From Revolution to Democracy: The Loss of the Emancipatory Perspective - Edith González


Edith González writes for Open Marxism 4 (2020) about the need to go beyond democracy for liberation.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 27, 2024

From Revolution to Democracy: The Loss of the Emancipatory Perspective

Edith González

Any concept that eliminates the division or does not speak of class division between the exploiters and the exploited, allowing them all to live together, this transversality, as you call it, between capital and labour, is good for nothing, it explains nothing and leads us into a perverse coexistence of the exploited and the exploiters who for a moment appear to be one and the same but are not (Sub Galeano 2018).

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the year that opened up the abyss, causing the concept of revolution that had characterised traditional Marxism to enter into crisis.1 The new organisational practices and new language revealed a shift in the meaning of anticapitalist struggle that overflowed the image of hegemony, the taking over of the state, the party as the only form of organisation and the proletariat as the historical subject. However, in this process of reconsideration of the left, a movement was consolidated in which the concept of revolution was gradually replaced by that of democracy as the goal of the struggle. Ellen Meiksins Wood (1995: 12) has pointed out that if there is one unifying element in all struggles taking place during the last decades, it would be democracy. During the last 30 years, the drive towards self-determination or prefigurative moments of an emancipated world have become more and more identified with democracy. This theoretical shift can also be found in the major works of certain authors who have – directly or indirectly – played an important role in the construction of a concept of democracy that suggests an alternative form of organisation; that is, they have shaped a new utopia based on the concept of democracy. Such are the works by Laclau and Mouffe (2001), Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004, 2009), or Graeber (2013, 2014).

This becomes clear through the experience of contemporary struggles such as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). However, we have witnessed the consequences of such a change of direction. While democracy is the new utopia, it is increasingly difficult to think of emancipation. With the movement focusing on the affirmation of democracy, the concept of capital is set aside and with it the possibility of creating a society that is not based on the expansion of value. Theoretical interpretations do not question the rise of democracy as the purpose of struggle or how this affects emancipation. In this chapter, I argue that anticapitalist struggle that does not criticise capital reproduces the logic of the latter and contributes to the loss of the emancipating perspective.


¡Ya basta! (Enough!) In November 2011, this was the scream (see Holloway 2002) of pain and rage. It didn’t matter if the financial firms were there physically or not; Wall Street is the metonymy of the financial markets or, to be more precise, the metonymy of the rule of capital. Although a call to take over the world’s major financial district can be seen as a symbolic move, it should be perceived as something more than that. Unlike the struggles in the European South or Latin America, the most important aspect of OWS was that, in calling for an occupation of Wall Street, it displaced the centrality of the state. The absence of demands acknowledged the fact that the state and financial institutions formed ‘an apparently seamless social and economic order’, capable of absorbing any demand and of containing the force of a movement that was just emerging (Schrager Lang and Lang 2012: 18). To make demands would be to acknowledge that the state and Wall Street had the power and, therefore, to assume our role as victims. However, it became commonplace in theoretical interpretations to understand the OWS mobilisations as protests against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent, against its practices of bribery and corruption and the financialisation of the economy. That is, as a social movement that enclosed itself in protests and goals that did not challenge capitalist relations. The opportunity was not seized to interpret OWS as an expression of the critique of capitalist social relations, as the rejection of the power of money, as a form of class struggle.

In the 2008 elections in the United States, rage against republican economic policies and the financial elite eased the way for the triumph of the democrats. Barack Obama came to power through an electoral strategy that combined the massive mobilisation of the country’s youth and of the more progressive sectors of US society, using a language that was unusual in political discourse (Graeber 2013: 102). Obama’s discourse was built on change and hope. The high levels of citizen engagement that year, when many young people participated in the country’s political life for the first time, suggested a trust in the electoral system and, above all, support for the promise of change. According to David Graeber (2013: 104–5), at some point the idea prevailed that Obama’s government would lead to a socialism of sorts; he was expected to carry out nationalisations, as well as introduce reforms in the health system and more controls on financial corporations. However, when the state stepped in to bail out the banks, a process of disillusionment in representative democracy was soon triggered.

