Jul 19, 2020

A constellation of threats: far rightists respond to the Black-led uprising

Guest post by Ben Lorber

It’s important to remember that when we talk about the far right, we’re not talking about a single unitary force, but rather a constellation of different actors, organizations and movements with different interests and levers of power in our current moment.

There’s the far right authoritarian state, and state-aligned institutions, intensifying repression, policing and incarceration against our movements and communities.

And there are far right, insurrectionist social movements that often oppose the current state, and seek to destabilize and overthrow the existing order to achieve even more extreme anti-democratic and White supremacist goals.

Using the three-way fight model, we can trace how these various far right forces overlap, converge and diverge in our evolving moment.

Showing Up At Protests
Silhouette of police officer wearing gas mask in front of flames
North Precinct, Portland, OR, 26 June 2020

Since the uprising, far right social movements are stepping up their efforts at recruitment, organizing and mobilizing online and in the streets. A wide variety of actors have been showing up at Black Lives Matter protests around the country to harass and in some cases attack protesters.

We have seen established right-wing armed militias like III%ers and the Oath Keepers, as well as new formations like the New Mexico Civil Guard, show up at protests claiming to “defend property from antifa.” We have also seen the formation of ad-hoc armed patrols, often self-organized across informal networks, regional Facebook groups and community forums in response to unfounded rumors of an impending “antifa invasion.” In one instance, a protester was shot by a militia member in Albuquerque.

We have also seen at protests “Western chauvinist” street fighting gangs like the Proud Boys; neo-Confederate groups; as well as small numbers of explicit White nationalists, from individual neonazis to members of the Ku Klux Klan and newer formations like the Nationalist Social Club and the America First/groyper movement.

Among these varied street actors, some are pro-Trump, pro-police, pro-state. Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen police coordinate with militia and vigilante groups to suppress protests on several occasions. In a few instances, police and military were revealed to be members of these groups themselves.

Others, like the much-discussed “boogaloo boys,” are insurrectionist and accelerationist, hoping to increase tensions and violence at protests to destabilize the political space and overthrow the existing order. A few “boogaloo boys” have claimed to stand with protesters against police violence—though typically lacking a race analysis—and one member of this movement murdered officers in California.

White Nationalists Respond

As the uprising rattles the foundations of White supremacy in the US, explicit White nationalists are increasingly angry and desperate. They view protests on the streets, as well as widespread support for Black Lives Matter across broad sectors of media, corporate and political spheres and the general public, as signs of an escalating “race war” in which White identity is demonized and suffocated by an all-powerful cultural-corporate elite that aims to “replace” the White race. Trump is not the savior they wanted, and they have long seen him as part of the “system” they’re up against.

Most have responded to the uprising by recycling well-worn White nationalist pseudoscientific arguments of racial IQ and “impulse control” differences, amidst other vitriolic anti-Black sentiment. The uprising, to them, offers further proof that multiculturalism in America is a failed experiment, White and Black communities cannot co-exist in a shared society, and the only option remains radical separation. Most are using antisemitism to portray the uprising as a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the White race, repeating long-standing themes, central to the White nationalist movement since its formation in the post-Civil Rights era, that Black-led social movements are covertly controlled by Jews.

While White nationalists are unified in viewing the uprising as an existential threat, their orientation towards the State differs. The accelerationist camp hopes, much like the “boogaloo boys,” that escalating unrest will lead to the collapse of the existing social and political order, giving White nationalists an opportunity to establish an ethnostate on all or part of American soil. Others, across blogs like VDARE and American Renaissance and the “America First” movement, call on Trump to crack down on protesters and restore “law and order,” criticisms of the administration notwithstanding.

White nationalists hope to capitalize off White resentment in this moment to further radicalize and recruit White people. They also hope to take action by direct violence, and by encouraging Black Lives Matter activists, Black communities, the broader left, and other rightists to fight with each other and with the state through propagating online rumors and trolling.

The State Responds

Meanwhile, prominent far-right leaders with state power like President Trump and a bevy of right-wing politicians, and state aligned institutions like Fox News, are terrified at rapid transformation, and doubling down on racist and authoritarian appeals for “law and order”. Amidst signals to his Christian nationalist base, Trump is escalating disturbing levels of repression, moving to designate antifa a terrorist organization and deploying federal troops to brutally suppress protests in tactics reminiscent of military dictatorships.

The far-right state is fueled, in its authoritarian response, by dogwhistle White nationalist conspiracism, with Trump calling the uprising “cultural genocide” by a Left that wants to “replace America” and “erase our heritage.” State actors, movements like QAnon and much of the far right andre using antisemitism to blame protests on “outside agitators” and enemies within like George Soros and antifa who, they claim, plot to undermine Trump and American sovereignty and destroy Western civilization. Escalating repression is justified through these appeals to the need to combat a shadowy, invisible enemy.

Overall, when combined with the massive economic collapse brought on by the COVID crisis, we’re plunged deeper into a moment in which more than ever, the center cannot hold.

In disgruntled reaction to perceived excesses of the “woke Left,” prominent centrists are increasingly signaling their willingness to ally with conservatives and traditionalists in bitter opposition to forces of progressive change. We should anticipate that center-right actors and institutions will drift further rightward, while far right movements will win new recruits, and grow increasingly radical and emboldened in their efforts to shift culture and open political space for their ideas to gain influence.

Moving forward, our strategy needs to account for the various ways these distinct threats can intersect. For example, campaigns to defund local police departments should take into account that, as this powerful and transformative win is enacted, it will likely lead to a growth in legitimacy and recruitment by right-wing militias, who will present themselves as the last line of “law and order” defense. Our movements need to be attuned to these various forces as we craft strategy to shape and respond to the evolving moment.

Ben Lorber (@BenLorber8) works at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank, researching white nationalism and antisemitism.

Photo by Jeff Schwilk. Used with permission.

Jun 23, 2020

Cooptation as ruling class strategy

It’s the biggest threat the U.S. power structure has faced in many years—a Black-led, multiracial wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against the police and white supremacy in cities across the country. Defenders of the established order have responded with a variety of countermeasures, including direct police repression, vigilante violence, and propaganda campaigns designed to demonize, divide, and weaken the movement.

Another countermeasure that’s received less attention is cooptation—not just immediate, small-scale tactics such as mayors proclaiming Black Lives Matter or cops taking a knee, but large-scale strategic efforts to channel mass rage into limited changes that leave existing systems of power, hierarchy, and oppression fundamentally intact. This kind of cooptation isn’t coming from the White House and may be beyond the capacity of the Democratic Party leadership, but it is a force we need to contend with. Because as popular pressure increasingly exposes weaknesses in the current systems of social and political control, it creates openings for a resurgence of ruling-class liberalism and the cooptation strategies it has promoted for generations.

