Politics: Book Review
by Francis Raven

Sanbonmatsu, John. The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject. Monthly Review Press, 2004, 272 pp., $22.95 paper.

The question, after last fall’s unmentionably depressing election, is how the left can formulate a compelling unified vision that will allow us to win the next big election. Many of us thought the globalization movement would unite the left after decades of fragmentation. In Seattle, circa 1999, it sure felt like it would. It didn’t. Maybe that was because of 9/11, as some suppose, and maybe not. A few people thought that the anti-war movement would unite the left. Not only did it fail to do this, it ended up alienating many people who progressives should consider friends.

For the simple reason that the left is not unified and thus cannot unify the rest of the country around its “values,” all progressives must ask the question at the heart of John Sanbonmatsu’s The Postmodern Prince: “Can the now-dispersed forces of emancipation, having been forced by history to abandon the ‘skin’ of socialism and the International, the Party, discover or invent a new form?” Can the left come together so that we might eventually run the world or are we forever doomed to small wins in diverse movements that never add up?

The first half of the book charts the failures and collusions of the left. Sanbonmatsu demonstrates how the New Left’s (the leftists who came of age in the 1960’s and were radicalized by social injustices, the civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam) valuation of expression over strategy (this is sometime called ‘expressivism’), critical theory, and collusions with capitalism dismantled the Marxist’s dream of historical construction and brought us ever closer to Babel, where we no longer have the ability to talk to each other. It is in this Babel that progressives now live and must break free.

First, Sanbonmatsu shows how the New Left valued expression over strategy. That is, it was more important to express that you were on the right side of the argument than to show how you were going to win that argument. Second, he shows how the critical theory popularized in the 1960’s (think Derrida) led away from strategy by marginalizing the subject and leaving her stranded as a “site of discourse.” Third, these two trends were exacerbated by the market. Expressivism “left capitalism unbound by smashing bourgeois cultural norms that had previously placed subjective limits on consumerism.” If a person expresses what he is and there is no connection between what he is and his political actions then there is no reason why the market can’t tell him what his political actions should be. When this is coupled with the rationalization of the university the effects on leftist strategy are truly devastating: knowledge is aestheticized. Critical theory books proliferate, each with an original style (aesthetic) but without anything original to say. The use value of knowledge is denigrated in favor of its exchange value. The market comes to rule all and rules only through fragmentation of leftist political unity.

Sanbonmatsu’s critical project makes the reader salivate for his positive project and in the second half of The Postmodern Prince he delivers it. His basic division is between Michel Foucault, “the archaeologist” and Antonio Gramsci, “the Prince.” Gramsci is the leftist Prince of strategy and hegemony, whereas Foucault is an archeologist searching in discourses for differences. As a result of Sanbonmatsu’s progressive agenda, he picks Gramsci as a model of how we should move forward. The author is careful to note the extent to which Gramsci’s theoretical structure could lead to totalitarianism such as was seen in the former Soviet Union. To hedge these tendencies, Sanbonmatsu uses the positive aspects of postmodernism and shows how Gramsci was aware of some of these more negative possibilities. But at the end of the book it is unclear if coming together in the name of a cause really would just end up in a morass of totalitarian politics.

Gramsci’s formulated the ‘Modern Prince’ who was supposed to formulate people’s political will and was in obvious response to Machiavelli’s Prince. Oddly however, instead of being one person, the Modern Prince was actually a collective, such as a political party or a social movement. Sanbonmatsu refreshes the notion of the Prince once more in his formulation of the ‘Postmodern Prince,’ which he defines as “a unified movement in which many diverse movements come together to form the nucleus of a new civilizational order.” Basically, he has added a diversity criterion to the Prince.

The author argues that the diverse movements of the left must be meaningfully brought together because our opponents thrive on our diversity. “In its coming-to-form as a unified subject, the postmodern prince would illuminate the many-sided nature of power and domination-capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other distorting institutions-and also prefigure the society just to come.” We must come together in the name of a “new normality” with a new perspective and a new unity. This new unity would be dynamic, dialectic, and in constant motion but would always express that is not merely humanistic but still evolves through projects of empathy.

Sanbonmatsu’s model for the Postmodern Prince is Octavio Ocampo’s portrait of Cesar Chavez, which portrays Chavez as composed of all the individuals in his labor movement. For Sanbonmatsu, this portrait gathers the strands of his Postmodern Prince. First, the unity of the Postmodern Prince is based upon the experience of the individuals involved like the workers’ experiences in the struggle culture of the United Farm Workers. Second, the portrait represents “unity in diversity only within a single movement” that we might extend metonymically “to stand in as a figure for the unity of multiple movements in a common utopian project.” That is to say, there can be no Postmodern Prince absent (1) the experiences of the people gathered by it and (2) a common and perhaps utopian vision of the future. The differences within the unified movement cause the Postmodern Prince to move with empathy toward an ethic where no oppression is privileged. When (and if) this occurred all subjugations would be seen as interlocking power struggles, which must be battled not with the mere spectacle of a protest, but with a full-on perceptual change both of participants and the world at large. It’s not really clear how this is all supposed to happen, but it makes you want to try to join a movement and be part of the Postmodern Prince.