Aug 6, 2019

Extra-state violence and right-wing strategy: a conversation

Wall with spray-painted graffiti: "Zona Antifa"
Where is the rightist onslaught headed and how should we respond? These days, horrific events keep piling on top of each other so fast it’s hard to keep up. In an attempt to get a bit of long-term perspective, Bo in Seattle initiated the following dialog recently on Facebook. We republish it here in hopes it will offer some useful pieces of a larger picture and stimulate further discussion.

What is happening now? How does it compare to things that happened earlier? What might we see on the horizon? What should we do?

Though much of it is secular, today’s US far-right represents the spread of the success of the strategy of the religious right post-Vietnam. In the 80s and 90s you had shootouts and bombings of feds and abortion doctors and sometimes deadly conflicts with racist skinheads (“boneheads”), but it was the more above-ground organized militancy of Operation Rescue and later the patriot/militia/minuteman movement who really showed how their side could work to change society. They had success even under triangulators like Bush 1 and Obama, and now with figures like Cruz and Trump on the national stage they can take it further.

For the first time in at least 40 years organized non-state actors are being encouraged and excused by both some local cops and some national politicians to commit physical attacks on multiple categories of oppressed people, the activist/political left, and parts of the extended state (public lands, Planned Parenthood). “Liberal” cities drained of their working (and street-fighting) classes by deindustrialization and gentrification can now be fought for block by block by the likes of the Proud Boys. They have had failures but also successes in getting the media to parrot their narrative of the fight. Trump has rallied and remade the middle levels of the Republican Party after him and will likely win re-election.

The erosion of the right to vote by gerrymandering, excluding felons and the undocumented is important-maybe even more important ultimately, but the organized extra-state political violence seems like the really new thing in this moment.

How well can the Proud Boys, the Christian/patriot/militia movement, Trump, the Republican Party, and law enforcement stick together? (There is also the factor of the super hard right like former members of the Nationalist Front or the lone wolves continually attempting various shootings and bombings, but as with the 80s and 90s I expect the more above-ground groups to have more impact.)

Who are these organized far rightists, and who do they hate (us, obviously)? The “free helicopter rides” set can be okay with some people who aren’t exactly the titular hero of “American Sniper,” but at least 40% of the population are better off dead in their eyes. The winking OK to get physical with us is a dream come true for them.

With Trump we have something like Reagan, Roberston, and Buchanan in one person: Both a successful national politician/president and someone who at least excuses a far-right movement, even if he doesn’t always lead it. There’s another way these days are different from the Reagan era too, though: This time it’s the US military instead of the Soviet one that is grinding its gears in Afghanistan and overstretching itself elsewhere. This means we have to be attentive to new shifts in the landscape of production/trade, terrorism/war, and climate change that could affect the state, the far right, and our organizing in ways that will surprise us all, presenting new dangers and opportunities.

Unless we fight for and win an egalitarian alternative, the next way of organizing global society with likely be some kind of ruined barbarism in which people are directly owned, which I take as a feature of both absolute monarchy and fascism. And American history.

The Proud Boys (at least) are (at least) proto-fascist in their love of the nation and organized activity to directly subjugate the oppressed and repress the political left. They say “go make me a sandwich, b*tch” and beat women activists bloody in front of Planned Parenthood while cops watch. This is the heart of their politics. So I feel comfortable calling them and anyone to their right “fash” as short-hand.

However, getting at what the hell is going on and what we should do doesn’t really map onto 1919 Germany or Italy (or Amerikkka) in any super-clean way that is immediately illuminating. We need to keep thinking, keep organizing, and keep being totally honest about our politics. It will definitely mean at least trying to be prepared for physical confrontation. It definitely won’t mean silencing our criticism of various reformist and opportunist currents, or getting wrapped up in the electoral spectacle.

For now we have to be able to mitigate the far-right threat to left freedom of assembly/organizing/movement. We should deal with it as a necessary element of all our organizing. We defend ourselves because we need to organize, we organize because we need to rebuild consciousness and power, we need consciousness and power to fight for and win the world we want. So when we work to defend our organizing from the far-right we need to do defense in a way that builds consciousness and power to those revolutionary ends (i.e. don’t rely on the law). We need to survive, fight, and grow all at once, and under our own power. When we build unions of tenants or workers, without hitching them to (some section of) the ruling class and its state, and while being totally open about our politics, we need to be ready to take on not just the bosses and the law but also the extra-legal far-right, who are one more hardship against us after the time card, the rent, the prison cell, and the border wall, making our self-organization both more challenging and more necessary.

I have a few thoughts in response to this piece -- not disagreeing but delving a bit more into some of the issues raised:

1. The upsurge in violence by non-state actors with support from sections of the state points to the potential return to vigilante repression as a major part of the U.S. system of social control. Vigilante repression (pogroms, lynchings, and countless daily smaller attacks against members of oppressed communities) has always been integral to U.S. society, while for most of U.S. history the repressive power of the state itself was relatively small. For the past half century, however, many forms of vigilante repression have been delegitimized, a shift that’s been coupled with a massive growth of the state’s repressive apparatus. Vigilante repression’s resurgence now should be seen in relation to current trends with regard to the state, which are in some ways contradictory: the repressive apparatus is still growing and (through rapid developments in IT) taking on functions that were previously unimagined, but in other ways the state is also shrinking and fragmenting, partly due to sustained rightist and business-led drives for deregulation and privatization of state functions (including police, military, and prisons, among others).

