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.

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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.

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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.”

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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."

Mar 25, 2020

Interview with Hilary Moore, co-author of No Fascist USA!

I recently interviewed writer and anti-racist political educator Hilary Moore about the new book No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today's Movements, which she co-authored with James Tracy. The book includes a foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley and is published by City Lights Books. Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description:
In June 1977, a group of white anti-racist activists received an alarming letter from an inmate at a New York state prison calling for help to fight the Ku Klux Klan's efforts to recruit prison staff and influence the people incarcerated. Their response was to form the first chapter of what would eventually become a powerful, nationwide grassroots network, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, dedicated to countering the rise of the KKK and other far-right white nationalist groups.

No Fascist USA! tells the story of that network, whose efforts throughout the 1980s––which included exposing white supremacists in public office, confronting neo-Nazis in street protests, supporting movements for self-determination, and engagement with the underground punk scene––laid the groundwork for many anti-racist efforts to emerge since. Featuring original research, interviews with former members, and a trove of graphic materials, their story offers battle-tested lessons for those on the frontlines of social justice work today.
I worked on anti-racist initiatives with members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I played a small supporting role in the making of this book. Here is the interview:

No Fascist USA! book cover
ML: Why did you want to write this book?

HM: I was a collective member of Catalyst Project, supporting majority white grassroots organizations in Arkansas and Kentucky to expand their anti-racist campaigns. When Trump came onto the Presidential scene in 2015, we noticed a marked shift in what kinds of support these folks were asking for: models, lessons, tips on how to confront newly emboldened white supremacists in the context of long-term anti-racist organizing in majority white communities.

Then in the summer of 2016, I went to a counter-rally to protest the coalition of the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Golden State Skinheads at the state capitol in Sacramento, California. They were using Trump’s campaign as an excuse to unite groups. There, I saw white supremacists stab five people. Horse-mounted police then ushered the white supremacists into the safety of the halls of the capitol. This rocked me and I needed answers. What do you do when shit like this happens?

It seemed that there was a very big gap in my years as an anti-racist political education trainer and the rapidly shifting political terrain. Within white anti-racist strategies—we knew how to challenge institutional policies that prop up white supremacy, we knew how to identify racism in our movements, and with varying degrees of success create anti-racist movement culture, but when it came to confronting white supremacy in the flesh, we were fumbling.

We wrote this book because there were striking similarities between how quickly the political terrain shifted under the Reagan Administration and what was happening with the onset of Trump. For us, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was particularly interesting, given their relationship and steadfast commitment to movements for self-determination, and that being the basis from which they confronted the Klan and other white supremacist formations.

ML: What surprised you about the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee?

HM: I was surprised when we realized that most JBAKC members were lesbians and anti-Zionist Jews. So much of the content produced by the JBAKC spoke to the role of white people, rather generally. They rarely, and more likely never, referenced their personal experiences in their political work. It struck me, that a majority-white anti-Klan organization was the political priority of this group of lesbian and anti-Zionist Jews.

I remember asking Laura Whitehorn about this. She said it wasn’t something they talked about very much. It wasn’t until some people surrounding the JBAKC were sent to prison, and were asked by journalists and friends about their personal experiences, did people begin to connect their social location to their commitments to movements for self-determination. This makes sense then, as to why it took awhile for this fact to show itself in the research and writing.

ML: In antifascist activism of recent years, the concepts of “diversity of tactics” and “community self-defense” have been useful for some of the most powerful local initiatives. Reading No Fascist USA!, I saw both of these concepts prefigured in some of the JBAKC’s actions and organizing drives in the 1980s. Could you speak to how JBAKC used diversity of tactics and community self-defense, and what we can learn from their example on these issues?

