Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue 3/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

The Praxis 3/13 seminar on Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution (2017) and the Indivisible’s A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda (2017) rubbed against a recurring point of friction at the intersection of critical theory and democratic politics: Is it ever possible for an electoral strategy to be genuinely critical? Is it possible to construct a democratic electoral platform with a realistic chance of succeeding in a country like the United States that also passes critical muster?

This represents a genuine dilemma, especially if we don’t take the easy way out and let go of that realist constraint. Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic nomination in 2016—and might have, had it not been for Democratic machine shenanigans—and many people still today ask whether he could have beaten Donald Trump. It’s an open question. So his platform is probably as far to the Left as any possible leftist platform could be, still with a realistic chance of succeeding in this country.

Yet, along several dimensions, Sanders’ agenda seemed to miss the critical mark. Amna Akbar criticized Sanders’ Guide for not being sufficiently attuned to relations of power, a theme that Ghislaine Pagès raised in her post as well; and Akbar faulted Sanders for not challenging the national security state—a real problem if you believe, as I do, that we are experiencing an American Counterrevolution. Brandon Terry argued that the Sanders campaign was not sufficiently attuned to class conflict within African-American communities (26:40); the social problems associated with crime and policing, for instance, are not just problems of racism, but lie at the intersection of race and class, wealth, and poverty. Adam Tooze faulted the Sanders Guide for its nationalist and patriotic appeals (51:30). The policy suggestions were often too simplistic and too vague, Tooze maintained, and, in the end, did not even amount to a democratic socialist agenda.

The critiques were sharp and stinging, but more than anything they raised the genuine dilemma whether it is possible to honestly engage electoral politics from a critical perspective. If indeed the most important work of critique is ideologiekritik or exposing regimes of truth, is it even worthwhile to propose policy platforms before the work of critical theory has been accomplished? If political proposals will not even appear reasonable before critique has prepared the ground, then inevitably a critical gaze will demolish any electoral platform that has a realistic chance of winning pre-critique—almost by definition. What’s the value of confronting an existing political platform with critique, then? It would be far more useful instead to just continue unveiling illusions outside or apart from the electoral process.

More than anything, this highlights the instability, from a critical theoretic perspective, of one particular modality of praxis: namely, democratic electoral political practices. This is a crucial point to emphasize. It is an essential starting point if we are to have a fruitful conversation about a particular electoral strategy, such as that of Bernie Sanders and the Indivisible collective. These practices are fundamentally electoral political strategies—as Brandon Terry emphasized as well. The Indivisible Guide is entirely focused on putting pressure on members of Congress. Sanders’ Guide proposes predominantly legislative reform. The interventions target our elected officials for electoral change.

In this sense, these practices, by definition, cannot be “revolutionary,” except in a loose metaphorical sense. They are embedded within a constitutional framework, depend on the existing political system, and do not even seek change at the level of a constitutional amendment. They are entirely non-revolutionary in the political sense. They are not intended to bring about a change in political regime. They are not intended to transform the structures of political power—just the democratic balance. These strategies are not meant to cause a “political revolution” in the classic sense of that term—as regime change. So why, then, does Sanders appropriate the term and why would it bother us that he does?

This was a central point of contention for Adam Tooze, who opened his remarks by questioning the use of “revolution” in the title of his book. Sanders’ platform, Tooze argued, proposes to overthrow or radically transform nothing. “Why use such a striking word in the title?” If anything, Tooze suggested, what it reflects is that this Guide is truly “an American political document.” “Who else could conceive of this program as a revolution, who else would use that term so casually, where else would such language actually resonate in this political moment?” Tooze asked, “(if it does.)” (46:30)

Tooze is surely right as a formal matter—the Guide does not advocate regime change or overthrow anything. But here is where we need to reposition critique, I would argue. We need to rethink the very concept of a critical utopia. We also need to infuse our critical interpretations in the context of this particular modality of praxis—democratic electoral politics—with a bit more Straussianism. Let me explain.

In today’s political climate, almost two years into the Trump administration, I think it would feel revolutionary—in what way, exactly, I will come to—, but it would feel revolutionary to transform American society along the following lines, all spelled out by Bernie Sanders:

  • A national ‘Medicare for All’ single-payer system (81)
  • Tuition-free higher education (105)
  • Federal jobs program (25)
  • Living minimum wage with paid parental and sick leaves and vacations (2; 17-19)
  • Increase the number of union jobs by making it easier to join unions (16-17)
  • A progressive estate tax (42)
  • Abolition of the death penalty, private prisons, and militarized police forces (166; 165; 170)
  • A path to citizenship for undocumented residents (189)

This program may well fall short, in certain respects, of genuine democratic socialism: making unionization easier is not the same as creating a political economy in which the workers control the means of production; a minimum living wage is not the same as a minimum standard of living; universal Medicare still depends on private doctors, etc.[1] But it is nevertheless the case that a society constructed along these lines—and all the other myriad proposals like banning fracking (140), reforming personal income tax and closing tax loopholes (41), banning the box (172), legalizing marijuana (171), etc., etc., etc.—would feel radically different than the current American political landscape.