Those who had voted for the platform of change took to the streets in search of the hope they had been stripped of: unemployed youth who could not afford the rise in the debts they had contracted to complete their higher education; sons and daughters of Latino migrants, African Americans or single mothers, turned into easy prey for financial and mortgage speculation by the ‘American dream’; employed and underemployed workers with precarious salaries, insufficient to cover the costs of their means of subsistence; pensioners who, affected by the cutbacks in pensions, had been forced to re-enter wage labour in order to cover their healthcare and basic expenses; men and women weighed down by discourses sanctioning unemployment and poverty as the result of individual failure. In this sense, the occupying of the public space was liberating. It revealed to society as a whole that ‘the US [was] a nation of debtors’ (Sitrin and Azzelini 2014: 155). Once indignation became politicised and individual blame boiled over, people began ‘to organize and fight back’ (Sitrin and Azzelini 2014: 154).

Three months of marches, blockades, multitudinous general assemblies and camp-outs led to the creation of an alternative space. The occupations allowed for the restitution of the sense of collectivity negated by the dynamic of individualisation that characterises capitalist relations, as well as the experience of a time filled with experience and personal interaction. Graeber has referred to this time as the unveiling of the ‘communism’ that already exists in everyday life and is expressed in love, friendship and solidarity, ‘the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way’ (2014: 390). This is the experience of men and women who discover themselves through participating in a movement that is constructed and organised collectively. The success of OWS, in Graeber’s terms (2013: 188), is attributed to the unfolding of its horizontal forms of organisation, steered by direct action, mutual aid, assembly practices and ‘the principle of full and equal participation’: the democracy project.

Unlike representative democracy, the importance that the squatters and social struggles in general give to assembly is not ‘decision-making’ per se, based on the instrumentalised rationality of counting votes for practical purposes, but the very process of a discussion that is open to all who participate in it. The assembly is presented as the meeting point and time where alternative subjectivities are promoted and the goal of building a democratic consensus and community is pursued (van Gelder 2011). The occupations and the reinvention of radical democracy as a form of organisation, operation, decision-making and discussion eventually led to the radicalisation of society. ‘We are the 99 percent’ became the slogan for all those struggles that rejected the accumulation of wealth as the other side of the production and accumulation of social misery. Struggles without demands, parties or representatives sooner or later occupied the main squares of different parts of the world.

However, three months later, economic compulsion and the systematic exercise of violence forced OWS to take a radical turn towards political realism. The crushing of the collective work that had been undertaken during those months intensified the movement’s internal contradictions and led it to elaborate specific demands focused on the abolition of debt, while the flow of radicalisation was channelled towards the construction of a democratic culture. So, what is it about democracy?


The primacy of democracy is largely due to events that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the beginning of a new era, not only for struggle but for the overall critical thinking of the left. While the struggles of that time interrupted the relative harmony and social peace that had prevailed in industrialised countries, and challenged the content of social justice defended by liberalism (Day 2005), the wave of national liberation movements in Latin America and Africa contributed to the exposure of the threads that interweave the accumulation of capital with racism, colonialism and the patriarchate. This explosion of movements, resistances and social struggles reflected the great polyphony existing within class struggle.

The image of the welfarist democracy – combined with an increased wealth distribution and the recognition of social rights – while very limited, was enough for it to become a threat for capital. This democracy suggested the possibility of a radical transformation in that it became ‘possible to think and do things that were not possible before’ (Holloway 2019: 224). The utopian content of freedom and equality that remained concealed in the concept of democracy was now tangible in real life. Struggles rendered this content explicit, thrusting capitalist social relations into crisis. If Keynesian policies pursued the containment of antagonism, the struggles of that time showed that the situation was no longer sustainable (Holloway 2019: 91). Democracy was transfigured, turned into freedom and equality. That is, it expressed the very contradictions of democracy as a form of capitalist social relations.

