Sep 27, 2020

Resisting Trump's coup

People across the political spectrum—from anarchists to social democrats to neoconservatives—have been warning that Trump may try to sabotage the election to stay in office. This is a realistic and serious danger. A Trump coup would have disastrous consequences and mass action is needed to stop it. At the same time, there are a number of pitfalls and potential misconceptions in how we interpret and respond to this threat. Without getting into detailed scenarios, I want to highlight a few key points that I think can help us frame the situation more clearly—and help us organize resistance most effectively.

People at demonstration holding up two hand-lettered signs that read "RESIST"
Chaos as a strategy for seizing power

If Trump makes a bid to steal the election, calling it a coup highlights that it’s an undemocratic power grab. At the same time, the term “coup” can be misleading, because it conjures images of soldiers occupying government offices and TV stations, setting up roadblocks, and arresting political opponents. Trump stealing the election would—by design—be a lot muddier than that. As Barton Gellman argues, Trump’s strategy makes use of traditional voter suppression methods—such as purging voter rolls and (probably) intimidating people at the polls—but the crux of it is not controlling the election but discrediting the electoral process itself.

For example, Trump’s efforts to disrupt mail-in voting (such as gutting the postal service) may help shift the results in his favor, but their main effect—coupled with his team’s relentless lies about the supposed danger of widespread voter fraud—is to call the validity of the results into question. Through this and other tactics, in Gellman’s words, Trump “could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold onto power.” At that point, the outcome could depend on Trump’s control over key federal agencies and support from rightist street forces (Patriot groups, Proud Boys, etc.), but only because the election itself has been discredited.

This approach is well calibrated both to the constraints Trump faces and also to his whole approach to politics. On the one hand, as Gellman points out,
“Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance. Trump denounced Special Counsel Robert Mueller but couldn’t fire him. He accused his foes of treason but couldn’t jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints.

“A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix the victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.”
But as a strategy, discrediting the election results also makes sense because sowing confusion and chaos is one of the few things Trump does well. Trump doesn’t have the patience or skill to plan and implement a well-organized military-style operation, but he is very good at spreading disinformation. Some people believe his lies and—just as important—others don’t know what to believe. Trump has contributed to a larger shift in the political culture, in which information itself is increasingly treated as partisan, and this in turn makes it easier to leverage power through chaos.

Divided state, divided elites
For years, some liberals and leftists have warned that Trump, the far right, and the ruling class are working hand in hand to establish a dictatorship—or, as Henry Giroux put it, “neoliberal fascism.” This claim not only glosses over the far right’s complicated and sometimes hostile relationship with Trump, it also hides the contradictory nature of the Trump administration as an unstable alliance of pro-corporate neoliberals and America First populists. Trump has won support from some capitalists, but also opposition from many others—including such hardline right-wingers as the Koch brothers. He was definitely not the ruling class’s preferred candidate in 2016, and there’s no reason to think he is now. A centrist neoliberal like Joe Biden is much more in line with what the business community—and much of the Republican Party—wants than an unpredictable demagogue who is more concerned with glorifying and enriching himself than bolstering U.S. capitalism at home or abroad.

Trump also has had limited success in consolidating support within the federal bureaucracy. As It’s Going Down notes, he has used political appointments effectively to control such key agencies as the Justice and Homeland Security departments, but has had much less success extending such control over the military. This has direct implications for a coup scenario. Trump may well be able to deploy U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security agents to “prevent fraud” in Democratic majority areas, but it’s unlikely he could deploy actual troops.

Some leftists conclude, wrongly, that these limitations make a Trump coup implausible. Roger Harris of the Peace and Freedom Party argues that Trump won’t attempt a coup because capitalists don’t want him to:
“In Europe of the 1930s, sections of the ruling class in their respective countries accepted Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships for fear of working-class Communist and Socialist parties coming to political power. There is no such political contention in contemporary US.... If rule by and for the elites is accepted, why should the bourgeoisie squander this gift and opt for a more costly fascist dictatorship?