Radical, but not radical enough to be called revolutionary?

What does that mean, “not radical enough”?

What it tells us, in effect, is that we have a preconceived, ready-made notion of what revolutionary change would amount to, and that Sanders’ program does not pass the bar. If Sanders had proposed that private property be abolished or that workers control the means of production, things would be different—he’d be revolutionary. He’d have crossed the Rubicon. But Sanders did not go politically far enough.

The problem then is tied, at least in part, to this specific modality of praxis: democratic electoral politics in the United States does not allow for much more than what Sanders proposed with any likelihood of winning a presidential election in these times. So the mode of action places constraints on the political horizon—and on political speech. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

There is more, though. The problem also relates to the reified nature of critical utopias. The formal resistance to calling Sanders’ platform “politically revolutionary” reveals the rigidity of what it takes to be considered a paradigm shift: certain forms of reorganizing our political economy, such as facilitating unions and using progressive taxation, do not qualify as sufficiently critical, whereas other forms of reorganizing our political economy, such as shifting the means of production to the workers, would.

But that seems far too foundationalist. It rests on an antiquated dogmatic Marxist view. Only if we are wedded to some communalist or socialist utopia—one that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been properly achieved—would we draw these lines.

The real problem in all this, then, is an antiquated utopianism that is way too foundational and not properly situated—not en situation, given the reality of American politics today. Truth is, we would be far better off if we imagined critical utopias not through the lens of foundational ideas of political economy, but rather as a substantial movement toward our critical values. Our critical utopias should not aim at particular, rigid regime types, but should consist instead in material change in the direction of our ideals. This resonates, I think, with my argument in Part II of Critique & Praxis. It also may require flipping critique on its head, as Clayton Raithel suggests in his post.

The fact is, the abolition of private property or the nationalization of industries does not guarantee fair and equitable outcomes. So we might end up calling a political transformation “revolutionary” even if it results in vastly disproportional distribution of resources to high functionaries of the system—which should pose just as much of a problem with the use of the term “revolutionary.”

One option would be to do away with the term entirely; but a better option would be to get less formal: to conceive of a material change in the direction of our critical values as achieving revolutionary transformation. Beyond a certain point, our society would be so much better and more just that we could call that politically revolutionary change. In fact, we might even call it a social revolution—for instance, if we had universal health care, tuition-free higher education, livable wages, a path to citizenship, etc., in this country. Only a misguided, antiquated, reified notion of a communist horizon would prevent us from thinking that we would have achieved radical, if not revolutionary change in America.

Coming back to the first point—electoral politics as a mode of praxis—it is important to emphasize that the modality itself puts limits and constraints on the praxis.

First, electoral politics as a praxis pushes us toward explicit proposals and platforms. It forces the political actors to position themselves along simple political lines. It does not really allow political actors, as allies, to step back.

If you are running for office, realistically, it is probably not enough to say that you are going to create a space for the voice of those who are not being heard, to be heard. Only with great difficulty can you make the move that the founding intellectuals did in the manifesto of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP) and declare, as the GIP manifesto did, that “It is not for us to suggest reform. We merely wish to know the reality. And to make it known almost immediately, almost overnight, because time is short.”[2] The idea of simply letting others be heard does not function very well in electoral politics. The closest you get is the “listening tour” that has become increasingly popular as a way for a politician to claim to “learn” something from the people and to postpone some policy details. But electoral politics does not go very well with the arts of being an ally and stepping back. Aman Akbar correctly spoke about the need for progressive movements today to listen and make a space for the discourse of the less advantaged; and stressed that “we can’t have all the answers.” The trouble is, it is not clear how those sensibilities work, or if they can work well, with electoral politics as a mode of praxis.

Everyone emphasized the need for critical thinkers to get outside the academy. I would like to end there because that is such a critical point. As many observe today, one of the central problems facing critical theory is that its field has narrowed. Critical theory has become increasingly limited to the academy and to professionalized critics—as Didier Fassin and Linda Zerilli argue in forthcoming chapters to A Time for Critique (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2019).

