Amna A. Akbar | Gross Collective Action

By Amna A. Akbar

Our texts for this week, Bernie Sanders’s Guide to Political Revolution, and Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, represent much of what academics and leftists disdain about political work. They are crass, over-simplistic, not fully worked out. Does Bernie really think we can meaningfully regulate the banks in this neoliberal order? And in what universe does Indivisible think phone calls can meaningfully roll back the Trump agenda? As I read the texts, I found myself cringing and then, moments later, moved—literally. At the urging of Indivisible, still part way through the booklet, I signed up for the email lists of my congressional representatives in Ohio. Sherrod Brown, Democrat. Click. Subscribe. Rob Portman and Troy Balderson, Republicans. Click, click. Subscribe, subscribe.

The clicks got me thinking.

Academics don’t like to take political action. Praxis is, after all, an imperfect realm of activity. We pour unnameable hours into reading, mostly each other’s works, and getting our analysis just right. The (written) word is our currency and our marketplace: it is what we are rewarded for, by each other and by our institutions. Studying and extending the word, contradicting it, comparing and contrasting it, in our offices with an espresso. This is comfort. Really, it is luxury.

Doing requires compromise. Compromise seems vulgar. It is uncomfortable. You can change course but you cannot edit mid-action.

Praxis, to be effective, must be collective in nature. This is almost nightmarish. It is deprivation of how we know ourselves best, in command.

Praxis is counter-cultural, too. To act and think collectively—the hardest form of thinking is living politics—is to contradict the values of the neoliberal academy.

Leftists in the United States don’t much like praxis either. Many of us are suspicious of power. We haven’t inherited or built institutions we believe in. We are exemplars at dissent.

For many decades the realm of power has felt like a lost horizon. Until it comes into focus, we sharpen our knives of critique, ready to strike when someone does or says something critiqueable. We don’t like either party, let alone working with either party. We want to be pure in our politics and analysis. Unflinching critique is our main tool, so we are excellent at taking things down. All of this maladjusts us to working with others.

The lifeline of praxis is not our pens—but the body, and not just our own. Our bodies are a nuisance. They are also more vulnerable to hope than our analytic minds.

The texts for this week aim to inspire praxis, however imperfect. Truth be told, I hadn’t engaged them until now precisely because of those imperfections. The Bernie bros and Indivisible seemed in a sense too mainstream in their resistance. I have been focused on radical people of color-led movements, that have within their sights the history of colonialism, settler colonialism, and enslavement, and the contemporary realities of racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy, and that center the importance of transforming the very nature of power, of our institutions, of our relationships to ourselves, each other, the state, and the land. The movement for Black lives and immigrant justice movements have preoccupied me. But given the developments of the last few years (including the growing ranks of DSA), all that is at stake, and the long odds ahead, I approached the texts with curiosity. I also read them alongside Charlene Carruthers’s recent Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (2018), an account of her life and lessons growing up in Chicago as a Black lesbian feminist and organizing with BYP100, one of the most significant organizations in the movement for Black lives.

Before I turn to Carruthers, some notes on praxis from Bernie’s and Indivisible’s self-styled guides to the moment.

Both texts are accessible. They are quick easy reads. Bernie includes a glossary, mobilize, and learn more sections, and Indivisible leaves open space to scribble notes about your local context and next steps. (Carruther’s book, too, includes a short glossary, with terms like capitalism, Black radical tradition, and reparations.) These texts are not austere repositories of analysis, although they respond to the crises and critiques of our times. As such, they are designed not for close reading but dirty engagement. To be used as tools in a growing toolkit. Or, better yet, to build an army or collective of praxis. Take what we have given you here, in analysis, ideas, and tools, and work with others to actualize it.

These texts provoke emotion, including hope and possibility, the wellsprings of action. Bernie takes idealized if corrupted and corruptible tropes—nation of immigrants, or the possibility of a neutral law enforcement—to make the American project redeemable, even today, when the settler colonial, racial capitalistic roots of the U.S. has been put on blast by today’s movements and the scholars inspired by them (and vice versa). The text reflects the critique and yet refuses to accede the ground as unwinnable. The possibility of winning motivates action and risk-taking. (An alternative would be to think of the ethical, constitutive imperatives to act and to resist, even if winning seems impossible, as the Afro-pessimist tradition suggests.)

