Oct 25, 2020

Between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence

Guest post by Devin Zane Shaw

Editor's note: Devin Zane Shaw argues here that Donald Trump’s attempt to mobilize far right vigilantism might represent a temporary move to shore up neoliberal hegemony—or it might signal an attempt to revive a settler-state hegemony, where white vigilantism becomes a permanent feature of informal social control.

Logo reads, "PB / STAND BACK / STAND BY"
At the first presidential debate, Donald
Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand
back and stand by" when he was asked
to condemn white supremacists.

System-Loyalty and the Far-Right Reaction to the Anti-Police Uprising
In what follows, I will suggest that, in response to the anti-police uprising which followed the death of George Floyd and spread across the United States after protestors torched the 3rd police precinct building in Minneapolis, the Trump administration has made a move to pull far-right movements within a system-loyal ambit of settler-state hegemony. As with any analysis that attempts to interpret events as they unfold and as they have only recently unfolded, some of these impressions will unfortunately be shaped by an oftentimes uncritical media and conflicting social media accounts, which could distort the situation on the ground and shape our critical reflections. To remedy this in part, I have relied as much as possible on antifascist research which has a stronger critical methodology, a clear and explicit ideological orientation, and a shared political commitment toward fighting fascism. Nonetheless, I expect that some of following claims will need to be criticized and revised as the tendencies I describe play out.

In my recent book Philosophy of Antifascism (p. 178), I propose the following thesis (to which I’ve made a minor adjustment in order to bring it into line with the present discussion) to explain the relationship between far-right movements and settler-state hegemony:

“Far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot.”

In my view, settler-state hegemony is stabilized when it can balance—or is perceived to balance—the interests of the bourgeoisie and white petty bourgeois settlers, whose system-loyalty rests on their access to, as W.E.B. Du Bois puts it, the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois provides a paradigmatic example of this process of building hegemony and white settlerism. On his view, during the era of Reconstruction, it was an open question of how American hegemony was to be realigned after being torn asunder in the Civil War. Though some of his phrasing—such as his evocations of the dictatorship of the proletariat during Reconstruction—is hyperbolic, Du Bois describes a series of shifting alliances between the northern bourgeoisie, the southern planter class, the white proletariat and the black proletariat.

In the midst of the crisis, factions of white southerners, such as the Ku Klu Klan, revolted against Reconstruction-era governance and carried out campaigns of terror predominantly against black communities. (Though, as Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa shows, these black communities also fought back.) These class conflicts were resolved, and system-oppositional white supremacist groups were pulled back toward system-loyalty, as hegemony coalesced around the public and psychological wages of whiteness: forms of deference, institutional access (to education, for example), the institutionalization of racial social control (“the police were from their ranks, and courts, dependent upon their voices, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness”), and social mobility (drawing poor whites into the petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy). (See Du Bois, pp. 573-574.) Part of this hegemony was brokered through labor organizing, as Du Bois notes, and, as later critics have noted, part was through the westward expansion of the United States, facilitated by laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 or the Southern Homestead Act of 1866.

The present conjecture of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-police uprising in the United States has created an unprecedented economic and political crisis. If Ruth Wilson Gilmore is correct that hegemony of neoliberal policy coalesced in part around “the prison fix,” then it is fitting that the greatest challenge to this form of hegemony arrives in the form of a broad social movement against policing (Golden Gulag, pp. 87-127). On its face, the American election appears to be a choice between two forms of stabilizing the neoliberal order through so-called “law and order”: one where police violence will beat social unrest down with the baton of so-called objective right or one that more explicitly relishes brutality and cruelty. However, I believe that if we apply the concept of the three-way fight to the present hegemonic crisis, we can discern another possibility: Trump’s validation of far-right vigilantism could also point toward a recomposition of settler-state hegemony through, in part, pulling far-right system-oppositional currents toward system-loyalty.

In my Philosophy of Antifascism, I apply the concept of the three-way fight to situate militant antifascism against forms of setter-state hegemony in Canada and the United States, which, in my view, are constituted through the state mediation of the interests of capital and white supremacy. These interests tend to manifest in a dialectic that mediates between bourgeois liberalism and popular and/or paramilitary white settler mobilizations. By differentiating between bourgeois liberalism and white supremacy, I do not mean that liberalism excludes racism or that white supremacy refuses the terms of bourgeois liberalism. I differentiate between the two in order to highlight their self-ascribed ideological forms, which represent (at least) two tendencies within setter-state governance and hegemony.

