Bernard E. Harcourt | Getting More Concrete: Three Questions on Concrete Utopianism

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Like prison abolition, reparations for slavery, and public debt cancellation movements, these initiatives [the Black Lives Matter movement and Occupy Wall Street] link a concrete demand to a holistic vision of a fundamentally different way of being (together).

          — Gary Wilder, Concrete Utopianism: The Politics of Temporality and Solidarity

In Concrete Utopianism: The Politics of Temporality and Solidarity, published by Fordham University Press in 2022, Gary Wilder advocates for a turn away from certain strands of contemporary critical thought (such as negative dialectics, Afropessimism, and cultural strands of postcolonial thought), and for a (re)turn to more constructive forms of critical political engagement. Wilder, one of the leading critics and historians of Francophone Black Atlantic social thought, author of Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015) and The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the World Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2005), draws in part on those traditions (Édouard Glissant perhaps most) to counterpose to contemporary critical skeptics a path towards a more positive and engaged political stance. Wilder’s intervention consists of both a negative slope (the critique of certain strands of contemporary critical thought) and a positive side (developing concrete utopianism with a central element of internationalism). His positive utopian vision might be called, using his term, “a possible-impossible internationalism.”[1]

With regard to the positive side of the project, Wilder’s book forms part of a contemporary rebirth of new forms of utopianism, variously called “concrete utopias” (by Étienne Balibar in his “Uncovering Lines of Escape,” Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope, and our 13/13 public seminar on “13 Concrete Utopias/13 Seminars at Columbia,” at least as articulated in the problem statement, introduction, and other posts), or “real utopias” (as in Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010)), or “practical utopias” (as in Noam Chomsky’s preface and Michael Albert’s book Practical Utopias), or in terms of the French term “utopier” (as Laëtitia Riss will suggest at Utopia 11/13 in Paris). The exact term has implications, but the overarching thrust of all this work is to revive, within critical theory (writ large), the turn to praxis—to move critical theory from “crisis and critique” to “critique and praxis.” The fundamental intuition underlying the move is that we live in a different world today, one of deep interdependence caused by global crises, and that this calls for forward-looking critical praxis.

Along these lines, Wilder calls for concrete utopianism hand-in-hand with critical internationalism, or, in his words, “a mass popular coalition of racialized, poor, precarious working people, along with other alienated and disenfranchised citizens, to come together in a movement for societal transformation and popular democracy.”[2] Concretely, Wilder turns to concrete utopias in the final chapter of his book, “The World We Wish to See,” where he mentions Angela Davis and the prison abolition movement[3], the movement for Black lives[4], Occupy Wall Street[5], the debt cancellation movement[6], the Green New Deal[7], the Standing Rock protest[8], among other contemporary mobilizations and struggles.

With regard to the negative slope of the book—the critique of what he calls Left realism, Left culturalism, Left presentism—Wilder offers a deep engagement and countervision to certain genres of contemporary critical thought that, he feels, effectively give up on trying to change the world. Wilder targets in particular certain aspects of the thought and writings of Frank Wilderson and Afropessimism,[9] of Partha Chatterjee’s critique of cosmopolitanism,[10] of Talal Asad’s writings about the Islamic tradition,[11] of Lauren Berlant’s analysis of cruel optimism,[12] of David Scott’s Omens of Adversity,[13] of Michel Foucault’s genealogical method and histories of the present,[14] and others. The thrust of Wilder’s critique is that these strands of thought have sapped the imaginative and transformative ambitions of the Left, in a way, paradoxically, that parallels the corrupting influence of neoliberalism.

Let me raise here three questions, or sets of questions, for possible discussion at our seminar.

1/ Theoretical Windup

Gary Wilder begins the concrete discussion of concrete utopias on page 276 of his book, and as a result, that material (on abolition, reparations, debt cancellation, and so on) is relegated to the last 14 pages of the work. The bulk of Concrete Utopianism focuses on the more academic, critical theoretic treatment of critical theory discourse.

