by John Hulsey
One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here
A few weeks ago, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer wrote a rebuttal to my essay “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Liberalism.” My article was a critique of his earlier piece “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest,” and I wrote it primarily to remind people not to be dissuaded by our friends. I found in Bendik-Keymer’s original article a disdain for the tactics of civil resistance and a desire to dispense with them entirely in favor of what he considers a more righteous course of action—namely, compassionate conversation across difference. I found his dismissal troublesome for a few reasons. First, I saw friends in my networks sharing it. Second, I saw in his admonition the echo of various commonplace errors in thinking about protest today. Those who advocate for conversation as a solution to systemic societal problems tend to confuse principled and strategic action, and they tend to misunderstand the role of social struggle in producing large-scale political change. They take a prefigurative rather than a strategic approach to action, believing that we might simply talk our way into a more just world. On the eve of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, these views felt particularly infelicitous and unsound. I found myself compelled to address the problems with Bendik-Keymer’s argument not as a means to discredit the author’s work, but in order to take a step toward keeping us all from getting any more confused than necessary about a confusing subject in these especially confusing times.
I believed then, as I continue to believe now, that mass protest—civil disobedience, noncooperation, and strategic disruption—will be essential elements in the resistance to the Trump agenda in the months to come. I felt then, as I do now, that at the dawn of this new historical period, we need a rigorously engaged, imaginative, and courageous approach to resistance in order to help us achieve the society that we deserve. And I believed then, as I believe now, that this is an especially important moment to be exploring these questions from the vantage of politically engaged art. Throughout history, artists have demonstrated an immense capacity to reimagine the forms, gestures, and shapes that resistance takes, and I wanted to offer a few reflections on how these issues might most productively be engaged today. I suggested that our aesthetic tactics might take on a more strategic dimension by learning from the civil resistance traditions of the past. And I invited us to consider the ways in which the forms we deploy might be used to help shape a new common sense that will serve as the foundation for the society to come.
My essay was sharply critical of Bendik-Keymer’s argument, so it’s not surprising that he would want to defend his position. In his response, “The Neoliberal Radicals,” I expected to find an engagement with the historical dimension of protest that he had previously neglected—especially given the gravity of our present historical circumstances. What I saw, instead, was an argument quite similar to his previous one: drawing on concepts from philosophy and critical theory, he shores up his assertion that protest, as a tactic, shuts down communication and abrogates the ethical relationship with the other. Insofar as his argument is meant as a prescription for action that has both political and ethical dimensions, it will be necessary to understand how it falls short on both ethical and political grounds so that we might arrive, finally, at a clearer understanding of protest in our time of crisis.
But first, it’s worth summarizing Bendik-Keymer’s arguments so far. In his original article, he argued that instead of protesting, people should “go to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement, and stage an in-depth conversation aimed to educate all sides.” In my response, I argued that his proposal falls flat because it is blind to history. In divorcing his methodology from any coherent understanding of how political change has occurred historically, he renders his suggestions inadequate as frameworks for action. Further, in his aversion toward protest as a tactic, I noted that his argument aligns with certain tendencies in contemporary liberalism (and this, in spite of the leftist “pedigree” of his references), insofar as liberal thought tends to shy away from public confrontation in favor of conversation as a means of addressing entrenched political problems.
Bendik-Keymer’s response to me hinges on the claim that any form of strategic action is “alienated and alienating” because it engages in means-end calculations. In using strategic logics to achieve a political purpose, he argues that protest erodes the “relational nature” of human interconnectedness. Drawing on the pedagogical ideas of Paolo Freire, he maintains that the goal of political action should be to arrive at an understanding of the ways in which we are all implicated in systems of oppression so that we might transform rather than merely reiterate them. He argues that by using “shouts,” “threats,” or even “violence” (what he calls “counterpower-over”), protest shuts down that possibility by seeking to invert relations of power rather than transform them: instead of opening dialogue, protest is “a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window.” He argues, further, that this form of protest is actually “neoliberal,” because according to his definition of the term, neoliberalism is the deployment of means-end calculations and “power-over” dynamics. Thus, the view that I and others present is “neoliberal radicalism” because (i) it focuses on questions of strategy; (ii) strategic thinking is a form of “power-over” or “instrumental” logic; (iii) “power-over” or “instrumental” logics are “neoliberal”; therefore (iv) describing the strategic dimension of protest is “neoliberal.”
There are quite a few problems with Bendik-Keymer’s thinking, but I want to focus on three primary issues that will be crucial to explore if we are to arrive at a clearer conception of political action in this current moment:
1.) Any attempt to produce social or political change is necessarily strategic, even if the element of strategy is disavowed.
