The Big Saturday Read: We need new stories – politics and the power of imagination
Alex T. Magaisa
A few weeks ago, I discovered Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. It’s a brilliant book and it’s easy to see why it’s a bestseller. On this occasion, I pick one aspect of the book which I believe is relevant to our understanding of politics.
It is about the significance of imagination in the history of humankind. The ability to imagine produces myths or fictions. A unique feature of the language of humankind, writes Harari, is “its ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all”. In other words, humankind’s ability to imagine and create stories of things that do not exist - fictions or myths, is key to understanding its history and institutions. Without imagination there would be no religions, tribes, money, companies, body corporates, nation-states or even human rights as we know them today. They are all products of the imagination.
Of relevance to this article are political parties, which are usually in the form of body corporates, and are therefore, legal fictions/myths, much like companies. This article will show why understanding the political party as a product of the imagination is important to appreciating ZANU PF’s endurance and the evolution of opposition parties and the citizens’ movement in Zimbabwe. It will explain the challenge that faces both ZANU PF and the opposition parties but also the citizens’ movement.
When we hear of fiction or myths, we think rather dismissively of stories that are told to children, tales that they soon grow out of. We might even think of them in negative terms or not take them seriously. We seldom realise that a large part of our lives are governed by mythical creations – they include nations that govern us, companies that do the bulk of business, money that we use on a daily basis and political parties that govern us. The truth is we go to our graves believing in and being affected by myths or products of the imagination. They are an important part of our lives. These myths actually serve a fundamental purpose - they facilitate the construction of large-scale networks of social, political and economic cooperation between people.
These myths/imagined realities are best understood when contrasted with objective realities. Imagined realities depend on whether or not people believe in them. By contrast, objective realities are independent of people’s beliefs. The force of gravity is an example of an objective reality. Gravity exists whether or not people believe in it. On the other hand, money is an imagined reality. Its existence depends on whether or not we believe in its value. Totems are imagined realities – a society has to believe in them. Throughout history societies have believed I gods, deities and spirits of one form or another. The survival of those things depended on whether or not people believed them. They ceased to exist once people lost belief in them. This is why the force of gravity will continue to exist whereas the Zimbabwe Dollar is long dead. Even if the Zimbabwean government tried to ban gravity, it would fail dismally, because the existence of gravity has nothing to do with governmental power or our beliefs. The bond note that the Zimbabwean government is intending to introduce is an imagined reality. Its continued existence after introduction is dependent upon whether or not Zimbabweans are willing to believe in the imagined reality. Like all myths, the bond note story will fizzle out, just like the Zimbabwe Dollar myth before it, if people do not believe in it. The US dollar. Like other currencies is also a myth/imagined reality which survives because people believe in it.
Political systems, such as a theocracy, democracy, autocracy, aristocracy, or monarchy are also products of the imagination. They are called imagined orders. Like all myths, their success depends on the extent to which people are willing to believe in them. Measures are put in place to ensure their success. It could be through constitutions, which proclaim rules by which the nation is to be governed. These constitutions are sold as the highest law in the land and in some cases, as deriving authority from God or natural law. These qualifications are used to augment the view that they are immutable. This is designed to cover the fact that they are in fact myths/fictions/imagined realities. Sometimes violence and coercion is used to maintain an imagined order. But more importantly, people have to believe in them – what Harari refers to as “true believers” who are necessary to support any imagined order. These true believers are the most important enforcers of products of the imagination.
Myths and networks of cooperation
As already stated, the fundamental significance of humans’ ability to create fictions or imagined realities is that it gets people to imagine things collectively. If believed, these myths facilitate the creation of big networks of cooperation between large numbers of people. One example is the myth of the nation-state, which also depends on the extent to which nationals share a collective imagination of its existence. Once people lose belief in the existence of the nation, it is likely to crumble. Strangers who have never met before are more likely to work together in defence of their nation if they both believe in it. This belief helped in the building of ancient cities and empires comprising large numbers of strangers. The majority of nationals were united by common myths which they believed in while the subjects were compelled to cooperate by coercion.