These texts assume a collective or shared identity in their audience.  For Indivisible, it’s progressives who want to fight the Trump agenda. For Bernie, it’s young people, it’s progressives, it’s Democrats who are sick of the Democratic Party’s lack of vision and accountability. This assertion of shared identity is itself a call to action: to create new, energized collectives in resistance to the Trump and broader neoliberal agenda, and, for Bernie, in service of a democratic socialist vision.

All you have to do, says Indivisible, is combine with friends, make phone calls, show up at your representatives’ offices, tell them what to oppose. Donate to or volunteer with a food bank or Planned Parenthood to help address the vacuum of health care, says Bernie. In this way, the texts make change—whether defensive, in the case of Indivisible, or offensive, in the case of Bernie—seem within reach. The ease of action inspires you—it inspired me—to take action, however small. This is important, and something we can learn from.

But the bid here seems less about a particular action, but rather collective action, mass mobilization.  The provocation for mass, collective action is essential for changing our profoundly unjust now. Messages that resonate with a broad swath of people, that make another tomorrow seem possible, that excite people into risk-taking action. These messages are equally important for getting people to work against Trump’s agenda, as Indivisible urges us, as it is for a political revolution, in the way that Bernie does.

We live in a time of massive disenfranchisement and disenfranchising. Through incarceration or deportation or purging of the voter rolls. Through the public discourse that suggests politics and political engagement start and end with the ballot box. Through the massive influx and influence of money in electoral politics, which is beholden to and constituted by capital and the market. Through the re-intensification of right wing white supremacist politics. We are in a fight for enfranchisement on the large terrain of politics, and we are in desperate need for a broad and creative set of strategies mobilized by many publics.

As Carruthers urges, the bid for the collective, however, must be matched by a bid for taking seriously and taking on the racialized, gendered, and classed distributions of resources and life chances. It requires turning into our history of enslavement and settler colonialism. It requires understanding racial capitalism and patriarchy. And at the same time, it requires understanding the history of anti-colonial, anti-racist, Black Power, feminist, queer, and other forms of radical struggle, in the United States and around the world. In other words, to understand what we face now, we must understand the history that precedes us, as well as that the struggles that do.

Carruthers situates her praxis in the context of an essential tradition of praxis: the Black radical tradition. The Black radical tradition reminds us that the struggle to reorder our society, structured as it has been for centuries now, by colonialism, settler colonialism, and enslavement is not so simple as calling Congress or even electing Bernie Sanders. The task may be impossible. It will certainly be difficult and uncomfortable. But to find out, we have to agitate and we have to move, ourselves, and each other, to new forms of collective action.

Our praxis must make a bid for the collective. Our praxis, in other words, must be collective, and probably publicly so. But this raises questions about with whom we struggle (and how), and toward what ends. Our praxis must involve engaging in deep dialogue and solidarity with others who are not academics, who are not wealthy or middle class, who are not white, who are not men, who are not cisgendered and heterosexual, who are not documented, who don’t have health care or savings. Our solidarity must be with Black and other people of color; with the working class, working poor, and unemployed; with immigrants and the undocumented; with those incarcerated or detained, under probation and parole and police surveillance; with women, LGBT, and gender nonconforming; with those differently abled.

Our praxis must take us outside of the universities, or at least outside of the individualized mandates universities put on us. We need to join our students in asking new questions. We need to organize our universities. We have to do political work with and in service of joining and building collectives of people working to transform our society. We need to join mass and base-building organizations, build collective spaces, and contribute to social movements and party organizations. We need to build, know, learn, listen, and practice with others. We need to read and to learn and to teach not in service of our careers but in service of the collective. Our writing and analysis will inevitably change as we dedicate ourselves to different forms of work, new collectives, and distinct channels of accountability. Although the new insights may be memorialized in writing, that will not be the point.

In all of our work, we need to be attuned to power, shifting it and building it. In movements and organizations seeking to build their power, what matters is not new ideas but ideas that resonate, that repeat, that find their ways into our ears and our vocabulary and just repeat repeat repeat.

Like Bernie, Indivisible, and Carruthers, we do not have the answers. We cannot have the answers of praxis, because the answers, quite literally, reside beyond us. We have to answer the question “what do we do?” in conversation with a broader public in movements, movement organizations, and parties, instead of primarily in classrooms and journals. What do we do is not an abstract question. It is a concrete one, a strategic and tactical one, that must account for the conditions, the context, our goals, and the state of our collectives. Our answers will be tentative and incomplete. Sometimes we will make mistakes. But we will be engaged in the most fundamental act of resistance and tapped into the strongest currents of our imaginations: collective action.