Sophie Molyneux | What is to be done? At least something?

By Sophie Molyneux

A regular refrain at Praxis 3/13 discussing the Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution (2017) and Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda (updated March 9 2017) was that the chosen texts were simplistic and incomplete.

I consider these fair accusations. Neither ‘guide’ leads the readers to a clear destination. The Bernie Sanders Guide maps out a series of policies that might improve certain crippling inequalities that plague the American political and social system. In this respect, Senator Sanders is better at talking about a destination (though a patchily sketched one). But he gives no real instruction on how to get there. The Indivisible guide does not attempt at all to draw a future ideal to work towards. It notes a broad aspiration towards a society of “inclusion, tolerance and fairness” but accepts that the publication is promoting only a defensive strategy rather than articulating any alternate positive agenda (7).

So as texts designed to enhance the comprehension of critical goals, to understand the dynamics at work in societies or the world more broadly, of articulating steps that might be productive of real change, they are inadequate. However, as texts designed to enhance the people’s desire to be critically aware, as a starter pack on issues that should spark a moral and political outrage and encourage people to be conscious members of the society, they do good work.

Room is left for people to form their own ideals, to identify their own enemies and to work towards their variegated ends. The texts are simply a call to action, a demonstration of how narrow a focus you can take (Bernie Sanders Guide) or how even small actions may count (Indivisible). They give the reader reassurance that action matters and leave us with discretion to determine our own priorities within that space.  In this respect, I think the texts have some similarity to Now by the Invisible Committee (2017).  The 3/13 pieces talk of banding together to make change but all the texts (including Now) suggest there is no one course of action that will answer all the problems that critical thought identifies. Rather it lies with each individual to resist and act. The Indivisible guide instructs readers to “use it however you see fit” (2). Bernie Sanders dedicates his guide to a simple cause: “What this book is about is converting that idealism and generosity of spirit into political activity” (v).

I don’t want to abandon the mission of critical thought or suggest that there is no value to a unifying vision. The flaws in and narrowness of these texts are not to be applauded. But in my view, the incompleteness and imperfections of these books do not make them bad guides to praxis. They are simple and accessible and thereby productive of external action.

Perhaps praxis is entirely different from critical thought. Thought is more mutable and adaptive, constantly revising to incorporate unexpected exigencies and improved knowledge, perfecting itself. I guess that praxis requires greater public commitment to a position (a physical step one way or the other) that might well prove to be wrong, will be correctly criticised, but nonetheless begets action. So perhaps the imperfections in suggestions of praxis need to be accepted and digested and their lessons followed anyway.

I am hoping this can be done in a manner that is not simply thoughtless action but is constantly referring to and intersecting with critical thought and ends up more akin to the following path that Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy describes:

I was on my way to mother… But there was always present to my mind, which was still working, if laboriously, the need to turn, to keep on turning, and every three or four jerks I altered course, which permitted me to describe, if not a circle, at least a great polygon, perfection is not of this world, and to hope that I was going forward in a straight line, in spite of everything, day and night, towards my mother.[1]

Conscious that a right step cannot be taken, perhaps even a halting, sometimes circular movement is better than stillness.

If that is taken as tentatively true, and the books are treated as genuinely useful, what do they suggest we do? There are three themes that emerged from the discussion at Praxis 3/13:

  1. Citizenship carries responsibilities so don’t flag
  2. Remember the value of hope and of rejecting cynicism
  3. Form strategic partnerships to participate

The first point is the most obvious lesson from the texts. Each asks above all for readers to participate in the political process and to respond publicly to policies they care about, to lend their voices to the debate. Disillusionment is not an adequate resting place. As Professor Amna Akbar said, the request is for more than a click here, it is for participation in the collective process. The value of this should go without saying but, as Professor Brandon Terry noted, that is not always true. Some people are so beleaguered by their circumstances — poverty, inequality, ostracism, ill-health, violence, over-work, responsibilities to care for others — that seeing themselves as political actors is almost impossible. So the request for vigilance and activity cannot be lightly made. But, to drive home the importance of it, I include two quotes that struck me. The first is included in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, the second is a summary by Justice Ginsburg of Justice Brandeis’ evolving view on the expansion of the franchise:

Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature.[2]

No class or section of the community is so wise or just, he came to see, that it can safely be trusted to govern without the participation of other classes or sections.[3]

The Bernie Sanders Guide’s identification of certain wrongdoers and the Indivisible guide’s script for a telephone call with a local representative have, therefore, great value in starting the dialogue and showing the small steps that can be taken to take part in this process.

The second lesson — rejecting cynicism and giving space to hope — was kicked off by Professor Amna Akbar when she noted at the start of her discussion that, partly at the request of Professor Harcourt, she would be focusing on what was productive about the texts.  This attempt to see the best and to hope for a better future is vital to the maintenance of energy for the work required by the first step.  As Professor Brandon Terry said, it is difficult to build a mass movement in an environment of “nihilism and totalising pessimism”. Although a claim that one is better than the political mire, that there are certain principles that simply will not be compromised, leaves the possibility of disappointment, without at least seeking this, we would seem to be left with very little to work towards. With an acceptance of duplicity, deceit, decadence, self-interest as the governing principles in our political and social system then we could barely be surprised with each step further away from social equality. Professor Adam Tooze said the concomitant of hope was hypocrisy but that, given the choice between hope and cynicism, he would choose hypocrisy any day. It was a question, in his view, of what you have to lie to yourself about. A time, perhaps, for magical thinking.

Finally, one of the most powerful suggestions made by both texts was to join organisations, to band together to work with others to make change. Professor Akbar spoke of how the books made her wonder whether forming mass was essential to praxis and how, having participated in mass mobilisations, she felt stimulated and effective in a way she had not before. She said universities tend to bestow an individualised mandate that was insulating.  Professor Terry too said that part of the disciplinary decadence of academia was evading the question of what was to be done and he too said there was real value in participation in actual movements. He referred to the power of African-American political thought having been born of struggle and therefore being more conscious of and productive to giving revolutionary guidance. This banding together does not necessitate a sublimation of individual will to that of a group (and Professor Terry spoke of the continuing value of polarisation in certain areas) but it recognises that there is strength in numbers and provides opportunities to participation in political processes. Strategic alliances with those people or groups or with overlapping interests is a lesson to be learned. This sense that mass matters, that lived experience matters and that context matters was echoed in Professor Tooze’s discussion of the need for the United States of America to look outside its geographic boundaries and consider itself part of a region dealing with related ecological, political and social goals. There is no need to abandon yourself but finding allies and working together is important as, axiomatically, you can do more. And doing things, presumably, is a fundamental requirement of praxis.

 

[1] Samuel Beckett, Molloy 84 (Grove Press, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) (1955).

[2] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington (Jan. 16, 1787) quoted by W. David Stedman and La Vaughn G. Lewis, Ageless Constitution: The Responsibility of Citizens (1987), https://nccs.net/blogs/our-ageless-constitution/the-responsibility-of-citizens.

[3] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, Address at Brandeis University: Lessons learned from Louis D Brandeis (Jan. 28, 2016), http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2016/january/ginsburg-remarks.html.

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