Theorization of politics as an endless struggle: “Critique et praxis” by Bernard Harcourt

Eric Laursen is a freelance journalist, activist and academic. His new book is The operating system: an anarchist theory of the state (AK Press).

Anarchists march through Dresden, Germany. January 2020. Photo Protestfotografie Dresden

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review of Criticism and praxis: A critical philosophy of illusions, values ​​and action, by Bernard E. Harcourt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020)

Late in his new book Criticism and praxis, Bernard Harcourt tells the rather depressing story of his former colleague and friend Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School.

After a long and distinguished career as a human rights defender, he was appointed by President Barak Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate as Legal Advisor to the United States Department of State under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As such, Koh effectively drafted the rules of engagement to justify the use of lethal force in drone strikes.

“How the hell,” Harcourt asks, “has someone who has dedicated their life to human rights then allowed themselves to become, in fact, an executioner?” The answer is that Koh, like so many future reformers, has embraced the idea that we must be governed, “and therefore we must justify a less nefarious form of government rather than stubbornly insisting on our ungovernability.” This is not to say that human beings can get by without being governed in one way or another, but that if their goal is to change a bad social and political system for the better, they must get out of it, refuse to d ‘to be governed by him – and not to be “drawn into the project of governing”.

Harcourt, Columbia University law professor, civil rights lawyer and leading critic of capital punishment and prison status, captions his book “A critical philosophy of illusions, values ​​and actionAnd its goal is as ambitious as it sounds: to situate critical theory historically, to update it, to define its practical political goals and to make it once again a powerful activist tool for the left. It is radical, thoughtful by experts, and full of ideas and ideas useful for anyone who wishes to transform social and political theory into strategies for changing the world, such as his vision of ungovernability. This is what critical theory has supposedly been from its origins in the early Marxist times of the Frankfurt School. And although it is primarily aimed at insiders – it never actually defines “critical theory” – it is written lucidly and relatively short in jargon.

Which makes it an important book to pay attention to, even for those not interested in abstruse politico-social theories, as we urgently need new ways to critique the system we live in and develop new ones. strategies to oppose and replace it. Harcourt (who, in full disclosure, is a friend) suggests some, but also inadvertently raises questions about the extent to which practitioners of critical theory are willing or able to conduct their analysis.

Context is everything

Criticism and praxis begins with a call to critical theory practitioners to get down to business and get back to basics. It begins with the admission that we live in a more fluid social and political landscape than the Marxists or 19.e the liberals of the century experienced this, given their deterministic belief in scientific progress. “The political condition is an endless struggle that does not end in a perfect situation or a utopian state,” argues Harcourt, “but continues forever, so that in the end the political struggle must itself be part of it. of the utopian vision and of what critical theory embraces. We “do” politics because it’s in our nature as humans, you might say, and we should look askance at any argument that we shouldn’t.

Statements of truth are always contingent, and attempts to assert one with finality – be it Christianity, Marxism-Leninism, or National Socialism – are likely to end in authoritarianism, Harcourt warns. But even when it doesn’t, it comes down to a final race around politics, an attempt to sort out issues that can never be fully resolved, avoiding the quarrels, litigation, and general disorder that come with full democratic participation. Neoliberalism, the dominant development model and economic orthodoxy of the past four to five decades, is an example of this: a dogma that was accepted even by the governments of the former Soviet bloc and that was supposed to replace earlier debates between socialism and Keynesianism, communism and freedom. -market capitalism. Another example is the one-party state, a structural model popular in the developing world in the early postcolonial decades. Critical theory must therefore never allow itself to be regarded as a method of discovering truth. Instead, its practitioners should hone their ability to uncover and confront illusions disguised as regimes of truth, such as the “free” market, upward social mobility, or the robust individual. When we don’t, we can find ourselves making the same unfortunate choices as Harold Koh.

Politics is a matter of context, argues Harcourt. Critical theory can help us find the best way to confront oppression and authority – in this particular situation – through “careful, respectful, contextual, case-by-case analysis of our political struggles that responds to the situation. exact and to the existing political reality. economic regime in which we … find ourselves.