HM: Broadly speaking, the JBAKC emerged from a call for community self defense. The call was put out by incarcerated leaders within Black liberation struggles. It pointed to the Klan’s activity targeting those leaders within the prison system and it asked people who would become the JBAKC to step into a buffer role against those attacks and an amplifying role to spread those demands. An important aspect is the fact that COINTELPRO had ravaged social movements in the 60s and 70s, so the concept of community self-defense, from this vantage point, wasn’t simply a defense from white supremacist groups, but law and order arms of the state as well.

I think one of the most interesting things about the JBAKC was how they adapted their tactics over time, adjusting to changing political conditions, while keeping their political principles in tact. At first, they were unwilling to work with groups who held different approaches to social change, like reform or voting work. But, when they were pushed to scale up, they began to bring these same principles into coalition work.

And that was a dance. It takes more skill to both hold a political line and create multiple entry points for all kinds of people. They were by no means experts on coalition work, but they were successful in bringing together unlikely groups. For example, faith groups and anti-racist skinheads in their campaign in Chicago to stamp out racist graffiti.

ML: People often assume that having revolutionary politics means being strident and sectarian, and the way to get away from sectarianism is to moderate your politics. Your account of how JBAKC evolved directly challenges that assumption. John Brown started out as a strident, self-righteous radical group, but to a significant degree they were able to move away from the self-righteousness, without giving up revolutionary politics about the United States. What do you think helped them to make that shift, and what lessons can we learn from it?

Poster: "Stop racist attacks on Arab people in the U.S."
John Brown Anti-Klan Committee flyer, 1991
HM: In 1983, organizers in the New African Independence Movement pushed the organization to work more coherently as a national network, and to build broadly, rather than remain as loosely affiliated chapters based on the coasts. Receiving this kind of strategic assessment from trusted comrades was, I think, the clearest reason that the JBAKC decided to shift gears. They had dabbled in coalition work in Austin and Richmond, but this push clarified the organization’s form. It also spawned their first national gathering in Chicago, where members and supporters from all over came together to share tactics and strategies. From then on, the JBAKC more often than not chose tactics that reflected a popular mobilization approach.

Another moment that crystallized this shift was when four JBAKC members were held in contempt of court, and later indicted, for refusing to testify in a grand jury. The organization had always prioritized support work for people incarcerated, but this moment, again, sharpened the imperative to communicate broadly about their particular politics.

When the state comes down on social movements, like it did, for their political work, the need to articulate why it’s happening—so that you can build a wide and lasting network of support— becomes very clear. From this position, being strident or self-righteous only gets you isolated.

ML: No Fascist USA! talks a little about JBAKC members’ experiences with grand jury resistance—refusing to cooperate with grand juries that were supposedly investigating radical activists for their involvement in political bombings or other activities. Could you say more about those experiences—what was at issue and how does this kind of resistance relate to the current situation in the U.S.?

HM: In October 1983, Reagan gave orders to invade the island nation of Grenada. A couple weeks later, a bomb exploded at the U.S. Senate building. In its newspaper, the JBAKC wrote about the bombing of the building “as a response to the invasion of Grenada and other armed actions in solidarity with El Salvador and Nicaragua.” Two years later, four members of the D.C. chapter, were called to testify in a grand jury.

At first these four members were surprised—the D.C. chapter had already folded, and some people had moved on to other political work. But the JBAKC came out of a political tradition that saw tactics like grand juries as a tool for intimidating activists and gathering information for political repression.

This ethic helped them turn what could be an isolating experience into a political platform. They signed onto a national campaign against grand juries, connecting what was happening in this small chapter to broader resistance efforts. The indicted members also believed that the state targeted them specially—as white activists that supported the Puerto Rican Independence movement and Black liberation movement—because white activists are often the weak link under state pressure.

Grand juries have a long history in the United States, and as such, there is a long history of resistance that organizers and activists today can learn from. For instance, in 2011 grand jury subpoenas were issued to members in the [Chelsea] Manning Support Network and others in the Boston area. In 2017, six indigenous water protectors were called before a grand jury in the height of the struggle at Standing Rock, marking the first time the federal government has pursued felony charges against people demonstrating to prevent the building of fossil fuel infrastructure.

