Bernard E. Harcourt | To Change the World

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“But beyond all this must come the Spirit—the Will to Human Brotherhood of all Colors, Races, and Creeds; the Wanting of the Wants of All. Perhaps the finest contribution of current Socialism to the world is neither its light nor its dogma, but the idea back of its one mighty word—Comrade!”

— W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920), p. 92

The COVID-19 pandemic hit us all, Critique 13/13 included, like a Mack truck. Only a few days earlier, we were packing ourselves like sardines into the Maison Française, gathering over a hundred guests into that narrow hall, cheek-to-cheek, to discuss Hannah Arendt, then traveling to Yale to meet even more colleagues to dialogue and break bread over Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. A few days later, we were isolating and confining ourselves, in solitary, under stay-at-home orders to cease all physical contact. We had become digital pods in virtual vacuums.

Many of us took on new roles and invented new ways of trying to be helpful and assist others in need. Some of us fell ill and struggled through the pain and fever. Others lost friends or family to the virus and had to suffer alone, almost in silence. The fear of contaminating others—especially the most vulnerable, the elderly, the incarcerated, those at risk—prevented many of us from volunteering in the ways we had known before and forced us to become creative.

The pandemic quickly reaffirmed everything we know about our society and its inequalities, injustices, and failures. It confirmed everything we suspected about precarity and the lack of universal health care, about who is truly vulnerable in our society, about the hidden interests of our leaders. We knew all that. The pandemic just confirmed it—as the Great Recession of 2008 had years before.

The pandemic also forced us to confront what we had been doing before. Our calendars wiped clean, many of us had to reckon with our previous engagements and an entirely new way of being. Forced to stay inside, in isolation, we had no choice but to reflect on what we would have done with our time—and what meaning it all had.

That experience was, for me, disorienting. I quickly realized that I had gotten caught up in a tangle of obligations that really did not matter much. I had gotten bogged down in a morass of commitments. I was entangled in webs of distraction. I had gone down the wrong paths. I had lost track of the single most important objective: to change society. I needed to return, once and for all, and for the rest of time, to the single goal of social transformation—of revolutionary change.

The task now, as I see it, is to single-mindedly and tenaciously, like a laser, keep my eyes on the prize: revolutionizing our unequal and unjust society. This comes at a bad time, you might say. Perhaps if we were in the 1960s, surrounded by Fanon, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, it would be easier to imagine the possibility of a revolution of our society. But it is so hard today, when the only radicals out there are Trump, Bolsonaro, Bannon, and their armies of fascist, gun-toting, fringe militants. Occupy Wall Street was an inspiration, and so was #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock; but those feel like historical artifacts now, a far cry from the more active, White Supremacist militia agitating around the country.

My goal now, more explicitly than ever, is to identify, imagine, or reimagine the revolution: what must it look like today and how will it succeed in bringing about a more just and equal society?

After the session of Critique 5/13 with Étienne Balibar, I concluded that I needed to reread Capital and update Balibar and Althusser’s Reading Capital to better grasp the digital, neoliberal form of advanced capitalism within which we live today. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, I returned to Marx’s Capital and reread carefully the first volume and more quickly volumes two and three. The intensity, rigor, and method of the writing was stunning. The incremental, step-by-step construction of the argument, the clarity of the definition of terms and concepts—the volumes were so imposing.

But I left the three volumes feeling that Marx had missed the most important element in the capitalist process: the government and the way in which, through taxpayer handouts, our government facilitates the accumulation of wealth by allowing large capital to gorge itself in good times and get bailed out in bad. The crises of accumulation today do not reflect the increasing exploitation of labor only, but even more the corruption of our governments beholden to capital. The very term “capitalism,” which ironically was coined by socialists and critics of capitalism, is a misnomer and attributes way too much power to immaterial capital itself. The term is not right. We live today, in a country like the United States, not in an economic regime of “capitalism” but rather in a political regime of “tournament” or “spoils” maintained by a police state apparatus. It is the pirate government of profiteering—not just the management’s exploitation of the working class—that produces increasing inequality. And it lectures us about “individual responsibility” all the time, while showering the wealthy with its largesse.

Someone will have to write those four volumes, I am not sure that I will have the time or that I could do it and avoid getting tangled in other distractions. As I said, now I must keep my eyes on the prize. Everything I do, everything I write, every action I take must now pursue the mission of revolutionizing our society.

Reading our final text, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Darkwater, affirmed this for me. The resoluteness of his writing, the certainty of his ideas, the clarity of his vision, Du Bois leaves us with no doubt about the conjuncture (circa 1919) and what was to be done, perhaps even today:

If the attitude of the European and American worlds is in the future going to be based essentially upon the same policies as in the past, then there is but one thing for the trained man of darker blood to do and that is definitely and as openly as possible to organize his world for war against Europe. (34)

Today, “Europe” stands in for all the practices of exploitation, racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression associated with our governing political regime of tournament maintained by the police state.

Du Bois put much of his faith in education. Speaking of persons of color first, Du Bois wrote (and note how ominously he prefigured our current carceral state): “We bury genius; we send it to jail; we ridicule and mock it, while we send mediocrity and idiocy to college, gilded and crowned.” (127, emphasis added) He militated for education for all, not just whites or the wealthy. “All children are the children of all and not of individuals and families and races,” he insisted. “The whole generation must be trained and guided and out of it as out of a huge reservoir must be lifted all genius, talent, and intelligence to serve all the world.” (127)

Yes, education must be a priority—critical education that is. But much more is needed now. It is time for a revolution in how we govern ourselves and others.

— Bernard E. Harcourt, New York City, April 27, 2020