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Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer: "The Neoliberal Radicals"


Considerations open out into the world and into shared life. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire said they point to limit situations on which people differ—for instance, how to deal with global restructuring, with manufacturing and industrial outsourcing, immigration, and intensified poverty. Some people take one side on such issues, others another. This is a limit situation. Asserting one side of it in a shout is not considering it, and it is not liberation.

This is a paragraph from “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest,” which John Hulsey recently criticized here on e-flux conversations. John omitted it, and the omission is significant. Hulsey wants to claim that “consideration” is “liberalism.” But there in the paragraph, centrally, is a Brazilian Marxist, a radical egalitarian and communitarian, who is the only theorist to be mentioned in the piece—just there at the point where the central concept is sketched. Let’s consider it.

I think the omission is central to understanding what is going wrong in John’s picture of democracy, and in this reply, I would like to explain how so. I will argue that suppressing Freire allows John to suppress the interpersonal, which, as a category, is needed to reclaim democracy from neoliberalism. That John suppresses it allows him to perform what he calls “protest” in the space of neoliberalism as an effect and extension of neoliberalism’s logic. Thus, I will argue that John’s piece actually expresses what I will call “neoliberal radicalism.” It is, in essence, another form of alienation today, and we should reject it in the interest of democracy.

Democracy is to come. What we have developed of it in the world so far is incomplete and imperfect, and we should not assume that we have yet developed the concepts to think through democracy precisely and completely. Filling Hulsey’s articles are some of the very concepts that keep us from conceptualizing democracy—and the same can be said for the omissions acting to suppress democratic possibility.

Consideration as a Collective Effort

Hulsey has a way of attributing things to his opponent that could not be there on close reading. For instance, he attributes to my position the view that protest is “self-expression.” But not only is that phrase never mentioned, nor any concept of the protest as about the “self”; the centrality of Freire to my normative concept of democracy also means that we are dealing with dialogue. The one is monadic, the other dyadic, to borrow a term used well by Michael Thompson. Dialogue is “second personal,” not “first personal.” It is intersubjective and grounded in a relational concept of people, not an atomistic concept of the individual self.1

Realizing that this is the logic of human life assumed in my initial piece on aesthetics reveals a number of things immediately. For one, it shows that the central example of the article—that of protesters shouting with no respondent present—is there to reveal the logical problem of protest not being shaped relationally. If, as Freire assumes, human beings are relational, interpersonal beings, then to conceive of acts that are democratic in a non-relational, monadic way is to alienate those acts from our humanity. This is what shouting at the sky does: it reveals our alienation. Protest is often, largely, tragic.

Secondly, focusing in on relational logic shows that conceiving of protest as a calculative force is also alienated. Hulsey’s view of protest and of how to study it conceives of protest as technology, that is, instrumentally. This explains why, in the face of an opinion piece that makes no pretension to do descriptive sociology, comprehensive social movement history, or the like, Hulsey projects onto my essay that it must be an “analysis” of what the thing is that people call “protest” historically, and what it can do sociologically. Hulsey has to make my moralist’s piece—a provocation that is normative, not descriptive—into a study of forces in a social field so that he can suggest how inadequate it is at doing that. He needs to reposition the normative discussion of protest and of democracy into a descriptive discussion of effectiveness within a field of social forces in order to reposition protest as calculative, rather than as a relationship emerging in community. This is both alienated and alienating.

