Cover image for Collective Dreams: Political Imagination and Community By Keally D. McBride

Collective Dreams

Political Imagination and Community

Keally D. McBride


$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02689-3

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168 pages
6" × 9"

Collective Dreams

Political Imagination and Community

Keally D. McBride

“Precisely because we cherish the ideal of community we need to follow McBride in challenging and refining it. She offers a searching examination of the unacknowledged complexities and seductions of the concept of community—with incisive critiques of many strands of political theory. The discussion is set in an enlarged and enriched frame that situates community in relation to the state and to consumer culture.”


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  • Table of Contents
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How do we go about imagining different and better worlds for ourselves? Collective Dreams looks at ideals of community, frequently embraced as the basis for reform across the political spectrum, as the predominant form of political imagination in America today. Examining how these ideals circulate without having much real impact on social change provides an opportunity to explore the difficulties of practicing critical theory in a capitalist society.

Different chapters investigate how ideals of community intersect with conceptions of self and identity, family, the public sphere and civil society, and the state, situating community at the core of the most contested political and social arenas of our time. Ideals of community also influence how we evaluate, choose, and build the spaces in which we live, as the author’s investigations of Celebration, Florida, and of West Philadelphia show.Following in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, Keally McBride reveals how consumer culture affects our collective experience of community as well as our ability to imagine alternative political and social orders.

Taking ideals of community as a case study, Collective Dreams also explores the structure and function of political imagination to answer the following questions: What do these oppositional ideals reveal about our current political and social experiences? How is the way we imagine alternative communities nonetheless influenced by capitalism, liberalism, and individualism? How can these ideals of community be used more effectively to create social change?

“Precisely because we cherish the ideal of community we need to follow McBride in challenging and refining it. She offers a searching examination of the unacknowledged complexities and seductions of the concept of community—with incisive critiques of many strands of political theory. The discussion is set in an enlarged and enriched frame that situates community in relation to the state and to consumer culture.”
“[McBride] offers subtle judgments and useful provocations and, in the end, this book emerges as an important resource for everyone who values the possibilities of community, but wishes to remain critical of the concept’s many traps and seductions. . . . Collective Dreams creatively and judiciously moves the discussion of community in a constructive direction.”

Keally D. McBride is Senior Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Writing and the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania




1. The Politics of Imagining Communities

2. A Room Full Of Mirrors: Community and the Promise of Identity

3. Habits of the Hearth: Families and Politics in Theory and Practice

4. Citizens Without States? Bringing Community into Institutions

5. Consuming Community

6. Utopian Vision as Commodity Fetish: Social Imagineering in Postmodern Capitalism

7. Community in Practice

Works Cited



This is a book about imagining a better world. While I was growing up, I moved every year. I was a spectator of the world around me, but everyone else looked as though he or she were a participant. I assumed that if only I was one of them, I would feel at home, I would belong. Like me, many people lament the fact that they have never felt part of a “real community.” Some people forget about this longing, others spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how, or where, they might feel at home in the world. This rootlessness is all too often blamed upon the technological mobility of modernism. But in looking at the tradition of political theory, we find that fostering communal life was a primary goal even in the earliest works of the tradition. Community life has always figured prominently in ideal political orders.

Delineating how we imagine community today is an urgent project. Ideals of community express a virtually universal longing for humane sociality on the most basic level. The desire for belonging is the impetus behind a great deal of political imagination. Somehow, though, these critiques—these acts of political imagination—become neutralized. My goal is to look at community as both a predominant form of political imagination today and a response to liberal individualism and capitalism. On one level, community is assumed to be an alternative to these social orders. But it is facile to think that imagination can exist untouched by the circumstances that produce it. A purely oppositional imagination is impossible. Imagination is frequently about desire, specifically desire for something that is not immediately evident. I want to explore the tension between political reality and political possibility revealed by the way we imagine community. Following in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, Collective Dreams studies the effects of culture on consciousness and the political quandaries that ensue.

