The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went To War Against Its Own Citizens
Written by Jake Tibbetts
On Tuesday evening, Bwogger Jake Tibbetts made his way to the Maison Française East Gallery to listen to Professor Bernard Harcourt discuss his new book, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens, with fellow political theorists Seyla Benhabib of Yale University and Uday Singh Mehta of the City University of New York. The conversation, in which members of the audience were given the opportunity to participate, was a lively one, and though Harcourt’s
book outlines a number of uncomfortable truths about politics and civil society in the twenty-first century, he made sure to focus during his talk on the hope offered by movements that seek to resist the logic of counterinsurgency.
Bernard E. Harcourt, Professor of Political Science and Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, is, in many ways, something of a twenty-first century Renaissance man. In addition to teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels here at Columbia University, Professor Harcourt, who earned both his J.D. and his Ph.D. at Harvard University, serves as Executive Director of the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Human Rights, Founding Director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, and directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. In his spare time, he is an active defense lawyer, currently representing a number of inmates in Alabama who have been sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without parole. His previous books, including The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order, Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, and Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, have all been met with widespread acclaim. Considering the breadth and depth of his work, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Harcourt’s fans—including students, fellow professors, and members of the larger community—completely filled the Maison Française East Gallery in Buell Hall on a Tuesday night in late February in celebration of the launch of Harcourt’s latest book, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens.
The book launch, which took the form of a somewhat informal panel discussion followed by a section during which Harcourt answered questions posed to him by audience members, was chaired by Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. After introducing Harcourt, Professor Benhabib welcomed Professor Uday Singh Mehta, a Distinguished Professor at City University of New York and Harcourt’s interlocutor on the panel, to the stage. Harcourt first met Mehta, who specializes in the study of the intersection between liberalism and postcolonialism, while the former was an undergraduate student and the latter was a doctoral student at Princeton University, and the two political theorists have remained in close contact ever since. Once introductions wrapped up, Benhabib began to discuss Harcourt’s motivations for writing the book. In the post-9/11 era, we have witnessed the use of torture during the use of CIA detention and interrogation and the expansion of the drone warfare program abroad as well as the instatement and reinstatement of NSA warrantless wiretapping programs, the surveillance of Muslim-American communities by the New York City Police Department, and the militarization of police forces across the country at home. According to Benhabib, Harcourt argues that the tools that the government once reserved only for imperialist warfare are now being used for purposes of domestic repression. In other words, as Hannah Arendt once said, “the chickens have come home to roost.”
Mehta was next to speak. He began by emphasizing how much he enjoyed the book. The book, he claimed, is “enormously important” because it seeks to answer two incredibly pressing questions: First, what is the status of our democracy? Second, what does it mean to fight for, or to treasure, democracy? Mehta then highlighted Harcourt’s central claim in The Counterrevolution—that the forces behind modern counterinsurgency have three main goals. The first goal, Mehta stated, is to gather information about everyone. The second goal is to isolate the insurgent minority. The third and perhaps most frightening goal is to win the favor of, or pacify, the majority. According to Mehta, tools initially used to fight back against anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, Vietnam, and Indochina are now being used indiscriminately. The counterinsurgency, he stated, is set on doing away with the border between the domestic and the foreign. This, he remarked, is an attack on the very basis of liberalism, which is predicated on boundaries between “distinct spheres.” The disappearance of these boundaries make one wonder just how stable the very distinctions upon which liberal democracy is based are. Mehta ended his short speech with series of questions for Harcourt. If what he says is true, what can be done to protect democracy? Harcourt cites a number of individuals (e.g., Angela Davis, Daniel Ellsberg) whose examples he claims we should seek to emulate, and he singles out a quality that they all share: courage. What, then, is the vision of social relations that is linked to that courage? Does such a shared vision even exist? If not, what is the purpose of resisting?
Upon being given the microphone, Harcourt sought first to explain that he wrote the book in order to demonstrate the coherence of practices that most people think of as different, unrelated “excesses.” All of these “excessive” practices, from torture in Guantanamo Bay to the militarization of police, are marked by counterinsurgency theory, which is evidenced by how reflective they are of the three previously mentioned goals. Harcourt then built on those goals a little more. According to Harcourt, the threat that is posed by the “dangerous” or “insurgent” category that the state seeks to isolate is often fictitious. Furthermore, during the Trump era, the pacification of the masses has been incredibly easy to accomplish, thanks to Trump’s “reality TV” form of governing, which serves to distract us from atrocities that take place everyday. Harcourt was quick to note that this book isn’t a book about Trump; after all, he began planning it during the Obama presidency and wrote it under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be the forty-fifth president. Trump’s election, however, “sealed the logic” of counterinsurgency theory, and Trump is merely the most aggressive, most offensive embodiment of this logic. Harcourt then leaped to his central point: What is so remarkable about the logic of counterinsurgency is that is has gained a foothold in a time during which insurgency is practically non-existent. Any major acts of political violence that we have seen recently have had far more to do with personal instability than revolutionary ideology.
