Charlotte Sykes, Abusing Creativity

Max Haiven

Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons

320 pp – £14.99

ISBN-978 1 78032 952 9

London: Zed Books,  2014



The radical imagination is not an individual possession but a collective practice.

– Max Haiven


Max Haiven’s recent study, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power seeks to disrupt a hegemonic discourse that roots creativity within the individual and co-opts it into the projects of neoliberal capitalism. Haiven’s book tussles with two main theses: how imagination, both in terms of political power and creativity, has been colonised by capitalism, and how imagination offers the only possible route out of our current economic system.

Much of Haiven’s discussion of the delineation of information from creativity engages with the concept of commons, both creative and physical. The formalisation of a single ‘creator’ in line with capitalist and patriarchal ideologies from the seventeenth century onwards, along with Romantic ideas of individual imagination, have led to our current ideas of creativity. In English, for example, the term ‘creative’ had more commonly referred to God’s creative powers: Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been considered skilled craftsmen instead of individual geniuses. Indeed, it was not until the Victorian era that Shakespeare was ‘rediscovered’ and his ‘gift’ vaunted as such. However, the process of individualising creativity really took flight due to the exulted ideals of the Romantics. Despite deploring the effects of industrialisation on the natural, the ‘noble savage’, the delineation of imagination by poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley participated in the fashioning of the imagination into a personal, male genius.

Thus ‘imagination’ was transferred from a collective realising of a community’s ideas into a personal gift of mental transformation and as such a human parallel to Godly creation. Indeed, Shelley saw imagination as a humanist key to morality:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.

Elsewhere in A Defence of Poetry, Shelley writes that imagination can be thought of “as mind acting upon those thoughts [relations borne from one thought to another] so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity”. It is clear that we have moved far from the sense of the imagination as a communal practice to an individual attribute or skill. The language is that of solitary intellectual engagement and points towards a delineation of the internal and external. The mind’s “own light” suggests a personal genius, which can transform the rough, natural world into ‘art’. Indeed, the Romantics also saw the imagination as a (individualised) locus of resistance which could resist the onset of capitalism and birth a new society.


In stark contrast to the celebration of the natural and the unsocialised in Romanticism, industrialisation worked to remove creativity and the production of culture from those without education. Factories removed the artistry from the creation of goods; the constructed distinction between high and low culture served to remove from the working classes their claims to creativity. Manual labour became simply that, a perspective that enforces classist views on creativity and intelligence. Whereas culture had once been understood as collective, manifesting itself in practices as diverse as song, modes of living, cuisine and so on, by the nineteenth-century culture had become a commodity produced by the creative elite for the middle and upper classes. As Haiven writes, creativity was understood to be the “private property of eccentric men who tended to drink themselves to death in Paris.” (p. 194) The rise of mercantilism went hand in hand with this shift in conceptualising creative products, as the new beneficiaries of capitalism used cultural commodities as social signifiers of their elevated status. As private property rose in societal importance, art became increasingly thought of as capital and by the twentieth century the “enclosure of the idea of creativity as the private property of individuals was nearly complete” (p. 196).


During the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘counter culture’ rebelled against the social structures that denied universal creativity. Although this manifested itself in writing and art that highlighted the subjugating nature of capitalism, this grassroots creativity also led to fundamental shifts in how capitalism functioned. Since Edward Bernays introduced the ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, into marketing in the USA in the 1920s, there has been a fascination with the use of psychoanalysis to manipulate and predict consumer trends. Ian Curtis’s documentary A Century of the Self fascinatingly charts the co-option of individualism in psychoanalysis into consumer strategy. Now that everyone was a creative individual, it became increasingly important to buy the right items to express that individuality and to reject the psychological conformity that had been imposed by businesses and politics. Thus the ‘Me Generation’ became the feather in capitalism’s cap; as one’s distinct personality was distilled in cheap commodities designed to signify one’s individuality. Just as the mercantile class had required items of culture for purchase in order to demonstrate their wealth, the cultural signifiers of individuality offered new territory for capitalist delineation of creativity as the middle man of person and capital.


This co-option of creativity has led to a readjustment of the Western understanding of the artist: no longer poverty-stricken social rebels, they are now, in the words of cultural critic Angela McRobbie, cited by Haiven, triumphant ‘pioneers of the new economy’ (p. 201). Those struggling to make ends meet should employ their creative skills to provide for themselves. Today’s neoliberalism suggests that, by way of unemployment and poverty, everyone should be a little more creative. The ‘creative destruction’ set in motion by market competition constructs the narrative that the ‘most creative’ wins, and profit is a just reward of market-employed creativity. Indeed, the market has little patience for artistic endeavours that do not make a profit.