To appreciate the importance of myths in building large networks of cooperation among people, it is useful to remember that we are not the only animals that are capable of cooperating in large numbers. Bees can do that exceptionally well. But bees do so in a rigid pattern. Wildebeest can also cooperate in large numbers, but they also follow a rigid pattern. Lions can also cooperate but only in small numbers, working with those they know and trust. As Harari points out, the major distinction is that humans can cooperate more flexibly with indeterminate numbers of people, friends as well as strangers to do an unlimited number of activities. It is this ability to cooperate more widely and flexibly for unlimited outcomes that gives humans a unique advantage over other animals. This unique ability is facilitated by people’s capacity to imagine and create things that do not exist in the physical world. Other animals do not have this power to create myths/fictions/imagined realities. They only have objective realities to contend with.
It may seem natural to a present day Zimbabwean that the Zimbabwean nation has always existed but Mbuya Nehanda and her compatriots living in 1896 would have had no idea that there was a nation called Zimbabwe. It simply did not exist in their minds, individually or collectively. It was not until the early 1960s that an early crop of nationalists gave the name Zimbabwe to the country which the settlers had called Southern Rhodesia. The name Zimbabwe was part of the new shared imagination that cut across tribe, race, region, sex, and other divisions enabling the formation of large networks of cooperation. The most significant of these networks of cooperation were ZAPU and ZANU, the two major political parties and their fighting armies ZIPRA and ZANLA respectively. They would not have been possible without shared myths which a significant number of people believed in. Our ability to imagine and create myths was critical to the fight for independence.
Fiction of independence
That war supposedly produced independence, but since then, many people often ask what happened to independence because they don’t see the changes and benefits which they hoped for. The reason why people are struggling to “find independence” is because independence is also a product of the imagination. It is a myth. People fought a war, politicians sat around a table and signed pieces of paper, a new constitution was agreed and independence was declared. The physical acts that happened on the eve of independence day were that the British flag was lowered down and a new Zimbabwean flag was raised. Suddenly, people were independent. One minute they were colonised and the next, they were free. But were they really free except in their minds? The story of independence was a myth or an imagined order that was sold to the people. It existed because people chose to believe that they were independent. It had little to do with the objective realities around them. It is not surprising that in 2016, a lot of Zimbabweans are questioning the existence of independence. What is happening is that the myth of independence is unravelling and people are beginning to imagine a new reality, a new order or in short, new myths.
Imagined orders like democracy, autocracy, aristocracy, and others depend on the endurance of myths upon which they are built. According to Harari, people have to believe in the myth in order to sustain an imagined order. This is why imagined orders are always vulnerable to collapse. Once people stopped believing in the myth that kings were representatives of God on earth and that their word was law, that imagined order crumbled. This is why the French Revolution in 1789 is regarded as one of the seminal moments of history. It was a significant challenge to an existing order as people imagined a new order without an absolute monarchy. This is also why the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 is also an historic moment. And why in the local context, the Lancaster House Constitution is a landmark moment. The fall of the apartheid state in South Africa in 1994 is also another example. Both in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the myth of racial hierarchy and superiority was successfully challenged because significant numbers of people imagined a new order based on equality and freedom. Yet, as both Zimbabweans and South Africans have discovered years after independence, the new orders are also imagined realities, myths which bear no relation to reality. The fiction of independence created a false illusion which had no bearing to reality. This is why they have to keep imagining new realities, imagining new myths in order to overcome the existing imagined orders.
Violence, believers and fictions
Since imagined orders are more vulnerable than natural orders, they must be protected. Gravity, an objective reality does not need protection for it to exist. But according to Harari, there is need for “continuous and strenuous efforts” in order to safeguard imagined orders from destruction. One method of sustaining an imagined order is violence and coercion. Agents of violence are deployed in order to corral people into complying with the imagined order. This is why authoritarian regimes often resort to violence in order to protect their systems. In order to establish the imagined order of democracy and majority rule, the nationalists had to use the violence of war. The fiction of independence was believable because a war was fought which people believed they had won. Post-2000, the Mugabe regime crafted a myth of redistributive justice and empowerment. To take land from the white farmers, the regime had to use violence. Likewise, in order to sustain its racially-stratified imagined order, the Rhodesian state relied on violence and coercion.