In schematic terms, liberalism manages hegemony through appeals to popular legitimacy (realized through institutions of representative government), formal protections for individual rights and private property (objective right), and repressive force (typically cast as rule of law). It manages challenges from the left by meeting demands for social justice in terms of formal equality, legal protection, and managing patterns of redistribution. It pulls right-wing white settlerism within the system-loyal parameters, at least since the 1960s if not before, by formalizing or ratifying forms of oppression if these can be codified in color-blind terms. I am proposing that Trump’s attempt to pull system-oppositional currents within the far right toward system-loyalty opens the possibility that settler-state hegemony could be recomposed through a more explicit nationalist white settlerism—though this is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, his open appeals to vigilantism were not necessarily his first strategy. Trump’s early messaging, which called on law enforcement to “dominate the streets,” suggested that he initially thought anti-police demonstrations could be quickly contained.

Nonetheless, Trump paved the way for a far-right reaction when he suggested that his administration would designate antifa as a “terrorist organization.” Open street-level conflict between far-right and antifascist groups has been a persistent feature of the last four years, but this policy direction signaled that the balance of forces on the ground would be more sharply tilted against militant leftwing organizing. The reaction was almost immediate, as various far right groups—parts of the Patriot movement (such as Oath Keepers), Proud Boys, boogaloo bois, and America First/Groyper factions turned up at demonstrations.

Media attention has typically focused on the violent character of the far-right reaction. It also tends to simplify the tensions and contradictions between state power and the far right. By contrast, through a comparison of how some of these far-right groups have fared over the course of the reaction, I will argue that we must distinguish between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence. This requires, at the outset, defining our terms. In Insurgent Supremacists, Matthew N. Lyons defines the far right as “political forces that a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system” (p. ii). He opts for the category of the far right rather than fascism because the former is broader than the latter. This broader scope allows Lyons to investigate a wider range of rightwing social movements that would not typically be grouped under fascism, and thus he is able to establish points of contact, influence, and conflict between these groups. But more importantly, in Lyons’ view, is that it captures rightwing groups that reject the legitimacy of the American political system. He concludes: “the resulting division between oppositional and system-loyal rightists is more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, economics, or other factors” (p. ii). In my view, on the basis of the discussion of settler-state hegemony, far-right movements are oppositional insofar as they are anti-bourgeois or anti-liberal but they accept or advocate for the “white settlerist” pillar of settler-state hegemony.

For our present purposes, I will define “system-oppositional” as an organizational capacity for armed conflict with state power. Some groups—such as the Patriot movement—pursue a dual strategy, sometimes working within institutional structures of the American political system and sometimes opting for system-oppositional conflict (for example, in 2016 the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, led by Ammon Bundy, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for almost six weeks). Such groups can be pulled toward system-loyal avenues. As Matthew N. Lyons has recently written:

“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.”

I would currently classify the actions of the Proud Boys and some factions of the Patriot movement as examples of system-loyal vigilantism. We can expect, with system-loyal vigilantism, relatively close affinities between police and, as one officer put it, “heavily armed friendlies.” The close affinity between policing and system-loyal vigilance is evident in many forms across the United States, from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where officers validated the presence of armed individuals, before Kyle Rittenhouse (a youth police cadet) shot three protesters, killing two, to Portland, Oregon, where cops “stood by while Proud Boys and militiamen, some brandishing guns, attacked anti-fascist protesters; when the Proud Boys retreated, the cops fired tear gas.”

But it is important to note that not all parts of the reaction pursue system-loyal vigilantism. Rightwing accelerationist groups such as the “boogaloo bois” constitute a small niche of reactionary system-opposition organized explicitly around armed paramilitary capacity. The boogaloo bois are “a loose collection of online insurrectionists, some of whom believe a civil war with a tyrannical government is inevitable and in some sense desirable.” They appeared almost immediately on the scene of anti-police demonstrations following the death of George Floyd. While anti-police organizers correctly identified the presence of boogaloo-style groups as antagonistic, these groups have sometimes claimed that they support anti-police demonstrations. For example, a widely circulated meme in boogaloo circles includes Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and Oscar Grant, and far-right militia martyrs such as Vicki and Samuel Weaver in a list of people killed by the police.

From the perspective of the three-way fight, this is a clear attempt at far-right entryism that failed. Furthermore, not all boogaloo movement actions were merely opportunistic in this sense; several attempted to use anti-police protests to sow armed conflict. In the month of June, two boogaloo movement members were charged with killing two law enforcement officers, and seven others were arrested for weapons charges or plotting violent attacks. In addition, according to data collected by Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, incidents between protesters and boogaloo groups spiked early and then quickly trailed off. These two factors would suggest that law enforcement intervention sidelined the boogaloo movement’s street-level protest capacity; however, as recent arrests show, law enforcement pressure has not yet incapacitated the movement’s clandestine organizational capacities.