Hulsey further entrenches alienation by conceiving of the scene of protest through an authoritarian concept of power. It is crucial to Hulsey’s view that power be conceptualized as power-over people, not as power-between or power-with people. Presumably, power-over people should be the problem that democratic action overcomes. But in Hulsey’s view of the world, it’s both problem and solution. Protest as a tactics of dealing with power-over people must be wielded tactically to have power-over the problem. This, of course, is a vicious cycle that rationalizes protest as an act in a world of forces. I’ll discuss the bad faith of this later, but the point is that it is alienated from democracy by way of omitting the relational nature of being human.2

We need to understand the relational nature of consideration and Freire’s use of Jaspers’s idea of a limit situation in order to see what democracy involves and what we should assert as our shared presence and field of goals in protest. Hulsey, of course, needs to minimize consideration—first by reducing what is clearly a philosophical concept in my hands into a naive term of conventional speech. Hulsey calls the idea of consideration “civil conversation,” not protest. He also thinks it insists on mere “politeness,” rather than flowing from the causes of indignation and the fundamental interpersonal and impersonal violences that drive protest. Alternately, in a moment that shows some awareness of the novel use of consideration at work in the Freire passage, Hulsey suggests that a protest centered around “consideration” projects the classroom onto the street (and projects me as a “facilitator” onto social movements). To my mind, the picture that is painted is of an Obama-era neoliberal complicit with the management of populations condescendingly trying to tell people to be nice when we are legitimately outraged and violated as human beings, when we are invisible, or when we are facing either our fundamental inequality vis-à-vis some repressive state apparatus or our fundamental irrelevance in a field of market forces. But of course, this is not where Freire is coming from—nor my own position.

Consideration marks the collective act of activating the relational space between people to construct a shared world. The word’s root comes from a Latin root that means to test, in fact, to test with. I clearly say that it means to test with social reality and to test with each other. The former implies a dialectical project of acquiring collective self-consciousness by “tarrying with the negative” and the latter implies an intersubjective process of constructing a world that can be legitimate for us all.3 Neither of these are conflict free or avoidant.

Take first the part about considering social reality. Freire’s entire project involves a rejection of education as an authoritarian act—including the neoliberal authoritarianism of “facilitation.” It in no way models education on the classroom. Rather, it is centered around a situation of deep vulnerability that comes with being poor and lost to the world: the community meeting in a time of deprivation. This is the historical context from which it developed and for which it was primarily meant. When Hulsey tries to suggest the picture of micromanaged, classroom chitchat, he shows that he hasn’t read Freire. Everybody can learn from everybody in Friere, and the best time to learn is when we really need to become free and to insist on our equality in solidarity.

Take, then, the second part about constructing a world that is legitimate for us all. Any world in which the question of legitimacy arises, any world in which what it is to share power is raised, will be a world that must work through conflict. If this was not entirely clear in my original piece, I have written about it in popular venues since (to be fair, published after Hulsey wrote his contribution here). But I do not think this takes much to imagine, when my core aesthetic example from the art world was of “socially engaged aesthetics.” Hulsey begins his piece by explaining how he learned of my article from his circle of socially engaged artists. He, more than I, knows that socially engaged aesthetics centers on the tensions that arise between people as members of polities, on violence, invisibility, exclusion, deprivation, on democratic powerlessness in the face of impersonal, corporate greed (the links are interesting) … There is no way to make consideration “merely” polite here. Rather, we have to hear how true politeness involves grappling with political conflict (hear the “polity” in “politeness”).

These are the kinds of things—and more, if we take some time to imagine sympathetically—at stake in the repeated figure of the space between us that is central to my initial piece and which is blocked out of the imagery of Hulsey’s reply even as he apparently quotes it.

The Low Ground and the High Ground

One thing that was interesting to me about John’s criticisms is that they tracked onto, almost point for point, a set of vehement objections raised in the lengthy comment section of the Hyperallergic article (down to the odd invocation of “self-expression” which isn’t found in the actual article).4 This set of comments came from a loose network of Disqus users who appeared to follow and “upvote” each other. At the center of their network of concerns was both the concept of power-over that I’ve previously mentioned and the idea of power inequality between people in the protest situation. This idea is also central to John’s criticism and is, I think, the most important criticism for someone coming out of the communitarian tradition that Freire marks.