Members of Congress kneel for Black Lives Matter
The U.S. ruling class has leaned right for so long, it’s easy to forget that this stance isn’t inherent—or permanent. In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, during times of deep social crisis and large-scale radical mobilizations, capitalists sanctioned dramatic changes in the system of rule to preserve their own power. The business community abandoned New Deal liberalism starting in the late 1970s, partly for economic and geostrategic reasons and partly in response to grassroots-based right-wing backlash. But to assume that capitalists are automatically committed to neoliberalism or right-wing authoritarianism is to take a dangerously narrow view of ruling-class politics.

To put this situation in perspective, it’s helpful to look at how the U.S. ruling class responded to the African American urban uprisings of the 1960s. An excellent way to do that is by revisiting the book Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History by journalist-turned-academic Robert L. Allen.

First published in 1969, Black Awakening is important for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a keen exposé of contradictions and tensions within the Black Power and Black nationalist movements of the late 1960s. For another, it’s a pioneering analysis of U.S. racial oppression as a system of domestic colonialism. Anticipating part of Butch Lee and Red Rover’s Night-Vision by over 20 years, Allen argued that “black America is now being transformed from a colonial nation into a neocolonial nation; a nation nonetheless subject to the will and domination of white America.” Under colonialism, state power had been fully in the hands of whites, but with neocolonialism African Americans were granted a significant degree of political power yet remained subordinated through various “indirect and subtle” means (14).

A third reason that Black Awakening is important, and the one I’m most concerned with here, is that it includes an invaluable discussion of ruling-class responses in the face of mass upheaval. In the broadest terms, Allen argued that
“In the United States today a program of domestic neocolonialism is rapidly advancing. It was designed to counter the potentially revolutionary thrust of the recent black rebellions in major cities across the country. This program was formulated by America’s corporate elite—the major owners, managers, and directors of the giant corporations, banks, and foundations which increasingly dominate the economy and society as a whole—because they believe that the urban revolts pose a serious threat to economic and political stability. Led by such organizations as the Ford Foundation, the Urban Coalition, and National Alliance of Businessmen, the corporatists are attempting with considerable success to co-opt the black power movement” (17).
Allen saw this program as emerging in the context of “several interlocked responses” to the rebellions from different sectors of the white power structure:
On the one hand there was the orthodox liberal who prescribed more New Deal welfarism as an antidote to the riots… [Another was] the shrill voices emanating from the embattled metropolises--voices demanding more policemen, more troops, more weapons, heavier armor, and tougher laws…. But between these two camps, there has arisen a third force: the corporate capitalist, the American businessman. He is interested in maintaining law and order, but he knows that there is little or nothing to gain and a great deal to lose in committing genocide against the blacks. His deeper interest is in reorganizing the ghetto ‘infrastructure,’ in creating a ghetto buffer class clearly committed to the dominant American institutions and values on the one hand, and on the other, in rejuvenating the black working class and integrating it into the American economy. Both are necessary if the city is to be salvaged and capitalism preserved” (194).
Two men in business suits seated in conversation in the Oval Offie
McGeorge Bundy with President Lyndon Johnson, 1967
One of the architects of the neocolonialism program, who receives special attention in Allen’s study, was McGeorge Bundy. Child of an elite Boston family, Bundy spent five years as national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, then left in 1966 to become president of the Ford Foundation. With this job change, Bundy shifted from a leading role in designing U.S. political-military operations in Vietnam to a leading role in designing establishment responses to the Black Liberation Movement.

Bundy quickly set a new tone as Ford Foundation president. In August 1966 he told the National Urban League’s annual banquet, “We believe that full equality for all American Negroes is now the most urgent domestic concern of this country. We believe that the Ford Foundation must play its full part in this field because it is dedicated by its charter to human welfare.” With Bundy as its head, the foundation broadened its grant-giving from relatively tame civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League to the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Allen explains that CORE appealed to the Ford Foundation because it talked about revolution but offered an “ambiguous and reformist definition of black power as simply black control of black communities,” fortified by increases in government and private aid. “From the Foundation’s point of view, old-style moderate leaders no longer exercised any real control [in the ghettos], while genuine black radicals were too dangerous” (146-47). In Cleveland, Ford financed a CORE-led voter registration and voter education campaign, which in November 1967 helped Carl Stokes win election as the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city.

Bundy recognized that repression and cooptation work best as two sides of the same coin. In a 1967 Foreign Affairs article titled “The End of Either/Or,” he wrote,
“with John F. Kennedy we enter a new age. Over and over he insisted on the double assertion of policies which stood in surface contradiction with each other: resistance to tyranny and relentless pursuit of accommodation; reinforcement of defense and new leadership for disarmament; counter-insurgency and the Peace Corps;... an Alliance for Progress and unremitting opposition to Castro; in sum, the olive branch and the arrows” (quoted 77).
Bundy’s approach meshed closely with the two-pronged national policy for dealing with urban revolts which, in Allen’s account, “evolved out of a series of studies and meetings held in 1967 at top government levels” (208). One prong was military containment: “make a massive show of force while minimizing the actual use of force” (208) by deploying large numbers of troops and riot police instructed to hold their fire but use tear gas and arrests extensively. The point was to keep things under control
“but not bear down with an iron fist, because this would further alienate an already greatly dissatisfied and volatile group. Furthermore, containment of the riots would buy time for the second prong of the new policy to take effect: an intensive program to convince black people that they as a group have a stake in the American system” (209).
In Allen’s view, the modulated military response did not point to a relaxation of repression. On the contrary, he predicted “a steady, although gradual increase in the level of repression.” Writing two years before activists made public the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), Allen
“expected that one of the favorite tactics of police forces will be more frequently employed--namely, decapitation of militant groups and movements…. More and more militant leaders (white as well as black) are likely to be arrested on charges of conspiring to bomb, assassinate, and otherwise engage in illegal activity, even where there is very little evidence to substantiate these charges” (209 note 6).
The second, cooptive prong of the national policy involved extensive investments in Black-owned businesses by the Ford Foundation and others, collaborative government-business initiatives to train members of the “hardcore unemployed” and help them find jobs, and—above all—programs designed to foster a class of Black capitalists and managers.
“The theory was that such a class would ease ghetto tensions by providing living proof to black dissidents that they can assimilate into the system if only they discipline themselves and work at it tirelessly. A black capitalist class would serve thereby as a means of social control by disseminating the ideology and values of the dominant white society throughout the alienated ghetto masses” (212).
Another leading force in this effort was the National Urban Coalition, which was formed in August 1967 by business, labor, religious, civil rights, and government leaders, among them such major corporate executives as David Rockefeller and Henry Ford II. As an example of its work, the NUC’s New York branch, whose board of directors included Roy Innis of CORE, provided nascent inner-city businesses with both advice and venture capital, in a program that Allen described as “a sophisticated mechanism for selecting and aiding persons in the black community who are to be programmed into the class of black capitalists” (220). The program’s “use of semiautonomous development corporations avoids the stigma of white interference and allows for maximum financial maneuverability” while offering “the attractive promise of community participation” (221).