Imagination itself, as opposed to its products, is generally not studied in political science. But it is our best tool for changing the world. Imagining is shaped by material and social circumstances. This is not to argue that imagination is somehow tainted or co-opted by society, as is suggested in the work of Herbert Marcuse (1964). My outlook is ultimately a more optimistic one than this. Imagination is best served when there is a productive interplay between possibility and actuality. To say that imagination is affected socially is to emphasize one of the preconditions of its power. However, sometimes imagination does become neutralized or captured by social circumstances. Therefore, I include a study of how consumer capitalism shapes, and can frustrate, imagination.

Ideals of community provide my case study of political imagination because many people commonly point to community as an aspect of their life that is either missing or undernourished. Community is also important politically in the United States as it has guided recent attempts to reform both social and political institutions: community sentencing, community policing, and faith-based initiatives are just a few prominent examples. Ideals of community also serve as guides for how we build new environments and evaluate and repair old ones. Urban planners and suburban developers are preoccupied with planned communities, community development, and community restoration. Community seems to be an ascendant concept at this historic juncture. I offer different explanations throughout the book as to how ideals of community respond to identity politics, capitalism, and liberalism.

As an ideal, community seems to be defined more as what we do not have rather than carrying any concrete attributes reflecting what we are a part of. Community is a word that is used frequently, and therefore apparently requires no definition or explanation. Just as (practically) no one demands elaboration when we refer to this country as democratic, very few would think to list the criteria that make it possible to refer to a place or group of people as a “community.” Yet asking what makes communities, and why they are currently considered important, can reveal much about how we view public life and politics in this country.

Looking at community in order to understand public life seems counterintuitive because community is frequently understood as an intimate, private sphere, as opposed to the public pursuit of politics. Community sounds like a welcome respite from the mechanisms of state, market, and bureaucracy. The understanding of community as the alternative to the impersonal modern world originated with Ferdinand Tönnies’s classic work, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1957). In this sense, then, the appearance of community in political rhetoric is a marker of disenchantment with politics and the public realm.

This oppositionality makes the concept of community attractive to those of all political persuasions. For example, the practice of community sentencing sounds good to those who see it as a way to get tough on crime and to those who want a more personalized form of justice alike. Justice can be meted out in the name of an injured community, or justice can be mandated in the interest of healing an injured community—of which the offender is a part. Community is imagined as specific, embedded, and particular, in opposition to the universalizing institutions of market and state.

Another characteristic that makes community a unique concept is that it implies intimate transcendence of self. Communities are both personal and interpersonal: they enable ways of being involved with others without losing what makes oneself distinct. In contrast, society or universalism emphasizes belonging at the expense of identity or particularity. Community becomes the ideal mediation between self and society, a socially embedded, yet particularized, location. However, this understanding of community rests upon Tönnies’s (1957) opposition of society and community. I contest this opposition of community with society, and suggest instead that how we attempt to delineate community and society reveals our understanding and experience of both.

After years of studying ideas and plans for communities, it is striking to see how varied they are and how central a role they play in many visions of politics. It is tempting to try to present a catalog of all the different ideas of community that are currently circulating. Gerard Delanty (2003) has recently done so, in an extremely comprehensive book, so here I will offer only a brief typological analysis to provide the background for the discussion that will follow.

Civic Community. Political theorists following in the tradition of Tocqueville argue that institutions of political liberalism need to be complemented with vigorous community activism in order to maintain democracy. Without concerted public participation, the institutions of representative democracy pursue their own interests. In order to maintain the democratic elements in liberalism and fight the centralization of power, the public needs to be informed, active, and easily mobilized to protect its interests. Benjamin Barber (1984, 1988, 1998) and Michael Sandel (1982, 1996a, 1996b) are two prominent advocates of this position, where community is seen as a crucial element in revitalizing political freedom and democratic government through public participation. Drawing on ancient political theory, they also argue that public life is inherently rewarding and that human existence is impoverished without the opportunity to shape one’s environment.