“Even if Donald Trump personally would aspire to be the first US führer, he does not have sufficient backing from the ruling class, notably finance capital. Many military generals detest him. The foreign policy establishment does not trust him. At least half of the active-duty service members are unhappy with him. And the so-called deep state security agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – are among his harshest critics.

“Trump might be able to mobilize some skinheads with gun show souvenirs. But these marginalized discontents would hardly be a match to the coercive apparatus of the world’s superpower.”
Harris exaggerates the ability of elites to determine political outcomes. Yes, in broad terms U.S. capitalists hold state power, and as a bloc they wield political influence far beyond their share of the population. But if they could simply dictate who was president, Trump would never have made it to the White House in the first place. This point is driven home when we revisit what Harris wrote exactly four years ago:
“We don’t have to worry about [Trump] getting elected in 2016. The ruling elites will take care that he will be lucky to win Alaska. Trump’s already fatally shaky presidential prospects will be enormously even less impressive as the corporate media continues to whittle him and his big hands down.”
The reality is that not every president—and not every shift toward or away from authoritarianism—reflects ruling class preferences. To succeed, a Trump coup attempt doesn’t require active support from the economic, political, or military establishment. Their passive acceptance, disunity, or indecision at a critical moment could be enough. At the same time, the limits on Trump’s support will constrain what he can do both before and after the election, limit his capacity to consolidate control, and leave him vulnerable to determined opposition even after a successful coup.

Not fascism versus democracy
The threat of a Trump coup is not about a struggle between fascism and democracy. As I’ve argued since 2015, while Trump promotes important elements of fascist politics, he is not himself a fascist and does not have the capacity to create a fascist state. Fascism, in my view, involves much more than repression or even full dictatorship. Among other things, it involves a systematic effort to transform society to conform to a unified ideological vision (such as Mussolini’s total state or Hitler’s renewal of the Aryan race), as well as an independent, organized mass mobilization to overthrow the old political order and implement the transformative vision across all social spheres. Trump exploits far right political themes, but he doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he has never tried to build an independent organizational base that would enable him to do so.

This is not to downplay the threat. Any kind of second Trump administration will be even worse than the first, but if Trump steals the election and gets away with it, the erosion of the constitutional, republican system of government will be dramatically greater. The formal political structures probably won’t just disappear, but they’ll become a lot weaker and hollower than they are now. (Think Putin’s Russia, which still has a parliament and even an independent press and political opposition of sorts.) We can expect a sharp increase in repression and brutality by the state and its vigilante allies, which will be disastrous for all of our movements and for the great majority of people in the United States. Yet even this uber-authoritarian version of Trumpism would be less ideologically driven than fascism—more chaotic, more disorganized, more dependent on Trump’s mercurial leadership to hold it together. This too, like the limits on Trump’s support noted above, could create vulnerabilities that we can exploit.

On the flip side, opposing a Trump coup is not about “defending democracy.” As I wrote in 2015,
“The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy.”
Political space in the United States has in many ways been shrinking for decades, as the state’s repressive and surveillance apparatus has been steadily expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Yet President Trump has accelerated the process through his contempt for government accountability, demonization of opponents, and blatant manipulation of state organs for personal ends. A Trump coup would sharply ratchet things up even further.

We can recognize that pluralistic space is most at risk from a Trump coup without romanticizing the political system as a whole. Navigating this double-sided reality is, I believe, a central challenge in developing radical responses to Trump. How do we call out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the present political order, while also being clear that the future Trump offers would be dramatically worse?

Anti-Trumpers versus the left
Another challenge for leftists responding to a prospective Trump coup is the fact that many anti-Trumpers would be happy to throw us under the bus. One of many surreal aspects of the Trump era has been watching neoconservatives—who just a few years ago were the top proponents of U.S. expansionism and mass killing—repackaging themselves as voices of moderation and civility. In 2003, neocon David Brooks was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most brutal and devastating acts of U.S imperialism in decades. Now he calls for mass activism to stop a presidential coup, but his rallying cry is directed almost as much against the left as against Trump.