As Allen noted, this strategy to foster Black capitalism and give African Americans a bigger stake in the established order was “fraught with difficulties and contradictions” (245), not least the fact that it was expensive and thus vulnerable to an economic downturn. Indeed, partly as a result of the mid-1970s recession, by the late 70s business leaders had begun turning to the right and largely abandoned programs to reintegrate poor and working-class African Americans. However, they continued developing a Black capitalist class through other methods. Today’s U.S. ruling class is still white dominated and still upholds a system of racial oppression, but it includes a significantly greater sprinkling of Black and Brown faces than it did fifty years ago, and it has embraced an ideology of multicultural “inclusion” in its leading institutions far beyond what McGeorge Bundy promoted.

This change in complexion and ideology has influenced ruling class responses to more recent Black-led upsurges. Since George Floyd’s murder, U.S. companies have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to civil rights organizations. And while there is wide variation in how capitalists and their representatives talk about race, the liberal wing of the ruling class has gotten much more sophisticated than it was in past generations at incorporating elements of anti-racist discourse, including calls for structural change. For example, Foreign Affairs, journal of the Council on Foreign Relations and the same organ that published Bundy’s “The End of Either/Or” more than half a century ago, recently published an article by Chris Murphy, U.S. senator from Connecticut, expressing the hope that
“maybe the country is at the dawn of a second civil rights movement that will prompt fundamental reforms to its systems of law enforcement, criminal justice, housing, and school finance. Could it also be that Americans’ ability to squarely confront their demons and use the tools of democracy to profoundly alter the status quo will relight the country’s torch in the eyes of the world?”
The Ford Foundation, building on McGeorge Bundy’s legacy of outreach to militant civil right organizations, pledged four years ago to provide “long term support” to the Movement for Black Lives, declaring
“now is the time to stand by and amplify movements rooted in love, compassion, and dignity for all people. Now is the time to call for an end to state violence directed at communities of color. And now is the time to advocate for investment in public services—including but not limited to police reform—together with education, health, and employment in communities and for people that have historically had less opportunity and access to all those things.”
New America, a liberal elite think tank that has taken a special interest in counterinsurgency strategy, has for several years been promoting calls for police reform, as in a 2017 panel discussion titled “Breaking the Chokehold: A Radical Approach to Disrupting the Policing System.” In response to the recent Black-led uprisings in Minneapolis and other cities following George Floyd’s killing, New America published an article that defended the protesters’ destruction of property as “a direct challenge to a system built on the exploitation and oppression of Black lives.” (The article was written by Malcom Glenn, a New America fellow, who had made national news in 2007 as the first African American president of Harvard’s student newspaper in over half a century.)

How ruling-class anti-racism will be translated into specific policy initiatives in the coming months and years remains to be seen, and depends partly on how the grassroots movement against white supremacy continues to unfold. If the experiences of the late 1960s are a guide, we can expect such cooptive initiatives to have a few characteristics:
  • They will embrace the language of combating oppression in dramatic-sounding terms.
  • They will threaten some (especially local) entrenched white interests and centers of privilege without calling overall systems of power into question.
  • They will tend to divide the movement against white supremacy, by promoting or elevating some sections within communities of color, and by exacerbating tensions between radical and system-loyal forces.
  • They will be promoted in tandem with political repression, both overt and covert.
In sounding these warnings, I’m not arguing that calls for incremental reforms are inherently bad. Reforms of the existing system can be valuable and important, if they substantively improve—or save—people’s lives. In this context it’s helpful to remember Robert Allen’s words on the difference between reforms and reformism: 

“The general attack on reformism in this study is not meant to imply that there is no role for reforms in a revolutionary struggle. In a struggle to transform an oppressive society, it is indeed necessary to fight for certain reforms, but this requires that those who are oppressed are conscious (or made conscious) of how the reforms fit into an over-all strategy for social change. [F]requently reforms serve mainly to salvage and buttress a society which in its totality remains as exploitative as ever” (157 note 12).
All page number citations are from Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969).

1. By Office of Congressman Colin Allred, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
2. By Yoichi Okamoto, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 19, 2020

Distinguishing The Possible From The Probable: Contending strategic approaches within and against transnational capitalism

The following article by Don Hamerquist has been published by our friends over at Kersplebedeb. Hamerquist's document addresses class and social conflict, ruling class responses (actual and potentials) and the threats of emerging fascisms that are opposed to not only the existing capitalist order but revolutionary liberatory anti-system alternatives.

It is not possible to evaluate ruling class politics without fully recognizing the significance of the resistance to them. The trajectory of capitalist societies is determined by such mass and class resistance and capital’s adaption to it. Particularly important in this regard are the struggles that have explicitly or implicitly raised more general challenges to capitalist oppression and exploitation. 
I think that there is major potential for a modern fascism in the center of global capital that is based on the explosive combination of the reactionary and nihilistic rejection of the neoliberal transnational capitalist status quo with the rapid expansion of declassed and marginalized populations.
Sectors of the metropolitan ruling class are increasingly aware of the apocalyptic potentials of capitalism’s long-deferred social and ecological costs and other noxious byproducts of its development. They will do everything possible to avoid and delay any transformation of such potentials into actual crises."
The same transnational ruling class elements that fret about populism are also aware that for millions of people in the capitalist core the new global order is defined by its “… failure…to sustain cultures and communities that provide identity, meaning and purpose in life …” 
The transnational capitalist elites are quite aware of the instability of the structures and processes they manage and the volatility of the populations they subordinate. They realize that their pursuit of profit also produces their populist oppositions and ensures that these will generate and regenerate. Various key players in the ruling class also recognize any number of potential social disruptions that can reverse economic and political ‘good times’ and rapidly transform current populist challenges to their already shaky political equilibrium into much larger and more destabilizing threats.

Jun 13, 2020

Prospects for Global Capitalism

graphic from CNN
this past Thursday saw another market shake up with the Dow dropping nearly 7% and the S&P having a drop of over 4.8% . fears of a second coronavirus wave and a still historic surge in unemployment from the last few months, coupled with concern over a failure of the U.S. ruling class to collectively address the pandemic and resulting stresses on the economy, all this continues to look very grim. so how should we as ant-capitalists be thinking about this crisis? the following contribution by Dave Ranney is part of that conversation.