Communities of Resistance. This is the version of grassroots activism that follows in the tradition of Marxist collectivity. Organized local communities provide resistance to corporatism and globalism. While global capitalism and international organizations strip individuals and local communities of their particular traditions and identities, collectives band together to assert their rights and to maintain their different values in opposition to globalization. The language of community pervades contemporary activism—on both the right and left. The right, also hostile to government administration, though for different reasons, asserts community control as the alternative to government. Oftentimes this juxtaposition is adopted in academic work, as in Seyla Benhabib’s book The Claims of Culture, which positions local, particular communities in opposition to universal, global capitalism. She offers a vision of an ethical and equal globalization if we break down the antinomy and instead see ourselves as a gigantic “community of interdependence” (Benhabib 2002, 35–37). For Benhabib, enlarging the commitments and particularism implied by community to a global scope provides the corrective to universalism.

Communities of Difference. One outgrowth of identity politics is to recognize the importance of community for supporting a marginalized identity. Communities are emphasized to make visible and express the collective strength of a previously “unseen” population. In this school of thought, community is viewed as providing a political and expressive function, as in the works of Audre Lorde (1984) and Bernice Johnson Reagon (1983). The link between identity and politics is reflected in these ideas about community: communities are crafted together through action instead of “naturally” occurring. This view of community is now common in activist circles and everyday political activity, as well as academic work.

Naturalized Community. In contrast to the group above, theorists of this framework point to our natural inclination to form communities and suggest that communities exist before political action. It is the responsibility of politics to recognize and support already existing communities. To distinguish themselves from a variant of tribalism, these theorists emphasize that communities can be inclusive and heterogeneous. Mary Ann Glendon (1987, 1991, 1997), Philip Selznick (1992, 1995), and Amitai Etzioni (1990, 1993, 1996a, 1996b) propose that institutional shifts can help communities to flourish. They argue that increased social stability and personal fulfillment in the United States will result from more community-friendly policies and laws.

Communities of Particularism. Some feminist and critical race theorists have seized upon community as the corrective to liberal individualism. In contrast to the universal or neutral subject of political liberalism, communities recognize the particular characteristics and needs of their members. Arguing that universalism occludes the specific needs of different groups and maintains a scrim of neutrality that serves discrimination, theorists such as Anne Phillips (1993), Jane Flax (1987, 1993), and Iris Marion Young (1990, 1994, 1997) have looked at using community as an alternative medium for achieving political justice and citizenship. Communities are offered as substitutes for the impersonal institutions of democratic liberalism that have failed to create equality through universalism.

Hybrid Communities. This vision of community emphasizes the heterogeneity of both communities and the selves that are constructed within them. Combining the insights of naturalized and postmodern community ideals, this view posits a correspondence between hybrid communities and multiplicitous selves. Trinh T. Mihn-Ha (1989, 1991), Maria Lugones (1994), and Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) all articulate an alternative vision of communities that recognize our necessarily fragmented, evolving personal identities—situated on borderlands and constructed through difference. An emphasis upon difference and heterogeneity points to the politics of exclusion and oppositional identity construction that predominate political life. The goal is to have politics recognize both self and community as incomplete and evolving, allowing a true politics of difference to flourish.

Postmodern Communities. Largely in reaction to the idea of naturalized communities, William Connolly (1991), Jean-Luc Nancy (1991), Giorgio Agamben (1993), and William Corlett (1989) have argued for a view of communities as inherently agonistic and unsettled. Humans do create communities, but these communities fail and, indeed, should fail. “Complete” communities are attempts to shelter ourselves from difference, create a safe haven from politics, and provide for a confirmation of self. Similar to theorists of hybrid communities, this group emphasizes the socially constructed and always evolving nature of identity. But these theorists emphasize discord and disharmony in their vision of community more than its fragmentation. Here communities echo the struggle of politics and, in this sense, differ from the other theories of community I have outlined. Bonnie Honig (1993, 2001), Elizabeth Frazer (1999), and Frazer and Nicola Lacey (1993) make related arguments, arguing for an agonistic view of politics as opposed to a consensual one. These thinkers combine the presence of community with a combative view of politics, whereas frequently other thinkers offer community as the alternative to agonistic politics.