The idea is that there is a war. One side has the high ground—for instance, Bank of America. The other side has the low ground—an everyday mortgage owner who was duped into taking an adjustable-rate mortgage and who now has no recourse from bankruptcy and homelessness. In this war, fighting with Bank of America is unlikely to be successful, because it has the high ground. It has a vast power over the situation and over the everyday person. It has property laws, lending laws, the support of the government as being “too big to fail,” deep pockets, a massive legal team, and more …5

Now comes the former homeowner, living out of a pay-by-week motel, struggling to pay her bills, ashamed, looked down on by her family, avoided by people as a reminder of US inequality. What can she do? Can she go speak nicely with the bank? Can she ask them to “consider” her? She is just a number, and their numbers will negate her cry for justice. There’s a massive power imbalance here. This, finally, is where protest first makes sense.

I agree. But what is at stake is how protest makes sense. Hulsey’s position—and that of many of the commenters on my original article—is that protest makes sense as a threat. This is also the view Natasha Lennard romanticized in reporting on the #distruptJ20 black bloc actions that have triggered the oppressive power-over apparatus of Washington, DC and the Trump administration’s influencing of it. Protest is a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window (see 36s ff.). I will call this “counterpower-over.” The idea is that against power over people, we must exert a counterpower over the oppressors.

We could debate the tactics of this viewpoint, which are going to turn friendly protest cities into unfriendly protest cities by way of black bloc actions, thereby extending the reach and deepening the grip of the police state.6 But then we would be accepting that the way to deal with power-over people is through power-over others (e.g. Boards of Trustees, CEOs, and lawmakers) and would merely debate “tactics.” This is precisely what the radical, communitarian democracy of the relational view of power denies. It denies counterpower not because it may or may not be effective, but because it is not democratic at heart. To echo Foucault from his preface to Anti-Oedipus, counterpower is still authoritarianism in our heads and hearts.7

There is a power-reversal in the aesthetics of protest as I have understood protest normatively. Rather than accepting that we are positioned as objects by objectifying institutions such as major, corporate banks, people who will claim their own democratic being must claim themselves as having democratic agency starting from how we approach the world. In this viewpoint, the most important effect at stake in political struggle is the first one of becoming visible in the field of sense as a person who shares power with others.8 And continuous with this disruption into the locked-up field of oppressive sense is the eruption of insisting on the how of democracy. Let me explain.

At the heart of democracy is the idea that power must be shared between people or it is unacceptable. Democracy is a way of life, not simply a set of voting institutions. As such, democracy has what Kevin Houser calls an “adverbial” dimension.9 How we protest is as important as what we protest. If we protest in such a way that we do not project the sharing of power, then we are not acting democratically. Our ethos is all fucked-up. We are undermining in our manner what we might be seeking in our thoughts. We are quite literally disempowering ourselves as democratic subjects, and we are depersonalizing ourselves by depersonalizing others. When we turn people into objects—for instance, the Starbucks workers and coffee drinkers inside a shop that gets its windows hammered down, or the police who oppose us in protests—we are acting undemocratically. We don’t get to yell “democracy!” and act undemocratically. That’s the adverbial point.

The Neoliberal Radicals

Let’s now return to the idea of a limit situation that I singled out in my allusion to Freire in my Hyperallergic article. In a popular essay with no other technical jargon, the use of a technical concept from Jaspers’s existentialism repurposed to the dialectical philosophy of a radical, Brazilian socialist should stand out to a trained academic. John’s omission of this concept shows a lapse in focus, as if ideology got the best of him as he projected it onto another. What would this ideology be?10

I think it is neoliberalism. In this section, I want to argue that neoliberalism, precisely defined, forms Hulsey’s thinking in unacknowledged ways, including his avoidance of those aspects of my original article that would disrupt his view of it as quietist and complicit with power-over people. Moreover, I want to claim that it is neoliberalism that mainly signals the limit situation of our time.