Brooks declares that “If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy...” This campaign would unite “sober people who are militant about America”—including “a certain sort” of conservatives, moderates, and liberals—against “the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption.” Those foes include “the Trump onslaught” on one side, but also “the fringe of the left” on the other, people who seize “their chance at mayhem...with sometimes violent passion.” It’s classic horseshoe theory, like equating white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous extremists threatening civic order and “sober” discourse.

Neoconservatives aren’t the only anti-Trumpers prone to horseshoe theory centrism. For example, while demonizing antifa might seem like the special province of Trump and his supporters, recent history shows otherwise. In the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist murdered antifascist Heather Heyer, liberals from Nancy Pelosi to Chris Hedges joined a propaganda campaign against militant antifascists that exaggerated and distorted their use of violence. Berkeley’s liberal mayor, Jesse Arreguin, declared that antifa should be classified as a “gang,” while the Anti-Defamation League urged the FBI to infiltrate and spy on antifascist groups. If conflict intensifies around the coming election and its aftermath, we can expect many liberal anti-Trumpers to embrace David Brooks’ “sober” condemnation of leftists.

Mass resistance and non-sectarianism
U.S. presidential elections routinely present leftists with the depressing question of whether to vote for the lesser evil or reject the options presented as a false choice. This year many leftists, but by no means all, are reluctantly supporting Biden, not so much as the lesser evil over the greater, but rather as the abysmal over the catastrophic. Wherever you come down on that question, whether you plan to cast a ballot or not, the threat of a stolen election should make clear as never before that voting in itself will not decide this. Trump needs to be stopped, and organized mass resistance is needed to do it.

Mass resistance can give the lie to propaganda about voter fraud. Mass resistance can denounce and confront poll “watchers,” federal agents, and rightist vigilantes sent to skew the results on Election Day or while mail-in ballots are being counted. Mass resistance can offer a countervailing force to Trump’s supporters and change the context in which lawmakers and judges, police and National Guard members decide how to act. Mass resistance can demand that Trump be brought down.

Mass resistance to a presidential coup has the potential to attract wide and varied support, because Donald Trump is widely hated and despised, and because this is a time of radical mass activism on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. In this context, some anti-Trumpers will present the sectarian demand that any radical impulses be stifled in favor of lowest common denominator moderation. A better and more powerful organizing framework is the antifascist principle of “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we call Trump a fascist, the following passage from my Foreword to Shane Burley’s Fascism Today applies here:
“The fight against fascism has to be broad and allow space for people to act in different ways and with different politics. As Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about opposing our common enemy. Some approaches will involve direct physical confrontations with right-wing forces. Some will involve nonviolent protest, writing and speaking, legal or electoral initiatives, community organizing, or even engaging with people who are attracted to fascism to try to win them away from it. Although people often think of militant and non-militant approaches as mutually exclusive and in conflict, they work best when they complement and reinforce each other.”

However, making the mass resistance movement inclusive and dynamic is about more than tactics. It’s about ensuring that alongside the calls to “defend democracy” against Trump, there is also space to denounce the political, social, and economic order that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Voter suppression is real, but there are also millions of people in this country who don’t vote because they don’t see anyone worth voting for. Ultimately, a mass resistance movement needs to offer not just defensive holding actions, but also radical visions that speak to those for whom “Build Back Better” is a cruel joke. 

Photo credit: By James McNellis, Washington, DC, 20 January 2017. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sep 1, 2020

Trump, the far right, and the return of vigilante repression

Trump’s relationship with the far right is just as important in 2020 as it was in 2016, but the character of the relationship has changed dramatically.

