Thursday, 6 December 2007


John Lennon's song Imagine seems to have lasting popularity, and I heard it lovingly performed by someone else on Spanish television just recently. It has a nice tune. But, considering the lyrics, its popularity has always puzzled me.

He imagined a world without religions, without countries, and without possessions, and invited us to admire it. This is a highly revolutionary manifesto that I'd expect virtually everyone in the world to disagree with in one respect or another; and yet large numbers of people seem attracted by it. Are they actually listening to the words, I wonder?

Myself, I'd welcome a world without religions, but it obviously isn't going to happen any time soon. A world without countries is vaguely attractive in principle, though perhaps unworkable in practice. A world without possessions doesn't strike me as attractive even in principle; I'm a libertarian, not a communist.


Anon78 said...

I've always found this puzzling as well. I was recently walking down a street for example and was amazed to hear "Imagine" being played at some sort of outdoor sports lounge complete with 4 harleys lined up in front. It's particularly puzzling since Lennon himself made millions of dollars from his singing career, an option few of his "brotherhood" of men would have.

I can imagine three possibilities:

1) People *today* are mostly unaware of the song's contents, but people who lived during the sixties still remember it because of how it captured the zeitgeist of the 60s counterculture movement.

2) People are aware of the song's contents, and most people harbor a secret longing for atheism, anarchy, or communism. :-)

3) People don't actually want atheism, communism, and anarchy, yet still have a feeling that modern religion, consumerism, and government are lacking in important respects. For example, witness the recent catholic church scandals, or the shattering of Americans' confidence in government with Watergate and the Vietnam War.

David Friedman once suggested that there is some appeal to socialism: it supposes there is one good end and that everyone in the world ought to pursue that end. The real world is different, with scarcity, war, and conflicting ideas about how wealth should be used. Perhaps listening to music like this is an expression of this basic urge.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for your comment. I must admit it hadn't quite occurred to me that "no countries" implies anarchy, but I think you're right.

In principle, you could have world government without countries, but in practice a world government would surely retain countries as a matter of administrative subdivision.

However, the idea that "most people harbor a secret longing for atheism, anarchy, or communism" isn't enough. To endorse the song unreservedly, you'd have to have a longing for all three at once — as in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, as far as I remember.

Anon78 said...

Well if I had to guess I'd say option #3 is the most plausible, for two reasons. 1) Most people don't carefully analyze stuff they hear in songs anyway, so agreeing with the part about no religion say might be enough for an ordinary person to endorse the whole song. But even if you don't accept that, 2) I think that to some extent, partly real and partly imagined, government, religion, and capitalism reinforce each other. For example, Puritans in early America emphasized economic prosperity and discipline, and even today it's not possible for non-Christians to run for President in America (of course, H. Clinton, Obama, McCain, etc are all Christian! ). You can see a similar thing when the wackiest of the wacky like John Zerzan advocate eliminating religion, government, society, etc; there's this implicit notion that religion, government, writing, economics, science, etc all fall under the heading "civilization" and that getting rid of one isn't enough, one has to get rid of it all to make any meaningful difference. I even watched a speech recently where some crazy politician was advocating revolution, and although his critique was focused on getting rid of government, he summarized it with the (rather chilling) sentence, "Let's get rid of everything that exists and start over!"

in practice a world government would surely retain countries as a matter of administrative subdivision.

I suppose it depends out how you use the terms. Traditionally states and governments have been thought of as limited to contiguous geographical areas, although obviously there have been (short-lived?) exceptions with colonialism. You may be interested to learn that when Nozick was considering competing "private defense associations" in his famous book, he said that if the PDA's all cooperated with each other then the result would essentially be a kind of super-state. After all, if the individual countries (states, PDAs, etc) all extradite prisoners to each other and negotiate to enforce each other's laws, then practically that's not any different than one huge leviathan state.

And of course, purely hypothetically, if one particular state becomes influential enough so that most the others start to enforce its laws and adopt its rules, extradite prisoners there, and gradually become subjugated through direct military occupation one at a time, in the end how is that any different than a world-state? One could even call such a state a "superpower", or perhaps an empire. Purely hypothetically, of course...

Jonathan said...

I'm doubtful about your #3 because the song isn't proposing to modify religions, countries, or capitalism: it's proposing to junk them completely. I don't understand how the average American, for instance, can listen to the record at all without wanting to burn all copies.

Although I actually agree, at least in principle, with two verses out of three, overall the thing still sounds like the ravings of a drug-addled hippy, and I'd be embarrassed to sing it myself.

"It depends on how you use the terms."

Really? Surely a 'world government' is just a single government that governs the whole world. Seems quite straightforward to me. I was just suggesting that, as national governments normally divide their countries into smaller regions for administrative purposes, so a world government would do the same, and the major divisions may as well be called 'countries', whether or not they correspond to the old traditional countries of the world.

As to how a world government might come about, that's not really an interest of mine. I don't favour it and don't expect to see it happen. I suppose it could happen after another world war, if one part of the world remained relatively undamaged and able to take over the rest (the great future Empire of New Zealand!).