By Dave Ranney.

With so many out of work and out of money and the stock market bouncing around, a number of my friends and comrades have asked me to say something about “the economy.” The question to me is: what are the prospects for global capitalism at this moment? The ruling classes around the world are beginning to ask this question and we need to try to anticipate what they are up to and act accordingly. Even before the appearance of the global pandemic and the current economic and social meltdown the system was in trouble. Now it is even more so.

We have seen periods of growth and decline before, but I believe the time span between “expansions” is likely getting shorter over time and that the ruling classes are busy preparing their next move. They will need to find a way for the global economy to grow at even a faster rate since they have been borrowing to keep the last expansion going and to try to get out of the fix they are in now. All of this borrowing is a claim on value not yet created. At some point it has to be paid back by creating new value. Thus the ruling classes have a desperate need to find a way to grow the global system. A likely direction is a return to primitive accumulation through extractivism and exterminism.

Also there are some other factors in the mix now that will determine the limits of what they can do. One is global warming that is responsible for many of the “natural” disasters. And global economic growth is largely responsible for that. The other is pandemics. The present pandemic is likely to be followed by another in short order; not just new waves of what we are experiencing now but another novel virus. The present and the future of pandemics are also related to growth, which has caused massive habitat destruction. That destruction has unleashed ever new and evolving viruses that are facilitated by factory farming, urban densities, and a global public health system in tatters due to political influences mainly by drug companies and competition between capitalist blocs. Future pandemics are also being intensified due to neo liberal globalization and rapid population movements around the world. If a new novel virus follows the present one the present economic collapse is a preview of something worse that could come.

Another factor in the mix that I believe will play heavily on the future is the fragile state of the global financial system that is grounded in the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. Other blocs of capital would like to see this end. If it does the cheerful practice of “monetary easing” in the U.S. (printing more dollars without fear of run away inflation) will be at an end. And then what?

There are a lot of possible scenarios rather than forecasts we can imagine. I tried to lay out a few in 2014 in my book New World Disorder which some of you have read. Also Peter Frase’s Four Futures takes the scenario approach.

I hope this didn’t spoil anyone’s last meal, but this is what I have been thinking about. On the pandemic, I highly recommend Mike Davis, Monster at Our Door that was written in 2004 and focused on the Avian Flu at that time. But it pretty much predicted what is happening now as far as pandemics are concerned. And it explains the relationship between disease and the present stage of capitalism quite well. I am trying to write on this myself. I have written an essay on climate change and the Green New Deal proposal that is on my website www.david-ranney.com. The essay on climate change includes a perspective on what a new society might look like.

There is a desperate need to project our vision of a society that does not rely on growth or private property and connect it with all that is happening around us.

Dave's lived life as factory, labor and community organizer and has been a Professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago. He is author of the books, New World Disorder: The Decline of U.S. Power, and, Living and Dying on the Factory Floor: From the Outside In and the Inside Out.

It's Going Down: Rebellion, Counter-Insurgency, And Cracks Within The Ruling Class

The following was originally published over at It's Going Down after the first week and a half of the rebellion that emerged in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. The podcast takes on the importance of the rebellion and questions on the systems responses, specifically counter-insurgency efforts by the ruling classes and their State.

Also check out IGD's extensive list of reading and study materials on state repression, anti-fascism and liberation politics.

We repost this podcast and give props to IGD in an effort to highlight the needed questions, discussions and debates movements for liberation need to be grappling with while attempting in real time to work out various approaches around defense and security as part of the continued expansion of the struggle.

From IGD:
In this episode of the It’s Going Down podcast, we discuss the current moment two weeks into the uprising. While the demonstrations continue, a real counter-insurgency effort is underway. Across the social terrain, the neoliberal media is attempting to isolate any actually disruptive and proletarian elements from the rebellion, the far-Right is pushing each and every conspiracy theory that it can, and the police are posing for photo-opts, dishing out as much brutality as possible, and shooting people dead in the street – all at the same time. 
We also discuss at length what Trump means when he says that he will attempt to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the visible cracks within the ruling class that are starting to show, as many elites are starting to sketch out a world without Trump.
Looking at the various forces at play from the lens of counter-insurgency theory, we hope that this gives insight to those on the ground trying to make sense of this moment through the tear-gas and misinformation.

May 3, 2020

Disaster Politics

This review first appeared in Socialism and Democracy (July 2010) and is republished with permission. An Editorial Comment follows the review below.

*          *          *

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
by Rebecca Solnit
New York: Viking, 2009.
319 pages, hardcover, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-670-0207-9

Reviewed by Kristian Williams

Disasters, more or less by definition, kill people and destroy property. But that is not all they do. They also void contracts, disrupt schedules, and cause organizations to fail. They interrupt daily life. They undermine our usual assumptions.

What happens then? Do people panic? Do they become irrational and helpless? Do they revert to a kind of animal state, amoral, selfish, short-sighted, and fierce?

Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell examines the evidence of recent history, looking at public behavior in numerous disasters of the last hundred years -- from the San Francisco earthquake (and then fire) of 1906, to the Halifax explosion of 1917, to the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, ending with 2005's Hurricane Katrina. She finds, with astonishing consistency, that when the normal institutions fail people don't panic, break down, hoard goods, attack passersby, or otherwise fulfill the Mad Max prophecies. Instead, they prove themselves "resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave" (8). When institutions fail, people build community.

Chalk hand-lettering, reads "LOOK AFTER ONE ANOTHER"
Coffee shop queue -- social distancing
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK
Solnit, writing in the tradition of anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin, suggests an evolutionary basis for such sociability. (Because species capable of cooperation have an evolutionary advantage, "mutual aid [develops] as a default operating principle" [313].)  But she also considers the question from a more spiritual perspective. While never quite religious in doctrine, the rhetoric of "paradise," "hell," and being "our brothers' keepers" pervades the text, beginning of course with the title.

Whether spiritually or scientifically construed, the fundamental question is one of human nature. 
"The term itself has fallen out of fashion," Solnit admits. "[But] if you concede that there are many human natures, shaped by culture and circumstance, that each of us contains multitudes, then the majority of human natures on display in disaster may not suggest who we are ordinarily or always, but they do suggest who we could be and tend to be in these circumstances" (49).
She continues, later in the book: 
"Two things matter most about these ephemeral moments. First, they demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society. Second, they demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness" (305-6). 
These desires lie deep within us, though, in "normal" times it is difficult to adequately express or fulfill them.

