The Power of the People

Scott Henkel, Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017); 209 pages; ISBN 978-146812254 (hardcover)

• October 2018

In 1802, the French adopted a strategy of removing the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Yet after Toussaint Louverture was exiled, Charles Leclerc, leader of the French army in Haiti, wrote to his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, “[Now] there are two thousand leaders that must be removed” (qtd. on 36). Rather than fold, the Haitian Revolution grew as a form of collective resistance. Scott Henkel’s Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas takes the two thousand leaders of the Haitian Revolution as its starting point and offers a timely discussion of direct democracy. Scholars have frequently turned to the Haitian Revolution as a resource for thinking through emancipatory politics, and Henkel continues this trend but specifically focuses on the appearance of collective power and its afterlives.

In his introduction, Henkel emphasizes his definition of direct democracy as “a type of power” distinct from bureaucratic conceptions of democracy as a type of rule, authority, or government. As he states at the outset, “This book is a literary history of direct democracy in the Americas during the long nineteenth century. My primary argument is that direct democracy can be understood as a complex and collective type of power” (3). “Complex” for Henkel names the fact of multiplicity rather than difficulty. For Henkel, direct democracy as collective power names the forces of constituent power that resist and challenge domination by constituted power, which depends on maintaining unequal hierarchies.

To construct this genealogy of direct democracy, Henkel relies on a particularly loaded metaphor: the swarm. The swarm operates “like a signpost, pointing to the presence of direct democratic power” (4). This metaphor appears in C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, which functions as one of the most important texts for Henkel’s study and the focus of his discussion in the first chapter. Depending on who uses it and how it is used, the swarm potentially registers a profound ambivalence toward the collective power Henkel calls direct democracy, and much of Henkel’s study involves explicating the logic of this ambivalence. Used derogatively, as when Carl Schmitt uses Schwärmerei (enthusiasm) to refer to an irrational, unthinking mass of bodies, the swarm metaphor names an unprincipled attack on the constituted power that many, such as Schmitt, defend (23–24). Henkel insists, however, that collective action does have a rationality, and this is one of his main arguments throughout the readings that follow. Intelligence, not simply strength, potentially emerges with collective action. In its affirmative sense, then, the swarm names the power of the collective, a power that threatens the conservative forces of constituted power.

Direct Democracy consists of an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. With one exception—the fifth chapter, which focuses on Marie Vieux Chauvet’s Love—all chapters engage multiple texts. Henkel also engages a range of historical events and contexts, including the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), nineteenth-century transatlantic debates on democracy, the Southampton Slave Rebellion (1831), the Mexican Revolution (1910–19), and the aftermath of US occupation in Haiti (1915–34). The multiplicity of the structure of Henkel’s book therefore reflects its subject. In his opening chapter, Henkel focuses on James’s Black Jacobins (both the 1938 and 1963 versions) and his 1971 “Lectures on The Black Jacobins.” In these lectures James reflects on the latent potential of his discussion of the two thousand leaders in The Black Jacobins, a book that on its surface privileges Toussaint Louverture. Henkel presents the work of Direct Democracy as a step toward that elaboration of a power independent of centralized leadership.

Part of Henkel’s study involves exposing those strategies that have obscured the legacy of collective power in the Americas, and an exemplary case of this obfuscation occurs with the Southampton Slave Rebellion. According to Henkel, Thomas Gray’s role in recording and publishing The Confessions of Nat Turner works as a “literary misdirection” in that it frames the Southampton rebellion as the operation of one person, Nat Turner, who stands in for the collective resistance that constituted this rebellion (86). Henkel is careful to note that this designation of Turner works in complex ways: it provides the forces of constituted power a figurehead and rationale for declaring the mass uprising to be irrational, and it also allows the other participants of the rebellion to avoid, potentially, the continued violence of retribution. By focusing on and marginalizing (as exceptional) a single leader, Gray can both explain the rebellion in a recognizable way and avoid acknowledging the possibility that “a multiplicity of enslaved people had the motive and willingness to rebel” (103). Henkel shows convincingly that for Gray, “leadership is the only lens . . . through which the rebellion can be understood” (96). Gray’s framing of Turner’s voice in The Confessions thus registers “an ideological apparatus designed and deployed to repress slave rebellions, to protect and extend the slavocracy’s constituted power” (102). Significantly for Henkel, however, Gray appends to The Confessions a list of names of other participants in the rebellion, which “hides in plain sight” the fact that the rebellion was part of a collective effort (96). Henkel thus offers a nuanced way of reading The Confessions that emphasizes how it negotiates the demands of constituted power and the fact of constituent power.

