The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject

John Sanbonmatsu, The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004)

John Sanbonmatsu offers in this book a compelling call for a new strategic vision for the left as it confronts global capitalism. The contemporary stage of capitalist globalization has intensified social inequality, state coercion (both internally and externally), and ecological destruction, but with “the waning of the nation-state” (9), the major institution to which leftists have looked to address these problems is no longer adequate. This condition, Sanbonmatsu argues, provides opportunities for transnational social movements –movements which in both their organizational form and substantive concerns transcend national boundaries — to shape an alternative future. Unfortunately, the left has to date been unable to match the effectiveness of the globalizing capitalist forces which dominate the state and the market. Sanbonmatsu’s book is an attempt, within the broadly defined field of critical theory, to examine why this has been the case. He places much of the blame for this situation on the increasingly important role that postmodern theory has played in left politics. He pulls no punches: “postmodernism’s obfuscations, misdirections, and spatial and logical distortions seriously jeopardize the future of emancipatory thought and action” (99).

The roots of the left’s political impasse lie, according to Sanbonmatsu, in the legacy of the New Left. Sanbonmatsu identifies five major “core themes” (22) of the New Left: the liberation of the individual, a non-reductionist theory of culture and psychology, direct action, participatory democracy, and decentralization. These themes produced a “romantic structure of feeling” in which the New Left “privileged emotive and aesthetic expression of an inner, ‘radical’ nature over considerations of strategy, theoretical coherence, or the patient construction of a counter-hegemonic movement.” With the failure of the New Left rebellions (through either repression or cooptation) and with the conservative backlash that followed, many leftists turned to postmodernism. Postmodern theory, for which Sanbonmatsu sees Foucault as the major representative, rejects totality and meta-narrative for more localized knowledges and identities. The effort to define ‘truth’ is, for postmodernists, an act of domination. Related to this is postmodernists’ capillary image of power, which conceives of power as diffuse rather than exercised in centralized forms. With its concern for identity and locality and its decentralized understanding of power, postmodern theory was an obvious extension of New Left expressivism.

This development, however, came at considerable cost to the left. Sanbonmatsu argues that the increasing divorce of left theory from practice, which was so clearly articulated by Perry Anderson in his critique of Western Marxism, was amplified in the context of postmodern theory. He describes postmodern theory as baroque, “a form of ‘critical’ knowledge that has lost the memory of its original use value” (75). Rather than theory being tested by and serving as a resource for practice, postmodern theory is theory for its own sake, estranged from practice. He is sharply critical of postmodern theory’s faux populism, in which the validity of local knowledges is proclaimed through an increasingly arcane and commodified language. Indeed, theory becomes practice (this is not unique to postmodern theory – Sanbonmatsu discusses Althusser’s contribution in this regard). Since subjectivity is constructed through discourse, revolution becomes an “’insurrection of subjugated knowledges’ – never an insurrection of actual human beings, but of knowledges, concepts” (115); the theorist, the one who reveals these subjugated knowledges, becomes the true agent of history.

Of greatest concern to Sanbonmatsu is how postmodern theory undermines leadership and strategy. Postmodernists’ rejection of totality and their embrace of fragmentation make it impossible to see the how differences relate to each other. The postmodernist celebration of difference becomes a fetish, he argues, that ultimately undermines resistance. For example, Sanbonmatsu is critical of the theme of ‘breaking the silence’ common within postmodern theory and identity-based social movements. While speaking one’s own voice is a powerful form of self-affirmation and resistance, postmodern theory leaves unanswered the question of who is to hear this speech and how this speech could be understood by others if there is no shared meaning. The resulting political fragmentation “occludes the true radical significance, the universal significance, of every particular movement. And this, of course, is just the way that dominant regimes of power want it” (198). In addition, the meaning of any political action can only be understood in the context of an understanding of the broader balance of forces in society. Absent an understanding of totality, the very meaning of resistance –- the structural opportunities and resources available, evaluations of success and failure, etc. –- is impossible to know.