Tentative Conclusions
How do we assess the difference between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence? And where does this distinction fit in the historical relationships between the militant left, the far right, and the police? Revolutionary and militant leftist movements challenge the social inequalities that law enforcement are tasked to protect, and law enforcement has long attacked leftist movements at both organizational and ideological levels. By contrast, as both David Cunningham and Kristian Williams contend, law enforcement tends to focus on violent actions committed by far-right movements. Cunningham, in his analysis of the FBI’s COINTELPRO–White Hate operation in the 1960s, notes that the FBI focused on Klan groups, such as the United Klans of America, while ignoring Citizens Councils because (1) the latter’s class position ensured system loyalty, and (2) the type of racist activities chosen by the Klan “refused to follow a tightly constrained path of acceptable resistance [which] made it a threat to the good name of the anti-civil rights movement” (p. 122). The FBI and the far-right groups targeted under COINTELPRO-White Hate, Cunningham argues, shared a common cultural ground (manifested in a defense of the segregationist status quo, patriotism, and anti-communism), but the latter became law enforcement targets when they plotted or carried out violent acts that threatened the status quo.

While the Klan in the 1960s was generally system-loyal ideologically, it is a basic premise of the three-way fight that far-right groups are now typically system-oppositional. Despite this shift in far-right organizational characteristics, law enforcement follows general patterns set in the 1960s: Williams notes that in the 1990s, “when the government pursued right-wing terrorists, its efforts tended to focus narrowly on prosecutable crimes, whereas investigations into environmentalists and anarchists during the same period sprawled broadly across the relevant movements and often took on an explicitly ideological tone.” Today, a similar pattern remerges. The Trump administration characterizes antifa as so-called “domestic terrorism.” Though law enforcement curbs far-right movements organized around system-oppositional violence, there is a more general tolerance for system-loyal vigilantism. While Trump’s attempt to pull some far-right groups toward system-loyal tendencies through explicitly validating vigilantism is a marked departure in contemporary American electoral politics, voting him out of office will not necessarily undermine the informal relationships formed through law enforcement and far-right opposition to militant leftist movements forged in the second half of 2020.

To conclude, I will examine a number of possible consequences of this return of vigilantism. Before November, it will remain unclear whether Trump’s attempt to mobilize far-right vigilantism against the anti-police uprising marks the beginning of a recomposition of settler-state hegemony or whether it is an attempt to use vigilantism to shore up the neoliberal hegemony that is currently in crisis. In other words, it is unclear whether what we are witnessing involves the recomposition of hegemony around white settlerism, where white vigilantism remains a permanent feature of informal social control, or whether Trump will attempt to demobilize the far right after the election.

In the event of a Trump victory and demobilization or a Biden victory (where Trump accepts the results), we can expect far-right movements presently mobilized will return to a system-oppositional stance. (For those skeptical of the scenario in which Trump demobilizes his far-right support, it is important to note that Trump did not ascend to political power on the basis of a mass movement, and so a potentially mass movement—with the attendant types of uncertainty and volatility that these movements bring—could play in his favor but could also create the opportunity for a far-right opposition movement beyond his control).

If Trump remains in power through the continued mobilization of far-right vigilantism, these social forces could become de facto features of social control, fortifying repressive state violence while undermining liberal institutions and legal protections for women and minorities. We could also expect administration policies that materially cement such political alliances, e.g, the privatization of federal land holdings in areas where the Patriot movement has local presence. The possibility of constituting settler-state hegemony around a more explicit far-right white settlerism presents a much more dangerous terrain for antifascist and leftist organizing than the previous four years.

Devin Zane Shaw is the author of Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He discusses many of the book's core ideas in a Revolutionary Left Radio podcast titled "A Philosophy of Antifascism: Existentialism, Decolonization, & The Three-Way Fight."

Image credit: Image disseminated by the Proud Boys following the presidential debate on 29 September 2020, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oct 16, 2020

Nationalism: Left, Right, and Black

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 2019)

Review by Kristian Williams

Editor’s note: Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court seems a good occasion to consider the political history of another notorious Supreme Court figure. Clarence Thomas’s story raises larger issues about the roles that members of oppressed groups may play in right-wing politics and how elements of leftist politics can be appropriated by the right.

Two flags decorated Clarence Thomas’s apartment at Yale Law School: The red, black, and green Pan-African flag, and the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag.