2.) Rather than seeking to merely invert systems of oppression, the great protest movements in modern history have, in fact, centered the ethical relationship both as part of their organizing methodology and as their horizon for political struggle.
3.) Any attempt to reduce the ethical complexity of political action is, itself, an abrogation of ethical consideration.
To elaborate on these points, I will draw on the writings of four figures whose work merits especially close consideration today: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the question of power; Paolo Freire on the dialectics of pedagogy and action; Erica Chenoweth on the history of strategic nonviolent movements; and Chantal Mouffe on agonism in democratic politics.
We are without doubt in the throes of political crisis in the United States. With the election of Donald J. Trump as our 45th president and the appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist, we are up against a frighteningly repressive regime, the likes of which many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. The largest national security apparatus in the history of the world is poised to crack down on our most vulnerable populations: immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, LGBTQ people. Families have been torn apart as refugees and Green Card holders from countries like Syria, Iran, and Yemen have been denied entry at our airports. Medicare, Social Security, and public education will soon be on the chopping block. Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee will attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade, and the revocation of the public school bathroom bill puts thousands of transgender students at risk. Jeff Sessions has said that he will scrap DACA, and Bannon appears to be yearning for a destructive crisis of world-historical magnitudes that will allow him to “destroy the state” in order to refashion it according to his own far-right designs. I say all of this because there is something a little bit perverse about engaging in a theoretical debate about “protest” without first acknowledging the immensity of the crisis in which we now find ourselves, the irreparable pain that this new regime is set to cause, and the tremendous amount of work that it will take for us to get ourselves out of it.
I say this, also, to get a few basic ideas on the table. If we are in agreement about the nature of the threat we now face; if we understand that our current political crisis did not emerge inexplicably out of Trump’s campaign but evolved out of decades of crisis in our world economic system, the racialized exclusions that have structured our republic from its very inception, and decades of GOP political strategy; if we are in agreement, in other words, about the nature of the problem and if we are committed to doing something about it—not simply to roll back the clock to Clinton-era “Third Way” politics but to give birth, for the first time, to a truly multiracial social democracy; and if we believe that in order to achieve this new society we cannot rely on hope or good intentions alone but on collective hard work; then we are, by definition, engaging in a strategic logic. If we are trying to achieve something—anything—then we are engaging in a means-end calculation. The question is not whether to think in strategic terms, but, rather, what kind of strategic logic is appropriate to the task of creating the world we wish to achieve. And to do this requires that we engage directly in the study of resistance movements so that we might understand how, when, and through what means they have been able to achieve impossible victories against repressive and authoritarian regimes.
Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s assertion, this process of studying the art of social movements has nothing to do with “neoliberalism.” Strategic thinking is nowhere near a sufficient category for understanding the specific set of social, economic, and property relationships under our current financialized form of capitalism; the tactic of protest, moreover, predates the advent of neoliberalism historically.1 Were the lunch-counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, and mass marches of the Civil Rights Movement “neoliberal” because they refused back-door compromises in favor of winning the battle of public opinion, thereby paving the way for federal reforms such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Were the mass strikes and boycotts used by activists in apartheid South Africa “neoliberal” because they resisted a brutal racial caste system rather than trying to have “considerate” conversations with colonial elites? Was Gandhi’s Salt March, in 1930, “neoliberal” because it deployed civil disobedience rather than engaging in negotiation to challenge the legitimacy of the British Raj, thereby leading the way to Indian independence? Such claims are both conceptually incoherent and brashly ahistorical.
These movements understood that in situations of oppression, the condition of possibility for consideration, understanding, and equality is the establishment of a more just and egalitarian society. And they understood that, in order to achieve this society, they needed to engage strategically with dominant institutions that implement unequal relations of power. Here is Martin Luther King, Jr. writing on the subject in his important late volume, Where Do We Go From Here:
Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, the philosopher of the “will to power,” to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “will to power” in the name of the Christian idea of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.2
We can see clearly what distinguishes the thinking of King from the thinking of someone like Bendik-Keymer. For Bendik-Keymer, there are two types of power: “power-over” and “power-with.” Accordingly, there are two types of people: those who engage in “power-over” dynamics (both authoritarian governments and anti-authoritarian movements) and those who choose to center the ethical relationship as a foundational principle for action. For King, power is a vastly more complex force in public life. What matters is not a rigid adherence to “power-with” as a sort of categorical imperative—a rule to be followed independent of context—but the degree to which an engagement with power is animated by “love” and “the demands of justice.” Whereas for Bendik-Keymer the restoration of the ethical relationship will, itself, lead to a leveling of the political playing field, for King it was impossible to consider moving toward a more egalitarian society without, of necessity, working to transform our dominant institutions that encode and enforce violent dynamics of power. Whereas Bendik-Keymer passes over the question of institutional power in silence, King’s entire body of work is a testament to his recognition that, under conditions of institutional oppression, it is only through a strategic confrontation with our political, legal, social, and economic institutions that we might begin to restore the ethical relationship in the first place.