The idea of market-led creativity is crystallised in the notion of ‘creative-capitalism’ as put forward by Bill Gates. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers funding to projects that make solving global problems such as AIDS, malaria and malnutrition appealing to the private sector. Creativity is being used to ‘correct’ a structural fault within capitalism. The Gates Foundation offers micro-finance lending schemes to empower those without capital, in order to allow poor people in less developed countries to harness their creativity and enter the market. Thus competition is fostered in undeveloped countries, perhaps as a twenty-first century development of the Victorian efforts to combat ‘idleness’ in the poor. One can see links between this approach and Žižek’s reading of charity in his Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (2008):

Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation. In a superego blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries ‘help’ the undeveloped with aid, credits and so on, and thereby avoid the key issue, namely their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped. (p. 19)

Although working from a different angle, Žižek’s comment highlights the commodification of poor people through the approach of ‘creative-capitalism’; they essentially become employees of the system that has created their current economic deprivation and thus gain a stake in its continuation. John F. Kennedy famously declared that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, yet there has been much debate since this statement was made in 1963 as to whether in practice the rising tide of finance lifts only the yachts. It is the co-option of creativity as a market power that masks this structural problem of neoliberalism; if your boat isn’t lifted by the tide, perhaps you aren’t being creative enough.


Yet this is not at all to say that creativity has been entirely subsumed by capitalism. As has been discussed with reference to the Romantics, the imagination also offers a locus of resistance to dominant economic forces. A Marxist critique of Romantic ideals of the imagination grounds the mental process in its material and historical reality, as a product of one’s lived experience. Furthermore, although the systems that control us are largely imagined (family, religion, money and nationalism), they are rooted in material reality and thus cannot be simply ‘imagined away’. This conception of the radical imagination as a tool for emancipation should also be seen in contrast to the use of Enlightenment theories of the imagination as a tool for capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. Theories of European (male) creativity were used to justify colonialism as they supported notions of Western cultural superiority in its capability of imagining social or economic structures, and channelling creativity into works such as European literature and philosophy. On the other hand, colonised people were considered too creative, with a childlike belief in non-Christian gods and other supernatural powers. This imperialistic viewpoint had its parallels in patronising patriarchal ideas of women’s imaginative potential, the overabundance of which manifested itself in ‘hysteria’ and other mental conditions that obscured rational reality. Women were also seen as “inherently banal and obsessed with the mundane and the petty” (p. 224) and so incapable of productive or insightful acts of creativity.


This Euro-Enlightenment conception of the imagination began to wane over the twentieth century, with the previously described shift in individualism. The rise of communism and communistic thought led to interrogations of the role of the radical imagination within society, whether there was any benefit in creativity in and of itself or if it should only function as a method of social agitation. Debate also centred on whether there could be any real creativity whilst oppressive social systems still existed or if capitalism inhibited the imagination completely. Herbert Marcuse argued that radical thinking and the radical imagination exist in the plurality of conceptions of the world and a refusal to accept the current system of organisation. Authors such as Lucien Vanderwaalt, Michael Schmidt, and Benedict Anderson have charted the history of anarchist transnationalism in Europe, Asia and Latin America, where multiple popular uprisings demanded not just control over the economy but a radically reimagined way of life. Equally, indigenous modes of living have often provided blueprints for modes of struggle against colonial forces. Haiven does not romanticise the imagination as a fabled force for good: the radical imagination was key in constructing fascist regimes such as those in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s and 40s. As is mentioned throughout the text, the groupings for which people are oppressed – race, gender, sexual orientation – are also imagined. This is not to dismiss the legitimacy of such groups, but to highlight their socially- and linguistically-constructed nature.


Thus in order to attempt any kind of displacement of our current, imagined, socio-economic structures, it is imperative to understand how they are conceptualised and how our powers of imagination and conception have been co-opted by them. Feminist theorists such as Marcel Stoetzler and Nira Yuval-Davis have shown how parameters of the imagination are shaped by privilege and one’s experience of intersectional oppression (a development on Marx’s notion of the materiality of the imagination). The imagination is bodily; to conceptualise it as a mental possession is to play into patriarchal and imperialistic paradigms that still reside in Western thinking. As bodies are marked and circumscribed by other bodies around them, so is the imagination, and so those bodies who are more intensely oppressed with have a different approach to the imagination. Haiven’s reading of Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis leads him to identify their approach to the radical imagination as “an ever-unfinished process of solidarity” (p. 239), a practice of working around and with our shared or differing lived experiences.

The picture Haiven paints of the imagination in the neoliberal age is indeed bleak. The appropriation of creativity as a tool of capitalism, using everyone’s ‘inherent’ creativity as an excuse to cut back on social welfare and collective wealth and insurance, suggests a terrifyingly individualised world in which the imagination is valued only a form of generating profit. Furthermore, such is the power and pervasiveness of capitalism that imagining other socio-economic systems becomes increasingly difficult, though increasingly necessary. The unsustainable, exploitative nature of capitalism means that the material forces that agitate the radical imagination and generate the friction needed for new ideas of community pervade. Added to this, the divergent views of those engaged together in making radical alternatives create the fricative circumstances that lead to real world solutions. As Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power informs us, “individual creativity essentially and inherently draws on a common cultural and material reservoir” (p. 214). It is the acknowledgment and engagement with our common cultural heritage that allows for radical imagination, and provides a space in which creative powers can function outside of capitalism co-option.


Charlotte Sykes is a 2nd-year English student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She is currently editor of Cuntry Living, Oxford’s gender equality zine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s