I’ve been revisiting the articles I wrote about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, taking stock of what’s the same and what’s different, as a way to get some perspective on what we’re facing now.

One key piece of the picture is Trump’s relationship with the forces of the U.S. far right, by which I mean those rightists who are fundamentally disloyal to the existing political order, because they want to replace it with something even worse. In the 2016 campaign, Trump had a symbiotic relationship with the far right that was unprecedented—unlike anything any major party candidate had ever had in U.S. history as far as I can tell. The relationship was centered particularly on the Alt Right, which played an important role in helping the Trump campaign, particularly in the primaries but also in the general election, through its effective and innovative use of social media to attack Trump’s opponents. In return, the Alt Right got a lot more visibility and recognition and validation by having this connection with a rising and ultimately triumphant political figure.

Looking at the current situation, it’s still true that Trump has an unprecedented symbiotic relationship with far right forces, but the specifics and the character of that relationship have changed.

In 2016 the Alt Right was the far right’s most dynamic sector. After the election, they declared themselves to be the vanguard of the Trump coalition, and in 2017 they made a big push to capitalize on their success and create a broader, militant street-fighting coalition of right-wing forces. The push failed and the Alt Right suffered a dramatic decline. The murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville exposed the brutality at the core of their politics for everyone to see. That setback—followed by a strong counter-mobilization by antifascists, deplatforming by media companies, and a series of internal conflicts—left the Alt Right much weaker and more isolated. Since the end of 2017, the alt-right has had little capacity to mobilize much of anything.

Group of people standing outside; man in front holding a semi-automatic rifle.
Pro-gun rally in Richmond on January 20th showed Patriot
movement's ability to put thousands of people in the streets.
Today, the most dynamic sector of the far right is the Patriot movement—the people who brought you citizen militias, conspiracy theories about globalist elites, and a militarized ideology of individual property rights. Unlike the Alt Right, which is white nationalist (meaning they literally want an all-white nation), the Patriot movement has always encompassed a range of positions on race and a tension between explicit calls for white dominance and what’s been called “color-blind racism”—the ideology that protects racial oppression by denying it exists.

The Patriot movement was probably a lot bigger than the Alt Right in 2016, but it was relatively quiet after the collapse of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation early that year. By contrast, 2020 has seen a series of political mobilizations with politics much closer to Patriot ideology than to Alt Right white nationalism, notably the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, back in January and the anti-lockdown protests in April in May. So while the Alt Right in 2016 made powerful use of Internet memes and online harassment campaigns, the Patriot movement in 2020 has demonstrated a capacity to put hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people in the streets in cities across the country, which the Alt Right was never able to do.

It’s not just that a different branch of the far right is on the upswing now compared with 2016. It’s also that the Patriot movement has developed a different relationship with Trump and with the established political system than the Alt Right has had.

In 2016, most Alt Rightists supported Trump enthusiastically, but they were always clear that he wasn’t one of them. They said: Trump doesn’t share our politics, but he is useful to us; he’s creating openings for us to promote our message, he’s attacking a lot of our enemies—including the conservative establishment—and he’s buying time for the radical changes we need. The Alt Right saw Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics as slowing down the supposed process of “white genocide,” but they never expected him to dismantle the United States or create a whites-only society. And as his administration went on, many Alt Rightists were deeply disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s betrayal of his America First promises and his capitulation to establishment conservatism. You see this shift most starkly in the Occidental Dissent blog, where Alt Rightist Brad Griffin (“Hunter Wallace”) once supported Trump but now writes about him with loathing and contempt.

The Patriot movement doesn’t call for a white ethnostate, but it has developed its own ways of delegitimizing the existing political system, such as claiming that local governments can veto or ignore federal laws, and even creating new bodies, such as “common law courts,” that claim to have legal authority. In 2014, hundreds of Patriot activists with guns successfully faced down a large contingent of armed federal officers at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees on federal lands. It’s hard to think of another instance of armed rightist defiance of the U.S. government on that scale since federal troops went after the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s.

