The Power of Political Imagination

The Power of Political Imagination

The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol brought with it images of suffering being dismantled into the river. Part of history was reduced to bubbles by anti-racism protestors, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. It took the world almost nine minutes to awaken itself from indifference. To acknowledge the systemic injustice black people all around face on a daily basis.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that oppression triggers rebellion. The government can justify its powers only if it is backed by citizen cooperation. Impeding individuals to have a say in the construction of social reality renders democracy redundant. Equality, freedom, security, all are deeply intertwined into the democratic fabric of society. We neglect them, we risk ignoring whole communities. And the power of the multitude, the raison d’être of democracy, becomes futile.

Democracy is appealing because it offers us the possibility to transcend reality, to escape our present situation. It enables us to think about the future and shape it accordingly. Our imagination is put to civic use, and the more it is encouraged, the more it empowers us, human subjects, to question the status quo, to confront the past and present. In a democratic society, freedom of expression takes on a critical and imaginative stance, and opens the access of our voices to the public space. Unlike autocratic regimes, which push our imaginative forces and hopes for change into the confined area of our inner lives. Perceived images of Anne Frank writing ‚The Diary of a Young Girl’, hidden in a stiffling secret annex behind a bookshelf, have circulated widely throughout history. They illustrate the power of censorship, the fear of voicing one‘s opinion. „People can tell you to keep your mouth shut,“ she wrote, „but it doesn’t stop you having your own opinion.“ And the democratic state is compelled to bring this opinion to light.

Political imagination is different from individual imagination in that it necessarily incorporates the presence of the other into the process of creating new scenarios or future possibilities in the political arena. It pushes the collective will to the foreground. The historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson talked of „imagined communities,“ that is, sociabilities fuelled by similar aspirations, hopes and fears. You don‘t have to know the other directly to share the same identity. It suffices to consider yourself part of the same „horizontal comradeship“ to enact political goals. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center between June 4-10, 2020, 38% of U.S. adults strongly support the Black Lives Matter movement, and over 60% of all Asian, Hispanics or white Americans surveyed lend their support to it to some degree. In the past month, approximately seven in ten Americans have engaged in discussions on racism. Frustration and feelings of injustice transgress the borders of race and ethnicity.

Anticipation is a defining characteristic of political imagination. The feeling of excitement that comes with each individual’s desire to create and reconstruct the social imagery can give the idea of political imagination both a positive and a negative connotation. Pictures of some protestors vandalizing shops are still vivid in collective memory and cause some to wonder whether the demonstration against racial injustice and police brutality is worth supporting, if the protestors themselves are violent. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that memory is a strong aspect of “the faculty of imagining”, easing the way to (a subjective) understanding of a given situation. Cherry-picking images and information that correspond to one’s own prejudices and incorporating them into a narrative are what political demagoguery and authoritarianism in general feed upon.

In Belgium, burned and defaced statues of Belgian King Leopold II have triggered a conflict between different imaginative forces, depending on the political aims involved. Defendants of Belgium’s colonial past invoke the importance of historical memory and the need to focus also on Leopold’s myriad urban projects, for which he was known as the ‘Builder King’. For others, on the contrary, every proof of his existence needs to be removed because he represents the incarnation of evil, responsible for the death and torture of millions of Congolese.

Political imagination is meant to change the current state of affairs. But if it is not an “empathetic imagination…linked to an idea of equal human dignity”, how the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum put it, the necessary impetus in rethinking and reshaping reality is powerless. And with it, all effort to uproot political injustice.


(Image credit: Pixabay)

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