At the same time, the convulsions of that period led to a schism in left-wing theorising. The struggles triggered a great number of theoretical interpretations that tried to account for this ‘wide range of antagonisms’ (Day 2005: 69) that overflowed the traditional canons of critical thought, particularly those of traditional Marxism. According to Hardt and Negri (2000), the new theories were highly influential for decades because of the sensibility they displayed towards issues such as difference and the affirmation of identities, until then ignored by modern theorising, but also because they represented an effort to overcome the crisis of the critical thinking of the left. The radicalisation of struggles ‘opened the door to a change in the world, a change in the rules of anticapitalist conflict, a change in the meaning of anticapitalist revolution’ (Holloway 2019: 220).

Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is indicative of the changes that were taking place at that moment.2 In this work, the authors argued that the plurality expressed by the so-called new social movements had in fact already been present since the Second and Third Internationals, even though in Marxism it was always class unity, the plan, the historical ‘necessity’ or ‘Revolution’ that prevailed (2001: 166). It was a process that concealed the plurality of antagonisms, one that undermined the coherence of Marxist categories in their interpretation of the events of 1968 that attacked the hegemonic image of revolution. In this sense, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was a call to revisit left-wing thinking theoretically and politically, in terms of the ‘democratic revolution’ that was taking place at the time. According to Laclau and Mouffe, the emergence of a ‘new left’ in fact represented a break with Marxism as a revolutionary theory:

At this point we should state quite plainly that we are now situated in a post-Marxist terrain. It is no longer possible to maintain the conception of subjectivity and classes elaborated by Marxism, nor its vision of the historical course of capitalist development, nor, of course, the conception of communism as a transparent society from which antagonisms have disappeared. (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 4)

The political repercussion of this rupture was the abandonment of the communist utopia that had inspired the struggles and the critique of capitalist social relations; that is, the possibility of imagining a classless and stateless society. Laclau and Mouffe (2001: 2) argued that radical and plural democracy expressed the profound rejection of the Marxist ‘ontological centrality’ of the working class and economic determinism. Thus, the sphere of the political was granted a central role as the locus for the recognition of social antagonisms. It is not surprising that Conway and Singh pointed out that radical and plural democracy is ‘a “conservative utopia” – that is, a utopian project that identifies itself with present-day reality and derives its utopian dimension from the radicalisation or complete fulfilment of the present’ (2011: 692). For Meiksins Wood (2000: 1–2) it was clear that the new left of ‘post-Marxism’ did not point towards the destruction of capitalism but rather towards making a space for itself within it.

Even if we perceive this theoretical shift within left-wing thought as related to the global reorganisation of the relations of production, to the attacks from the right aimed at stripping democracy of all content, and to the fall of socialism, the result remains the same: the need to destroy capitalism becomes ever more distant. Terms such as class struggle, communism and even capital, at the centre of the struggle for decades, became gradually displaced, replaced by democracy as the main goal. The critique of capital has dissolved into a critique of globalisation, neoliberalism or the financialisation of the economy.3 But what can be the meaning of an anticapitalism that makes no reference to capital?


This theoretical shift is still in place and is being reinforced through the major works of certain authors who have played an important role in the construction of a concept of democracy that suggests an alternative form of organisation other than capitalism. While these interpretations attend to a concern for creating knowledge from struggles, we cannot ignore the underlying problematics. Namely, that the movement that positivises democracy (as real, radical, direct, true, etc.) as a new concrete utopia is limiting the horizon and displacing the emancipatory perspective.

Experiences such as the occupations of public spaces or the struggles against the commodification of common land and water are presented as prefigurative moments of emancipation in the present. From anti-globalisation movements in Seattle and the insurrections in Greece and Oaxaca, to the Arab Spring and OWS, a wide variety of possibilities and questions in relation to emancipation have emerged, contributing to the development of a concept of democracy viewed as an alternative to the capitalist form of organisation. This is what has been happening in the last 30 years, especially after the Zapatista uprising. The latter opened up a new cycle of anticapitalist struggles and resistances around the world, and revealed the existence of a drive towards radical transformation when everything seemed to be lost. This cycle of struggles has emerged as an expression of generalised discontent against representative democracy, the normalisation of violence, the reality of everyday life and the fetishisation of social relations. However, we can also see that struggles remain trapped within the contradiction that identifies emancipation with democracy.