If we are in some ways Hobbesian creatures -- isolated, selfish, and cruel -- it is because the capitalist market both demands and rewards just such characteristics. However, when the normal routine is interrupted and the institutions of society suddenly disappear, even if through adversity or real tragedy, the result is still a kind of freedom. The crisis offers a reprieve from the constraints of our social system. And given the choice, people tend to behave in ways almost calculated to confound the authoritarian predictions -- cooperatively, compassionately, and with striking courage and intelligence.

Well, most people. Solnit notes that the largest exception consists of those trying desperately to preserve or return to the status quo ante -- "those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism" (2). These are, in the usual case, exactly those people who present themselves as our protectors -- the agents of the state. In their efforts to regain control, the authorities tend to treat the public as the enemy.

In most of the cases Solnit describes, the state prioritized the protection of property over human life, shooting looters rather than launching rescue operations. In many cases, police and soldiers actively interfered with any efforts the survivors employed to aid themselves. And a great deal of the time, the authorities behaved not only meanly, but foolishly, making the humanitarian crisis needlessly worse -- withholding vital information, trapping people in dangerous areas, or (in San Francisco) spreading the fire they were meant to be fighting. All of these tendencies, and their terrible consequences, were on display following, for example, Hurricane Katrina.

Also, in New Orleans, cops and soldiers were supplemented by racist vigilantes who blocked escape routes and shot Black men more or less at random. "Here was the marauding, murdering gang the media had been obsessed with," Solnit sardonically notes, "except that it was made up of old white people, and its public actions went unnoticed" (253).

Solnit explains these anti-social exceptions with reference to the ideology of the people involved.  "Beliefs matter," she says repeatedly. "You had to believe, first, that all African American men are criminals and intruders and, second, that people in a disaster have a pressing interest in acquiring private property, to act as the vigilantes did" (257).

At the level of the individual -- cop, solider, or armed property owner -- such simple, delusional prejudice is certainly a factor. But at the level of the state, I think the theory of "elite panic" (a phrase Solnit borrows from sociologist Kathleen Tierney) gives the authorities too much credit -- or perhaps too little. It assumes that their intentions are good, but their ideas are faulty. And it implies that the state's attitude toward the citizenry fundamentally changes in the midst of disaster, that the authorities succumb to distrust and antagonism at precisely the moment that community members learn to cooperate, to trust and rely on each other. Misguided, unnecessary, counter-productive violence results.

But maybe, just as disaster sometimes reveals the best qualities within human beings, those virtues that too often lay dormant, it also exposes the worst qualities of our social systems. Maybe the violence typical of the elite response is not a by-product of the disaster, but the normal relationships of power, stripped of the sheen of legitimacy. When the usual social framework fails, inequality can only be re-imposed by force. But, then, wouldn't this suggest that violence is always implicit in these relationships, even when it is not made manifest? If so, then disasters offer, not only a glimpse of a world without our existing institutions, but also an insight into the present society that they structure.

And here is another reason why disasters matter: There are more catastrophes, both economic and ecological, looming on the horizon. A great many people are going to suffer -- some inevitably, some needlessly -- while states fight to preserve their sovereign rule and corporations callously, cynically, pursue higher profits.

But perhaps we, the rest of us, can seek out something else instead. Perhaps, just past the horizon, on the far edge of the storm, we will find the shores of utopia. Or perhaps, just as we are always in the midst of disaster -- this disaster called capitalism -- we are also always in the process of building paradise.  

Nothing is assured, of course. No paradise is inevitable. But Solnit has assembled a volume of evidence that utopias are possible, and that they sometimes arise under the most surprising conditions.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell (both from AK Press).

Photo by Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0), Via Flickr.

*          *          * 

Editorial Comment:
As presented in Kristian Williams’s review, A Paradise Built in Hell describes a conflict between, on the one hand, people’s cooperative tendencies and, on the other, the agents of the state trying to restore the status quo ante. But here as in other contexts, a three way fight approach calls simple two-sided conflict models into question. In the current COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen a series of angry public protests against governors and state governments in the name of defending freedom against authoritarian overreach. But these protesters calling to “Reopen America” aren’t promoting cooperation and community-building — they’re demanding an individualistic right to ignore public health guidelines, regardless of the deadly effect on others.

The Reopen America protesters’ conflict with state governments doesn’t fall out neatly as oppressors versus oppressed or defenders of property versus defenders of human life. The protesters have gotten a lot of backing from right-wing capitalists, and their ranks are heavily filled with those who aim to bolster hierarchies of race, gender, nationality, and religion. But the state governments the protesters are targeting also represent powerful, entrenched interests, and they are key enforcers of the inhumane system that robs many people of access to decent health care and forces many people to work under dangerous and potentially deadly conditions. If the hope and human possibility that Solnit’s book finds in disasters is to be realized, it will be outside of and against both parties to this conflict.

-- Matthew N. Lyons

Apr 20, 2020

Threat or model?: U.S. rightists look at China

The coronavirus crisis has spurred a sharp increase in scapegoating, harassment, and physical attacks against Chinese and other Asian people in the United States. This racist upsurge has been fomented not only by white nationalists, but even more dramatically by President Trump, other government officials, and right-wing media organs such as Fox News.

But there’s more going here than knee-jerk racist scapegoating and dog-whistle rhetoric. The U.S. right has been heavily concerned with China for years, and its views on the subject are complex, involving a shifting mix of political themes and a range of positions that relate to the current pandemic but have implications far beyond it. This article explores some of these broader rightist positions on China. Specifically, I compare the geopolitical focus of America Firsters such as Donald Trump and Steve Bannon with white nationalists’ racial focus, but I also look at divisions among white nationalists themselves, with some vilifying China and others praising it.

Three themes of anti-Chinese politics
Historically, anti-Chinese politics in the U.S. has centered on three major themes: racist demonization, anticommunism, and geopolitical fear. While these themes are interconnected and often presented in combination, each of them is rooted in a distinct historical period and set of developments.

Chinese people first came to the U.S. in large numbers in the mid-19th century. By the 1870s, they formed an important but heavily exploited part of the labor force in California and other parts of the West. White workers spearheaded campaigns to drive Chinese out of jobs, called for a ban in Chinese immigration, and carried out a series of pogroms and expulsions, such as an 1885 massacre of at least 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from immigrating, and the ban was extended to all Chinese in 1884 and to immigrants from many other Asian countries in 1917. Chinese immigration was completely forbidden until 1943 and not permitted in substantial numbers until 1965.

Racist demonization of Chinese people in the 19th century sometimes equated them with blacks or Native Americans, but sometimes portrayed them in ways that resembled anti-Jewish stereotypes—as crafty schemers with mysterious powers, or as blood-sucking parasites or vampires. Like Jews, Chinese men were alternately portrayed as effeminate or as sexual predators who lured or forced white women into prostitution. Sometimes Chinese people were linked with disease. During a 1900 bubonic plague scare in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one newspaper warned that “The almond-eyed Mongolian is watching for his opportunity, waiting to assassinate you and your children with one of his many maladies.” All of these motifs have persisted in U.S. racist discourse. (The quote is borrowed from Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, p. 65. An excellent study of the 19th-century anti-Chinese movement is Alexander Saxton’s The Indispensable Enemy.)