King makes clear that the orchestration of disruptive, confrontational, and polarizing actions such as mass protests, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins was never in the service of creating a “power-over,” “authoritarian,” and “alienated” society, one dominated by the “instrumentalization” of people and things. Rather, the endpoint of struggle was the foundation of the Beloved Community. In a speech following the desegregation of Montgomery’s busses in 1956 he said: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption … It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”3 In 1966, he elaborated further: “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think the end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”4
If we look at history, we can see how these notions of “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “friendship,” and the “brotherly society” reverberate across the literatures, oral histories, and practices of civil resistance movements worldwide. Revolutionary movements such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, for instance, instituted Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to formalize the process of national reconciliation.5 Others, like the Zapatista Movement in Mexico or the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil, fuse militant nonviolent tactics—the use of land occupations, road blockades, and other form of civil disobedience—with popular education methods meant to undo structures of hierarchy and oppression.6 In other words, the aims of the great resistance movements in modern history were not the mere inversion of structures of power but, rather, their transformation in a radically egalitarian direction.
Still, it’s not hard to empathize with Bendik-Keymer’s lament about the disintegration of the ethical relationship in our contemporary society. No thinking person can be blind to the sense of loss or grief that undergirds the case he makes for the restoration of relationship in the aftermath of its brokenness. It is this sense of interconnectedness that Edwige Danticat invoked in a recent essay about poetry and protest by way of Gwendolyn Brooks:
… we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
The ethical relationship—the understanding that we are “each other’s/magnitude and bond”—has been ruptured by our political institutions whose leaders benefit from our separation; it has been fractured by economic calculations that serve a small minority over and against the many. This situation is a genuine social tragedy, and it is precisely because we refuse to live inside of it that we must think clearly about how to get out of it.
For practitioners of civil resistance, this question has never been an easy one to answer. King’s career as a movement leader was filled with excruciating dilemmas. In his Autobiography, he describes the decision to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, in defiance of a federal judge’s injunction, as “one of the most painful decisions I ever made.” In that instance, he had to choose between exposing his people to the full force of white supremacist violence—risking physical harm, trauma, arrest—or running the risk of losing the larger struggle for voting rights:
It is easy to decide on either extreme. To go forward recklessly can have terrible consequences in terms of human life … On the other hand, it is ineffective to guarantee that no violence will occur by the device of not marching or undertaking token marches avoiding direct confrontation.7
Nobody who reads the writings of King can conclude that he has been corrupted by the forces of capitalism, neoliberalism, or the instrumentalization of people and things. King understood that, at the heart of any political struggle, there is a core dilemma. Are we to expose ourselves to risk in order to achieve our political purpose, or are we to avoid confrontation and endure the indefinite violence of our present circumstances? A clear-eyed, undogmatic understanding of the ethical complexities of life under dramatically unequal conditions forces us to admit that no course of action is untainted by compromise. That we have to choose at all between risking harm and enduring inequality is devastating. But we must face that devastation, and then we must decide what to do.
This is precisely what the tradition of ethical philosophy is poised to help do: it offers us frameworks for action under impossible or contradictory circumstances. And it is for this reason that Bendik-Keymer’s argument is so disappointing. Instead of engaging the ethical complexities that emerge in the struggle to transform our political reality, he flattens them out in order to make the choice for action seem simple and obvious. Only those who disavow the structuring role of institutions in our lives can give themselves permission to ignore the contradictions that arise in struggling to change them. Only those who do not have to make the difficult decisions that people like King have had to make can pretend that the choice for action is simple, clear, absolute, and obvious. By setting up “power-with” as a rigid imperative for action, Bendik-Keymer shuts down the specific power of ethics to serve as a meaningful guide in the urgent and necessary task of struggling to transform oppressive institutional arrangements of power.
As King reminds us, “it is easy to decide on either extreme,” but if we are committed to confronting the world in its actuality, we must navigate the uncertain terrain that lies in between. It is for this reason that we must turn to the thinking of people like King, for protest in no way categorically guarantees anyone of achieving one’s political purpose, just as it in no way categorically contradicts the injunction to uphold the ethical relationship. What is needed—and what is absent from Bendik-Keymer’s critique—are guidelines for understanding the success or failure of protest as a form of political action. Protest can be transformative or reactive. It can be short-sighted or visionary. It can be disorganized or strategic. To actually consider protest, then, requires that we develop a methodology more nimble, nuanced, and historically grounded than a simple, reductive logic allows. It requires us to consider not only the ways in which “power,” “love,” and “justice” might be intertwined in any successful political project; it demands that we wrestle with the foundational ethical complexities involved in any attempt to transform dominant institutions that enforce unequal relations of power.