The economic crisis and the answer of struggle through the occupation of public spaces sped up the debate on the operations and contradictions of capitalism. According to Heinrich, ‘Even beyond traditionally left circles, discussions about the destructive consequences of capitalism [were] taking place’ (2012: 7). However, there were fundamental limits to this discussion. On this score, Clinical Wasteman (2012) pointed out that ‘the notion of the “unsustainability” of capitalism slips easily into capitalist media when everything specific to capital as such is left out of the question.’ Despite their different perspectives, the works of Wolf (2014), Stiglitz (2010 and 2011) and the signatories of DiEM25 reached the same conclusion: the logic of capital can be domesticated. It was argued that, left to its own logic, capital would lead to the irreversible destruction of the social fabric,4 but the direct or indirect goal was to save capitalism from itself. The main idea of the debate was to provide ‘theoretical tools’ that would justify the regulation of the flows of capital, or to create democratic mechanisms that would impose controls on the financialisation of the markets.

That said, Graeber’s contribution to this discussion is important, and not only because of the impact of his work on debt or his participation in OWS. Graeber is also relevant because one of the characteristics of recent debates is that the distinction between anarchism and Marxism is becoming increasingly blurred in the struggles.5 Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2014) offers a comprehensive historical analysis of the conceptual transformation of debt and money. It is an alternative history of these concepts that demystifies the economic determinism of social relations. In this work, Graeber describes world history as an alternating sequence of cycles of domination. That is, of social modes of existence based on credit and debt that involved the recomposition of relations of trust and honour through mechanisms that prevented social rupture, particularly periodical debt jubilees. This cyclic movement of history was radically transformed with the emergence of capitalism, which Graeber conceives as a system of infinite growth that subordinates social relations to the economic dimension. The economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailout confirmed Graeber’s hypothesis and marked the beginning of a permanent dialogue with OWS.

This work is also a critique of two central ideas that prevailed in traditional Marxism: revolution and communism. Rather than communism conceived as a new totality of social relations, Graeber tries to shed light on the ‘already existing communism’ in everyday life that is expressed in relations of love, friendship or solidarity. Graeber eventually suggests that the celebration of life and love with family and friends is what led to the 2008 financial crisis. That is, the crisis of capitalism is linked to the subversive potential of this communism that already exists, albeit in the form-of-being-denied (see Gunn 1992). It is not surprising that this dimension of reality is being criminalised and that debt is portrayed as a symbol of excess and pleasure (Graeber 2014). In other words, Graeber’s reading suggests there is a potential in the antagonism that is inherent in capitalist social relations. That is why, beyond a protest against the inequalities and consequences of the economic crisis, we should understand the movement of OWS as the rejection of a society based on the accumulation of value.

However, one of the main problems in Graeber’s alternative history of debt and money is his lack of interest in discussing the value-labour theory. The parallelism he draws between capitalism and debt servitude ignores the fact that capitalism is a form of social organisation unknown to any other type of society he analyses. His refusal to reduce social relations to the economic dimension results in an indifference to analysing the specific character of value in the capitalist mode of production, as well as its relation to money and debt. While we cannot reduce social relations to their economic dimension, neither can we ignore the fact that a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production is based on the expansion of value. This indifference is apparent in the passages where Graeber reduces the category of value to a myth that the critique of political economy never abandoned (see Clinical Wasteman 2012). To assert that the theory of value is a myth is to leave aside important questions as to what produces it, what are the true consequences of this myth and why we continue to reproduce it. It is a critique by halves: it scratches the wall but does not crack it.6 Both debt jubilee and the positivisation of democracy – while committed to the square uprisings – reproduce the problematic underlying the interpretations that try to regulate and discipline capital. In abolishing debts, ‘one might just as well abolish the Pope while leaving Catholicism in existence’ (Marx 1990: 181, fn. 4). Once again, we find ourselves facing the same question: What is it about democracy?


