine going up to the Taliban and saying, “Hi, I just wanted to discuss why women need…”  It doesn’t work!

No communicative freedom, as Habermas believes, can exist in those situations.  They did learn self-defence.  We defended them to be on the ballot in Afghanistan.  We didn’t win and yet feminism is all about not wearing a headscarf.  I dye my hair!  What woman knows what the hell she’s doing with her hair?  You do the best you can!  Headscarf?  “Oh, I don’t have to wear a headscarf.  I’ll just go to my hairdresser and make sure that my grey is covered”, you know.  What was that?  It’s freedom.  That’s this whole fallacy of individual freedom.

Freedom would have been getting the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, an underground network and a government, into the government of Afghanistan.  That would have been freedom.  What we did out of that, we called a group called ‘Take Back the Future’ in which we expanded the definition of feminism to include anyone who was from below the bar of what was considered human.

We marched with Muslim communities who were being forced to re-register even though they had a Green card.  We marched with African-American families whose sons were being told “You get to go to war.  You get to go to prison.”  And we saw those as feminist issues.  It’s called Take Back the Future.  That’s a big idea.  We take back the future.

My comrade Ann Snitow is no longer with us so this is also a tribute to her because in the face of total opposition, from a lot of left academics, who all of a sudden spoke Arabic and knew something about Islam, do you know what I knew?  I didn’t know anything about Islam!  But I later taught for 2 years a class on Islamic jurisprudence with somebody who was my student who was a specialist in Islamic jurisprudence.  Because I realised I didn’t know anything…

But these people say, “Oh, you know, this was that, this was that, this was that.  I know what the Prophet said.”  Well, I didn’t know what the Prophet said.  So we did Take back the Future in enormous opposition to the left, that said, “Oh, the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women are terrorists.”

What is the book called, by one of the women who founded Black Lives Matter?  ‘When they call you a terrorist’. That’s what I mean by Take Back the Future.  Challenge limited views of feminism to open it up to anti-Muslim and anti-racist politics.  That’s what you do.  How you do it, you go.  You have to have the courage to go, into the streets and fight.  You can’t just sit around and write books.

I write a lot of books, I admit…  But I like to think they help.  But that organisation, Take Back the Future, went completely against the grain of how feminism is being defined, how anti-racist politics are being defined, how Muslims were being defined.  That’s a group I’m terribly proud of, and that’s a recent group for me.

I also formed a group called the Ubuntu Project in South Africa.  All of this forming projects, organising, is about changing the world.  What did Marx say?  “The purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world, it’s to transform it”.

You wrote in that article, I thought it was fantastic, you said, “A powerful new left can only create a rich collective imagination capable of confronting this crisis by opening ourselves to new forms of contact that will allow us to be affected by and imagine others in new ways.”  I thought that was fantastic.  Is there anything you’d like to add to that?  Or reflect on that?

Again, let’s take the example of Take Back the Future.  By redefining what feminism is, and joining feminism to movements… one of the key things about this group is we had a giant dragon that was eating the Constitution.  That was made in paper mâché.  And people wanted the dragon at all these demonstrations.

Now why is that important to this?  Because you’re performing something.  You’re performing why the Patriot Act ate up the Constitution, with the dragon.  We used to go, just to take back the streets.  Because you can actually demonstrate in New York City without a permit.  We would go with the dragon in front of rush hour train stations, and show what it meant to be eating the Constitution to provoke discussion.  Rush hours and people running home would never be seen as a public space but we turned it into one.

That’s what I’m really trying to emphasise.  You have to be creative.

Take Back the Future is one of the groups that I formed.  But then I formed the Ubuntu project almost at the same time, in South Africa, and I moved to South Africa because I knew that I had to learn about indigenous values.  What it means to be an anti-racist doesn’t stop with protesting in the United States.  You have to think about what decolonisation means.  You have to think about what it really means to really fight imperialism.

So I formed a project.  I didn’t know anything about Ubuntu.  I’m not an anthropologist.  I’m not a sociologist.  So I went to the ground.  And I worked for A Sangoma.  He said, “You want to know about Ubuntu, come work for me.”  That’s a high spiritual level in South Africa.  When you put yourself at risk, and everything you know at risk, and have the courage to say, “I. Don’t. Know”, that’s when you learn new things.

I’m very proud of the Ubuntu project.  Throughout the 2000s I’ve been organising, and I intend to go down organising.

Is capitalism by design something that is damaging to the imagination?  Is it inherently a creation that is ruinous to the imagination?

Capitalism per se, or neoliberal capitalism?

You choose.

Well, what capitalism does – you know, I’m quasi-Marxist – is it turns exploitation into the fantasy of free labour, right? What the Keynesian model said is, “Well we have to give these so-called free labourers something, because otherwise they can’t buy anything.” That was the Keynesian model after World War II.  But does capitalism per se limit the imagination?  Of course it does, and it becomes neoliberal capitalism.

That’s what Rosa Luxembourg told us.  That primitive accumulation of capital doesn’t stop.  It needs more.  It needs the indentured servitude who are making our computers – the ones that I hate – in South Korea and in China, with women workers who are making slave wages, which is how I started out in Silicon Valley.  I know what it’s like to be a dye sorter!

So the answer is yes, and neoliberal capitalism then gives you what I said earlier, these little carrots.  You can put your name on Twitter and show what you ate and where your dog went to the bathroom, and all these great freedoms, because they can’t provide what people need.

People need meaningful labour.  This is what Marx told us.  But what happens in capitalism is people see freedom as going to a bar, freedom as going to a soccer game, freedom as now doing Facebook and Twitter.  What they don’t see is that real freedom is the unleashing of human creativity in what we call work.  And then of course work would be totally different.

Work would be where you were creating.  That’s what New Beginning got in its reorganisation of work places.  Reorganise work places and then a sugar worker who’s making sugar begins to see what making sugar is all about and why it may be important.  That limit is something that’s not overcome-able in capitalism.  We need to democratise the economy and then when we have democratised the economy maybe we can slowly begin to figure out what a different form of economic organisation is, where you wouldn’t think that freedom at the end of the day is going and getting drunk because you hate your job so much and your boss is a total arsehole and you can’t organise a union because you don’t have rights any more.  I think that Marx had it right.  Human beings at some level at the core are creative creatures.

Thank you so much.  Wonderful.


Cover Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash

Originally published at Rob Hopkins blog