Yet the Patriot movement has, with exceptions, been more staunchly and consistently supportive of President Trump and his efforts to expand federal policing than the Alt Right ever was. Patriot activists engage in ideological gymnastics that dismiss undocumented immigrants, refugees, and leftist protesters as tools of a sinister elite conspiracy to impose world government. This framework enables them to rationalize support for Trump’s repressive measures as defense of a populist upsurge against an elite-sponsored campaign to suppress it.

In December 2015, I suggested that one way to read Trump’s friendly relationship with much of the far right was that “Trump’s campaign is co-opting far rightists into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” That cooptation has had limited effect on Alt Rightists and other white nationalists, but it’s had a strong pull for the Patriot movement.

So it’s not surprising that Patriot activists—associated with Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, militias, and related groups—have played a major role in the wave of vigilante repression that’s crashed over Black Lives Matter protests this year. Bolstering brutal police crackdowns, armed far rightists have dogged BLM demonstrations hundreds of times in 2020. Since George Floyd’s murder in late May, right-wingers have physically attacked protesters over 100 times, and have killed at least three people. Urged on by racist cops and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, these activists have been functioning implicitly or explicitly as vigilantes helping the police to crack down on radical dissent.

Previous right-wing mass killers such as Dylann Roof (Charleston, 2015) or Patrick Crusius (El Paso, 2019), have generally framed their violence in terms of white nationalist or neonazi ideology. But Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two protesters in Kenosha last week, says he is a member of a local militia protecting local businesses and is almost a caricature in his adoration for the police. Also unlike Roof or Crusius, Rittenhouse has been endorsed by figures such as Tucker Carlson and Trump himself. It’s true that some of the recent vigilantes have been white nationalists, but white nationalists have tended to be ambivalent on whether to support cops or not, while Patriot groups have rallied to them more consistently. Closely aligned with Patriot groups have been the Proud Boys, a misogynistic organization that is “western chauvinist” but multiracial, and that has consistently tried to position itself as vigilante allies of the police, as well as Patriot Prayer, a northwest regional group with politics similar to the Proud Boys.

If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump's claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.

Vigilante repression as an adjunct of state power is nothing new—it’s been integral to the United States from the beginning. For most of U.S. history, the state repressive apparatus was relatively small, and the people in power relied heavily on non-state forces of armed white men to keep subject populations—Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Asian—terrorized and under control. During the key period of industrialization from the 1870s to the 1930s, capitalists also relied heavily on private armies such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency to intimidate, beat, or kill workers who tried to organize unions or go on strike. As recently as the 1970s, federal security agencies sponsored right-wing vigilante organizations such as the Legion of Justice and the Secret Army Organization to spy on, vandalize, and physically attack leftists. In 1979, an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped to plan the operation that resulted in the Greensboro massacre, in which a coalition of Klansmen and Nazis murdered five leftists at an anti-Klan rally.

Overall, however, vigilante repression has tended to decline over the past half century or more, as traditional outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan became a liability to the ruling class, large sections of the white supremacist movement abandoned loyalty to the state for white nationalism, and the state’s own repressive apparatus has become much bigger and more powerful. But now we’re seeing a new push to bring back vigilante repression alongside the modern security state.

Today’s resurgence of right-wing vigilantism is unstable and conditional, because it’s driven by a situation of unprecedented volatility. On one side, we have a wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against police violence and white supremacy beyond anything the U.S. has seen in decades. On the other, we have a president who promotes supremacist politics, routinely subordinates governmental functions to his own personal interests, and both threatens and celebrates violence against his opponents. Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power. Their de facto loyalty to the system could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump* or he leaves office. A coup attempt or a civil war—I’ll discuss these dangers in a follow-up post.

* Highlighting that Patriot movement support for Trump is not a given, Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent Patriot groups, recently tweeted, “We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”

By Mobilus in Mobili, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.

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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