A map of the eastern hemisphere showing China in red at the center.
China and people of Chinese descent became targets of anticommunism following the 1949 Chinese Revolution and especially after the People’s Liberation Army intervened in the Korean War in 1950 on the side of North Korea. During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, Chinese Americans were widely suspected of political disloyalty, and conservative and liberal politicians alike regarded China as an expansionist threat second only to the Soviet Union. Anticommunist fears of China intensified in the 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese government’s expressions of support for anti-imperialist and revolutionary movements across the Global South.

The spectre of a Chinese Red Menace declined in the 1970s and 80s with improved U.S.-China relations, Mao’s death, and China’s shift toward a market economy, yet many U.S. rightists have continued to see Communist Party rule in China as inherently threatening. Since the Chinese government has effectively abandoned all pretentions to represent a force for anticapitalist revolution, American denunciations of Chinese communism have tended to focus on human rights issues. There’s no question that the Chinese government is profoundly authoritarian and has engaged in mass-scale repression against dissidents and ethnoreligious minorities, but anticommunism demonizes Chinese repression selectively as if it were qualitatively different from similar or worse practices carried out by overtly capitalist regimes.

The newest thread of U.S. anti-Chinese politics is fear of China as a geopolitical threat to the United States. This fear has emerged over the past few decades, as China has pursued dramatic and relatively uninterrupted economic growth, and particularly since it became the world’s second biggest economy about ten years ago. As its economic power has grown, China has sponsored high-profile development projects in other countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and has expanded its military forces and geographic military presence. While the U.S. ruling class and political elites as a whole view these developments with concern, many right-wingers view an increasingly powerful China not as one part of a global capitalist system operating according to the same basic interests as other powers, but rather in Manichean terms as a fundamentally different and malevolent force uniquely bent on world conquest.

In the years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. rightists have tapped into all of these traditions, but they’ve done so in different ways. In broad terms, Donald Trump and many of his “America Firster” allies and supporters have been driven primarily by geopolitical fears in relation to China while making use of anti-Chinese racism to mobilize support. By contrast, race is the critical concern for alt-rightists and other white nationalists (who helped President Trump get elected but have become increasing disenchanted with his administration), and their views of China center on promoting the interests of the white race before anything else. However, white nationalists are themselves sharply divided on whether China is an ethnostate to be admired and emulated or a racial threat second only to Jews.

Trump and America Firsters
Trump’s nationalist rhetoric has been targeting China for years, with an emphasis on claims that the Beijing government uses unfair trade practices (such as stealing U.S. firms’ intellectual property) and currency manipulation. Defying neoliberal orthodoxy, in 2018 the Trump administration launched a tariff war with China, promoting it as a way to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Although the policy measures are economic, Trump has often framed the conflict in broader existential terms. At a 2015 campaign rally he referred to China as “our enemy,” and at another rally the following year he denounced China’s trade practices as “rap[ing] our country.” Trump advisor Peter Navarro, one of the strongest advocates of economic nationalism within the administration, has published a series of books that the New York Times describes as “anti-China screeds.” Going far beyond economic concerns, he has warned against “the growing dangers of a heavily armed, totalitarian regime intent on regional hegemony and bent on global domination.”

America Firsters warning about China often sound like liberals and centrists warning about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This past December, Fox News commentator and informal Trump advisor Tucker Carlson got in a heated on-air debate with a former Clinton advisor over whether the United States’ biggest threat was China or Russia.

Another leading America Firster preoccupied with China has been Steve Bannon, who served as chief strategist at the beginning of the Trump administration and remains influential with the president. Bannon’s anti-Chinese ideology combines geopolitical and anticommunist themes. Bannon has praised Trump for defining China as the greatest threat facing the United States and has predicted a U.S.-China war within 5-10 years. He has referred to COVID-19 as a “CCP [Chinese Communist Party] virus” and has argued that China’s government is in league with globalist economic elites against the United States.

In March 2019, Bannon cofounded the Committee on the Present Danger: China together with neoconservative and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. The name “Committee on the Present Danger” has been used by three previous lobby groups since the 1950s, which have pushed for more aggressive policies in the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. This latest incarnation of the CPD has set out to “educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the Peoples Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.” The group warns that “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country,” that Xi Jinping has stepped up the CCP’s longstanding goal of “global hegemony,” and that “America must mobilize all instruments of national power to protect its people, territory, human freedom, vital interests and allies” against this enemy. The danger is both military and non-military, both external and internal:
“Particularly ominous has been the CCP’s success of late in undermining and subverting Western democracies from within through its: control, domination and exploitation of Chinese diaspora communities, including overseas students, professors and researchers; influence operations in the Western media and in academia; and the use of American and other corporations and even individuals invested in or doing business with China as advocates for accommodating Beijing.”
The specter of Chinese students and professors “undermining and subverting” the United States from within evokes age-old racist motifs of Chinese people—much like Jews—as a hidden, malevolent force operating by deceit. Trump and other America Firsters have long interwoven anti-Chinese racism with their geopolitical and anticommunist warnings. For example, in 2012 Trump declared it was “No surprise that China was caught cheating in the Olympics” because to “Lie, Cheat & Steal in all international dealings” was “the Chinese M.O.” Although Chinese students at U.S. universities number in the hundreds of thousands, in 2018 the Trump administration reportedly considered banning Chinese citizens from studying in the United States, at the urging of Trump aide Stephen Miller, who functions as a conduit bringing white nationalist beliefs and proposals directly into the White House

But in Trump’s politics with regard to China, racism is a useful tool—not the driving force. As evidence, Trump only started using the racist dog whistle phrase “China virus” in mid March, after referring to it unoffensively as the coronavirus for months. As Lili Loufbourow noted in Slate,
“People familiar with Trump’s limited but effective toolbox will recognize by now that the turn to racism is a sign of Trumpian distress. It means that Trump—who hasn’t been able to hold rallies amid his adoring fans—is feeling not just insecure but trapped. He thought the coronavirus was one more narrative he could control. He couldn’t.”
Anti-China white nationalists
White nationalists (who, unlike Trump and his Republican supporters, want to dismantle the United States and establish a white ethnostate) draw on many of the same themes with regard to China, but configure and prioritize them differently. In their view, any geopolitical challenges to the United States, or ideological challenges to capitalism, are only of concern if they threaten the perceived interests of the white race. And white nationalists are themselves divided on this question when it comes to China.