ML: The JBAKC focused primarily on combating organized white supremacist groups, and they emphasized the connections between explicit white supremacism and established institutions such as the police and prisons. But what about subtler forms of racial oppression, where people of color are systematically oppressed but there’s no explicit racial bigotry, maybe even a direct rejection of it? How did John Brown address those institutions or situations?

HM: They didn't. Of course they cared about different kinds of racism, and probably personally would act on some of the things you described, but as an organization that just wasn't their intervention.

ML: One of the reasons that Three Way Fight was created was because leftists in the U.S. have traditionally treated fascist movements as just a more extreme version of the established racial and economic order, and have ignored or minimized the ways that far rightists clash with the state. The JBAKC slogan “cops and the Klan go hand in hand” is sometimes true, and describes an important part of the situation, but it also leaves out an important part. John Brown was active during a decade when neonazis were literally taking up arms against the state and being killed in shootouts with police, and when Tom Metzger was urging his supporters to “take the game away from the left” to give voice to white workers’ rage at the ruling class. How did John Brown folks address these realities—and their implications for the left?

HM: By 1980, the JBAKC was one part of an anti-Klan movement that was adjusting to the massive opening in racist attacks and organizing. Given their politics, they wanted to make an intervention in the anti-Klan movement: we cannot rely on cops or the government, for protection from the Klan or other white supremacist groups. During this time, it was common practice for anti-racist groups to appeal to local police departments and city officials to “Ban the Klan” or later, when white power groups turned on the government, to work with the FBI. The JBAKC thought this approach did not protect people in movements fighting for self-determination.

They were also drawing lines of parallel logic: yes at times Klan and cops shared memberships, but they also take up different and complementary roles in intimidation and control of Black and Brown communities. The Klan takes up that work in one way. Police take up that role in another way. U.S. imperialism takes up that role in yet another way.

This moment in history is especially interesting because, like you said, there was a major shift: the white power movement began publicly declaring war against the U.S. government. Because the JBAKC was already in motion six years before this, they had to adapt. I think their biggest intervention on this was in their newspaper. They wrote articles tracking and assessing shifts, like the way Tom Metzger’s was vying for state power in California while at the same time as creating organizations that undermined governance of state power.

But no, it didn’t change their overall strategy or so much of how they went about their anti-Klan work. If anything, this happened in the moment of the organization when they were trying to popularize anti-racism. They were focused on building up a grassroots network of support—a hotline, sending out anti-racist graffiti packets, organizing anti-racist punk shows to raise funds, and writing letters to connect anti-fascist people across regions.

ML: JBAKC advocated “self determination for the Black nation,” meaning creation of an independent country of New Afrika in the Deep South, as a centerpiece of combating white supremacy in the U.S. I’ve always thought there was a tension between the idea of self-determination—i.e., choosing your own status, shaping your own destiny—and the assertion that the outcome of this choice would necessarily be creating an independent state. Political independence is one strategy that’s been advocated by some forces within the Black liberation movement, but as far as I know it’s never been the dominant, majority strategy within the movement. How did John Brown navigate this tension in its interactions with Black political organizations in the towns and cities where it was active?

HM: Absolutely. This tension was real and never resolved. For the most part, members navigated the tension through their relationships, which means there wasn’t a clear, formulaic approach. It also meant how it was handled was uneven and subjective to each chapter.

For instance, in Austin, members were coordinating with people in the Black Liberation Army in New York, while also working on the ground with the Black Citizens Task Force in Austin, who held a more traditional grassroots organizing approach in winning housing and workers rights in the Black community in Austin.

I think it was part of their learning in coalition work: that you can have a long-term vision for Black political independence and still work in coalition with organizations, against white supremacist organizing, who are fighting for basic rights.

ML: What else would you like to highlight or discuss in relation to the book?

