Bernard Harcourt is a critical theorist, professor at Columbia University, and the author of The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens. We discuss the American counterinsurgency governing paradigm, the fragility of our democracy, and bringing about an alternative, just government.
Since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US warfare has focused on counterinsurgency. America now uses this counterrevolutionary playbook to govern domestically. Counterrevolutionary theory identifies a passive majority in all populations and a small insurgency. The first step is to brutally eliminate the rebellion, and then win over the passive majority. Using counterrevolutionary measures necessitates creating an internal enemy—for instance, Muslims, immigrants, minorities, or ANTIFA. Counterinsurgency establishes brutal violence as a policy, which quickly becomes the norm, as we’ve seen with the current level of government violence directed at US citizens.
America is a profoundly legalistic country, which looks to the law for the protection of rights. At the same time, it also has a long history of rendering questionable actions legal. The CIA redefined torture under the Bush Administration to require organ failure, which legalized many torture techniques that fell short of this standard. The summary drone strike execution of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki required a 41-page legal memo to frame it as legal under due process. Prisoners are legally held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay through convoluted legal justification. Counterinsurgency requires state-sponsored violence, and America is adept at legalizing actions that are normally viewed as illegal to achieve this. Once these actions are legalized, they then become normalized.
To move past counterrevolution as a governing theory, we should look to WEB Dubois’s idea of Abolition Democracy. Abolition Democracy stated that no action was taken after slavery’s end to support former slaves with education, employment, and other necessities. Because of this failure, we are still combatting the legacy of slavery in the US. Abolition theory can be applied to the counterrevolution as well. We cannot merely disassemble the drones and/or shutter the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. We need a new governing paradigm, new institutions, and new norms to ensure we move away from the institutionalized brutality of counterinsurgency in a country with no insurgents.
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Bernard E. Harcourt is a distinguished contemporary critical theorist, justice advocate, and prolific writer and editor. In his books, articles, and teaching, his scholarship focuses on social and critical theory with a particular interest in punishment and surveillance.
Harcourt is the founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, which brings contemporary theory to bear on current social problems and seeks to address them through practical engagement including litigation and public policy interventions. He is also the executive director of Columbia University’s Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights, which sponsors courses, public events, student internships, and fellowships dedicated to strengthening the pillars of all communities—truth, justice, and law.
Harcourt is the author or editor of more than a dozen books. Critique & Praxis (2020) charts a vision for political action and social transformation. In The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens (2018), Harcourt examines how techniques of counterinsurgency warfare spread to U.S. domestic policy.
Harcourt served as a law clerk for Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He began his legal career representing death row inmates, working with Bryan Stevenson at what is now the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama. He continues to represent pro bono inmates sentenced to death and life imprisonment without parole. In 2019, Harcourt was awarded the New York City Bar Association Norman J. Redlich Capital Defense Distinguished Service Award for his work on behalf of individuals on death row.
You can follow him on Twitter @BernardHarcourt.
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