Why study how we imagine communities? Why not examine how we build them? Or why we don’t? I think the answer to these last two questions lies in the answer to the first one. What if the way we imagine communities prevents us from building them, or even serves as an alternative for doing so? Imagination does not always inspire or guarantee direct correspondence in reality. This does not mean it has somehow failed or is unimportant, however. Imagination can compensate for reality—here it is called fantasy. Or imagination can constitute reality, for example when an invented threat can create real defenses. Additionally, imagination can critique reality, as when we imagine that there are other ways to live our lives. Although I’ve just separated all three of these possibilities, in practice it is much more difficult to do so and these functions are not mutually exclusive.

This is why I am more interested in the effects of how we imagine community than in how we define it. As my mapping of ideas of community above suggests, there is strong disagreement about how community should properly be understood: universal or particular, exclusive or inclusive, traditional or progressive, constructed or essentialist? Rather than champion one definition over another, I suggest we focus on the fact that so many people utilize conceptions of community in their version of politics, whether it be traditional, progressive, radical, patriarchal, or feminist. The battle over whose definition of community is right will never end. But we can start to explain how and why community plays such a crucial function in American political discourse on right, left, margin, and center.

Surveying this list of possible conceptions of community, there are clear advantages and disadvantages in each way of imagining it. I do not favor one vision at the expense of all the rest, nor is it my intention to argue which version of community is “correct,” most practical, useful, liberatory, or appropriate. Rather, I am interested in how all of these visions try to remake the world through imagining alternatives. I bring three goals to conducting this study of ideals of community. The first is to articulate what these alternative ideals say about our current system. The second is to see how imagining change is influenced by the very conditions that produce the desire for change. The last is to examine why concepts of community have not been more effective in creating social change.

This study is also concerned with the importance and potential of imagination in politics generally. Imagination is a crucial yet underexplored aspect of politics that is situated in a particularly dynamic location. The first chapter of the book explicates this position more thoroughly, but here is a sketch of how I place imagination. On one continuum, imagination is situated between individual and society, meaning that it is something that is both socially influenced and experienced and articulated in different ways by different people. On a second continuum, imagination is placed between ideal and materiality. Imagination both resists and is influenced by the world as it currently exists. It sits at the point of intersection between individual freedom and social membership, possibility and actuality. This convergence makes imagination a potent political tool for both critique and change. Hence a conception of imagination as a tool, as well as a concern for community as an ideal, drives this discussion.

The first two chapters look at the political function of imagination and what happens when imagination becomes unmoored from the world. This is a particularly interesting question in the context of ideals of community. After all, if we live in a world without communities, how is it that we are to imagine them? Chapters 3 and 4 examine how ideals of community have been particularly attractive in attempting to reform the political institutions of liberalism. I argue that the characteristics of community as they are idealized make them rather unsuitable for achieving institutional reform, and suggest alternative ways that communities can change liberal institutions. Chapters 5 and 6 ask how the world influences imagination as well as how it may neutralize it. Here I am particularly interested in the fate of political imagination in an era of consumer capitalism. Commodity fetishism provides a unique obstacle for the realization of imagination that should be carefully considered. Finally, I conclude with an empirical study of a community to serve as a counterweight to the study of Celebration, Florida, the Disney-built community discussed in Chapter 5. A brief study of the elements of community at work in West Philadelphia serves to tie together theory and practice, imagination and materiality in my consideration of community.

William Connolly mused, “Perhaps a fruitful task for the political intellectual is to interrogate unconscious dimensions of the political imagination through which contemporary possibilities and impossibilities are delineated” (Connolly 1995, xxx). Looking into the ways we imagine community can demonstrate how we understand what is possible. Releasing the bonds upon imagination can help to create new dreams, and new worlds.

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