In arguing that political protest is opposed to ethical relationship, Bendik-Keymer draws extensively on his reading of the Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire. Here’s a passage that’s emblematic of his way of reading Freire:
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.
The aspect of Freire’s thinking that Bendik-Keymer seems to want to highlight here is that “antagonisms” (“disagreements” or “disconnections”) are in some sense distortions of social reality because they “conceal” that which is “shared” across the spectrum of social difference: that is, the structuring fact that all of our lives are organized around these “polarizations” regardless of where we fall in the hierarchy of power. It is this reading of Freire that enables Bendik-Keymer to suggest that any form of political action engaging in public conflict—including the militant nonviolence of movements such as King’s—is irreconcilable with the injunction to center “shared life.” And it is this reading that authorizes him to suggest that the goal of any democratic struggle must be to establish a seamless and all-inclusive “we” without anyone “being left out,” because in his view, the precondition for “democracy” is “saying ‘we’ and meaning it.”
The problem is, that’s not at all how Freire himself understood his own theories. For Freire, the pedagogical project does not replace the militant struggle for liberation; it is in dialectical relationship with it. Over and over again, Freire insists with razor-sharp clarity that “critical and liberating dialogue … presupposes action,” and that critical pedagogy “makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation.”8 Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s suggestion that the revelation of “shared life” will, itself, create the democratic society that we desire—i.e., that in having considerate conversations over and over again we will talk our way into the world-to-come—Freire understands that the labors of learning constitute “a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation”: the process of developing understanding, in other words, “must become the motivating force for liberating action.”9
In a key passage that is redolent of King, Freire invites us to grapple with precisely those complexities of social and political struggle that Bendik-Keymer wants to erase. He argues that, “paradoxical though it may seem,” it is “precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found”:
Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.10
Freire makes clear that even a political struggle “as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors” can set the stage for undoing oppressive relations of power. Similar to King’s claim that power infused with love will create the conditions for justice, Freire argues that “the act of rebellion” does not contradict the primary aim of restoring the ethical bonds of human relationship. Rather, the oppressed must materially “take away the oppressors’ power” and, in so doing, they fight “consciously or unconsciously” on behalf of both the oppressed and the oppressor—to “restore … the humanity” that has been “lost” to both sides. The system of domination in which they have been locked has denied them both the ability to enjoy the fullness of that humanity, albeit in entirely asymmetrical ways, and this is precisely what revolutionary movements must fight to correct. This is what King, himself, meant when he insisted that the Civil Rights movement strove to not only liberate Black people from the bondage of oppression but to cure white America of the “poison of racism” that was eroding it from the inside.11
What we have in Bendik-Keymer, then, is a Freirian pedagogy purged of its revolutionary character, one that insists on dialogue, inclusion, unity, and the “we,” while dismissing the forms of action for which the pedagogical process was, itself, designed to provide a wellspring of resource. In fact, Freire warns against precisely the kind of reading that Bendik-Keymer seems eager to offer:
A mere perception of reality not followed by … critical intervention will not lead to a transformation of objective reality—precisely because it is not a true perception. This is the case of a purely subjectivist perception by someone who forsakes objective reality and creates a false substitute.12
According to Freire, we must not divorce the pedagogical method from a political praxis aimed to transform “objective” conditions—i.e., through collective organized struggle—for to do so would be to mistake perception for action and create a “false substitute” for political engagement.
In performing the sort of “subjectivist” reading that Freire is careful to ward off, Bendik-Keymer ends up recasting Freire as a merely humanist figure in a manner not dissimilar from the way in which King has been canonized, in recent decades, as an icon of peace and brotherhood, divorced from the visionary political aims of the movement he helped create. Likewise, a proper understanding of Freire not only requires that we read his writings but that we understand, in context, the movements that his ideas helped cultivate. The Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil is among the most prominent examples: in addition to incorporating critical pedagogy into its organizing methodology, the MST founded its Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes in 2005 as a school for political activists based explicitly on many of Freire’s pedagogical ideas.13
Insofar as Bendik-Keymer wants considerate conversation itself to serve as the preferred form of political action (rather than seeing conversation in dialectical relationship with politically efficacious action), his ideas must be understood as distinct from Freire’s. And insofar as he insists that his arguments be read as “normative” suggestions for action, we would need to evaluate them as suggestions. We would need to understand, in other words, how having “conversations aimed to educate all sides” might transition us to the world-to-come. What historical precedents or examples might serve as evidence for the legitimacy of this claim? And what happens when power intercedes or refuses to participate? When the police, ICE, DHS, or members of Trump’s cabinet decide that they don’t want to “talk” any more? When the violence against targeted populations increases? When an entire ethnic or religious subgroup is deported or detained, making it impossible for them to participate in the first place? When international conflict or a nuclear arms race erupts? Will we still be outside the legislator’s office asking for a meeting, hoping to engage in transformative acts of communication and mutual recognition? Bendik-Keymer thinks that protest is “tragic,” but I can’t think of anything more properly tragic (or tragicomic) than this.