Nevertheless, as Harari points out, violence and coercion alone are not enough to sustain imagined orders. An imagined order requires “true believers” as well. “A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers – far more cheaply and effectively” says Harari. Even the instruments of coercion that are used, such as the army also require true believers to exist within their ranks. An imagined order is enforced by those who believe in it. Religions such as Christianity and Islam have survived for so long because they have true believers. Likewise, democracy has so far managed to survive because it has believers who are willing to enforce it, but it would be foolhardy to think that it has guaranteed future. Authoritarian regimes survive because they have true believers. Mugabe’s regime has survived largely because however vile it is, it has true believers who believe in its fiction. This is something that most opponents of ZANU PF are not willing to appreciate.
Challenging an imagined order
An imagined order requires large-scale cooperation between people. The fact that one or a few people stop believing in an imagined order does not affect its existence. This is because an imagined order is inter-subjective in that it exists in the shared imagination of many people. Money is an example of something that is inter-subjective. The fact that a few people stop believing in the value of the US dollar will not necessarily throw it out of existence. However, if a significant number do so, the value of the dollar might be affected. If one person stops believing in human rights, it does not necessarily affect them. In the early 1990s, Edgar Tekere and ZUM failed to replace challenge ZANU PF’s imagined order because more people still believed in ZANU PF’s fiction.
However, these inter-subjective imagined orders can be changed if sufficient numbers are mobilised against it. Political parties are an example of a complex organisation that can drive a large-scale network of cooperation to challenge an imagined order. Most people may not realise it but political parties are also fictions. They are built on the foundation of legal fictions. They are creatures of people’s collective imagination which exist only in our minds. The political party exists because the law establishes rules for its creation as a recognisable and separate legal person. A political party typically has a constitution, which describes it as an entity with own legal personality that is separate from its members or officers. You don’t have to do anything special in order to form a political party. Just a piece of paper where you write down the name and details of the party along with its rules and you call it a constitution - you would have created a new person and political party!
A political party is not a real physical thing with a body and mind of its own. It exists nowhere else except on paper and in the creators’ and members’ imagination. And if you manage to persuade others to believe that it exists, it will also exist in their imagination. This is why forming a political party or civil society organisation is one of the simplest things to do. In Zimbabwe there are more than 40 political parties, although most are hardly known by the majority of citizens and only crop up at ZEC meetings or just before elections. They exist in the minds of their creators and a few others. As for civil society organisations, there are literally hundreds of them. It’s not hard to create a fiction because it’s a function of the mind.
A political party is capable of bringing together thousands, if not millions, of strangers, making it an important network of cooperation. However, not all political parties that are formed are able to accomplish this task. Forming a political party is one thing, but making it a successful network of cooperation which brings significant numbers of people together is a different exercise altogether. Such an exercise requires a believable myth. To attract people into the network, the party has to be based on a myth – an imagined reality - which a significant number of other people believe in. The black nationalists were able to organise complex organisations, which were also ideological movements and they built myths which brought large numbers of people to work together and challenge the imagined order of the Rhodesian state. This is how ZAPU and ZANU created their myths in the 1960s and 70s. Their myths were so powerful that people joined them in droves and sacrificed lives, limbs, property and careers. The MDC was able to create its own myth in 1999 and the centrepiece of this myth was the idea of change. Millions believed in this myth that they joined the MDC in droves and supported it in elections.
However, as Harari warns, establishing such complex organisations is not easy. It is “necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order”.
We need new myths
All this is important for Zimbabweans who are currently fighting against the Mugabe regime. The Mugabe regime represents an imagined order. It is built on its own myths. This imagined order has been sustained by violence and coercion, but also because there are people who believe in it. The politicians and the army generals believe in it and defend it to the hilt. But there are also thousands of ordinary people who also believe ZANU PF’s story. Collectively, they have supported and sustained the imagined order represented by ZANU PF.