Harcourt ended his main talk by addressing a few points made by Mehta. Regarding the erosion of boundaries, Harcourt concurred that there is no longer a distinction between a “fictitious state of exception” and what it is that the government is currently doing because the legal system has bent over backwards in order to justify even the most egregious acts of state violence. Switching topics, Harcourt admitted that he is somewhat “agnostic” about resistance. He claimed that he is more concerned about celebrating individuals who demonstrate courage than he is about proposing a “particular framework or ideology or coherent way of thinking about resistance and a vision for the future.” Alluding to Martin Luther King Jr., Harcourt declared that everyone may protest in his own unique way, but everyone must protest—particularly against what he called “terrorism” by the government.
Benhabib was then given a chance to respond to Harcourt. She first asked if we can link analyses of these practices with a discussion about the gun violence that threatens to dissolve civil society. After, she argued that the criminalization of the “other”—especially the migrant, the foreigner, or the refugee—has caused the United States to at least partially abandon its liberal ethos, which could have Earth-shattering implications. Mehta also responded directly to Harcourt, noting that some might say the form of resistance that he champions doesn’t take his own analysis of counterinsurgency seriously enough. He then asked whether resistance should be organized alone lines of class, race, or gender, and asked Harcourt where the analysis of social groups is in the story that he tells. In response to Benhabib, Harcourt stated that the proliferation of guns is tied directly to his theory of resistance and that in order to combat gun violence, we must reject the logic of counterinsurgency theory, which seeks to keep us from paying attention to the world around us. In response to Mehta, Harcourt declared that forms of resistance don’t need to be overly theorized and that people should simply seek to do whatever they can whenever they can to fight back.
At this point, the question-and-answer portion of the event commenced. The first audience member to ask a question said that while Harcourt makes the “singling out” of the insurgent minority seem contingent, there seems to me a certain underlying characteristic of vulnerability. The audience member then asked whether Trump supporters who seek to “take back the country” could be called an insurgent movement. Harcourt agreed with the first point, and, in response to the second point, he claimed that groups with a greater ability to defend themselves (like Trump supporters) have a greater ability to reject the “insurgency” label. Who gets labeled an “insurgent” is dependent entirely on “existing relationships of power in society.” A second audience member asked why Americans seem to pay more attention to violence at home than abroad and Harcourt, in response, argued that Americans actually pay more attention to violence abroad because they are unable to recognize how different forms of violence at home fit together. A third audience member, Professor Frederick Neuhouser of Barnard College, asked what the aims of a counterinsurgency are when no insurgency exists, and a fourth audience member asked how what we see today differs from what we saw in the 1960s. Harcourt asserted that while government sought to collect information only about particularly threatening groups in the 1960s, it seeks to collect information about absolutely everyone nowadays so that it can decide later who poses a threat. He reasserted that the government of the twenty-first century creates fictitious internal enemies in order to justify this behavior. The goal of counterinsurgency, he stated, is to develop a mode of government that puts control in the hands of a small, elite minority, regardless of whether or not an insurgency exists. The fifth audience member asked whether Trump is using the tools of counterinsurgency to achieve different ends than his predecessors, and a final audience member asked why the state hasn’t carried out any massacres of civilians since the Vietnam War era. Harcourt maintained that though Trump is more explicitly racist and sexist than those who came before him, he operates under a shared logic that has manifested itself in different ways during different presidencies. In response to the last question, Harcourt admitted that he hadn’t thought much about this before, but that it’s possible that the state has put an end to massacres in order to avoid violent responses, while, at the same time, it’s possible that the state hasn’t seen a need to massacre civilians simply because the disparity of power between the state and those who resist has become so extraordinary. As soon as Harcourt finished answering this question, the clock struck 7:30 and the event came to a close.
Towards the end of the discussion, Harcourt jokingly claimed while attempting to answer a difficult question that he wasn’t there “to make everything coherent.” Lucky for him (and for the audience), however, this event was a truly illuminating and clarifying discussion about how the American government is waging war against its own citizens, why the government has embraced counterinsurgency theory in recent years, and, perhaps most importantly, what we all can do to resist attempts to isolate the minority and pacify the majority. Many questions were raised during this event, but just as many answers were provided—and, based on what was said by Harcourt at this event, I imagine that one could say the same about The Counterrevolution.
The Counterrevolution via Maison Française