Corey Robin mentions this detail in passing in The Enigma of Clarence Thomas—which was just released in a paperback edition—but it almost serves as a microcosm of his argument.

Robin—among the most astute, and certainly the most readable, of the left-liberal scholars of the right—is kind enough to offer us a thesis statement: “The central claim of this book,” he writes, is that “Thomas is a black nationalist whose conservative jurisprudence rotates around an axis of black interests and concerns.” This interpretation will surprise most readers, for good reasons and for bad. The good reason is that, during his almost three decades on the Supreme Court, Thomas has come down repeatedly on the side opposite of anti-racist common sense. He has opposed mandatory racial integration in schools, endorsed racial segregation in prisons, refused to strengthen protections against police bias, and advocated the dismantling of affirmative action. The bad reason is that critics often treat Thomas as a mere puppet who mouths the orthodoxy of the Republican establishment with neither comprehension nor conviction. This latter presumption, Robin demonstrates ably, is so wrong that it can only be understood as a racist refusal to take the justice’s thinking seriously.

Reagan and Thomas standing facing each other in the Oval Office
Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas, 1986
Robin does take it seriously, and he shows that we should as well. We should take it seriously, first, because of the real-world impact of Thomas’s personal philosophy. In his position on the Court, he helps to shape both the law and its interpretation, throughout the entire United States and for generations to come. Second, we should take it seriously because of the real challenge it poses to the liberal orthodoxy. Thomas’s multi-pronged assault on affirmative action in higher education, for example, is radical in its implications and devastating in its effect: Affirmative action, he argues, stigmatizes black people and thus sustains both the institutional and emotional structures of white supremacy: it preserves feelings of superiority (accented by condescension and paternalism) among white students, professors, and administrators, while instilling a sense of inferiority among black students. Its main objective is not the improvement of the conditions among the black community overall, or even the more limited aim of equality of opportunity in education. It does not open elite institutions to black students, but instead grants limited access while preserving the institution’s exclusivity. The appearance of diversity, Thomas insists, is merely a means for the power structure to legitimate itself, and thereby maintain the inequality of the larger society. I have to admit that there just may be something to that argument.

The third reason it is worth taking Thomas’s views seriously—and this is Robin’s main point—is because Thomas’s right-wing black nationalism may sometimes also function as a sort of reductio ad absurdum to some unexamined precepts of left-wing anti-racism. “Thomas’s is a voice that unsettles,” Robin writes in the opening chapter. “His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal.” But, Robin explains, if we can let ourselves “see the world through his eyes,” we may realize that “his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”

Robin builds his case largely on the basis of Thomas’s own words, drawn from his scholarly articles, legal opinions, and interviews, supported and to some degree explained with reference to his personal biography. The result is fascinating, horrifying, and, I think, persuasive—though I admit I lack the legal background that would qualify me to evaluate some of the more technical arguments, and I somehow doubt that Thomas would describe his views in just the way that Robin does. (Justice Thomas did not reply to my request for comment, submitted through the Supreme Court’s public information office.)

Clarence Thomas entered adulthood immersed in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. “I was truly on the left,” Thomas recalled in a 1996 interview. “I was a radical.” He admired Malcolm X, listening to recordings of his speeches and memorizing lengthy passages. He wore Black Panther buttons, volunteered with a Panther-inspired free breakfast program, and signed his letters “Power to the People.”

At Holy Cross, he helped found the Black Student Union, and served as its secretary-treasurer. Even at the time, he stood out among its members as ideologically severe and resistant to compromise. The group’s prohibition against interracial relationships, for example, was mainly observed in the breach; but Thomas saw it as a point of pride and even principle. He was known to harass interracial couples that he encountered on campus, and continued to oppose interracial marriage well into the 1980s.

Traditional gender roles, and especially the figure of the black man, were central to the BSU’s politics. “The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man,” the BSU manifesto claimed. This gendered preoccupation continued to orient Thomas’s worldview, his jurisprudence, and (as Anita Hill clearly testified) his personal behavior throughout his career.

Today, Robin argues, Thomas remains a black nationalist, but he is now a nationalist of a particular right-wing variety. “Like most ideological commitments, Thomas’s black nationalism is selective.” He rejects the notions of revolution, a separate territorial state, and Third World solidarity, for instance. “Still, many elements of the program he embraced in the 1960s and 1970s ... remain vital points of his jurisprudence today.” Among these, Robin lists “the celebration of black self-sufficiency, ... the support for racial separatism and black institutions, ... the reverence for black self-defense ..., a suspicion of white liberalism ..., skepticism of the state, pessimism about integration, a focus on the family, an emphasis on traditional morality, an appreciation of black business, and belief in the saving power of black men.”