Conversation with political elites cannot serve as a comprehensive theory for political action. The political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan offer an explanation in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which studies the methods and outcomes of popular resistance movements worldwide from 1900 to 2006.14 Contrary to those who advocate for conversation as a tool for political change, Chenoweth argues that popular movements to do not generate change by “melting the hearts” of their opponents. They win by “changing incentives” and “constraining options”:
Dissidents rarely win because of appeals to their opponents’ conscience … Instead, a key insight from Gene Sharp’s work (and Hannah Arendt’s before him) is that no power holders can maintain the status quo without the support and acquiescence of thousands—or even millions—of people who routinely cooperate with them. This can include economic elites, civil servants, cultural authorities and security forces.15
Critical to Chenoweth’s understanding is the role of social movements in crafting a new common sense through sustained acts of civil disobedience that cause various “societal pillars” to withdraw their consent from an oppressive regime:
Successful movements tend to shift the allegiances of various elites and loyalists within these societal pillars. Defection, desertion or noncooperation by security forces can be especially important. For example, in one well-known episode, Serbian police refused to fire on protesters demanding Slobodan Milosevic’s resignation in October 2000. When asked, those police remarked that they didn’t shoot because they saw familiar faces—including their children—in the crowd.
Chenoweth’s work is especially interesting to consider in the US today. Multiple layers of civil society as well as local, state, and federal agencies have declared their unwillingness to cooperate with the Trump Administration’s plans. Immigrants have staged nation-wide strikes in protest of his immigration policies; the first of many general strikes took place last month; the Women’s Strike built on the Women’s March; and cultural institutions, such as e-flux, observed an art strike on inauguration day. Cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and New York have declared themselves sanctuary cities; the governor of Oregon has declared Oregon a sanctuary state, and California is expected to follow suit. Employees at multiple federal agencies, including the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency have already indicated their unwillingness to comply with certain of the administration’s demands, setting new precedents for civil disobedience within the ranks of the federal government itself.
The question then becomes: at what point will sustained noncooperation at all levels of civil society and local, state, and federal government effectively shift the political direction of the nation? Chenoweth has some interesting data to consider. Her research suggests that there is a crucial tipping point that resistance movements need to reach in order to be assured of victory:
Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.
She argues that it is specifically through the use of strategic nonviolence—including highly disruptive tactics such as strikes, boycotts, blockades, occupations, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience—that movements have historically increased their odds of reaching this critical tipping point. In fact, she found that nonviolent movements over the past 50 years were on average four times more likely to succeed than movements that incorporated violent tactics. On the one hand, the exclusive use of strategic nonviolence allowed resistance movements to claim moral legitimacy over and against the repression of the state; and on the other hand, it shifted the struggle away from modes of conflict in which the state has the obvious upper hand, thereby lowering the general requirements for participation on the part of the general public. “Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate,” she says, “including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to. If you think about it, everyone is born with an equal physical ability to resist nonviolently … [whereas] for lots of people, violent resistance is much more physically demanding. You have to train to be good at it.”
Chenoweth’s analysis is helpful in cutting through many common misconceptions about protest today. It is significant, for instance, that Bendik-Keymer tries to lump my argument together with an article by Natasha Lennard on the use of black bloc tactics at the Disrupt J20 protests. In fact, he is so eager to conflate these arguments that he chose as the banner image for his essay a screen grab of masked activists smashing a Starbucks window during the Disrupt J20 protest. In so doing, he ignores the real—and actually interesting—differences between alternate theories of political change. As my discussion of the work of Chenoweth, King, and others indicates, the tradition that I am drawing from is the civil resistance tradition, which includes movements like ACT-UP, Black Lives Matter, the United Farm Workers, Occupy Wall Street, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, Otpor in Serbia, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and the Civil Rights Movement. I chose to focus on this tradition both because I think it offers the most compelling model for organizing today and because it was the one that Bendik-Keymer critiqued in his initial article.
