Ghislaine Pages | Revolutionary in Rhetoric Only

By Ghislaine Pages

The Praxis 3/13 readings focus predominantly on ends (ends which Karuna Mantena has already helped us explore), on the present material reality of people (in the United States) and how we can use existing systems and power structures to realize a more equitable country. Neither piece interrogates the means for change which they advocate their readers use, and this seems to be what limits the authors’ revolutionary imaginations.

To begin, the highly practical activist or constituent engagement guide, Indivisible, gives readers a road map of how to make their voices as influential as possible in the current political system and culture. These suggestions are based on the personal experiences of the authors, who worked for their elected representatives and have seen realpolitik in action—especially the tactics of the Tea Party. The writers embed in the text itself the request and the opportunity for us to add to and interact with the guide, based on our own unique time, place, and identity. (They did this by formatting the guide as an open access Google Doc). This aspect—that political action and political theory are specific to and dependant on their time, place and observer—is surprisingly theoretical for a step-by-step, how-to guide from authors who do not identify as critical theorists.

The title “Indivisible” implies that we have once been together. We cannot be divided and must remain unified. This gives the sense of a precarious unity: our indivisibility is the end, the goal, what we must protect or perfect through critique and praxis.

But when and how has this unity ever existed? Who did it include? Or, is this state of indivisibility a utopia toward which we work and aspire? Is the rhetoric of indivisibility a performance of norms or the preservation of an ideal—as we had discussed in the first seminar.

If we believe, as I do, that we have never been equitably unified in a state, whether in a compliant constituent or revolutionary state that is mutually beneficial to every American, we can view indivisibility as a goal and not something that has ever existed. We would then be working to perfect our unity, but it would be far less marketable to to present the project that way. Both “Indivisible” and Bernie Sanders’ Guide employ the unified rhetoric upfront, but only deeper into the texts do they really engage the need for unification and the shortcomings of current political movements.

The veneer of a unified and promising future for all Americans is something that has never existed in the US and that most progressive leaders have not strived for. I personally do not believe that Sanders’ is actually committed to prioritizing it in his “political revolution.” He wrote his guide to revolution couched in accommodating terms. He frequently makes concessions to working class white folks, not placing racial justice as the most urgent issue of our time. He does not argue that, to remedy our current state of struggle and disparity, some white folks may have to recognize their relative safety, comfort, and advantages. He does not argue that white folks will need to understand that their own interest are inextricably linked to uplifting other groups. Sanders’ does not put forth the truly progressive projection that maybe that centering a dominant group’s self-interest at the cost of other groups will not get us to the least-violent ends. Neither of the readings discuss the fact that the least-harmful end, the utopia which would involve the least suffering, may indeed mean that some people’s material conditions will worsen slightly as we redistribute.

Managing expectations, or simply valuing equity and redistribution, is missing in both the Indivisible Guide and Sander’s manual. Centering marginalized voices, concerns, and material well-being is not a sacrifice, but rather necessary political action. Working with an orientation towards currently marginalized groups thriving is the only way to reduce suffering and creating a more just, representative, and equitable society—or country, or world.

Reading Senator Sanders’ manual, sadly, confirmed my skepticism of his genuine inclusiveness grown from my own experiences staffing the severely divided Washington State DNC delegation in 2016. I could not help but imagine Sanders’ admirably tuned-in advisors writing passages for him on the topics race, sexuality, and gender or him simply regurgitating and expanding on the 140 characters of a popular tweet Symone B. Sanders had written for him in early 2016– pre-convention but post-Seattle rally.

This made me think back to similar emotional responses I had to Cory Booker’s progressive or revolutionary-seeming rhetoric when we were discussing the politics of performative preservation of norms in our first seminar. We praise Booker when he defies the Judiciary Committees rules, regardless of outcome. For me, I experienced Sanders’ book in a similar way, as a piece of performative revolution that is now politically advantageous.

The revolution of which Sanders’ writes is really the fetishised revolution of which Ann Stoler spoke, the “inconsequential thought” of Benjamin and Brecht, a form of critique that employs sacred words and promises but falls short of all the intersectional justice it promises to realize. Although there is serious analysis of what is wrong in the US (what leads to detrimental material conditions or inequitable living situations), there is no game plan for a truly better future for all Americans. This is missing because Sanders’ does not critique systems of power outside of the economic realm. He does not talk about white supremacy and how that leads to the outcomes we see in social, political and yes, economic life. It is hard for me to imagine using Sanders’ manual to guide my revolution if this central reason for why inequality is left out.

This is what Amna Akbar’s piece on the Justice Department’s response to the murders of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown highlights—Sanders’ writing, like the DOJ reports, does not come from the perspective of the dispossessed revolutionary. He is establishment in his ideas for reform, even if he does not admit it or even pushes back against it in his rhetoric.

This is seen most noticeably in his chapter on criminal justice reform.