So in essence, those who are fighting the Mugabe regime today are engaged in an exercise of trying to replace one imagined order with another. The success of their efforts depends on their ability to persuade a sufficient number of people to believe in their own myth and their ability to defeat the violent and coercive instruments that sustain the current imagined order. Many strangers have to cooperate but to do so, they must believe in a shared myth. The one really large-scale network of cooperation that has come close (and some argue has succeeded but has been cheated) is the MDC. For many years, its imagined order has been encapsulated by the idea of “change”. It worked well in the early years but there are important questions: Does it still attract as many believers? Is it attractive to new believers needed to overcome the current order?
These are important questions because the old myths may be tired. It might be necessary for the MDC to re-write its myth, going beyond the story of “change”. People often express this by saying perhaps there is need for a new narrative. What they are really appealing for a new myths. A party that is incapable of renewing its myths is likely to be stuck with its traditional support base or to lose supporters while failing to attract new ones. This is particularly true in the case of the young people – both ZANU PF and the MDC are failing to create myths/imagined realities that are attractive to young people. They are both in need of new believers and they can only do that if they can weave new myths that young people can believe in.
Citizens’ movement must imagine big
But this is also the challenge facing the citizens’ movement which took centre stage during the course of 2016. It was the first time in many years that citizens rose outside the confines of traditional political parties and civil society movements. They were challenging the existing imagined orders of both the ruling party and the opposition parties. The citizens’ movement was imagining a new order beyond what ZANU PF and the opposition parties were offering. In other words, the citizens’ movement has been creating a new myth, trying to replace the existing myths. However, its great limitation is that it is unsure of its significance and objectives. It does not seem to realise that its historic role, like that of traditional opposition parties, is to imagine a new order and to take steps to achieve it. It appears content in a limited role as a handmaiden to the traditional opposition. It has to start imagining bigger and better. To overcome the current imagined order, it has to imagine a new order than is more powerful and more persuasive. But it cannot do so as a loose coalition of disparate forces. This is why it is imperative for the citizens’ movement to start thinking of creating its own legal fiction, in the form of an organised vehicle to carry out its objectives.
In this article I sought to explain the importance of myths or fictions in our history. The ability to imagine things that do not exist is a fundamental driver of history. It is because of this ability that nations, companies, religions, money, ideological systems like capitalism and socialism are built. They are not natural phenomena. They are not objective realities. They exist in people’s imagination and once they die there, they have no existence. Myths/fictions are around us and affect us on a day to day basis. The company that you buy from is a legal fiction. The political party that governs you is a fiction. Political orders and systems are also fictions.
Knowing that these things are fictions is empowering. It helps us know that the greatest thing we need to do first is to imagine, to create new stories, new myths and fictions. In order to succeed, those new myths must be more powerful and more believable than existing myths. Political parties are in the business of selling myths, their own imagined realities. If sufficient numbers of people buy into them and believe them, they will win political power. Various methods, from coercion, persuasion, education, fear, indoctrination, personality cults are used to make people believe in the myths that politicians build and sell.
According to Harari, “The key is in being able to tell effective stories, which is not simple. The biggest challenge is in convincing everybody else to believe in the story. “Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives [people] immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals”. Without the power of imagination, it would have been incredibly difficult to form states, churches, legal systems, companies, or money all of which are fictions or imagined realities which exist only in our minds.
By now it should be clear to the reader that political parties such as ZANU PF, the MDC, Zimbabwe People First and others are fictions which thrive on their ability to sell their myths and whether people believe in them. But as we have seen myths lose believers and when they do, they become irrelevant. It becomes necessary to invent new myths. If new myths which attract more believers emerge those old myths could also die out. These are the challenges that both the exiting parties are facing. But this also says to the citizens’ movement, maybe you need to dream bigger, to broaden your imagination and starting creating your own myths which are bigger and more believable.