For practitioners of the civil resistance tradition, the most important questions to ask about Disrupt J20 (or the more recent protest in Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos) would be: did they polarize public opinion in a direction that encouraged greater numbers of people to support the resistance movement than defect from it? And did they strengthen the movement’s legitimacy over and against the legitimacy of the state? I have not seen a comprehensive analysis along these lines, but certain popular accounts appear to reinforce Chenoweth’s claims about the adverse effects of violent flanks16: while they can have evident positive effects, such as protecting undocumented students from being outed by white nationalists, they also come with disadvantageous consequences, such as legitimating state repression and discouraging future participation in resistance actions especially among those vulnerable to threats of police reprisal.
The fact that Bendik-Keymer chose an image of property destruction over the thousands of images of nonviolent protest from the past month is symptomatic of the problem. Uncommitted members of the general public who encounter protests primarily through media imagery tend to fixate disproportionately on depictions of violence and property destruction. Some will extrapolate, from there, that all protests contain this kernel of violence, and they use this false presumption as a pretext to undermine, critique, or disassociate themselves from the broader aims of the movement. Succumbing to this associative style of thinking leads them to assert that “protest is a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window.” Such leaps in logic, moreover, play directly into the hands of the opposition. Citing the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart on the ascendancy of fascism in Germany, Chenoweth writes that it was frequently a “relief” for Nazi party leaders “when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action,” because it made it “easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time.”
There are, of course, other forms that protests have taken since Trump’s victory. Last month, hundreds of Yemeni-American bodega owners across New York City closed their shops in protest of the administration’s travel ban. Gathering in Borough Hall with thousands who came out to support the strike, they prayed in public, protested, waved American and Yemeni flags, and chanted “USA, USA, USA.” Watching the events unfold, I recalled how, a few weeks earlier, I had witnessed a throng of Trump supporters in DC shout, “USA, USA, USA,” and had been chilled by their expression of nativist fear and rage. Through a simple act of reappropriation, the Yemeni-American protesters—who are, by any reasonable measure, under ruthless assault by the current regime—gave Trump’s expression of far-right nationalism an entirely different meaning, recasting for us all the very notion of national belonging.
This is a poignant example of what Antonio Gramsci called the hegemony process in action. Through protest, the bodega owners effectively redefined the meaning of “we” in phrases such as “We the people.” If part of Trump’s power resides in his ability to equate allegiance to him with the very idea of “USA,” the Yemeni-American protesters understood that in order to win the fight for the soul of the nation, we must pry those concepts apart. And they did this not only by expanding the “we” to include Muslims, immigrants, and people of color; they did it by redefining the “they” of collective struggle. In the crowd, there were signs that spoke out sharply against Trump (“The Unconstitutional President”) as well as the militarist segment of the political class: “If you don’t want refugees, stop creating them.” The “they” of the current struggle—the group standing in the way of “us” achieving a more just society—is both the Trump administration and an entire swath of political elites who, allied with the interests of capital, have destabilized regions of the world for economic and political gain.
Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s desire for a single, seamless, and uninterrupted “we,” the importance of a clear “we” and “they” is described by Chantal Mouffe, who offers several arguments against any claims that would erase this foundational opposition. First, any notion of a “we” is conceptually incoherent without a “they” that simultaneously delimits it and summons it into being: “the constitution of a ‘we,’” she writes, “requires as its very condition of possibility the demarcation of a ‘they.’”17 Second, the task of democratic politics is not “the overcoming of the we/they opposition but the different way in which it is established.”18 That is, rather than suppressing the we/they polarity, social movements must redraw the lines of conflict so that the “they” is no longer understood as an “outside” group that is marginalized and scapegoated for underlying problems; the “they” must be understood as the leaders and beneficiaries of a rigged political and economic system who seek to divide and neutralize a very real “we” from actualizing its full political potential.