In Freire’s usage, limit situations are architectonic decision points within institutional and ideational arrangements that oppress and divide people. Limit situations do not just fall on the oppressed. They also structure the oppressors’ lives. Freire’s idea seems to be that in a society where people are set up in conflict with each other—some exerting power over others and all having their capacities for interpersonal relationship and human agency undermined to some extent—there will be a problem structuring the polarizations, tensions, and divisions around which sides and oppositions set up. People will disagree and disconnect around this problem, but only because they share it. The problem, then, both structures and conceals their shared life, recasting it in antagonistic terms and thus dehumanizing everybody to some extent. The limit situation is the point of decision within the problem where people divide in order to structure their lives coherently.11

In searching for this consideration in social reality, Freire was developing a tradition with deep roots in radical social philosophy as far back as Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1755). This tradition assumes that conflict is constructed and tries to find the ways that those apparently at war with each other are actually identified beneath and through the construction of the conflict. For instance, the tradition that reminds striking laborers and baton-wielding police that they are each deployed in a form of exploitation that deflects away from the unequal distribution of social possibilities is part of this tradition. The police, too, are often poorly trained, scared, overworked, and employed in the absence of what they might take as better options, had they different ones. Limit situations are Freire’s way of reminding us conceptually, not just sentimentally, that those who confront us are people too. They have had to make decisions in the situation we share. The limit situation calls us to consider, critically and reflectively, the way the conflict is constructed to create a division in human community around which different decisions have been made.

Today, as I have recently argued elsewhere following Wendy Brown’s work,12 the problem that divides us is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a system of rationality that links politics to persons and both to the financial market, with every social institution in between likewise pressured to conform. The system of rationality is radically simple: it subjects all values to capitalist market values, especially financial ones, thereby colonizing every aspect of life through a metric of its capacity to generate financial wealth. What makes it an especially new and pernicious form of capitalism is that it hollows out democracy and collective consciousness from within, dissolving, e.g., an awareness of class or of solidarity groupings in its radical individualization of people into their competitive potential against each other. By working on the public sphere and making it subservient to financial values, by radicalizing the education of individuals and the ethics of individual performance, and by reconfiguring all human collectives as mere reconfigurable sets of individuals arranged for market performance, it does away with democratic agency and solidarity. In short, it destroys our capacity to think, say, and be a “we.”

I am positive that people such as Hulsey, Lennard, or the commenters on Disqus I mentioned would vehemently object to being caught within a neoliberal logic, but I do not see how they cannot be. By insisting on “power” as a field of forces that must be strategically threatened to move people as objects toward the goals they think desirable, and by consistently belittling and minimizing the power of human communication and solidarity to act democratically (i.e., in that adverbial manner), the counterpower radicals are complicit with the logic of individualization, market objectification, and the dismantling of collective power-sharing. They do not seek it, but they promote it, indirectly and unintentionally. This all flows from adopting the view of power that they do and from rejecting the possibilities of what I have been calling—in a communitarian manner indebted to Freire—interpersonal consideration. They literally say that consideration is just being “nice,” but I want to say, “Nice try. You are being neoliberal radicals.” You may not intentionally mean to do so, but you are reproducing ideology and tactics that contribute to a vicious cycle of dismantling the “we.”

Whether we will be is the limit situation that appears within neoliberalism. The capitalist and the power-over protester such as Hulsey actually share one set of answers to this limit. They divide around the limit by locking in an antagonism of shared premises that perpetuates itself.13 But there is another way to decide on the limit within neoliberalism. It is to get over power-over as a viable way of life.14

Protest as a Way of Life

There’s a sense in which John’s and my essays are simply talking about different things. Equivocation structures many of the central terms—“protest,” “power,” “democracy,” and “consideration”—such that we are not even referring to the same things. Moreover, our methodological assumptions are so different that when Hulsey says my initial article contains an “analysis,” he is assuming a set of analytic practices that I do not in any way claim or intend in the piece he criticizes and which I also do not exclude. Still, the disagreement is productive, because at bottom we have a different way of approaching how to deal with anti-democratic institutions and ideations in our society.