2. The political right in the U.S. isn’t nearly as unified as it’s often portrayed. There’s a broad agreement on wanting to roll back the social, political, and cultural changes associated with the 1960s and its aftermath, and to re-intensify traditional lines of oppression, but there’s a lot of disagreement about ideology, strategy, and whether the existing political system is salvageable. And because U.S. society has changed a lot in the past half century, and because sectors of the right have absorbed and co-opted elements of these changes in various ways, we’ve seen new developments and seeming contradictions, such as the Christian right mobilizing large numbers of women, or Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, etc. recruiting men of color in significant numbers. It would be strategically dangerous for us to ignore these complexities.

3. The relationship of the ruling class to all this shouldn’t be taken for granted, and we should be skeptical of the standard leftist assumption that the right serves capitalist interests. Significant sections of the right genuinely hate the ruling class as much as leftists do, and those that don’t often have other priorities. Trump won the presidency although capitalists favored his opponent by a large margin. Capitalists obviously have lots of influence within the right, but they are often reacting to pressures from below as much as pushing their own agendas. We should assume that capitalists will pursue multiple and to some extent conflicting political strategies, including both rightist and anti-rightist ones.

I believe point #3 is often overlooked by the left. Without it we have no way to understand how Golden Dawn has failed in Greece despite the left ALSO failing. It seems the center has continued to hold by offering both carrots and sticks to both left and right.

Point #1 reminds me that police killings of Black people have overtaken the most deadly years of lynching. When I read that stat some years ago it occurred to me: The police have replaced vigilantes as the extra-legal executioner whose very public killings terrorize a whole population. But the extra-legal part is making a comeback as well- some white supremacists have said they were "radicalized" (I read it as emboldened) by George Zimmerman. In this ongoing tradeoff between state and non-state violence we can understand the US a lot better by looking at other settler states like Mexico and Israel than by looking at Europe. 

Photo credit: Albertomos, 15 November 2011 (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.


Kris from Mode Six said...

On the debate about whether we are looking at fascism or not.

Consider that traditional fascism -- Hitler's fascism -- was a true populist movement, even if artificially whipped up by the Nazi Party's organized agitation, that ultimately betrayed it's populist roots by allying with the industrial capitalist class.

Now consider that today, the Proud Boys, 3%ers, and their ilk in no way represent a widespread populist movement. They have been dwarfed, sometimes 100-to-1, at all their recent demonstrations. True, the law permits their vigilante attacks, but as Bo observes we expect the above-ground groups to have more impact -- because they have greater reach, resources, and membership.

Therefore, state repression has much greater potential for violence (we know the state realizes this potential every day) than today's ultra-far-right. Furthermore, judging from the mainstream's lukewarm adoption of ultra-right electoral candidates, like Joey Gibson's lackluster Senate run, it's a fair assumption that we do not have a popular political movement bubbling up that's even more fascist than Trump's administration is.

And again, the ultra-far-right is totally dwarfed by counter protests, anti fascists, radicals etc. at their rallies, their marches, and ours. Therefore, as radicals we do not have to worry at this exact moment about the ultra-far-right populist movement getting out of control. Truth be told, the center is holding back that crisis, as they should considering their anger and frustration and being unable to hold back Trump.

What I'm saying is, in the three-way-fight, right now the State clearly poses a great short- and long-term threat than a populist fascism. Our strategies must reflect that.

I believe the essential fact to understand is that while confrontation has been adequate in the last couple years to hold back popular fascism, and mobilize the center against the same, confrontation alone cannot bring down the state. Nor can it offer a viable alternative to the millions of alienated consumers who depend on the state/capitalism for all their basic needs.

Anti-fascism can and does represent a viable alternative to fascism for most free-thinking people who still have a heart. Again, turnout to recent protests/rallies proves this. However, these are not sheeple we're talking about, and they're quite aware that chanting revolutionary slogans and blogging will not put food on the table. Anarchism does not currently represent a viable alternative to capitalism (outside a select few intentional communities).

Anti-fascists need to up the ante, drop the anti-this, anti-that, and start incubating grassroots community organizations that can meet people's basic needs. Not that we aren't already doing that, when we're not busy wage-slaving or bashing the fash. But we will have to work much harder to match the state.

Popular fascism's weakness is proven when it's tested on the streets. The same is not true for capitalism. Facing off with the police has only caused further militarization. Not that it shouldn't be done at times, but the priority now has to be building dual power, not attempting some kind of utopian revolution when we have no means to sustain such. Even should a crack in capitalism's control open up, e.g. a temporarily lawless zone in the wake of a disaster event, anarchists focus should be on building dual power in that zone, firing the imagination and realization of the average person, and laying down the foundations for several decades of struggle.

The only advantage we have is that millions of people are looking for an alternative. We just have to collectively create it.

Matthew N Lyons said...

Kris, I agree with a number of the points you make. One caveat: when you say "as radicals we do not have to worry at this exact moment about the ultra-far-right populist movement getting out of control," I agree that street fascists aren't about to seize power, but it's important to keep in mind that there is a dynamic tension between far rightists and mainstream political forces, in which far rightists help to pull system-loyal forces toward more hardline politics, and widen the space in which supremacist violence by both state and non-state actors flourishes. So we can't just say that far rightists are less of a threat and so we should focus elsewhere -- we need to see the various forces in relation to one another.

Nil said...

I'm interested in a reference for Bo's comments about rate of Black killings by police overtaking rate of lynchings at their highest. Do you recall where you saw that, or anyone have a URL to that or anything related?

Matthew N Lyons said...

Nil, this is an extremely belated reply to your question, but in July 2016, Quartz published an article with the headline "More black people were killed by US police in 2015 than were lynched in the worst year of Jim Crow" (