“Imagine” by John Lennon is one of the most beloved songs ever composed, an ode to the ideals peace and human brotherhood. From a purely song writing standpoint, it is the perfect combination of simplicity, sentimentality, and a censer plea for world peace. The music has a light, quiet, dreamy feel that sets the backdrop for the lyrics. The magic of comes from the lyrics, that actively engage you to imagine John Lennon’s dream utopia we’re all expected to agree is wonderful, beautiful, and at the very at least accept as an ideal to strive for. “A more perfect union” in many people’s minds equals “Imagine all the people living in peace.”
Course the song’s overt politics views is not without detractors, the most infamous being Mark Chapman, the man who shot and killed John Lennon. Mark felt John was a phoney for only imagining a possession-less existence, yet was living the life of a typical millionaire. Let’s not forget John originally moved from the U.K. to the U.S.A. to avoid high taxes. The phrase “champagne socialist” exist for a reason. Lets make good on John’s insistence, and try to picture the dream world he paints, and along the why I’ll demonstrate why it is more like a nightmare. Lets start with the first verse:
“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…”
Right out the gate, pure atheism. I will give John credit for not beating around the bush, as it saves “Imagine” from being a sappy monstrosity like “We are the World.” While the focus is on the Judeo-Christian view of things, the “above us only sky” part implies a pure materialism. A less delicate way of putting it would have been “in you only flesh and bones.” Imagine no reincarnation, magic induced immortality, nirvana… Just die, do not pass go. “Imagine all the people, livin’ for today”, with no regard for the here after. Lets me honest here, most people, including those who do believe in a hell below, or their tradition’s equivalence, mostly live for the here and now. If people didn’t, there wouldn’t be “born again” Christians. If you really wonder what a world full of people, who do not believe in any higher being or power, and just “live for today” would be like, just take Williamsburg and other hipster neighbourhoods and times them by a billion. A world of hipsters, is that really what you want?
What strikes me the most is how unambitious and impotent “Living for today” sounds. Compare to what Trotsky spoke of, a new Soviet Man: “… his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.” Lot sexier than just “living for today.” People may see “living for today” as alluding to Marx’s famous quote about being a cattle rancher, a hunter, a fishermen and a literary critic all in the same day, but even that has a certain aristocratic tone to it. The quote sounds like something the upper class characters in an Oscar Wilde play would do on vacation in the English country side. “Living for today” brings to mind video games and “Lord of the Rings” marathon with friends, or doing molly at a rave. In other words fun, but cheap thrill activities. And if you were hoping for higher goals to give you some sort of meaning and weight to your life, besides hedonistic pleasure and stimulation, like a nationalist or political cause…
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…”
While John directly mentions countries, I think he means any sort of political organization, whilst implying national/ethnic distinction (“…and the world will live as one”). So no telling, or insisting how, or in what way, or with whom, others should “live for today.” What will we internet denizen do? What would anybody be doing outside of eating, fucking, and watching TV for that matter? I can understand not having the modern form of the nation-state. But nothing worth fighting or dying for? Then what meaning is their to living? You’ve already established that there isn’t gigantic loving sky daddy, or anything outside the material to justify man’s existence, and even felt it necessary to reiterate “And no religion too.” “Living for today” and “living life in peace” lacks any context, any higher propose, unless you consider “living for something other than today” and “living life in conflict” so terrible that it justifies the previous two. “Peace” from what, to do what? Oh right, peace so we can engage in an endless orgy of meaningless pleasure and stimulation. And inventing of new values, new moralities within these bands of restriction would be pointless, and may cause arguments and division, subverting the holy commandment of Peace. Oh wait, I thought we did away with that dumb religion nonsense.
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…”
The fact this is the verse that causes the most controversy tells you something about American society then and now. I understand when this song was first released, we were in the depths of the cold war, and the call for ending private property (or any kind of possession for that matter, something even anarchist don’t do) along with atheistic themes caused people to see commie red. But a meaningless world of common, or private property, is still meaningless. I personally prefer rights to buy/sell things as I please, but if your ideal world is one where people don’t feel the need to claim things and aren’t greedy, so be it. But that idea hinges on “the brotherhood of man” being worth sharing with. Why should I share to the rest of humanity, when the world is just full of people with no higher aspirations than peace, pleasure, and sharing their stuff with me. I’m glad they share with me, but what makes humanity so special? Why not literally share the World? Animals need food and shelter. Its not like a raccoon is that much different from a person in John’s world. Sorry everybody, I gave all of the year’s harvest to ducks and deer. They looked like they really needed it.
I honestly think the most disturbing thing about this verse, is what happens when you remove it. Maybe filling it in with a guitar, a harmonica solo, or a good haunting hum. The overall ideology would indistinguishable from extreme forms of libertarianism like anarcho-capitalism. Lets see: no countries, no warfare, people living solely for consumption and production? Imagine all the market activity! The strong atheist bend makes me think of Stefan Molyneux, since he seems to make material atheism central to his philosophy. Now that I look at the Freedommainradio logo….
Imagine all the people, not being spanked
Finally, the song ends with the chorus:
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
Well John certainly was not the only one. I say “was” because the idea of trying to reach “World Peace” has become something of a dated cliche.
It’s easy if you try
That clip probably dates back to the mid 90’s, when “The Simpsons” were still watchable. How often do you hear the phrase “World Peace” or the world “Living as one?” I’ve heard the phrase “Global Village”, but I only see it on the back of world folk albums aimed at SWPLs. My guess is this kind of lovey-dovey rhetoric has died down because people actually want something to fight for. The big motivators of social movements are mandaean good verses evil conflicts. Just checkout tumblr. How many SJW blogs say “hey, we all need to come together and work together for a brighter tomorrow.” You’re more likely to see firebrand rants against MRAs, the Koch brothers, the 1%, and straight white males.
So in summary, in the imagined world we have here, human evolution and development has no more significance than a pebble rolling down a hill. From the plains of Africa as hunter gatherers, to spread all over the world, going through many civilizations over many centuries, waging war, inventing new technology, coming up with more sophisticated societies, until finally, humanity reaches its peak. It forsakes fighting and war, religion and superstition, the idea of territory and countries, races and nations, to come together and… History ends like that. Progress has gone as far as it can go, just short of alien contact. Humanity raised itself from primitive existence, to what amounts to a different form of primitive existence. We live for no higher ideals than the moment, we live for today. The only moral values is peace and not causing conflict or fighting, not that there is anything worth fighting for anyway. Travel for anything other than natural beauty is redundant, since we’re all just “human” with one single human culture. In the end, we become no better than pigs, rolling in our own shit and filth, crawling around in dirt, always having dirt to play in.