Although the economic crisis of 2007–8 hurled millions of people into unemployment and destitution, fictitious capital today is growing even more than during the period that preceded the financial breakdown. There is a lot of talk on the possibility of a much more severe crisis, although no one knows when and where it will strike. And yet this threat and the disenchantment caused by the governments of hope and change has propelled the most conservative forces around the world – Bolsonaro in Brazil, Macri in Argentina, Trump in the US, the Brexit debate in the UK and the rise of the far right in Europe. The images of rebelliousness that inspired so many writings on emancipation seem to languish. That is why we should take a moment to analyse what has been happening in the discussions of the left in the last thirty years. My argument is that the rise of democracy as the goal of struggle is shifting the critique against capital and causing the loss of the emancipatory perspective.

In this sense, there is a tendency to minimise the analysis of contradictions within our experiments through avoiding a false dilemma between political commitment and the need to engage critically with the categories through which we analyse reality. I have tried to approach this issue in the present chapter through the concept of democracy and the example of OWS. The few debates that have emerged within the struggles for democracy have focused on emphasising the rupture with the notion of representation that characterises state democracy (including real, direct, radical or true).7 While the occupation of space, the radicalisation of society and the reinvention of radical democracy as a form of organisation, operation, decision-making and discussion against the state was impressive, the urgent need to analyse capital was never on the table or, rather, was reduced to a critique of neoliberalism and the financialisation of the economy, as occurred with Graeber’s interpretation of OWS.

The resignification of democracy as a positivisation of our experiments wipes the possibility of creating a society that is not based on the expansion of capital off the map. This movement of positivisation abstracts democracy from all relation with the capitalist mode of organisation and suppresses the analysis of its contradictions. That is, it creates a pure category of democracy, whose main political consequence is the loss of the emancipatory perspective. The same occurs with other concepts that try to account for the dynamics of anticapitalist struggles. I refer specifically to the concepts of autonomy and the commons that have caught the attention of many authors in the last years, such as Federici, and Hardt and Negri.8 I often find it hard to establish differences between radical democracy and the theories on autonomy and the commons. Most times it seems to me they are interchangeable, in the sense that they are pure categories or models of emancipation. While I acknowledge that these theoretical interpretations ultimately originate in the crisis of the idea of revolution and express the concern for – and importance of – creating knowledge from the experience of these struggles, I believe there are still problematic contradictions at their core, as I have already mentioned.

One of the results of the fetishism of the commodity is the separation of the political and the economic. It is possible that these anticapitalist experiments are breaking – or beginning to break – this separation. However, it remains unclear to what extent thinking in terms of a radical democracy (the rule of the people) entails a critique of capital in the way the term class struggle did.9 It might. Nevertheless, what is more likely is that, as we have witnessed during the last thirty years, democracy is the form in which political relations present themselves to us in capitalist society;10 the form in which, for a moment, the exploited and the exploiters appear to be one and the same but are not, in the words of the Zapatistas. The equality that democracy offers is the abstraction of inequality. ‘Democracy, they say, is the rule of the people. But in capitalism there is no people, only classes’ (Pannekoek 1969: 136). The drive towards emancipation that shines through the experiences of horizontality and rebelliousness is not indicative of a straight road from democracy to emancipation. To what extent, therefore, does democracy contribute to the critique of the class divisions of this society, where the capitalist mode of production prevails? And, if it doesn’t, to what extent does it make us perpetuate the ‘perverse coexistence of the exploiters and the exploited’? Is it possible to think of radical democracy as a form of class struggle? To imagine an emancipated society is to imagine a classless society beyond democracy.