Hulsey takes the perspective of practical reason, typical to the French tradition he cites favorably (this same viewpoint also infuses the Deleuzian and Guattarian overtones of Lennard’s perspective: the “becoming war machine” of the bloc). Here, protest is instrumental. It is seen in terms of its effects. One can assess it calculatively and strategically. It is temporary, one action in a set of actions that can constitute a political life. Seeing protest as a complete action, as practical, has deep roots in the tradition of Greek philosophy, too, up through the emphasis Marx and the Marxist tradition has often put on it.

My approach, however, comes from the centrality of relational reason to being people.15 This approach is rooted not in the Greeks, but in the dialectical tradition of intersubjectivity begun in Rousseau and developed by Hegel, Kierkegaard, and then an entire twentieth-century phenomenological and sociological tradition of intersubjectivity, one deepened significantly by feminist work on relational freedom. Marx is largely silent about it, which I take to be one way he can rationalize violence and allow a tradition following him to rationalize totalitarian methods. I also think that the extent to which Hulsey and certainly Lennard either own violent concepts (such as threats) or openly advocate violence (such as punching people you hate) is largely made possible by completely ignoring relational reason and the second-person standpoint.16

From the perspective of reasoning relationally, protest is not simply an instrumental action, and it is not a stratagem. It is a manifestation of our communal potential, an assertion of solidarity, and it cries out for a space between us that is just and loving. In this space, people are not objects—neither the oppressors, nor the oppressed certainly; neither the police, nor the protesters; neither the neo-Nazi nor Donald Trump. The object world, in fact, is bracketed as secondary to the centrality of persons and their potential for relationship. Conflict is not avoided, but is faced. Violence is not endorsed, but is eschewed. The adverbial dimension of this protest is thoroughly democratic, and it is thoroughly anti-neoliberal, because it begins with the centrality of “we.”

The centrality of “we,” moreover, shows how this perspective cannot be classically liberal. Classical liberalism is a relation between people and the state that redirects civic republican freedom into negative liberties.17 Here, freedom from fear and from tyranny is handled by constructing people as individuals with rights not to be interfered with by the state or, by extension, each other. It is not grounded in “we,” but in “me.” The perspective I am working from, however, is communitarian and, I would add, civic republican, because there is no “we” when we can’t look each other in the face as human beings.

“We” can’t be assumed. It is a starting point that in actual life becomes what Kant called—in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—a regulative ideal. “We” can only be worked for and worked through. Its idealism produces what Foucault called a “critical attitude” on any assumption of “we.”18 It is always incomplete, and it is always open. This explains why, in it, many more possibilities for protest open up—normatively, not descriptively!—than have been catalogued by the strategists of force that Hulsey seems to admire. For protest is actually a way of life in the relational perspective. It is a way of centering oneself on the common and attempting to expose and to construct it wherever we go.19 This is why socially engaged art is such a useful thing to consider right now at a point in time when Donald Trump has taken the restraints off of neoliberalism and is poised to dismantle the global and intergenerational commons to an extent never before seen in history, irreversible, even possibly an end to humankind.20 Well, are we going out like that? We do not need more calculative locking-up in cycles of increasing suppression and objectification complicit with neoliberalism. We need democracy as a way of life. And for that we need normative concepts of protest that act as powerful potentials to open up our imagination and to help us unwork and rework all the myriad ways that neoliberalism has wound itself around being human, choking out our collective ability to share power.


