Chaos Craps Out and a Thousand Flowers BloomCory Panshin on November 9, 2014
With the outcome of this week’s elections in the US, we have moved one step closer to the complete meltdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership. Not only has the partnership consistently failed to address the economic and environmental crises of the moment, but the two partners are now at one another’s throats.
The Democrats remain bound to the failing democracy vision, even though it is no longer able to produce a viable campaign platform. Meanwhile, the Tea Party Republicans have pledged their souls to the darker side of chaos and seem to be looking forward to dismantling as much of the structure of government as possible.
That’s how these things always go, so there’s no use crying too many tears over it. It’s the process by which every fossilized partnership passes into the dustbin of history. The real challenge of the next few years will be to preserve the health of the planet and its peoples as they come under unrelenting assault from a dying system.
That’s exactly what the adherents of the younger holism and horizontalism visions are already trying to do. But there’s about to be an even younger vision joining the mix and sending things off in a new direction — because as the chaos vision becomes completely unmoored from reality, the creative imagination vision will be set loose to follow its own path.
The creative imagination vision was born in the 1960s and early 70s as the direct successor to chaos, which was then in the process of giving up its utopian dreams and transcendent aspirations in order to take on the responsibility of stabilizing society. Since then, chaos has occupied the consensus position in our culture, while creative imagination has been visible only around the edges.
For nearly forty years, the chaos vision has been the basis for the credo of personal freedom and individual fulfillment that has enjoyed bipartisan support from both the left and right. On the left, it provides the justification for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. On the right, it underlies the campaigns for gun rights and fetal personhood.
Until the present moment, that consensus has held firm. This is one reason for the paradoxical results of Tuesday’s elections, in which liberal issues and conservative candidates both won support, often from the same voters. But during the next few months, I expect things to change very quickly.
To start with, the supporters of chaos on the right, blinded by their victory, will attempt to enforce a monopoly for their own interpretation of the vision and exclude any alternatives. They will be so successful at this that chaos will cease to be a consensus position and will be abandoned by anyone of a more progressive bent.
The destruction of the liberal side of chaos will channel a great deal of cultural energy into the rising alliance of holism and horizontalism. But the most far-reaching effect will be to release creative imagination from its subordination to chaos and enable it to play an active role in the world.
The chaos and creative imagination visions are both based on inner experience, but their fundamental premises are very different. The chaos vision began in the 18th and 19th centuries with a view of the human mind as a fundamentally unruly place, full of raw sexual passions, atavistic superstitions, and the stuff of nightmares. Even in its present form, when it has lost most of its rough edges, it continues to see human nature as heavily influenced by sex and violence.
The creative imagination vision, in contract, has emerged under the mentorship of horizontalism and has been deeply influenced by that vision’s reverence for the shamanistic wisdom of indigenous societies. It perceives the depths of the human mind as a place of wonder and has an abiding faith in the power of fantasy to shape the world.
Creative imagination is the youngest of the current visions and the closest to its mystical roots, but as long as it was overshadowed by chaos, that transcendence was barely apparent. Even when creative imagination was invoked directly, it was generally in non-transcendent terms, such as offhand references to the “creative class” or the “radical imagination.”
That’s about to change dramatically.
The first sign of the transition is likely to be a shift from justifying liberal political and cultural positions in terms of chaos to justifying them through creative imagination. As one example, if you support marijuana legalization as a matter of individual rights or suggest that it’s perfectly fine to kick back and get a little silly in your off hours, that’s chaos. But if you argue that all drugs are sacraments which enable us to explore our own inner nature and engage with a higher reality — that’s creative imagination.
Similarly, if you endorse same-sex marriage on the grounds that none of us can help being what we are and that we all deserve equal protection under the law, that’s chaos. But if you believe that sexual and gender identity are constructs of the imagination that can’t be hemmed in by laws or conventions, you’re following the path of creative imagination.
A couple of interesting points emerge from these comparisons. One is that the chaos-based arguments are limited and socially-constrained, as is normal for a mature vision that has long since accepted the path of social responsibility. In contrast, creative imagination is far more freewheeling. It’s open without reservations to all mind-altering drugs and all constructs of personal identity, and it invites us to explore those paths no matter where they may take us.
This has the potential to be highly disruptive to the existing social order, of course, but it’s the way all emerging visions are when they first kick over the traces. Chaos was that way too in its wild youth.
The second noteworthy point is that conservatives are not going to make the same leap from chaos to creative imagination. It would never occur to them to argue that gun rights grow out of the human imagination or that an armed society is a creative society. The nature of conservatives is to be wary of change, and they typically embrace each new vision only very late in the game, when it’s already lost its disruptive nature, and then hang on until it’s pried out of their cold, dead hands.
On the other hand, I anticipate that alternative thinkers of every stripe will make a massive shift to creative imagination over the next few years. As they do, attitudes that have been commonplace only on the academic, artistic, and lifestyle fringes of society will gain more general acceptance and begin to drive an outburst of cultural innovation.
This creative explosion will be fueled by the ever-increasing mood of cynicism and despair surrounding the dominant political order. Creative imagination will stand out as being everything that chaos is not, and that will be enormously attractive to a lot of people.
In addition, many earnest young holism-and-horizontalism protestors are likely to conclude that they’re not getting anywhere banging their heads against the wall of institutionalized repression and need to dig deeper for sources of transformational energy. That will give rise to a powerful three-way alliance of holism, horizontalism, and creative imagination.
Hints of such an alliance can already be glimpsed in the participation of traditional religious figures in political protests or the invocations of indigenous spirituality in environmental campaigns. But as the alliance develops further, it will expand to include the entire range of the creative imagination vision.
As just one example, creative imagination is the vision that grants inspiration and courage to the hackers, free software advocates, Pirate Party organizers, and whistleblowers who believe that access to knowledge and the ability to act upon that knowledge are what make us human. These dissidents have been largely off doing their own thing, but they’re inevitably going to be drawn into collaboration with the holism and horizontalism people.
One obvious basis for cooperation will be the growing opposition to “trade” treaties like the TTP and the TTIP, which not only threaten to ravage the environment and crush local self-determination but also aim at criminalizing violations of “intellectual property” laws and stifling the freedom of the Internet.
But perhaps the most significant area in which all three visions will work together will be in the trend towards “be the change you wish to see,” as people stop trying to salvage a dysfunctional system and begin to upgrade their own lives and communities instead.
From urban gardeners and small-scale craft breweries to the practitioners of restorative justice and other community-based processes, there will be a quickening within both the holism and horizontalism visions brought about by the energizing power of creative imagination.
But then, as the new vision attracts outside notice, its manifestations will expand well beyond political activism. When the horizontalism vision acquired greater visibility in 1968-69, it brought with it a set of related fads and fashions with “tribal” connotations, ranging from dashikis and buckskin fringes to tattoos and piercing. At the moment, I can’t even guess what the semiotics of creative imagination will look like, but I’m sure we’re about to find out.
And meanwhile, the activism and the fads will be paralleled by a third stream of private intellectual speculation that will attempt to pull together the diverse manifestations of creative imagination and provide them with a coherent theoretical basis.
This entire phase will have a limited lifespan — perhaps a decade at most. The chaos vision will be humbled by some crisis of its own making. Holism will go mainstream and form a partnership with a greatly revised version of chaos in order to re-establish social stability. And the ferment of new ideas, new art, and new behaviors surrounding creative imagination will die down.
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