To say that the mainstream Left has forgotten how to dream is merely stating the obvious. The political tradition that once dreamed of democracy, socialism, anarchism, and feminism, that holds the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of its finest moments, is now exemplified by the imagination-challenged Democratic Party and monochrome visions of a “sustainable future.” There is, however, a new type of dreaming happening on the outskirts of progressive politics.
It’s a cold night outside, but inside the St. Marks Church in New York City it’s stifling. An overflow crowd has come to hear Reverend Billy preach. Punctuated by emphatic “amens” from the crowd, the good Reverend energetically exhorts his flock to resist temptation. His choir, dressed in bright yellow and purple robes, launches into a spirited hymn and the audience joins in. Not an unusual scene for a church, except for a few things: Reverend Billy is a performance artist named Bill Talen, behind the pulpit is a ten-foot-high crucifix with a large stuffed Mickey Mouse nailed squarely upon it, and the sermon is on the evils of shopping. With the cadences, mannerisms, and impressive pompadour of a televangelist the Reverend launches into his sermon:
"This is the moment. We stop shopping. The revolution of no shopping. We can start trying to remember what we imagined. We can begin to recall what desire was when it was not supervised."
At first read this is just another arch-ironic send-up of organized religion. But it’s also something much more: the service is a genuine experience of communion and shared faith…built around an absurd demand: “the revolution of no shopping.” His congregation is not some ancient agrarian population where self-sufficiency is a possibility; Bill’s sermon is directed to an urban American audience for whom buying stuff is a necessity. Stop Shopping is an impossible dream. And the Reverend is not the only one dreaming such dreams.
It’s New Year’s Day 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement goes into effect, and out of the mountains of Southern Mexico walk three thousand indigenous peasants wearing black ski masks, some carrying rifles, others merely machetes or long sticks, declaring war on the Mexican oligarchy. This Zapatista Army of National Liberation brazenly declares their plan, “to advance to the capital of the country, overcoming the Mexican Federal Army, protecting in our advance the civilian population, and permitting the people liberated to elect, freely and democratically, their own administrative authorities.”
It’s a tall order. The Mexican army is 130,000 soldiers strong and Mexico City is 663 very indirect miles away. Guerilla declarations are often full of bravado, but there’s a hint of something else going on here. The rebel’s declaration goes on to state: “We ask for the unconditional surrender of the enemy’s headquarters, before we begin combat, in order to avoid any loss of life.” Did I forget to mention the size and armament of the Zapatista “army”?
After capturing and briefly controlling the old colonial town of San Cristobel de las Casas, the Zapatistas retreated back into the jungle, but over the next decade their resident poet-in-arms, Subcomandante Marcos, continued to issue communiqués. Sometimes his missives were straightforward commentary on the state of the struggle or responses to Mexican politics, but other communiqués were allegorical tales, narratives in which politics were intertwined with dialogues between Marcos and a little beetle dubbed Durito, or made into surreal metaphor with commentary provided by a fictional character named Old Don Antonio. These are dreamscapes, not rational political communication.
There is much that separates the Church of Stop Shopping and the Zapatistas. The former is a political performance piece playing to an urbane audience, the latter an armed guerilla struggle of indigenous peasants in southern Mexico. But they do share something: the reach of their imagination. The dreams of Reverend Billy and Subcomandante Marcos move past the real: they are absurd, irrational, and seemingly impossible. In brief, they remain dreams.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan poet, writes of utopia.
"She’s on the horizon. . . . I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking."
This is the goal of these impossible dreams as well. The error is to see them as a blueprint for a new world. Instead they are dreams that we can imagine, think about, try on for size, yet necessarily never realize. They are a means to imagine new ends. Like a poem, these new political dreams are not meant to be read literally. A poem suggests what its language will never allow it to communicate. It evokes rather than describes. Furthermore, a poem encourages the reader to move past the words on the page into a space not yet defined; it builds an edifice to see what’s not there. In refusing to be reduced to rational plans, political dreams—like poems—ask us to imagine something truly new.
As such, the impossible dream has the possibility of creating a new world—as an illusion. This is not the delusion of believing that you already have created a new world (Stalin’s “actually existing Socialism”) but an illusion that gives direction and motivation that might just get you there. As the Parisian forebears of El Sup and the Rev wrote on the walls of their city in 1968: Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible! Be realistic, demand the impossible!
Stephen Duncombe’s new book, from which this essay was drawn, is called Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. For more see http://www.dreampolitik.comTweet