This raises several questions—some of which I would like to put aside. For instance, substantively, whether it would be more productive, theoretically, to embrace the contradiction (for instance, represented by Afropessimism) as a way to construct a more robust utopian vision that acknowledges and incorporates the reality and intractability of antiblackness. The critiques seem to entrench, rather than overcome, the internal fissures within critical theory; they aggravate, rather than resolve, what I called in Critique & Praxis, the “internecine battles and struggles for influence that currently plague critical philosophy,” or elsewhere, the “internecine epistemological struggles between materialists and interpretivists, between foundationalists and postfoundationalists, between the Frankfurt School, Foucault, postcolonial thinkers, queer theorists and more.”[15] Or we could debate, from a strategic perspective, the productivity of picking so many fights with what are, in reality, politically, in the context of American political discourse today, outsider critical theories. Or we could ask who the audience is for these—because of the material itself—highly-jargoned debates. Is the audience the “mass popular coalition of racialized, poor, precarious working people, along with other alienated and disenfranchised citizens” who Wilder would like to see come together in a movement for societal transformation? Is it instead a vanguard of revolutionaries? Or is it, in the end, just a small clique of critical theorists who will gather after a seminar on the patio of Le Monde?

I want to put those questions aside, though, to address—on a more positive note—the equally substantive and more important question whether and how the theoretical windup contributes to our analysis of critical utopian praxis? How does all the internecine warfare enrich our study of concrete utopias? Is it necessary, for instance, to help us think through prison abolition? Does it enrich abolitionism? Does it change how we argue for abolition? And if so, how exactly? How does it contribute to the abolitionist movement? Concretely?

Concrete utopianism, Wilder writes, “seeks to identify possibilities for alternative arrangements that may already dwell within, or be emerging from, the nonidentical order that actually exists.”[16] I agree entirely. But should not the project then focus on how to actualize those alternative arrangements and to develop, study, and practice those possibilities? How does the theoretical work in the first 276 pages of the book change what we actually say and do, or would say and do, at Standing Rock, at the Line 3 Pipeline, in Ferguson, or in Memphis?

2/ The Question of Internationalism

I embrace Gary Wilder’s invitation to internationalism. And there is no doubt that many of the concrete utopian interventions that he mentions would benefit from internationalism. The Black Lives Matter and anti-police movement in France (surrounding the police homicide of Adama Traoré) surely benefitted from the global attention paid to the #BLM movement in the United States. But does the movement for Black lives in the U.S. require internationalism? Does prison abolition or student debt relief in the U.S. require internationalism? In his book, Wilder writes that “Emancipatory alternatives require planetary politics.”[17] Is that the right verb?

The fact is, the American punitive society is exceptional in many ways—and distinct from, for instance, the punitive society that Foucault presciently identified in nineteenth-century France in his lectures of that title and in Discipline and Punish (speaking of which, there is a whole other militant side to Foucault during the early 1970s involving prison abolition that Wilder ignores in the book[18]). The U.S. carceral society has a unique history tied to the specific manifestations of chattel slavery and the domestic slave trade in this country, the evolution of convict leasing and plantation prisons after emancipation, Jim Crow and urban migration, and racialized mass incarceration beginning in 1973.[19]

I have no doubt that the American abolitionist movement can be enriched by an internationalist perspective. In his article on “Penal Abolitionism and Criminal Law Minimalism: Here and There, Now and Then,” Máximo Langer discusses the global and international movements for penal abolition, beginning in the 1960s, and how important they were as precursors and influences on prison abolition in this country and elsewhere. Thomas Mathiesen’s book-length treatment calling for the abolition of prisons, The Politics of Abolition, originally published in 1974, had enormous influence in Argentina and South America, for instance.[20] And I’m certainly not an advocate of parochialism. Nor am I arguing for the provincialization of our struggles.

But I am not convinced that they always depend on or are always strengthened by internationalism. In my own political struggles—for instance, my work against the death penalty in Alabama—I’ve often felt that taking a more local, home-grown strategy can be highly effective. For me, when I am engaged in particular struggles, it is more a question of strategy. I may well aspire, with Gary Wilder, to world transformation, not just societal transformation. I may well share an utopian idea of international solidarity. But, concretely, the international dimensions of local struggles are to me a matter of strategy, not necessity. Along these lines, I often side with Voltaire, at least the last words of his Candide. « Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver son propre jardin. »[21]

3/ On Concrete and Old-Fashioned Utopianism

A final set of questions revolves around the notion of the “concrete.” The term can get confusing—as we have seen in these seminars.

