Clayton Raithel | Bernie Sanders, the Critical Theorist

By Clayton Raithel

I was drawn to one passage in particular in Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution, in which Sanders discusses the concept of usury:

The Bible, and virtually every major religion on earth, has a term for this practice. It’s called “usury.” In The Divine Comedy, Dante reserved a special place in the seventh circle of hell for people who charged usurious interest rates. Today, we don’t need the hellfire, the plains of burning sand, or the rivers of burning blood, but we do need a national usury law that caps interests rates on credit cards and consumer loans at 15 percent. (71)

Sanders suggests – whether in an effort to momentarily adopt a more lighthearted tone or not – that we do not need the threat of eternal damnation to produce some substantive change in our financial regulatory system. And yet, one wonders: isn’t that precisely what we need?

Bernard Harcourt writes in his introduction to this week’s readings that “From a critical perspective, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Sanders’ book is that he does not really deploy notions of ideology or false consciousness. Throughout the narrative, Sanders emphasizes that we basically all know what is going on.” I was struck by this dimension of Sanders’ book as well, and it is this dimension that makes the passage I quoted above seem noteworthy.

Indeed, to many on the left, the idea that facts (meaning here understandings of “what is going on”: facts about systematic economic domination by large corporations, about the destruction of the earth due to the lack of adequate policies concerning climate change, about the necessity of moving to a single-payer healthcare system, etc.) fail to move those on the center and the left is baffling at best and intolerable at worst. In light of our failure to act in response to such facts, some other motivating force seems necessary. Perhaps, then, we would do better with hellfire, burning sand, and rivers of blood. The facts just aren’t doing enough work.

Given his critical stance toward the political right and economic elites, it is striking that Sanders relies so uncritically on the factual data provided by various scientists (of the natural, political, and social sort) and economists to reinforce his points. This is particularly interesting if we remember how critical the early Frankfurt school was of various forms of scientific positivism. Horkheimer, for example, was concerned that most “observational” and “empirical” methods of science seem “objective” and “neutral,” when such methods in fact are the product of a variety of social and discursive processes (and therefore, anything but neutral). In “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” for instance, Horkheimer insists that empiricism itself, despite its reliance on new data to update accepted theories, still does not tend to examine its own process of knowledge production, and for that reason resembles a kind of dogmatism, “an unhistorical and uncritical conception of knowledge” (148). But Horkheimer held on to this view primarily because he was worried about the social effects of an uncritical acceptance of scientific modes of explanation. He worried that our imaginative possibilities of the future would be rendered impotent by a reliance on scientific theories that reduce human subjectivity to a form of equation. In light of such concerns, he urged us to look for a social theory that involves an emancipatory mode of thinking before engaging in action.[1]

Insofar as Sanders relies upon widely agreed upon (at least, within the world of academia) “data,” he is no critical theorist in the traditional sense. Despite this, however, his orientation is indeed critical.

How can it be so?

Because it suggests that this data – which is produced in staggering amounts throughout the text – is largely going unobserved or ignored by those in power. To my mind, this is the key to thinking of Sanders as someone who can fit in the reading list for a seminar series on praxis in the critical sense of the term. Contrary to Horkheimer, who worried about the deflationary consequences of sociological and scientific findings in the sense described above, Sanders uses such findings as an impetus for thinking about imaginative futures (it is a political revolution, after all) and the social action that is required for the realization of those futures. While “we” (the progressive left who Sanders seems to be speaking to) do not suffer from a form of false consciousness with respect to our identification of the problems of the day, we are nevertheless ruled by those who fail to recognize our own recognition of the importance of those facts. It is this willful ignorance and destruction of the facts by those in power that constitutes our plight, not our own oppressive ideologies. This point, of course, will echo the discussion from Praxis 1/13, in which we discussed Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics.”

            Do we – the we whom Sanders envisions as his readers – suffer from a different form of false consciousness, however? I believe we might, particularly those of us in academia or with academic aspirations. For one idea that both Harcourt and Amna Akbar note in their posts is the sense that Sanders makes it so easy to imagine creating forms of associational power and challenging the status quo. Akbar notes her initial suspicion of such “over-simplistic” prescriptions made by Sanders and Indivisible.

Perhaps, though, the false consciousness operating today is one that critical theorists have created for themselves. In other words: what if it really is as easy as Sanders and Indivisible make it? What if the real trouble is not a matter of having the right social theory or a sophisticated commentary on the moment at all? The process of lifting the veil may then reveal that the veil itself was a myth all along, a myth blinding us from taking the concrete (and revolutionary!) actions prescribed by Sanders. The suspicion we initially feel when reading about a practical, reformist (and yet revolutionary!) strategy for change may itself be a form of ideology that critical theorists must rid themselves of in order to achieve the next stage of emancipation. If we take this idea seriously, then simple actions of the sort that Sanders and Indivisible recommend would be the answer to all our critical praxis woes.

Performing those simple and concrete actions may indeed require us to downplay the resistance we have to Sanders’ rather simplistic diagnosis of the problems we face (a repeated refrain throughout the text, for example, is “that is absurd”). It also may require us to put on hold our quest to unmask forms of dominative power lingering behind more forms of dominative power lingering behind even more forms of dominative power, as a Foucauldian strategy might require. For one consequence of accepting the Sanders’ platform is to say, “I accept this data as fact, and believe that social policies must be put in place to address it.” We might worry that doing so entails a risk – what if the very forms of knowledge Sanders is appealing to in order to make his case are implicated in problematic power structures? Well, no doubt they are. But we ought to have another question on our mind, too: who benefits if we remain suspicious of the program put forward by Sanders and Indivisible? Who benefits if we decide to critique in the academy, rather than act outside it? If the answer to those questions is that the party in power benefits from our skepticism (and therefore, our inability to act, or to create any form of associational/organizational power), then I think we ought to rethink our skepticism.

Nevertheless, I remain troubled by the initial problem I raised in this post: is the fact that “we basically all know what is going on” enough for us to make action possible? Is it really true that we have no need for the seventh circle of hell, and all the deterrents it may provide? Perhaps just to ask this question is to betray my inability to heed my own advice (and Sanders’ advice, for that matter) that we ought to stop theorizing and start acting. No: Sanders uses language on a more forceful register than that. He uses the word “must” throughout, as in the final two sentences of the book: “We must insist on transparency in government by holding each and every elected official accountable. When we are disappointed by how they represent us, we must work to replace them” (205). Why must we? The answer seems obvious. But if it is obvious, why do we have such a hard time doing it?

Works Cited

Horkheimer, Max. “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics.” In Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Translated by Matthew O’Connell and others. New York: Continuum Publishing, 2002. 132-187.

Sanders, Bernie. Guide to Political Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 2017.   

Notes

[1] Horkheimer suggests that art may be one place to look for such emancipatory patterns of thought. See Max Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell and others (New York: Continuum Publishing, 2002), 273-290.

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