There is also a personal angle to this approach. Rather than asking the prototypical question of Lenin to revolutionaries: “What to do?” a question usually addressed to others, we should ask ourselves, “What more should I do?” In other words, “what is my political praxis and what work does it do?” Does it work and if so, how? This forces us to focus our political activity on solving the immediate conditions of oppression and injustice, not on achieving an envisioned utopia – or the truth.

Of course, we still need a social and political vision or a set of values ​​against which we can judge our actions and their results. Only, it cannot be a regime, like the planned economy or the socialist state. “The effort to build formal or procedural devices fails, whether in law, politics or economics,” writes Harcourt. “In the end, we come face to face with values ​​- and only values. ”The“ critical values ​​”he has in mind are quite simple:“ to create a more egalitarian, compassionate and just society where there is less oppression, marginalization and domination, a lower social differential and a greater possibility for everyone to realize their full potential and autonomy. ”

The difference between these values ​​and those that capitalist and pre-capitalist systems have tended to espouse is that they are strictly political, not religious or moral. They are “precious” because they help to produce political change that goes in the direction of equality, autonomy and the end of oppression.

Whose values ​​are?

Harcourt takes this focus on context a step further – and this step is problematic. Is there a political system that is inherently bad or opposed to our critical values? Apart from Nazism or Stalinism, it seems that there is none. “Critical theorists simply cannot say ex ante that one type of political economic regime – centralized, nationalized, unionized, private or anarchist – is more supportive of critical values ​​than another,” he writes. “We can only judge the distributive results of already existing political economies.” Any form of political organization is acceptable, in other words, as long as it gives us the latitude to pursue our critical values.

Harcourt sees it as a way to avoid the trap of preselecting a utopia towards which we must work: like communism or laissez-faire capitalism. But this suggests that, apart from Nazism or Stalinism, specific forms of political or social organization are worthless. This is not the case. Specific values ​​are inherent in particular forms of political, social and economic organization. It may be possible to pursue parts of an agenda for equality and the realization of human potential in the structure of a capitalist state, for example, but the capitalist state has its own values: above all, the imperative of ‘an increasingly large economy. growth, outweighing concerns about the exploitation of the workforce or the physical environment. He will always repel such an effort.

It can also be argued that Harcourt’s menu of critical values ​​is incomplete; if human equality and autonomy are “critical”, isn’t maximum democracy, guaranteeing a real voice in decision-making for each person, also critical? Any state-based system is, arguably, a system headed in the opposite direction: to concentrate power in a small group, whether they are capitalists, technocrats or members of the royal family, whoever they are. the democratic forms it adopts.

Harcourt rightly insists that the aim of critical theory should be to resist the production of “truths” which elude or neutralize politics and struggle. But the state, whether capitalist, fascist, Maoist, Islamic or in some other form, strives to impose its own truths on its populations, including the need for the police, prison systems, armies, weapons of mass destruction and the pursuit of growth above all. These must also be criticized and confronted if it is to be coherent in its overall argumentation and if the critical theory is to play the role it attributes to it. If not, what prevents the state from defending or reaffirming its own very different values? Dominant powers in Washington have spent the past 40 years or so rolling back New Deal and Big Society reforms, many of which demanded that the state and capitalism compromise on their determined pursuit of economic growth. While they haven’t been completely successful, the election of a Democratic President and Congress last year does not guarantee that the process will be reversed.

If the state is a blind spot in Harcourt’s analysis, it is not exclusively his; Critical theory dating back to Lukacs, Horkheimer, Adorno and his other pioneers has always tended to ignore or look beyond the state when formulating its analyzes. The problem goes back to Marx himself, who still sits at the root of critical theory, even though it is sidelined from many of his specific teachings.

In raising these questions, however, I am aware that I am using the very technique that Criticism and praxis encourages us to resume: to relentlessly criticize all prescribed truths, to denounce the illusions that underlie them, and to use this process to promote the core values ​​of freedom and equality. Criticism and praxis makes a powerful argument that the process of critical theory always has an important role in promoting political change. While it has “become more and more limited to academia and professional critics,” as Harcourt puts it, his book clarifies its history and should help politically engaged people outside these circles to use it again as a tool to change the world. The questions he asks: “What to problematize today? And how should I do it? – are a good starting point.

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