HM: The shift you raised, where white supremacists began attacking the U.S. government, also marked a time when far right actors began taking underground action. Public rallies and big demonstrations to sway public opinion was no longer the name of the game. Leaderless movements and single shooter racist attacks against migrants, Black people, and Jewish people are on the rise today—from El Paso to Hanau. The lessons offered in the story of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee don’t account for this tactic directly. I will say though that no matter what, having strong networks of people who know why anti-racism and anti-fascism are important, who are organized before something terrible happens—that lesson is timeless.

Mar 19, 2020

Far rightists divided on coronavirus and Trump

Julia DeCook has a good article outlining how right-wing media activists have been exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to spread xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and other forms of misinformation:
The conspiracy theories about the virus range from it being a biological weapon created by the Chinese government, that it is a conspiracy created by U.S. democrats to prevent Trump’s reelection, or that the CIA created the virus in order to lessen China’s power. Another conspiracy theory that has been circulating, due to a QAnon conspiracy theorist on YouTube, is that the COVID-19 pandemic was created by the Pirbright Institute in England and by Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft. The themes that emerge from these conspiracy theories point to fears and anxieties typical of the right-wing surrounding globalization, multiculturalism, and government cover-ups on the level of the belief of a “New World Order.”

Additionally, Twitter analysis found that there are number of bots that are intentionally spreading disinformation about the virus and the pandemic itself, further strengthening beliefs among conspiracy theorists and the radical right that the media is “overblowing” the significance of the virus. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, has actively been retweeting and sharing information that is blatantly false about COVID-19, specifically that the U.S. has contained the virus, as well as false information about the fatality rate.

*                    *                    *

COVID-19, like other pandemics, has been politicized among the far-right in the United States and worldwide to stoke the fire of Sinophobia, hatred toward the left, and xenophobia toward immigrants in general. ... Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham repeatedly refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Coronavirus” or even “the Wuhan flu.” ... Right-wing media figures have also used the outbreak to justify the building of the border wall, to halt immigration, and to disparage the U.S.’s dependence on the Chinese economy.
"Scapegoat" (Bouc émissaire) - bronze by C. Jongen
Other critics of the far right have made related points. At the beginning of February, Ali Breland in Mother Jones detailed how a number of online conspiracy theorists were not only conjuring up unsubstantiated plots to explain the disease, but also using such claims to make money. And Right Wing Watch has carried several stories about the politics of the pandemic, such as one featuring “The Most Ridiculous Coronavirus Tweets from the Right”—ridiculous for their racism and/or contrived defense of Donald Trump’s policies.

These articles accurately describe a large and important part of the U.S. right-wing landscape. The costs of this rhetoric are stark, as the Trump administration’s brutal treatment of immigrants and refugees increases their risk of getting sick, and virus-scapegoating has brought an upsurge in verbal and physical attacks against Chinese and other Asian people.

At the same time, sections of the far right have also addressed the pandemic in ways that may be surprising to some critics. It’s true that many conservative commentators have been trivializing the disease and claim the Democrats have been overblowing the situation in order to weaken the president. However, some of the most wild-eyed right-wing conspiracists have been saying the opposite for weeks (in some cases a couple of months)—warning that the disease is deadly serious, mainstream conservatives have been lying to the public, and the Trump administration has to do a lot more to address the crisis.

For example, Natural News founder Mike Adams, who is notorious for peddling everything from chemtrails conspiracy theories to herbal remedies for Ebola, has denounced “people like Dr. Drew, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Pence (who still promises millions of testing kits will appear any day now), the US Surgeon General and countless TV hosts, ‘journalists’ and talking heads who all assured the nation that the coronavirus was ‘no worse than the flu.’” Far from defending the president, Adams declares, “It’s time to stop thinking that Trump might be the answer to defeat the deep state and, instead, start thinking about how the entire corrupt, incompetent, malicious, anti-human system of government/industry collusion needs to be allowed to self-destruct once and for all.”