Sometimes white nationalists sound a lot like America Firsters. Brenda Walker at VDare warns that “Unlike Russia, Red China actually represents a long term threat to America” and “hasn’t really changed that much from the bad old Mao days.” Michelle Malkin at American Renaissance declares that “Chinese Communist Party agents are using our suicidal pathologies — blind worship of ‘diversity,’ naive exaltation of ‘cultural exchange’ programs, and reckless surrender of our education system — against us for economic espionage, intellectual property theft and world dominance.” But Robert Hampton at Counter-Currents, a leading alt-right “intellectual” forum, makes a more explicitly racial appeal to white nationalists:
“China doesn’t care about our cause, and the Han will never be our allies. China is developing biological weapons to specifically target whites. The Han treat all of their ethnic minorities like dirt, and they can’t wait to treat us the same way. Chinese global domination will mean the eclipse of white civilization. It will probably be worse for white people under GloboHan than globohomo. At least globohomo doesn’t put us in concentration camps.”
Over the past four years, Counter-Currents has featured one of the most virulent and comprehensive compendiums of anti-Chinese racism available: a series of at least eight articles by “F.C. Comtaose,” who in 2016 described himself as “a man of East Asian extraction currently living and working in the neo-imperialist China.” Comtaose, who also writes under the name “Riki Rei” and appears to be Japanese, denounces China and the Chinese people in hardline national socialist terms, claiming that “if the Jews ... are the worst enemies white people face from within, the most dangerous external enemy ... is China: the single most ruthless, ambitious, far-sighted, astute, disingenuous, and aggressive adversarial power in the world today.”

Comtaose argues that the Chinese government aims not only to surpass the United States as the dominant world power, but also to conquer and enslave Americans. Thus the U.S., and the western world as a whole, should sever all contact with China. Although China has been pursuing a strategy of conquest for decades, he declares, under Xi Jinping it has ratcheted up the threat with a new “hard-line confrontational policy” against neighboring countries and the United States.

Unlike Trump or Bannon, Comtaose doesn’t just bolster his warnings about China with the occasional racist swipe, but rather puts racial demonization front and center. He argues explicitly and at length that the Chinese as a people are exceptionally evil and vicious. Expanding on themes going back to the 19th century, he draws a close and detailed parallel between Chinese people and Jews: both in his view are deceitful, cunning, disloyal, ruthless, vengeful, obsessed with money, and dangerously effective in wielding power behind the scenes. “In terms of acting as a fifth column for their homeland, the Chinese in diaspora certainly rival, and perhaps exceed, the diaspora Jews and their relationship with Israel.” In addition, “the Chinese and the Jews, both being races of shrewd and unscrupulous merchants, have long admired and felt affection for each other,” and have been working “hand-in-glove for decades in order to further their joint objective of compromising, taking down, and eventually finishing off the white race and Western civilization.”

Pro-China white nationalists
Although the details may not be obvious, for white nationalist websites such as Counter-Currents to demonize China and Chinese people in racial terms shouldn’t surprise anybody. What may be a surprise is that there are other, equally staunch white nationalists who take an almost diametrically opposite view of China—as a successful example of racial nationalism to be emulated rather than feared.

Countering claims that China is a dangerous, expansionist dictatorship with a worrisome belief in its own cultural superiority, Thomas Jackson at American Renaissance argues that China is simply “behaving like a healthy, 19th-century world power” that is “not yet shorn of the vigorous racial nationalism that characterized Western nations until only a few generations ago.” Jonathan Peter Wilkinson at Amerika writes admiringly that China has “a profound unifying force”—racism—“ that allows them to even survive their own Drano-drink of Full-blown, idiotic Marxism” and that represents “an awesome force multiplier” in strategic terms. Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin sees China as a threat to “ZOG” (Zionist Occupation Government) rather than to the white race, and warns that the coronavirus pandemic is actually a desperate ploy to stir up a war quickly between the U.S. and China. “[T]he Jews have realized that the jig is up and they won’t be able to act how they act now in a world that is controlled by the Chinese. So they’re staging one last hurrah.” Anglin of all people, whose supremacist rhetoric has been criticized as too harsh even by other white nationalists, even warns that the media is stirring up “aggressive race hate” against Chinese people.

One of the strongest pro-China voices among U.S. white nationalists is Brad Griffin, who runs the alt-right and neo-Confederate blog Occidental Dissent under the name “Hunter Wallace.” It’s not just that Griffin as a rule writes favorably about China; he directly reverses the polarity on all three traditional anti-Chinese themes of the U.S. political right. His writings on China exemplify far rightists’ knack for incorporating leftist ideas and insights into a fundamentally oppressive and anti-egalitarian framework:
  • On geopolitics, Griffin draws heavily on right-wing anti-interventionist themes to argue that China’s conflict is with liberalism and U.S. expansionism, both of which white nationalists reject. “We have no desire to ‘police the world’ as the US Empire has done in the Western Pacific for generations now. We certainly don’t support encircling China with military bases and hostile alliances. We don’t support interfering in China’s internal affairs.” In addition, “We don’t believe in ‘American exceptionalism’ or forcing the American culture on China. We admire and respect China which is one of the world’s ancient civilizations. We think China has been smart to shield itself from the degenerating effects of Western culture.” And unlike the United States, he writes, “China’s foreign policy isn’t controlled by Israel.” 
  • On race, Griffin applauds the Chinese people as “ranked high among the world’s top races” and hopes whites can create “an ethnostate for our people not unlike China.” Further, “we don’t mind at all if the Chinese decide to colonize and civilize the negroes [sic] of Africa.”
  • On anticommunism, Griffin argues that China’s state-directed economy is just plain better than U.S. neoliberalism. “The life expectancy of White people in the United States is dropping” and “what used to be the American middle class is now descending into poverty thanks to our current economic model!” In contrast, “the Chinese have lifted half a billion people out of poverty” and are “building high speed rail and investing in deep learning to beat the United States in the race to a 21st century economy.” Unlike the U.S., “the Chinese aren’t being overrun by Third World immigrants...” Explicitly rejecting claims by Steve Bannon that China’s unfair trade practices have gutted U.S. manufacturing, Griffin counters that “China is a convenient scapegoat and a way to distract attention from the fact that it is automation that is devastating the working class."
With regard to COVID-19, Griffin writes that “undoubtedly, China shares a lot of the blame,” such as allowing unsanitary wet markets and “stumbl[ing] in its own initial response to the virus in December,” but that “Once the Chinese state swung into action, it was highly competent in suppressing the virus.” By contrast, Donald Trump “ignored the threat, dismissed and downplayed the virus,” and “said the virus was going to just go away like a miracle.” As a result, “Instead of having one Wuhan, the virus has been allowed to establish itself and metastasize in nearly every county in the [United States] in just under two weeks.”