Boron, A. (2000) Tras el Búho de Minerva. Mercado contra democracia en el capitalismo de fin de siglo (Following Minerva’s Owl: The Market Against Democracy at End-of-the-Century Capitalism), Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Borón, A. (2001) ‘La Selva y la Polis, Interrogantes en torno a la teoría política del zapatismo’ (‘The Jungle and the Polis: Questions on the Political Theory of Zapatismo’), Revista Chiapas 12, ERA-IIEc, Mexico.
Clinical Wasteman (2012) ‘No Interest But the Interest of Breathing’, Mute 3(3),
Conway, J. and Singh, J. (2011) ‘Radical Democracy in Global Perspective: Notes from the Pluriverse’, Third World Quarterly 32(4): 689–706.
Day, R. (2005) Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, London: Pluto Press.
Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, DiEM-25,
González Cruz, E. (2018) De la Revolución a la Democracia (From Revolution to Democracy), ICSyH ‘Alfonso Vélez Pliego’, Puebla, Mexico.
Graeber, D. (2013) Somos el 99%. Una historia, una crisis, un movimiento (The Demcoracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement), Madrid: Capitán Swing Libros.
Graeber, D. (2014) Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York: Melville House.
Grollios, V. (2017) Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition, New York: Routledge.
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Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin.
Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Holloway, J. (2019) We are the Crisis of Capital, San Francisco: PM Press.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso.
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Meiksins Wood, E. (2000) Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Ross, K. (2015) Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London: Verso.
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Sitrin, M. and Azzelini, D. (2014) They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy, London: Verso.
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  • 1This chapter includes some of the main ideas of my doctoral thesis (González Cruz 2018). Many thanks to Ana C. Dinerstein, John Holloway and Panagiotis Doulos for their detailed reading, observations on and critique of a draft version of this text.
  • 2The publication of this book opened up a powerful debate in Latin America on the state and its relation to struggles (see Borón 2000, 2001). However, further on, Laclau supported the government of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003–7).
  • 3Holloway argues that the category of Fordism had the advantage of calling attention to the way everyday activity was organised: massive production, relatively high salaries and a welfare state. On the contrary, the category of financialisation refers mostly to the precarisation of labour, the absence of the welfare state and the expansion of fictitious capital. While these categories are analytical tools, they invite us to section capitalism ‘as one of a series of modes of regulation … as a series of restructurings or syntheses or closures’, that is, they naturalise capitalism and avoid understanding where its crisis lies (Holloway 2019: 221).
  • 4What did they refer to by social fabric? It can only be capitalist relations.
  • 5In relation to the dissolution of identities between communists and anarchists in the Paris Commune, see Ross 2015. The preservation of this division has had fatal consequences for anticapitalist struggle.
  • 6On cracks and their implications, see Holloway 2010.
  • 7On this, see Graeber 2013.
  • 8Let us recall the work that Hardt and Negri co-authored, in which they conclude that democracy is the mode of organisation of the collective will of the multitude. Or the version of the commons to which Silvia Federici, amongst others, has dedicated her work in the past years. In Federici, particularly, we find a concept of the commons that tends to evoke a world that is not dominated by the individualism or rational pursuit of self-interest that characterises capitalist social relations; that is, a world based on horizontal relations grounded on cooperation, mutual care and inclusive democracy.
  • 9I believe that texts such as those by Vasilis Grollios (2017) or Richard Gunn (2017), which make reference to the relation between negativity and democracy, are important contributions, but there is no space here for a more in-depth review.
  • 10Even more conservative and liberal theorists are aware of the dangers involved in the financialisation of the economy, or, more precisely, the dangers of the totalisation of the logic of value. In this sense, they struggle to revitalise democracy and respect for public spaces in order to preserve the social fabric. Theorists such as Martin Wolf (2014), for example, acknowledge the importance of a certain level of wealth distribution and a democracy that is legitimised in the eyes of society for the stability of capitalism.



2 months ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 27, 2024

Explanatory note on, Ross, K. (2015) Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London: Verso:

imaginary (plural imaginaries)
(sociology) The set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole. [from c. 1975]