Other rightist have echoed parts of this argument in more muted terms. Jackie Morgensen on the alt-right and antisemitic Darkmoon website ridiculed Trump’s claim that the U.S. is more prepared to combat the coronavirus than any other country by pointing out that the president cut most of the CDC’s money for fighting pandemics two years ago. (I found this article because it was reposted to the neonazi web forum Stormfront.) More surprisingly, the leading Patriot movement organization Oath Keepers, which as a rule has been staunchly loyal to Trump, published a series of articles calling the virus “a VERY real, very serious threat to our nation and its people” and urging the president to take aggressive measures long before he showed any willingness to do so.

A different sort of back-handed swipe at President Trump came from Cindy Jacobs, one of the top leaders of the Christian rightist New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement. NAR is massive, with some three million adherents in the United States and millions more on several other continents, and it has consistently supported Trump since the 2016 Republican primaries, through vehicles such as “POTUS Shield.” Like many other right-wing Christian leaders, Jacobs responded to the coronavirus by calling for a day of prayer. Yet one feature set Jacobs’ call apart—its internationalism:
[T]his is a wake-up call that we are a global church, and that the challenges affecting other nations truly affect us all. Pray for the nations as we pray for our own!

If you have been complacent about praying for other nations suffering from this virus, we encourage a time of reflection and repentance.
Jacobs’ global approach to the pandemic stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s nationalistic and xenophobic response, such as pressuring a German drug company to provide a coronavirus vaccine “for the US only.” It’s hard to read the NAR leader’s language as anything other than a rebuke of Make America Great Again ideology—and its top promoter.

My aim here is not to gloss over Jacobs’ or NAR’s authoritarian theocratic politics, or to suggest that right-wing conspiracism is less bad if it takes pandemics seriously. The point, rather, is that rightists don’t speak with one voice and don’t necessarily say what we expect them to say. Many U.S. far rightists have responded to the coronavirus by promoting nativist and white supremacist policies, dismissing science, and attacking Trump’s critics, but some have been ahead of the crowd in advocating social distancing and calling out the administration’s inaction, and a few have even challenged a nationalistic approach to public health as misguided. These differences point to deep-seated tensions and conflicts among rightists regarding Trump and many other issues. They also highlight far rightists’ dangerous capacity to incorporate elements of progressive politics into an oppressive and demonizing framework.

By C. Jongen (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Feb 28, 2020

Comment on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

The Philosopher and the Ayatollah: "A Perplexing Affinity" 

A comment on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution 

by Kristian Williams

If we want to defeat fascism, we need to understand its attraction. Sometimes an exceptional case can be as revealing, in its own way, as the typical one. And an indirect approach, precisely by leading us away from the object of study, may bring us to a better vantage point, revealing features that had previously escaped our view. I want to look, therefore, at a case that may not directly connect to fascism in its narrow conception, but from which we may be able to discern a relevant pattern and draw applicable lessons.