Third, any universalizing articulation of a “we” is necessarily a fiction. Following Mouffe, Jonathan Matthew Smucker argues that the universalization of “we” phrases, such as “We the people,” are fictions that mask the political interests of a particular class:
The Preamble to the United States Constitution disguised the particular interests of white male property owners by projecting them as the universal will of “We the people.” Abolitionists and suffragettes understood this intuitively and resolved themselves to fight to expand who is included in “We the people.”19
Finally, to negate the “they” is, in Mouffe’s view, to suppress the “political” dimension of politics itself by conjuring the notion of “a harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble” that can only ever be a fantasy.20 “Denying” or “wishing away” the we/they opposition is “the typical liberal gesture”:
[it] only leads to the impotence that characterizes liberal thought when confronted with the emergence of antagonisms and forms of violence that, according to its theory, belong to a bygone age when reason had not yet managed to control the supposedly archaic passions.21
The “impotence” of liberal thought here echoes King’s characterization of a love rendered “anemic” by its disavowal of power. We might consider Mouffe’s words in light of the emergence of the Tea Party—a political faction that knew all too well how to leverage “the supposedly archaic passions” for political gain. The Democratic Party, as the party of “reasonableness” and “compromise,” proved itself to be unable (or unwilling) to defend its own purported liberal democratic values against the passionate assault by a newly invigorated populist right. This was all the more notable given the strength of Obama’s mandate in 2008, which was nothing if not the articulation of a gorgeous, soaring, and poetic “we”—precisely the sort of all-encompassing articulation of unity that people like Bendik-Keymer seem so passionately to desire. Yet the sweeping “we” of “Yes We Can” revealed itself to be a hollow bit of rhetoric in the absence of a “they” that would have defined it and given it force. This “we-without-a-they” narrative set the stage for the vast demobilization of Obama’s campaign juggernaut following his electoral victory, and it proved powerless against a right-wing congress that had forgone the politics of civility and compromise in order to become a radical agenda-setting force in American public life.
We might contrast the weak “we” of “Yes We Can” with the stronger “we” of Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%.” Occupy’s rallying cry defined the protagonists of history (“the 99%”) in an unusually broad way, setting up an agglomeration of economic and social interests over and against those who would stand in the way of a more egalitarian society (“the 1%”). Smucker describes how this reframing of the we/they opposition allowed for broad inter-class solidarities, creating the conditions for “heterogeneous and fragmented social elements, whose various struggles may have hitherto seemed disconnected,” to suddenly share “reference points” and “a name for their common interests,” insofar as they all saw “the 1%” as their explicit political adversary.22 This narrative, of course, did not consider the ways in which matters of economic class intersect with race, gender, immigration status or nationality, which subsequent movements have since taken up; the point is that rather than serving as a totalizing truth claim, any we/they opposition is a site for social struggle.
In the US today, one of the primary political battles is over the very idea of the nation. For Trump’s supporters, “USA” conjures a nativist vision of a pre-globalized state animated by the haunting specter of white Christian ethno-nationalism. For the Yemeni-American grocers, “USA” summons the image of a multiracial democratic society comprised of people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. Implicit in either vision is both a strong “we” and a strong “they.” For Trump and his supporters, the “they” is Muslims, undocumented immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT people, and other groups who can be scapegoated for underlying crises in the capitalist world economy. For the Yemeni grocers, the “they” is the Trump administration, white nationalists, and hawkish factions of the political establishment who are standing in the way of “USA” fulfilling its mission of becoming a multiracial democracy. The struggle now under way is over which “we” will appeal to the widest swath of the general public—which “we” will serve as the basis for cross-class and cross-race solidarities, which “we” will build the greatest amount of political power, which “we” will shape the national common sense, and which “we” will be able to usher in a new form of society against a “they” that seeks to stop it from coming to fruition.
Bendik-Keymer doesn’t want there to be a “they” because he wants us all to “say ‘we’ and mean it”—he wants to conjure a “we” without anyone “being left out.” This idea reflects his broader tendency to treat the relational principle as something like a categorical imperative. Yet as I’ve said, his position is not only predicated on a misunderstanding of how political change has occurred historically; it is based on a misinterpretation of the texts he cites; and it brackets ethical philosophy’s ability to meaningfully guide human action under complex historical and political conditions.
Ultimately, Bendik-Keymer’s mode of inquiry dramatically constrains his ability to meaningfully address the pressing requirements of our historical moment. It is significant, for example, that he prefers to substantiate his claims about protest by referring to critical theorists and philosophers rather than to political or social struggles themselves. There are at least two explanations for this. First, there simply are no historical examples that would illustrate the power of ethical dialogue as a singular strategy for transforming social conditions at a mass scale. Those who are committed to transforming our economic, political, and social institutions have no choice but to examine, on the one hand, the actual historical conditions in which they find themselves and, on the other, the dynamics of past struggles in order to determine how and when people have been able to win victories against nearly impossible odds.
A second explanation would hold that Bendik-Keymer’s methodology, like any methodology, inherently limits what he is able to say. His disciplinary training and theoretical predilections lead him to leave out precisely that which is most salient in any convincing normative claim about political action: that is, a discussion of political strategy. It is no coincidence, therefore, that he is able to read Freire as merely an advocate of relational consideration divorced from any notion of political struggle—because it is precisely matters of political struggle that his methodology excludes. While Bendik-Keymer might be well positioned to offer theoretical considerations on questions of ethics, his ambitions clearly exceed this task. If he wants to offer prescriptions or suggestions concerning the application of ethical theory in the realm of political action, his methodology would be required to expand to include a consideration of historical context—for without a historically grounded understanding of political action such theories will remain, at best, abstract and academic or, at worst, dangerous and misleading. For people on the left-to-liberal spectrum, there is perhaps only one thing more irresponsible than sitting on the sidelines of history in times like these and pretending that inaction is a way of taking the moral high road—and that is attempting to use your power and access to convince others to join you.
