The Agony of Bernard Harcourt

Critique and Praxis (2020) is Bernard Harcourt’s recent mountainous book. Entering, one climbs hills, descends into valleys, crosses some rough, boulder-strewn rivers, ducks into mysterious caves and traverses some strange and slippery terrain. Browsing through historic Kingston, Ontario’s best bookstore, Novel Ideas, on a sultry Covid-19 morning, I discovered Harcourt’s tumbling and boisterous 684 page roller coaster ride wedged into a section of ever so serious books.

Having just completed my own humble book on Habermas as learning theorist (To Emancipate Humanity: reading Habermas as learning theorist) and suffering a few anxiety attacks regarding its adequacy, this tumultuous book of nineteen chapters appeared on first sight to cover just about every critical philosopher alive. Who was this guy? What was he up to? What did he want to accomplish with such a sweep over rocky terrain? Perhaps I can get some tips I could weave into my own book when the editors look at me gravely and pronounce, “Well, it’s sorta ok, but needs major revisions.”

I discovered soon enough that Bernard is wavy-haired, debonaire, gracious and brilliant. He’s the Ronaldo of Critical Theory. Officially, he is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and profession of political science at Columbia University and chaired professor of the Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. I discovered that for five years he has chaired the seminar series on critical theoretical issues at the Columbia School for Contemporary Critical Theory. Before Critique and Praxis, Harcourt wrote several books, including The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (2018) and The illusion of free markets: punishment and the myth of natural order (2011).

Anyone can, as it were, join in on-line to view the Columbia seminars, gain access to materials and listen to esteemed scholars jostle with each other and the topic at hand. I have tuned in on quite a few sessions—I barely made it through the abstruse Foucault seminars (Foucault 13/13) and didn’t like the esoteric discussion of the rather odd, random selection of “praxis groups” (Praxis 13/13: The invisible committee, the idea of communism, the alt-right, the commons, the undercommons, assemblies, human weapons and the space of praxis).

Notice what’s missing: the radical project of deliberative democracy. “Civil society” gets 2-3 pages in this text, “public squares” not much more, and the classic texts of deliberative democracy are not present in Harcourt’s 684 pages. Nor are the hundreds and hundreds of essays and book chapters on all the intricate elements of deliberative democracy and governance. To mention only a few: Richard J. Bernstein, Between Objectivism and Relativism (1983), Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy (1985), Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (1992), Robert Wiebe, Self-Rule: a Cultural History of America (1995), Simone Chambers, Reasonable Democracy: Jurgen Habermas and the Politics of Discourse (1996), Archon Fung, Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy (2004), Maeve Cooke, Re-Presenting the Good Society (2006), Jane Mansbridge, Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale (2012), John Dryzek, Deliberative Governance (2019). Placing Dahl in this list reminds me that Critique and praxis has basically abandoned the workplace as a site of emancipatory struggle (or “justice in production”). Only a brief mention of workers’ movements.

Currently, I am following discussions of particular critical theorists such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paulo Freire and Edward Said (Critique 13/13). Quite an assortment: Said despised Frankfurt School thinking and Arendt didn’t much dig Marx. As an adult education theorist and historian, I was happy to see Paulo getting some air time. Usually, the scholarly work of radical adult education theorists might as well exist on Mars for mainstream scholars.

It is a delight to listen to the witty, erudite Axel Honneth tell us that he never liked Horkheimer’s infamous essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.” It was too long. He also said, as an aside, that Knowledge and Human Interest was Habermas’s best book. My eyes lit up! Great! The first chapter in my book is titled, “Irreducible orientations: reading Habermas’s Knowledge and human interests.” Great—because some shallow commentators say that Habermas rejected the ideas in this text of the 1960s.

In his comments on Adorno’s article, “The actuality of philosophy,” Honneth wryly observed that Adorno didn’t read Marx thoroughly. In an old copy of Capital, accessible to Honneth when he directed the Institute for Social Research, Teddy read only one chapter on the commodity form. Boy! Did he mark that up! Max favored the “young Marx.” Didn’t we all about fifty years ago?

It was also sheer delight to listen to the wise Seyla Benhabib unravel the mysteries of the abstruse Arendt’s puzzling distinction between labor and work in her classic text, The Human Condition, written in the damp cold of 1958. Of course, I grabbed my copy off my shelf and am now reading the chapter on “Labor,” after stumbling through too many references to ancient philosophy (in Greek and Latin no less!).

Funny stuff aside, I soon realized that Harcourt is obsessed with praxis, or doing. Down deep, he believes that critical philosophy has chosen the contemplative over the active life. Rather desperate, haunted by the dark world closing in around us, he has corralled quite a few thinkers together to see if they can help him answer Lenin’s famous question, “What is to be done?” His mountainous text is a repetitive tool-box of notes and thoughts from his seminar series and own readings. Like lightning, brilliant ideas flash across the pages.

But his arguments do not always cohere. For instance, he rejects all truth-claims, but offers us a framework to understand American society in its current nightmare state. He makes ethical claims without any way to justify them. And one is sometimes not certain if he rejects or accepts certain ideas or rebellious projects. One moment, one thinks he approves of the Yellow Vest protests. On another, he expresses some doubts regarding participant’s anti-immigrant ideas and the presence of masked violent actors. He refuses to wear a yellow vest.