Some of Brad Griffin’s views on China dovetail with those of the Lyndon LaRouche network, which espouses a multicultural version of fascist ideology. The LaRouchites have for years celebrated Xi Jinping’s combination of political authoritarianism and massive, centralized infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. This month, for example, Helga Zepp-LaRouche (Lyndon’s widow and successor as head of the network) denounced “the vicious anti-China campaign being promulgated in the West” as an attempt to deflect blame for western governments’ own shortcomings in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. She also declared “China is not an aggressive force. But naturally, it does threaten the idea of a unipolar world order, which some neo-con and British elements had tried to impose in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, through interventionist wars.”

*          *          *

The range of positions on China I’ve outlined shows us once again that the U.S. right—and even the white nationalist right—is not monolithic in its views. This is significant for several reasons. Racist portrayals of Chinese people—like anti-Jewish stereotyping—can sometimes take an ostensibly positive form while still carrying a dehumanizing message. Rightists can also avoid racist portrayals altogether while still promoting other anti-Chinese themes. And as we’ve seen, not all rightists vilify China, and even direct criticisms of anti-Chinese racism may come from far right sources.

The fact that a significant subset of white nationalists take a friendly view of China raises the possibility that some of them may seek to forge ties with the Chinese government, much as some far rightists in the U.S. and other western countries have received support from Putin’s government in Russia. And as different factions of the U.S. ruling class debate how to respond to China geopolitically, rightists won’t necessarily all line up on the same side of the debate.

Addicted04, China on the globe (China centered), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mar 28, 2020

No longer merely metaphor: Re-reading The Plague by Albert Camus

Photo of Albert Camus, seated at desk, smoking cigarette
Albert Camus, 1957
Albert Camus' novel The Plague offers a portrait of a town under quarantine, ravaged by an epidemic. It tells us of life arbitrarily constrained and unjustly shortened, of human beings isolated by law and by disease, of panics and shortages, of despair and heroic sacrifice. It presents a grim picture of human life, but an affirming picture of human beings.  It ends with a clear moral, that "what we learn in time of pestilence" is that "there is more to admire in humanity than to despise."[i]

The book follows the lives of several men -- most notably Rieux, a doctor; Rambert, a Spanish Civil War veteran now working as a journalist; and Tarrou, a Communist turned pacifist -- as they do what little they can, risking their lives and suffering separation from their loved ones, in order to try to fight the contagion and attend to the public health.  That it falls to such people to take the initiative says much about the failures of the authorities, and reflects Camus' attitude about authority overall. 

The official response to the outbreak is belated, dithering, confused, and inadequate.  The inaction of the authorities forces ordinary people to take extraordinary measures.  The turning point comes when Tarrou, the former Communist, approaches the doctor, Rieux.  "The sanitary department is inefficient -- understaffed, for one thing," Tarrou remarks.  "I've heard the authorities are thinking of a sort of conscription. . . ."  Rieux admits that this is true, though the Prefect remains paralyzed by indecision.

Tarrou then asks,

If he daren't risk compulsion, why not call for voluntary help?

It's been done, [Rieux replies].  The response was poor.

It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly, [Tarrou points out].  What they're short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.  If we let them carry on like this they'll soon be dead, and so shall we.

He then proposes:

I've drawn up a plan for voluntary groups of helpers.  Get me empowered to try out my plan, and then let's sidetrack officialdom.  In any case the authorities have their hands more than full already.  I have friends in many walks of life; they'll form a nucleus to start from.  And of course, I'll take part myself.

The network Tarrou set up took on a range of responsibilities: They "accompanied doctors on their house-to-house visits, saw to the evacuation of infected persons, and subsequently, owing to the shortage of drivers, even drove the vehicles conveying sick persons and dead bodies." They did their work diligently.  But to what degree these measures contributed to the ultimate waning of the epidemic, or whether the plague just ran its course, we naturally cannot know.  Nevertheless, the sanitary squads may have served a more important purpose: 

These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that the plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.  Since plague became in this way some men's duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.

The plague, of course, is not simply the plague.  It also serves as a metaphor for the French experience under Nazi occupation, when the official response -- surrender and collaboration -- forced ordinary people, Camus among them, to take action themselves and form a Resistance movement. 

This analogy is striking, and has deep implications.  Camus saw fascism -- and indeed any belief system that justifies murder -- as a threat to all humanity which, nevertheless, human beings spread and to which anyone may succumb.  His thinking on this point was almost mystical in its severity: To affirm life meant that one must resist death.  To accept even the fact of death was equivalent to suicide, and akin to murder; it was in fact to become complicit with death in all of its forms.  The challenge, always, was to affirm the value of humanity against the tyranny of death, knowing that such a struggle would ultimately end in defeat.  This required a spirit of rebellion, and thus Camus placed his hopes not in authorities or institutions, but in the hearts of ordinary people.

Rereading The Plague now, in the midst of a pandemic, one finds that it suddenly has a new relevance. It is no longer merely metaphor.  Our hopes for surviving the scourge of Covid-19 cannot rely on the actions of those at the top of the social hierarchies, whose decisions so often manage to be at once draconian and inadequate.  Politicians, bureaucrats, and police are not to be trusted and, in any case, will pursue solutions dependent on laws, bureaucracies, and police.  They are, to Camus' way of thinking, simply another set of symptoms of the plague itself, which is a spiritual and political, as well as a medical, condition.

The cure, if one is to be found, relies not merely on medical science, but on social solidarity.  Our survival may depend on the actions of our coworkers and our neighbors -- people with no official position and no authority, but with enough courage and common sense to act in the public interest even against the orders of the authorities and the instructions of their own purported leaders. In a growing wave of wildcat strikes, auto workers, librarians, electricians, sewer maintenance workers, garbage collectors, fast food workers, bus drivers, warehouse workers, and workers at slaughterhouses have shut down facilities to prevent the spread of contagion when their bosses refused to.  People around the country are forming mutual aid networks to share resources, check in on neighbors, and provide for those who are under quarantine.  Such actions need not, and should not, wait for official decisions.  And these moments carry in them also the promise of a different kind of society, where the bureaucrats are sidelined, where everyday people suddenly discover their own power, and where we look to each other, instead of the authorities, to meet our basic needs. 

Perhaps, then, Camus' analogy may be borne out by reality: Perhaps the means of fighting pestilence will prove to be the same as those for fighting fascism.

The edition quoted is The Plague, by Albert Camus. Translation by Stuart Gilbert.  New York: Vintage, 1991.


Photo by United Press International, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[i] I have slightly altered this quotation. The Gilbert translation reads "men."