The emerging progressive social movements in the United States understand the lessons of Mouffe and King. Formations such as the Indivisible Guide, AllOfUs, and WeWillReplaceYou know that in our current political climate, an important pathway to a more just society will require an engagement with, rather than a suppression of, the rift between the progressive and neoliberal wings of the Democratic Party in order to galvanize the country against the Trump agenda. By developing an insurgent progressive faction within the Party, these groups hope to transform a centrist institution beholden to Wall Street into a political entity that is accountable to working people, immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Other groups are organizing general strikes and campaigns aimed to build a Sanctuary Movement. Among them, Movimiento Cosecha has organized walk-outs, protests, and shut-downs under the #ADayWithoutImmigrants banner, and they are currently gearing up to use mass boycotts and general strikes to exacerbate the contradiction between Trump’s anti-immigration policies and the country’s economic reliance on immigrant labor and consumer power. It is precisely by confronting these contradictions and by rewriting the we/they opposition along new lines that these groups seek to do today what King and others were able to do in generations past.
The degree to which these and other organized efforts will succeed in transforming the very nature of our social contract will depend not just on how they are discussed in forums such as this, but the degree to which each and every one of us is willing to put ourselves on the line and get to work generating the kind of society we actually want to live in. Conversation—including this one—is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving that goal. To see our way to the other side of this historical period, we will need, as Freire tells us, to not only change our “perceptions” but to intervene critically on the “objective” conditions that constitute our reality. This requires, on the one hand, a recognition of the structuring role that institutions play in the landscape of social and political life and, on the other, a methodology that is up to the task of helping us transform them. I look forward to picking up the conversation with Jeremy Bendik-Keymer when we encounter each other on the picket line, at the protest, or on the front lines of the general strike. For it is only in crafting a theory that is rigorously informed by practice and a practice that is carefully shaped by theory that we will be able to meet the urgent challenges of our present reality. Now, more than ever, our energies are needed in this task. Let’s get to work.
Image: A strike by Yemini-American bodega workers, Brooklyn, Feb. 2017. Via munchies.vice.com.
1 For a historical discussion of neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Robert Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble: The US in The World Economy (London: Verso, 2001), 24-93; James Crotty, “The Effects of Increased Product Market Competition and Changes in Financial Markets on the Performance of Nonfinancial Corporations in the Neoliberal Era,” Political Economy Research Institute Working Paper, 2002. The notion that “power-over” dynamics should come as a defining feature of “neoliberalism” ignores the obvious ways that relations of power are built into both capitalist social property relationships prior to the advent of neoliberalism and the way that these dynamics emerge in the context of other political and social formations. On the subject of “neoliberal radicalism,” there has been a lively public debate in recent years about this idea—but the term doesn’t mean what Bendik-Keymer wants it to mean. See, for instance, Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and The Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon, 2012); Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Limits of Anti-Racism,” Left Business Observer, 121 (2009) →; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum, 22, (2013) 49–57 →. Similar lines of thinking surface in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comments on Twitter →, Jack Halberstam’s discussion of trigger warnings →, and bell hooks’ recent rejection of Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminism →.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 37.
3 Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Charles Marsch, The Beloved Community (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 48.
4 Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Vincent Harding, “Community as a Liberating Theme in Civil Rights History” in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, ed. Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 27.
5 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999); Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and The Challenge of Truth Commissions (New York: Routledge, 2001).
6 See, for instance, Angus Lindsay Wright and Wendy Wolford, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (New York: Perseus, 2003).
7 Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
8 Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed., trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000), 65, 48.
9 Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 49.
10 Ibid., 56.
11 King, Where Do We Go From Here, 67–107.
12 Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 52.
13 See, for instance, Mônica Dias Martins, “The MST Challenge to Neoliberalism,” Latin American Perspectives, 27, no. 5 (2000): 33-45, or Freire’s own remarks in Paolo Freire, “Making History and Unveiling Oppression,” Dulwich Centre Journal 3 (1999): 37–39.
14 Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
15 Erica Chenoweth, “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work?” Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2016 →.
16 Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect The Outcomes Of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 2:4 (2015), 427–451 →.
17 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (New York: Verso, 2013), 5.
18 Mouffe, Agonistics, 9.
19 Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap For Radicals (Chico: AK Press, 2017), 219.
20 Ibid., 3.
21 Ibid., 4.
22 Smucker, Hegemony How-To, 232.