Would Sanders be the “more traditional liberal” perspective in the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson and Baltimore? Yes: see page 159: “Being a police officer is an extremely difficult and stressful job…  The vast amjority of those who serve in law enforcement are decent, hardworking people who want to make their communities better places to live, and many have sacrifices much to do their jobs.” (Sanders, 159). As Amna Akbar writes, “This approach cedes more legitimacy—not to mention more resources—to the police and the legal frameworks in which they operate without a meaningful consideration of alternatives.” (Akbar 410)

The problem is also present in the Indivisible guide. Legitimizing a harmful system is the issue inherent with starting with realpolitik and a cynical view of the current US political system. Indivisible hinges on individuals’ ability to leverage United States politicians’ sense of shame or fear of not getting re-elected– this encourages more performativity and in some ways gives legitimacy to an inequitable, white supremacist system. If we see the outcome we want, or hear it, then our work is done. If a candidate states that Black Lives Matter, we can go home. If we hear the Justice Department say that a police department was out of line, racist, acting unlawfully, some part of us may think this fixed the problem. But these simplistic reactions in fact bolster the problematic, erring force.

Akbar writes:

“As a corrective, the DOJ reports advocate for investing more resources in police: more trainings, better supervision, community policing. In contrast, the Vision identifies policing as a historical and violent force in Black communities, underpinning a system of racial capitalism and limiting the possibilities of Black life. As such, policing as we now know it cannot be fixed. Thus, the Vision’s reimagination of policing—rooted in Black history and Black intellectual traditions—transforms mainstream approaches to reform.” (Akbar 410)

“But framed in a different understanding, accountable to different constituencies, the DOJ could have taken an approach to reform more aligned with the Vision, suggesting a realignment of resources from policing to the underlying social problems stemming from structural inequality in Ferguson and Baltimore,” (Akbar 411)

Sanders should have also taken a position that was more aligned with the vision and wisdom of most-affected communities and leaders in those spaces. If Sanders’ rhetoric includes the desire to center other voices and listen to the community, he needs to do so and to embed it centrally in his platform for police and carceral reform. If he simply expresses these wishes in an attempt to stop criticism from groups working for racial justice, but only in his performance and not in his policy, then his revolution is not oriented towards the least-violent end for everyone. It is still one that prioritizes those already in power, with the added benefit of placating white guilt—because, at times, he said the right thing while still propping up a system that is antithetical to his stated values.

Akbar identifies this values disconnect in her analysis of the gap between the DOJ report and the Vision for Black Lives:

“The core disagreement between the DOJ and the Movement is over whether policing can be divorced from its entanglements with anti-Black racism. The Movement’s account of police violence shifts the point of reference from law’s legitimacy to the Black experience. The movement accepts and centers much of what critical race theory and feminist law scholarship have argued for: the voices, the experience, and the expertise of Black and other people of color, immigrants, women, LGBQ, trans, and gender-nonconforming people.” (Akbar 425)

“Courts, legislatures, and executives tend to assume that law and the state are designed to be fair, neutral, and just. From within the ongoing waves of protest and organizing, Black communities framed violence as endemic to the state, and tolerance for it as a long-standing aspect of American law.” (Akbar 417).

How can Sanders guide us towards a universally-beneficial politically revolutionized country if the mechanisms he urges us to employ have these endemic flaws? He doesn’t disagree with this perspective. He doesn’t mention it. Yet he retains his title as revolutionary, progressive visionary.

Moreover, despite reports from the DOJ which highlighted the institutional and customary ways in which police departments as a whole encouraged the over-policing of poor communities—almost exclusively communities of color—how can Sanders get away with keeping his revolutionary title and still falling back on the #notallmen argument? Why do we see him as a progressive leader when his view is that most police officers are “decent hardworking people” who are just under a lot of stress—which refutes the analysis that there are structural, systemic, ideological issues which lead to violence. This view excuses the violence done by police officers. Millions of working people, who have not shot an unarmed person of color, would disagree with this assessment. Sanders has the resources both in this team, his social circle, and on the Internet, to do better and he has the political, social and cultural capital to have done better in his analysis of police violence. This section of the book was supremely disappointing and honestly scary, if this is what we are calling the radical fringes of progressive political imagination.

“The Vision is meant not simply to address the hemorrhaging brought about by police and state violence, but to imagine a world in which Black and other communities of color can thrive,” Akbar writes. Its seems naive to even ask the question, “why could this have not been the platform of the candidate we called our bold progressive leader?”

Why, when the stakes were low and he was ostensibly writing a book to encourage the young people of America to imagine, fight for and realize the brightest of future for the most of court country, was this not a part of that imagined future?

Why are we, the most progressive generation, still a select group in his eyes and still bridled by the constraints of “incremental change” and gradual progress?

Why is racism listed in only two spots in the index?

Just as Amna Akbar asks law scholars to imagine collectively with those of the Movement for Black Lives and the vision they laid out (479), it is clear from reading Sanders’ text in proximity to Akbar’s article that our political leaders, especially those who brand themselves as radical progressives—who struggle on the edge of what is too progressive for the political mainstream—must also imagine and follow these movements. Politicians are an integral part to putting critique into meaningful and affective/effective praxis. But they need to embrace the real social revolutions that are occurring all around them.