Postmodern theory, for Sanbonmatsu, thus offers a false path for the left. A more constructive alternative for left politics, he asserts, is the work of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony sees power as being a function of the ruling class’s ability to generate consent for its rule. The ruling class must take into account the interests of subordinate classes and must grant concessions if it is to consolidate its power. These concessions can offer important material and cultural benefits to subordinate classes, but Gramsci argues that these concessions are designed to leave fundamental power relations untouched. In this way the ruling class exercises leadership to create a unified hegemonic bloc out of different and often conflicting social forces.

Gramsci extended this analysis of power to radical movements. If the hegemonic bloc with its commitment to capitalism is to be defeated, opponents must construct their own hegemonic bloc -– a counter-hegemony –- that unites social forces around an alternative, anti-capitalist common sense. It was the political party -– the ‘modern prince,’ in Gramsci’s words –- that was to serve as the organizer of this counter-hegemony. It was the job of the party to exercise leadership in uniting a broad array of oppositional forces, to appraise the terrain of political struggle (for example, by evaluating the opportunities for resistance and the availability of resources), and to articulate a meaningful alternative to capitalism. In contrast to conceptions of the party as a vanguard, which Sanbonmatsu defines as ‘bureaucratic centralism,’ he uses the term ‘democratic centralism’ to describe Gramsci’s modern prince. This term captures quite nicely the dialectic of unity and difference (or, expressed another way, leadership and autonomy) that Sanbonmatsu sees as essential for left political strategy.

In the present, postmodern stage of capitalism, Sanbonmatsu argues, the left has “been forced by history to abandon the ‘skin’ of socialism and the International, the Party.” The challenge facing the left, therefore, is whether “the now-dispersed forces of emancipation [can]…discover or invent a new form” (9). This new ‘skin’ for the left is, for Sanbonmatsu, the postmodern prince; indeed, he argues that the postmodern prince is “the direct historical successor to the international socialist movement” (203). The postmodern prince is “the name of the new collective subject which must gather up the myriad dispersed movements of oppositional practice and culture in the form of a single movement whose outward expansion establishes a genuinely democratic and ethical culture” (17). The postmodern prince is postmodern not in the sense of rejecting strategy, but rather in that it constitutes the new form of political organization that emerges from and has the capacity to transform the current stage of capitalism. Where Gramsci’s modern prince was national, the postmodern prince must be transnational.

In his use of the Gramscian perspective to develop the concept of the postmodern prince Sanbonmatsu makes a major contribution to critical theories of globalization. Given the strength of his analysis, however, I would have liked to see some discussion, even if only preliminary, of the organizational form of the postmodern prince. Gramsci’s modern prince had a concrete organizational form -– the party. Does the World Social Forum serve as the postmodern prince, or does it have the potential to do so? If not, what concrete forms might the postmodern prince take? Sanbonmatsu’s conclusion, in which he asserts that the postmodern prince must be committed to a meta-humanist perspective, is the closest he comes to addressing this question. Humanism was a central element of modernity and modern revolutionary movements, but the exclusion of the nonhuman has had very destructive ecological and social consequences. The elevation of humanity, with its singular capacity for reason, above other forms of life transformed nature into a standing reserve to be exploited. At the same time, the existence of life-forms deemed less than human has served as an important resource in the destruction of ‘the Other’ through racist violence, war, and genocide; the long history of images in U.S. popular culture equating African-Americans with primates is just one example of this. The postmodern prince, Sanbonmatsu argues, must transcend the modernist boundary between human and nonhuman if it is to be an effective counter-hegemonic leader. Given the central role that Gramsci plays in his argument, I was surprised that Sanbonmatsu did not address how Gramsci’s humanism relates to his argument. Does Gramsci’s theory ground the call for meta-humanism and, if so, how?

These are relatively minor concerns, however, that do not undermine Sanbonmatsu’s argument. In the end, he is devastating in his critique of postmodern theory, particularly Foucault, and equally effective in offering Gramsci as a powerful alternative from which to build resistance to global capitalism. Overall, Sanbonmatsu has made an important contribution to both social theory and left political strategy.

Reviewed by Daniel Egan
University of Massachusetts-Lowell

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