While Henkel engages many familiar works, he also maintains a commitment to lesser known figures and texts, such as Lucy Parsons and B. Traven’s Mahogany Novels on the Mexican Revolution (which, he suggests, might prove a valuable resource for those working on the Zapatista movement). Henkel’s designation of Traven’s series as the Mahogany Novels rather than the Jungle Novels draws attention to “the commodity that occupied a place in the economy and culture of Chiapas, Mexico[,] . . . that was analogous to sugar in the Caribbean and cotton in the southern United States” (107); this name therefore stresses the material locus of the revolutionary struggle depicted in the novels. His discussion of Parsons in chapter 2 similarly works to reorient our relation to a political and literary tradition. He offers three perspectives on direct democracy in the nineteenth century by putting the work of Thomas Carlyle, Walt Whitman, and Lucy Parsons in conversation with each other. Henkel positions Parsons in this chapter as someone who deserves far greater attention than she has received. Ultimately, Henkel describes Carlyle as a conservative thinker who sides with constituted power, Whitman as a profoundly ambivalent thinker who both sympathizes with and worries about constituent power, and Parsons as a figure who wants to change absolutely the hierarchical order of constituted power. Henkel singles out Parsons’s work in the labor movement of the latter half of the nineteenth century and her commitment to the eight-hour work day, which stands as “one of the most successful efforts at curtailing constituted power in United States history” (78).

The range of Henkel’s literary-historical survey provides the book one of its main strengths. Scholars interested in alternative conceptions of democracy, collective power, and resistance will find a wealth of material here. Yet this range also produces one of the book’s main limitations. With so much material, Henkel’s readings can often feel truncated. For example, Henkel’s engagement with B. Traven’s six Mahogany Novels might best be understood as a foundation for future scholarship. Henkel also notes that collective power can appear both as a spectacle (as in the Haitian Revolution) and as something more quotidian. The main example of the latter appears in the final chapter, on Marie Vieux Chauvet’s Love. Because Love takes place after the US occupation of Haiti, it offers one conclusion to the history begun by the Haitian Revolution and thus a satisfying close to the study. Henkel first focuses on Love’s representation of collective resistance, but he then turns to a subtler form of collectivity in the narrative with the care expressed by one character (Claire) for another (the ostracized Dora). As Henkel states, this small act of resistance has the potential to be multiplied, like “a building block for a larger structure” (149). Because the previous chapter on the Mexican Revolution focuses on the “larger structure” to which this final reading gestures, the reader may find the content of the final chapter counter to the progression of the book more generally. Yet this positioning of the final chapter also works to emphasize Henkel’s claim that collective power need not appear in spectacular fashion to be effective.

Direct Democracy will be useful to a range of readers, including those invested in comparative approaches to collective resistance and conceptions of democracy. This is an important study for scholars interested in alternative conceptions of power that do not reproduce the hierarchies they resist but instead truly challenge inequality and domination.


Matthew Scully recently completed his PhD in English at Tufts University and currently teaches literature and theory as an affiliated faculty member at Emerson College. His dissertation,  “Against Form: Figural Excess and the Negative Democratic Impulse in American Literature,” attends to the anxious intersection of politics and aesthetics and develops a theory of the negativity of democracy through readings of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American fiction, poetry, and visual art.