On the one hand, some of the critical praxis that Gary Wilder mentions is not necessarily “concrete” in the sense in which we are trying to use it at Utopia 13/13. Some of the interventions are not “really existing” in the way in which we are attempting to focus on “functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society” that surround us now—like the ones we already have studied including Cooperation Jackson, the Student Workers of Columbia, Longo Maï, or worker cooperatives.

On the other hand, the broader ambition of internationalism that traverses Gary Wilder’s book is, at the other extreme, much closer to old-fashioned utopianism of the nineteenth century than it is to the concrete utopianism of actually-existing praxis.

This brings us then to the heart of the matter: the notion of the “concrete.” It raises the tension between, on the one hand, the desire to identify promising practices that can exist because they already do and the yearning to hold on to some others what might not yet exist but really should. It is the tension, in Wilder’s conception of concrete utopianism, between wanting to identify

  • “alternative arrangements that may already dwell within, or be emerging from, the nonidentical order that actually exists”; and
  • those that “point beyond the logic and framework of the existing order.”[22]

In the end, I think this tension is irreconcilable, but productive. In terms of critical praxis, I think it is, ultimately, helpful. For those of us who want to change the world—like Gary Wilder—we are unlikely to ever get beyond the tension. But we need to recognize it and strategize through it. Maybe in the end, focusing on concrete utopias—on “really-existing, functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society”—is, at its core, a way to invigorate more action, ambition, and imagination.

* * *

Part of the project of Utopia 13/13 is to get us past a time when critical thinkers might retreat to Morningside Heights at Columbia University and slide from a project of world transformation to a form of despair about the dialectics of reason. That may have been the entirely right course of action at the time, for Horkheimer and Adorno for instance, given that the United States was at war fighting against fascism.[23] But today, the threat and the political conjuncture are different. With global climate change and extractive capitalism, we face a form of human interdependence now that means that we cannot afford to let others fight our battles. I take it, that is what Wilder means when he writes that internationalism is necessary “because the nexus of current and imminent crises poses a planetary predicament.”[24]

I agree with Wilder. There is no escape. There is no option to retreat to the palm trees of Los Angeles or the parades of the politically depressed (except insofar as it might invigorate action). We no longer have the luxury (or curse) to imagine that nothing will change. The older generations have exploited the Earth and each other to such an extent that, unchanged, future generations will have nothing left. Tim Mitchell explains how our current forms of neoliberal capitalism now claw and extract—and in the process annihilate—the future itself. We are responsible for that. And we’re at a point now where we can’t just theorize it, because if we do, there will be no future generations. It demands a  new relationship to concrete utopian thinking and action. It forces us to spend our time now thinking and practicing concrete utopias that will change the world—that is, focusing on the final chapter of Gary Wilder’s book.


[1] Gary Wilder, Concrete Utopianism: The Politics of Temporality and Solidarity (Fordham University Press, 2022), 290.

[2] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, xii.

[3] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 276.

[4] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 279.

[5] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 284.

[6] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 285.

[7] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 286.

[8] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 288.

[9] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 63, 196.

[10] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 46.

[11] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 65.

[12] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 89.

[13] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 91.

[14] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 163.

[15] Bernard E. Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (Columbia University Press, 2020), 43, 279.

[16] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 9.

[17] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 2 (my emphasis).

[18] See, e.g., Harcourt, Critique & Praxis, 439-445.

[19] See, generally, Abolition Democracy 13/13, at

[20] Máximo Langer, “Penal Abolitionism and Criminal Law Minimalism: Here and There, Now and Then,” Harvard Law Review Forum 134:42-77 (2020), at 47-57 (discussing the global and international movements for penal abolition beginning in the 1960s)

[21] Voltaire, Candide ou l’Optimisme (Paris: Gallimard Folioplus Classiques, 2003), p. 138.

[22] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 9 (my emphases).

[23] For the most detailed study of this period of the Frankfrut School, see, generally, Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[24] Wilder, Concrete Utopianism, 2.