He draws in a little Habermas (and a few Habermasian scholars like Honneth, Benhabib and Jean Cohen to present at the seminars). But he has little patience for a careful and sustained reading of Habermas’s philosophy of communicative action. His bibliography is very partial; and the neglect of the seminal text Theory and Practice (1973) renders his discussion of the role that critical theory can play in the organization of enlightenment incomplete, thin gruel. But there aren’t any references to Knowledge and Human Interests (1971) or The Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987), either. These texts do not appear to touch his spirit or fire his gifted imagination.

Harcourt rejects Habermas because he clings to notions of universality, truth and consensus. However, instead of careful analysis of Habermas’s actual views on these fundamental concepts of reason—such as is evident in Martin Jay’s chapter, “Habermas and the communicative turn,” pp. 114-144 in Reason After Its Eclipse (2016) or savoring the subtleties of his debates with Rawls and Foucault (see Beatrice Hansen’s essay, “Critical theory and poststructuralism: Habermas and Foucault,” in The Cambridge Companion to Critical theory [2004] ), Harcourt offers us potted theory. We end up reading more pages on the dreadful Invisible Committee, Michael Hardt and Tony Negri’s impenetrable Assemblies (2017) and Zizek’s endless ramblings than on Habermas’s delicately profound post-metaphysical understanding of reason. This is simply astounding.

Why shut the door on Habermas like this? The primary reason, as far as I can see, is that the deliberative democracy paradigm that frames Habermas’s critical project and orientation to praxis, is rejected outright because it has, allegedly, accommodated itself to liberal democracy. Harcourt disagrees with Harvard political theorist Archon Fung’s claim that: “Deliberative democracy is a revolutionary political ideal. It calls for fundamental changes in the bases of political decision-making, scope of those included in decision-making processes, institutions that have these processes, and thus the very character of politics itself.” However, Harcourt thinks that Habermas’s work has nothing of urgent significance to say to our apocalyptic end time. A Foucault scholar of some acclaim, Harcourt embraces Foucault’s anguished understanding of the fusion of knowledge and power. Power swallows truth. We are in a mad power struggle and we must seize power from those who are dominating us. As Lenin once quipped, “There is no time for discussion groups.”

Yet, ironically, what would we call the learned seminars at Columbia? Looks to me like the commentators are searching for the “best argument.” Or Foucault’s work with prisoners where he asked “himself about his own critical praxis” which led to an “entirely different practice, in which the GIP tried to create a space where those men who were most affected by prisons could speak and be heard” (p. 439). Foucault is creating a “learning space” for dialogical speech. No penal systems are being shaken to the ground. The men are simply listened-to. This “reflective space” gestures to the study club movements in Canada in the early decades of the twentieth century (exemplified in the Nova Scotian Antigonish Movement) and to Freirian pedagogy that selects “themes” for deliberation amongst the oppressed peasants—to move people out of their “cultures of silence.”

Harcourt’s viewpoint, over-simplified, is fueled by his deeply held (and moving) spiritual commitment to working with men on death row. He has been incredibly active in their service. Some of the most moving passages in his book share his commitment to the condemned as well as his passionate avowal of overthrowing the American penal system. In fact, Harcourt’s agony and feverish activism, is also reinforced in his book, The counterrevolution, where he argues, not totally convincingly, that contemporary American society is now ruled by counterinsurgency warfare learned in the wars to suppress anti-colonial struggles.

Basically—the book is a shocking and startling read—Harcourt argues that President Trump knew exactly what he was doing: he applied counterinsurgency’s core approach (massive intelligence collection, relentless targeting of minorities and pacifying propaganda) to govern the people. It is not difficult to see Foucault’s ghost hovering over this depressing text. It is a “counterrevolution without revolution, waged against phantom enemies and targeting every one of us” (Quoted from the book jacket). Still, for me, the argument is too neat and tidy to grasp what is happening in the daily lives of all Americans, or in the society at large.

Harcourt is a haunted man. In passage after passage throughout Critique and Praxis, Harcourt asserts that our lives can never rest, our struggle is endless without any utopian end-point, we cannot know what truth is because truth is always used to dominate us, there are no universals, all is contingency. These sensibilities lead him, in the end, to such a despairing point that he must ask “What more am I to do?” rather than “What is to be done?” Lenin exemplified an idea that Bernard hates: that critical theory can tell us what to do.

Harcourt confesses to us that he must not tell anyone what to do. He can only make his own decisions of what must be done. He must do that. But this man who loves equality, justice and compassion for others has seemingly thrown away the primary task of critical theory to enlighten its subjects through democratic organization of enlightenment learning processes and cautious reflection with actors about what forms of action are contextually and considerately appropriate.

As Herbert Marcuse said in an early 1970s speech, “The movement in a new era of repression: an assessment,” “It is difficult for me to engage in such a theoretical analysis [of the radical situation today] when the things that are happening all around seem to cry for action—no matter what action—so that we don’t suffocate.” Fifty years later, like Marcuse, Bernard Harcourt’s work testifies to similar impatience with theoretical contemplation. Into the streets! Occupy public squares! Scream out against the furies destroying humanity! Be a killjoy and peel away your boss’s racism! Defend the men on death row! Join the marches for racial justice!

I leave the reader with this touching confessional statement from Bernard Harcourt. “In the end, on my part, critical praxis remains today an ethical matter: an ethical decision en situation about the irreducibility and fragility of life—about human frailty. Instinctively, I too have always placed myself in the shoes of the subjugated, of the young refugee fleeing, of the accused, the internal enemy. How could I not? How else could I live life than by helping others? How else? Especially, as I have the privilege and the ability, the honor, to stand before justice for those in need. How else could I lead life? And more important, what more must I now do?” (p. 503).

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.