Underlying these views is a deep pessimism. As Thomas put it: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin.”

Thomas believes that racism is a permanent fact of American life. The question, then, is not how to eradicate it, but how black people can maintain their dignity regardless. Thomas’s concern with dignity centers on an anxiety over the character of black men in particular. Dignity in his view consists of virtues like industriousness, self-reliance, self-discipline, a stoical manner, and the personal bearing necessary both to exercise authority over one’s family and to defend it from external threats.

To cultivate those virtues, Thomas believes, one must endure coercive discipline and a certain amount of adversity. For black Americans, the state delivers both. Thomas views policing and punishment as necessary to instill the discipline and moral sense necessary for community thriving; liberal conceptions of rights only serve to make the black man weak. Direct oppression, however, can make him virtuous and strong. Thomas believes that policing can promote the virtues that lead to success in a capitalist economy, which he fetishizes partly from a distrust of government and partly from the feeling that the market is the only institution that white people cannot fully control.

Toward the end of the book, Robin steps back to take in the full picture:

“Clarence Thomas is the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court.... His jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism.... It begins with the belief that racism is permanent ... and ends with a dystopia that looks painfully familiar: men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see.... It rehearses and repeats that experience of defeat, with no sign of exit or end. It returns to scenes of ancient injury and present wrong, not to repair the first or right the second but to tell us that neither righting nor repair can be done.”

Thomas’s version of black nationalism began in opposition to white supremacy, and grew to be congruent with it.

Thomas is not merely a reactionary; or rather, he is a very specific type of reactionary. He is one committed to an ethno-separatism, a material and cultural self-reliance, but also to a project by which a history of racial humiliation is overcome not by dismantling the racist structures of society but precisely by enduring racial hostility with a masculine dignity, signaled by certain cardinal virtues and defended with arms. I will leave it to others to place that worldview precisely within the right-wing taxonomy. But the astonishing thing about Thomas’ later ideas is how much they owe to his earlier ideas:

“Thomas [initially] made his disaffection with civil rights activism with a narrative of black nationalism from the left. Beginning in the mid-1970s, that disaffection realigned for him as a story of black nationalism from the right. What’s remarkable about the transformation is how simple and small it proved to be.”

One way of understanding Thomas’s rightward trajectory is to treat it as a cautionary tale about the failures of the left, and about the future careers of disappointed radicals. By this account, Thomas is a black neocon, but nothing more. Robin however suggests something more disturbing. By his reading, Thomas did not convert so much as he simply changed denominations—left or right, the focus has always been on the nationalism. “Thomas has been able to forgo the left for the right without having to give up the black nationalism that can be found on either side of the spectrum.” In that case, his was not so much a metamorphosis as a change in emphasis.

If so, Thomas’s example may give us reason for worry about even the versions of nationalism with which we may feel some sympathy. “If Thomas begins from premises that are shared yet arrives at conclusions from which we recoil...,” Robin advises in the book’s final paragraph, then “the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.” Among the premises to be surrendered, I would propose the fashionable pessimism about racial reconciliation, the deeply Christian view that oppression makes people virtuous, the moralistic emphasis (common to Protestantism, neoliberalism, and the “woke” left) on personal virtue as the tonic for societal problems, and the faith in violence as the surest safeguard for our rights.

There are also, of course, some premises that are not shared. The consistency of Thomas’ nationalism is only matched by that of his sexism—not merely as a matter of personal bias, but as a programmatic commitment to patriarchal gender norms. That has held true from his time in the Black Student Union to his tenure on the United States Supreme Court. Robin, I think, gives too little attention to this fact, and to its potential significance. How important was his sexism in guiding, and maybe even motivating, Thomas’s turn to the right?

It seems that Thomas’ conception of masculinity, while sounding increasingly anachronistic to the left, has become an animating principle across much of the right. Certainly, sexism remains a problem on the left, and the possibilities for a right-wing feminism cannot be discounted. But, broadly speaking, feminism implies egalitarianism, and right-wing politics imply the opposite. And it does seem that, of the various elements of the left’s program, gender equality is the one that the right has the hardest time claiming, co-opting, or corrupting. The reasons for that are undoubtedly complex and far-reaching, and the implications no less so. It may turn out, for example, that while nationalism can float between left and right, feminism will prove to be our most reliable anchor protecting against a rightward drift.

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 Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press).

Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.