An essay by Ira Chernus on the rare subject of “political dreaming in the twenty-first century” reminds us that there’s one historical reality worth considering in the largely dreamless night that is our present planet. As everyone knows—but few give the slightest thought to these days—the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that other “superpower,” gave up the ghost in 1991. In that moment, history as humanity had long known it ended. A series of great power rivalries that dated back at least to the sixteenth century, often involving several imperial states, each eager to gain further control over parts of the planet, was instantly relegated to the dustbin of human experience. More than half a millennium of history came to an end with only one imperial power left standing, representing a single economic system, a single way of life, a single way of thinking called capitalism. On Planet Earth, it no longer mattered whether you called yourself a “communist” power, you were traveling “the capitalist road,” as was everyone, whether they liked it or not.
I suspect we still haven’t fully absorbed the meaning of that moment. If 1992 was Year One of the new system, the following years would be hailed as the era of “globalization.” That was the word chosen to celebrate the triumph of Washington and its global system, the much-hailed victory of Hollywood, the Swoosh, the Golden Arches, and the so-called Washington consensus. There can be no question that one kind of dreaming, or perhaps a dreamy public-relations frenzy, was sparked at that moment and didn’t end until the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Then, the dirty underside of capitalism’s great boom was revealed for all to see (and feel), while a spotlight suddenly fell on the rise of “the 1%” and ever more staggering economic inequality.
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In those years, something else occurred: a kind of flattening of the planet that wouldn’t have made a bestselling book for New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Think of it as a let-the-good-times-roll(-over-you) phenomenon. With all other systems discredited and abandoned, with only one way to imagine, political dreaming was flattened, too. Wherever you looked, it seemed that you just saw another version of the same old same old. Without a sense that alternatives were possible, it proved remarkably hard to dream, to have a vision of something else, something better.
It’s strange, though, how few have mentioned the global dreamlessness of the post-1991 era, which is why Chernus’s piece couldn’t be more timely—especially in this post-meltdown moment when, as revolts and turmoil grow across an increasingly crippled planet, we are being shown the way into a world of darkness and fears, but also new dreams and hopes. That some of us dream in waking life is crucial, as Chernus points out, because if you can’t dream, politically speaking, if you can’t imagine a different world, how will you begin to fix the one we have, the ever hotter, more tumultuous planet we continue to create, to the detriment of those who follow us?