When hope is lost we must imagine a future

Opinion Article

2007 May, 5

Alienation at its most essential level is not poverty or unemployment. It is the inability to imagine your society and therefore to imagine yourself in it. John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium 

Canadian writer and philosopher John Ralston Saul is the most excoriating critic of what he calls the "tyranny of reason". In his most famous book, Voltaire's Bastards, Saul argues that from the breakthrough of Voltaire and Jefferson and the other classical figures of the Enlightenment, reason degenerated into a kind of fundamentalist ideology. Reason became the handmaiden of power: the Nazi extermination camps and the Soviet gulags are testament to the evil to which reason could be harnessed. 

Napoleon's megalomania became reason's most archetypal (and aspirational) figure of heroic leadership in the West, and Saul parades a pantheon of examples of ideological rationalisms and rationalists. Given Saul's coming of age in the 1960s, Robert McNamara and his follies in Vietnam ends up being the most egregious of all of the technocratic bastards. That is, excepting the economic rationalists of the neo-liberal ascendancy, who assumed the commanding heights of policy throughout the West and beyond, in the last quarter of the 20th century. 

It is not that Saul disparages reason. It is his humanist thesis that there are other human qualities that must be "recognised as of equal, universal value and integrated into normal life". In his book On Equilibrium Saul discusses these six qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason. Saul argues the need for all six qualities to be kept in a dynamic balance. He is seeking to make the case that reason must be understood as only one of several fundamental qualities we have as humans and it needs to be balanced against these other qualities. Saul's humanist thesis is, on the whole, compelling and in places a bit thin. But here I will refer to one thought in the book. 

In the chapter on imagination there is an interesting passage reflecting on the difficulties of our people living in the remote margins of Australian society. Talking about normalising imagination ("creating the social conditions which will allow imagination to flower for whatever reason"), he writes: "Look at the most isolated communities in our societies. The aboriginal settlements in Australia, Canada and the US come to mind. But look at other isolations: the small towns deep in the hinterlands; the 19th-century industrial centres without economic purpose in parts of the old East Germany and northern France; the poor shapeless suburbs that lie on the edge of our cities; the slums that surround most developing-world cities. Each of these is different, yet each is faced by the same problem: how to imagine itself. 

"The utilitarian will say of the people in these communities that if they got jobs they wouldn't have their problems of alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and suicide. And that a proper education - by which they usually mean training - would get them a proper job. But every study shows that the real barrier to academic success in these places is social inadaptation. And what are these barriers? Essentially that the old industrial centres, the isolated towns and the aboriginal communities and the new slums have lost a reflection of who they are and why. Or they have had it smashed by others. And so they can only imagine themselves in models delivered by civil servants, economists, businessmen and TV. These models, if people in East Germany or Labrador or central Australia try to fit them into their imagination, make no sense at all. 

"For a start, the chief effect of the education offered is to oblige the person to leave where they live. Alienation at its most essential level is not poverty or unemployment. It is the inability to imagine your society and therefore to imagine yourself in it. The core of the problem is how to normalise imagination as an expression of each community, in a way that makes sense for itself." 

I think the lack of economic purpose in these marginal communities, to which Saul makes reference in respect of the depressed former industrial centres, has a greater, more universal, relevance than he thinks. But I do think that he has some important insights. The disconnection between the life and society of our remote communities and the life and society of the wider world - which our people see through the media and the permeation of popular culture - we know is very real. 

And our problem does involve a lack of imagination about the possibilities for our people. We cannot seem to imagine how a successful biculturalism and bilingualism could work for us (though successful multilingualism can be seen in many countries). We cannot seem to imagine how we could maintain our cultures and engage successfully in the wider world. We cannot seem to imagine how our children could move between the two worlds creatively and successfully, without leaving home and identity forever, or without being confined to life in remote communities. In fact our expectations about engagement in the wider world are downwardly skewed: our place is at the very bottom end of society, riddled with problems like grog, drugs and violence. These are the results and possibilities we know most about. 

Individuals occasionally manage to imagine a future life and path that is out of the ordinary. But this is rare. There is almost no imagination that is free (and ambitious) about our social future as a people. Apart from the mantra that we will one day have our own black doctors and lawyers, we do not visualise how our traditional society can again be successful in our modern predicaments. 

I am reminded by the life story of one of our most famous Cape York land-rights fighters, now dead. Long before he was dragged into the struggle for land rights he was trained as a mechanic and wanted to work in that trade. A traditional man, he would have gone out into the world with the dream of being a mechanic at a time when our people were briefly hopeful about their place in the wider society. The era of assimilation and the granting of full citizenship in the 1960s seemed to promise possibilities for our people to integrate and pursue their dreams and hopes. Many families from my home community, Hope Vale in Cape York Peninsula, went out and lived and worked in centres of economic growth in southeast Queensland during the '60s. All worked in some labouring capacity, they participated in local churches and had white friends, and their kids went to school. 

Eventually they all came back to Hope Vale, the last of them by the late '80s. What was their experience? I suspect that the wider world was a lot harsher and colder than they had imagined. On the whole their children have not done better than the children of families who stayed in Hope Vale. Did the hopes and imaginings of their parents meet with disappointment? Was the world, and the place they were expected to take in that world, more limited and more racially hostile than they had hoped? If these hopes were based on assimilation, then it is little wonder they failed. They could not deny their identity, their language, their home. 

After the disappointment experienced by our people during the assimilation phase, we stopped thinking about the possibilities. We returned to the cocoons of our homes, which increasingly turned into outback ghettos. Perhaps we could succeed if we could imagine a bicultural and multilingual engagement rather than assimilation into the wider world.

When hope is lost we must imagine a future