Bernard Harcourt looks like the sort of guy who, if one were to say “He got a BA from Princeton under Sheldon Wolin, then went on to get a JD and PhD from Harvard and now teaches Foucault and is the chair of the University of Chicago Department of Political Science,” you would nod and say, “Of course,” as if his life could not have taken any other course. Think a non-douchy version of Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park. With better hair.
If you want to feel better about yourself, though,
just google a pic of him with a moustache.
I briefly met Professor Harcourt when I came to visit U of C in the spring of 2010. He kindly let me sit in on a class on critical theory he was teaching at the law school. The class reminded me why I wanted to return to school, I decided to turn down a PhD program elsewhere, and enrolled in U of C’s MA program. And then promptly failed to take any class with Professor Harcourt before I finished. This, I am sure, will be one of those poor life choices that will still result in a facepalm when I am sixty.
Yesterday, Professor Harcourt had a piece up on the New York Times’s Opinionator section of their website discussing the nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement, identifying OWS as a sort of Foucaultian critique in action. Money quote? Money quote:
Occupy Wall Street, which identifies itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many … political persuasions,” is politically disobedient precisely in refusing to articulate policy demands or to embrace old ideologies. Those who incessantly want to impose demands on the movement may show good will and generosity, but fail to understand that the resistance movement is precisely about disobeying that kind of political maneuver.*
In this he agrees with Mike Konczal, who wrote a couple weeks ago about the theory underlying the OWS protests, who further draws on David Graeber’s work to identify the small-a anarchist and small-d democratic theory underlying OWS’s method’s. Konczal quotes a review of Graeber’s Direct Action (sorry for the large blockquote, but it’s kinda important):
And what seemed like a tedious attention to meeting process was the result of a commitment to direct democracy and rejection of a politics of representation in favor of a politics of participation. Instead of focusing solely, or even largely, on ends, the global justice movement focused on means, attempting to live out its ideals in the present and sneak moments of liberation on the sly.
While anarchists formed the avant-garde of the global justice movement, they generally did not try to convert other protesters and sympathizers to an explicit belief system. Instead of pushing a party line, they spread practices, advocating the adoption of affinity groups, consensus-based decision-making and spokescouncils. Graeber argues that the Direct Action Network, the most significant organization of the global justice movement, while short-lived, was extraordinarily successful in diffusing a directly democratic model of organizing.
This rings true, at least to me, given reports of OWS’s operating methodology: their concensus-based General Assembly, complete with complex hand signals, their committee structure, and – more than anything – their complete unwillingness to articulate demands at the organizational level.
Professor Harcourt doesn’t mention the anarchic roots of OWS’s methodology (thought given his oeuvre it’s unlikely he’s unaware). Instead, he focuses on the relationship between this methodology and normal partisan politics. Arguing against Slavoj Kizek*, who complains that “opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst, Harcourt responds that “these movements are precisely about resisting the old ideologies. It’s not that they couldn’t articulate them; it’s that they are actively resisting them”. OWS, for Harcourt, refuses to articulate policy positions because it is actively resisting the partisan politics of both sides, rooted in “Cold War ideologies,” epitomized by the Chicago Boys on the right and the Maoists on the left.
This is all fine and good, I suppose. Theorists and advocates of participatory democracy argue that the very act of democratic participation is salubrious to the participant, and the idea that voting makes one a better citizen goes back to the Founding, if not further. And if I thought that OWS was just trying, in the words of the review of Graeber, to “live out its ideals in the present and sneak moments of liberation on the sly,” I would be satisfied with Harcourt’s analysis. But this isn’t a commune in Oregon. This is a group of dedicated individuals camped out in the heart of the world’s financial capitol, sleeping on cement and tangling daily with often abusive police. Hundreds have already been arrested. This to me doesn’t seem to be the strategy of someone hoping to be made better by participating in an experiment in radical democracy; this seems to be a genuine attempt to effect change. In fact, if the slogan “Change” hadn’t just recently been coopted by one of Harcourt’s worn-out ideologies, I’m guessing it would be almost as prevalent a theme as “The 99%”. Resisting old ideologies is all well and good, but unless a movement is willing and able to engage with them, I find it hard to envision a path towards change.
Harcourt defends OWS towards the end of his piece:
On this account, the fundamental choice is no longer the ideological one we were indoctrinated to believe — between free markets and controlled economies — but rather a continuous choice between kinds of regulation and how they distribute wealth in society. There is, in the end, no “realistic alternative,” nor any “utopian project” that can avoid the pervasive regulatory mechanisms that are necessary to organize a complex late-modern economy — and that’s the point. The vast and distributive regulatory framework will neither disappear with deregulation, nor with the withering of a socialist state. What is required is constant vigilance of all the micro and macro rules that permeate our markets, our contracts, our tax codes, our banking regulations, our property laws — in sum, all the ordinary, often mundane, but frequently invisible forms of laws and regulations that are required to organize and maintain a colossal economy in the 21st-century and that constantly distribute wealth and resources.
This is the part of Harcourt’s argument that frustrates me the most. A call for “vigilance” of all the nitty gritty details that make up the modern welfare and regulatory state calls seems to me to call for more, not less, policy engagement. Signs like these should be a whole lot more common.
Signs like this make Matt Yglesias moist.
And trust me, every nerd-bone in my body is tickled that they’re there at all. But that’s not the way OWS is going as a movement.
Part of this may be that I don’t understand Foucault. That’s Harcourt’s specialty, and he may be eliding over arguments that would be obvious were I operating at the same intellectual level as he. Another professor a U of C explained Foucault’s definition of freedom* using Andrew Sullivan as an example: roughly paraphrased, “Be a gay, HIV positive, conservative supporter of Obama who mentions Oakeshott daily. Confound expectations.” Again, like participatory democracy, this is all well and good on its own merits, but it’s not conducive to societal change. I feel like, in the final analysis, the OWS protestors are operating using the same logic as underwear gnomes.
- Embody theories of radical participatory democracy
- Societal change!
We’re part of the 99% too!
I’m firmly in OWS’s corner. I agree with the problems they have identified with contemporary American political and economic life, insofar as I can tease any one set of critiques out of their protests. I just worry it’s not going to amount to anything.
Konczal concludes his piece by cosigning Doug Henwood. After detailing OWS’s philosophically-sourced lack of policy points, Henwood writes,
But without those things, as Jodi says, there can be no politics….Occupiers: I love you, I’m glad you’re there, the people I talked to were inspiring—but you really have to move beyond this. Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent.
Everybody and their mother has noted that OWS doesn’t seem to have a typical policy agenda and predict this will make it difficult to enact change. I appreciate people like Harcourt and Konczal who go farther and proffer a reason why this is. What I’m looking for is a smart person who understands and supports OWS’s operational methodologies to articulate the next step. But I haven’t seen it yet.
There’s a certain romanticism to cheering the hero on a hopeless quest. SImilarly, there’s a romanticism to the guy that stands alone before a tank in Tiananmen Square. But it’s 22 years later and China’s still an authoritarian state. And it’s more frustrating than romantic when the quest is hopeless because the hero refuses to draw his sword when he meets the dragon.
[fn1] Bizzo rightly wonders via email, "can you ‘disobey’ a ‘maneuver’?"
[fn2] I haven’t heard of him either
[fn2] Or at least one of them. Foucault changed his thought constantly, apparently to avoid reification. So not only do I not understand Foucault’s philosophy, I don’t understand any of his philosophies, let alone his meta-philosophy.