Newpaper photo of Michel Foucault speaking at press conference
Michel Foucault
In a series of articles and interviews, Michel Foucault, the icon of politically engaged post-structuralism, voiced his support for the revolution then unfolding in Iran and expressed his admiration for the Ayatollah Khomeini. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson argue that this attitude, surprising at first glance, in fact grew out of deep features of Foucault’s thinking, and perhaps the very nature of his philosophical project:
"There was a perplexing affinity between this post-structuralist philosopher, this European critic of modernity, and the antimodernist Islamist radicals in the streets of Iran. Both were searching for a new form of political spirituality as a counterdiscourse to a thoroughly materialistic world; both clung to idealized notions of premodern social orders; both were disdainful of modern liberal judicial systems; and both admired individuals who risked death in attempts to reach a more authentic existence."[1]
Foucault himself provides the best evidence for this argument, in his journalism and commentary on the revolution.[2] In an interview with Claire Brière and Pierre Blanchet, dated 1979, he announced:
"Among the things that characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it has brought out -- and few peoples in history have had this -- an absolutely collective will.... Furthermore (and here one can speak of Khomeini's political sense), this collective will has been given one object, one target and one only, namely, the departure of the Shah.... [The] national sentiment has been extremely vigorous: the rejection of submission to foreigners, disgust at the looting of national resources, the rejection of a dependent foreign policy.... But national feeling has, in my opinion, been only one of the elements of a still more radical rejection: the rejection by a people, not only of foreigners, but of everything that had constituted for years, for centuries, its political destiny."[3]
Newspaper photo of Ayatollah Khomeini speaking at microphones
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
There is no need to enter into the briar patch of questions about the definition of fascism, and how that definition might be applied to Iran, or whether it can be. (Personally, I am agnostic on the subject.) Rather than try to assign Iran (then or now) a precise place on the fascist spectrum, what concerns us here is specifically Foucault's thinking on the subject; and, whatever one may think of the Iranian revolution as such, the terms of Foucault’s praise sound worryingly fascistic: a "national sentiment" combining grievance and triumph; revolution as both a rupture in history and the affirmation of a particular identity; a celebration of will as an expression of power and the source of its legitimacy; the "rejection ... of foreigners" and all alien influences; and finally, an "absolute" collective will directed at a single objective under the tutelage of an exalted authority. One leader, one people, one will.

The above elegy cannot be explained as a momentary rhetorical lapse or a slip of the tongue, the result of speaking spontaneously and without rehearsal. It is instead a concise encapsulation of the points developed at greater length in Foucault’s articles. Elsewhere, for instance, he refers to "this almost mythical leader, Khomeini" as "the focal point of a collective will."[4] He describes the revolution as both "belong[ing] to history" and "escap[ing] it."[5] Most poetically, he argues that the events in Iran were "not a revolution" on the French or Russian model, but a rebellion that promised freedom, not merely from imperialism, but from modernity, from all totalizing systems, and even from rationality itself:
"It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us, but more specifically on them, these oil workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane."[6]
Naturally, Foucault could not have known precisely what the revolution would produce. He did not foresee the religious intolerance, the persecution of ethnic minorities, the summary execution of homosexuals, and the total subjugation of women. Nevertheless, in the interview with Brière and Blanchet, he argued that the dynamism of the movement depended on a cultural specificity "based in traditions, institutions that carry a charge of chauvinism, nationalism, exclusiveness, which have a very powerful attraction for individuals."[7]

We can trust that Foucault did not set out to justify oppression. And he was neither so foolish nor so calculating as to believe that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Instead, he was able to persuade himself that the Islamist program represented a kind of freedom -- though of course a different freedom than we might pursue in the West. Indeed, it was that very sense of difference that made Iran so alluring.

Afary and Anderson argue that Foucault’s support for the authoritarian theocracy was facilitated by several elements of his thought, including his anti-imperialism, his relative ignorance about Iran and naiveté about Islam, his longing for authenticity and a spiritualizing politics, and his indifference, bordering on disdain, for the concerns or even the existence of women. Most centrally, his attitude toward Iran also constituted a logical continuation of his rejection of modernity, and in particular his critique of the Enlightenment project of using reason to discover universal truths. For Foucault, such grand narratives were always something of a boondoggle, but abandoning them left him intellectually defenseless when confronted with the particularistic claims of a society forcibly rejecting the yoke of Western dominance.

To the degree that Foucault’s support for Khomeini grew out of his critique of modernity, it should certainly invite scrutiny to that critique and others like it; and to the degree that such critiques may inform our politics, the necessary scrutiny must also take the form of a self-scrutiny. The abandonment of the Enlightenment may, as Foucault would have it, produce new subjectivities; but it will not necessarily lead to new kinds of freedom. It may, instead, amplify existing oppressions or renew older forms of subjugation.