1 Michael Thompson, “What Is It to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” in Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, eds. R. Jay Wallace, P. Pettit, S. Scheffler, and M. Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004); Stephen Darwall, The Second Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
2 This use of alienation harkens back to Marx’s in the 1844 Manuscripts, where multiple levels of alienation are discussed. According to Marx, one can be alienated not just from the products of one’s production, but also from one’s human essence. Needless to say, this latter kind of alienation is graver.
3 G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, many editions available; Steven Vogel, Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
4 There was more to “Atomsk,” who took to verbally abusing those with whom he disagreed. His manner of protesting the article revealed a vicious cycle in which people are treated as objects in response to a world where people are treated as objects.
5 Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Sought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).
6 I work often as a legal observer to protect protester rights against unlawful or excessive police action. I have done some research on the aftermath of the #distruptJ20 arrests within my network of lawyers and observers. That the black bloc’s actions will extend the police state to friendly cities is the considered view emerging across the network, based on experience.
7 Michael Foucault in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Penguin Books, 2009); the allusion is deliberately complex, since: (1) Foucault criticized the category of power-over in his sweeping critique of the “repressive hypothesis” and in his analysis of disciplinary power in the nineteenth century; (2) Foucault referenced “anti-fascist” living, and fascism in the head and heart is specific to a post-Vichy France; (3) Foucault famously threw bricks from the rooftops in ’68; and (4) Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts seem behind the imagery of, e.g., the black bloc as romanticized by activist reporters such as Lennard. Nonetheless, I mean to use this allusion both with and against Foucault. He, more than most, understood his views to be conflicted and imperfect—in a process of becoming.
8 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004) and Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
9 See forthcoming work by Houser on Levinas and the nature of reasons. See also my “Common humanity and human rights,” Religion and Human Rights (Social Philosophy Today, vol. 21), Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2005.
10 I am not using ideology in Žižek’s sense, although limit situations create fundamental ambivalence which people struggle to ignore. Around limit situations, people will dig in not to see how the situation could be otherwise.
11 Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, chap. 3 (London: Continuum Books, 2000).
12 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2015).
13 In correspondence, Kevin Houser elaborates as follows: “If power[-over] is taken to be the pervasive and predominant relation, then one has smuggled in to every protest against neoliberalism and its consequences the most basic premise of neoliberalism. One rails against the effects of neoliberal premises while performing them … It is thus, on a deep level, complicitly neoliberal, in your sense. If the basic problem is the neoliberal ethos of competition and contending powers, then an approach to protest that propounds and performs this ethos is a protest against neoliberal values in name only. For it embodies, performs, expresses, and enshrines the competitive (vs. collaborative and communicative) neoliberal standard of value.” Kevin Houser, personal email correspondence, January 26, 2017, Cleveland, Ohio.
14 “Getting over”—transcending—is what Freire kept of Jaspers’s original existential notion. For Jaspers, limit situations afford us the difficult freedom to transcend the things that bind us by changing the way that we live. See Chris Thornhill, “Karl Jaspers,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.
15 This would be my interjection to the discussion of Badiou, Bourdieu, Butler, Didi-Huberman, Khiari, and Rancière in their What Is a People? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
16 For some early work on this logic of reason that joins the analytic philosophical, phenomenological, psychoanalytic, and neuroscientific traditions that contribute to it, see my “’Do you have a conscience?’” International Journal of Global Ethical Leadership, inaugural issue, vol. 1 (Fall 2012), and “The moral and the ethical: what conscience teaches us about morality,” in Morality: Reasoning on Different Approaches, ed. Vasil Gluchmann (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013). See also my forthcoming Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2017), which is a study in relational reason as a way of life.
17 Philip Petit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). I do not consider Hayek a classical liberal but a transitional case between liberalism and neoliberalism. My reference is early modern and Millian.
18 In “What Is Critique?” (1978) reprinted in Sylvère Lotringer’s edited volume The Politics of Truth (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007).
19 See also Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
20 I am referring to climate change and the risk of a mass extinction cascade. See my and Chris Haufe’s entry on mass extinction science, ethics, and civics in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics, edited by Steve Gardiner and Allen Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Image via Fox 5 DC.

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