But if we are going to redress this problem, we, as critical theorists, are going to need to be a little more generous with non-academics or with non-professionalized critics. The fact of simplicity alone – or of “sloppy sociology” as Adam Tooze said – cannot be a response to a practical guide like Sanders’, which is intended to be a political platform and not a doctoral dissertation. For many reasons. First because Sanders is trying to cover eight disciplines, if not more, in 198 pages. But second, and more importantly, because simplicity may be serving other ends.

Let’s close, then, by taking a closer look at one of the purportedly sloppiest areas in Sanders’ Guide, namely immigration reform. During the seminar, Sanders was critiqued for only proposing solutions related to the existing undocumented persons in this country, and failing to address the larger question of open borders—a particularly tricky question for a socialist-friendly agenda given the longstanding tension between, on the one hand, the history of internationalism, and, on the other hand, the parochialism of national unions and domestic workers who fear that open borders would invite too much labor and thus depress domestic work and wages.

A look at Sanders’ Guide makes clear that a lot of the proposals on immigration are indeed focused on the undocumented already on American soil. When Sanders describes immigration reform in detail, he focuses, “first and foremost,” on “creating a path for the eleven million undocumented people in our country to become lawful permanent residents and eventually citizens” (189); his immigration reform includes as well the DREAM Act for those in the military or attending college (189), ending family deportation sweeps (190), family detention (191) and private detention facilities (191), and imposing measures on employers to prevent exploitation of the undocumented (192).

These particular measures do indeed focus on the undocumented who are already on American soil, but there are other recommendations that are more open ended:

  • “Immigration reform must create viable and legal channels that match our labor market needs and promote family cohesion.” (192)
  • “Immigration reform must eliminate the three-year, ten-year, and permanent ‘bars.’” (190)
  • “In light of a historic refugee crisis, immigration reform means reaffirming our commitment to accepting our fair share of refugees.” (193)
  • “And lastly, immigration reform means recognizing that inequality across the world is a major driving force behind migration. The truth is, our free-trade policies are exacerbating inequality by devastating local economies, pushing millions to migrate. We must rewrite our trade policies to end the race to the bottom and instead work to lift the living standards of Americans and people throughout the world.” (193-94)

Those proposals are more open ended, and also address some of the supposed root causes of migration. Sanders’ discussion of immigration embeds a lengthy discussion of the impact of NAFTA—recognizing that migration and economic trade policies have to be addressed hand-in-hand.

But even more, and more generously, when you look at where Sanders starts, it is not at all clear that the “path to citizenship” is limited to only current undocumented residents—or that there is any grandfathering going on. He defines “pathway to citizenship” openly for any and all “undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.” (177) There is no caveat that this applies only to present undocumented residents; a proper system with a path to citizenship would apply prospectively to new undocumented residents as well. Some of the vocabulary is jarring on a first read—and Tooze underscored this following passage:

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP: a system that allows undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens. (177-178)

The language about going “to the back of the line” is somewhat harsh at first—as Tooze emphasized. But in truth, all it means is that there is a queue: the most recently entered undocumented resident should not get their papers before another undocumented person who was here before them, in the queue. Surely we can agree on that. There should be chronological order to all this.

So one way to read this platform is that, although it does not state “open borders,” it takes the approach of both addressing the root causes for migration and trying to put in place a process that would effectively create the possibility of far more open or porous borders. On its face, it is more than simply focused on the current undocumented population. And if we read it closely with more of a Straussian touch—given especially the limitations of democratic electoral politics as a mode of critical praxis—then surely there is a strong indication of the direction of change, in relation to our shared critical values.

My point is not that we should not read critically. Critical readings are necessary and especially productive when they highlight conceptual problems. So, for instance, Tooze critiqued the anachronisms in Sanders’ Guide: it makes more reference to 20th century giants like IBM than to our current monopolist GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon). That does reflect either an outdated analysis or a sleight of hand (if in fact the hesitation to address the GAFAs is out of fear of alienating the younger generation). Important critique, worth pursuing.

My point instead is two-fold: first, that electoral politics as a praxis puts certain constraints on political speech that may require us to read more subtly democratic electoral proposals; and second, that we need to discard antiquated reified utopias and begin to think and imagine more critically en situation. How then do we move critique outside the academy and beyond professionalized critics? Maybe we start by being more generous to fellow travelers.


[1] For a quick primer on democratic socialism, see the New York Times’ concise recent article here.

[2] GIP, “(Manifeste du GIP)” (February 8, 1971), in Foucault Dits & Écrits, text no. 86 (translation by Stuart Elden).