The cautionary lessons for a left that increasingly favors relativistic narratives and cultural specificity rather than claims of universality are, I think, obvious enough. It is not that post-modernism and cultural relativism inevitably lead to the rule of fundamentalist clerics and the stoning of adulteresses, but that is one form that the discontent with modernity can take, and absent other principles -- that is, without Enlightenment-tinged notions of rationality and rights, to say nothing of Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité -- we may find it hard to combat those tendencies, especially when they are presented as the authentic voice of marginalized people overturning the conceptual, as well as the political, structures that confine them.

Implicit in this disconcerting case study is also a challenge for the left. In terms of practical politics it is necessary to break out of the binary logic that so often shapes radical anti-imperialism and liberal anti-racism alike. We must develop a third pole that is neither Khomeini nor the Shah -- or in our own society, one that equally opposes the insurgent right wing and refuses any defense of the neoliberal status quo. We must avoid Foucault’s mistake of siding with authoritarians in the name of anti-imperialism, but we must likewise avoid Christopher Hitchens' mistake of reinforcing the existing power structure as a bulwark against "Islamo-fascism."

Then there is the cultural dimension, the affective aspect: As George Orwell cautioned in his review of Mein Kampf, those fighting fascism would be wise not "to underrate its emotional appeal." He argued that "Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life," because "human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades."[8] These desires are, of course, merely the outward manifestation of a deep yearning for purpose, for meaning in one's life, and for a sense of belonging.

Daniel Guérin, too, thought that an understanding of "the living reality" of the fascist movement as it was "reflected in the consciousness of men" required attention to more than the workers' material needs.[9] Visiting Germany during the last days of the Weimar republic and the first period of Nazi rule, Guérin had the strange and enlightening opportunity to view the fascist revolution through the medium of nature hikes and youth hostels.[10] Based on that experience, he faulted the Marxists for "being interested only in the material factors,... [and thus] understand[ing] absolutely nothing of the way in which the privations suffered by the masses are transmuted into a religious aspiration."[11]

Socialism, Guérin argued, cannot win by insisting on the material side of life and ignoring the emotional, idealistic, spiritual side. People could be turned away from "fascist mysticism," he thought, but only if those same impulses could be directed toward a new "idealism," specifically the "highly 'spiritual' purpose of ending man's alienation." In short, it is the struggle as much as the victory that provides a sense of purpose, and so: "Socialism can regain its attractive force only by saying to the masses that to win the 'paradise on earth,' its supreme goal, requires struggles and sacrifices."[12]

The challenge for the left is to provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, without replicating the logic of a death-cult; to create a feeling of belonging without chauvinism, and authenticity without essentializing identities. Our politics must learn to speak, simultaneously, the language of reason and the language of values. Without abandoning the Enlightenment, our movements must be ready, nevertheless, to address our deepest psychological, cultural, and even spiritual needs. Unless we can do so, we may find our demands for material security, social equality, and personal freedom continually outbid by those who promise only a life of sacrifice and a glorious death.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and the forthcoming Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde.

Images of Foucault and Khomeini are in public domain, available via Wikimedia Commons.  

[1] Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 13. For a more sympathetic view of Foucault's involvement, see: Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
[2] This material is collected in the appendix to Afary and Anderson's book, along with cautions and counter-arguments from the philosopher's contemporaries.
[3] Quoted in Claire Brière and Pierre Blanchet, "Iran: The Spirit of a World without Spirit," in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 252-3.
[4] Michel Foucault, "The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt," in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 222.
[5] Michel Foucault, "Is It Useless to Revolt?" in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 263.
[6] Foucault, "Mythical Leader," 222.
[7] Quoted in Brière and Blanchet, "Iran," 260.
[8] George Orwell, "Review: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (unabridged edition)," in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, volume II: My Country Right or Left, 1940 – 1943, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 14.
[9] Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business (New York: Pathfinder, 2010), 88.
[10] Guérin records these experiences in a fascinating short book: Daniel Guérin, The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and Early Nazi Germany, trans. Robert Schwartzwald (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
[11] Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, 88.
[12] Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, 88.