Revolutionary v reactionary decentralism: “What’s Left?” October 2020

I was seven when I lived in San Bernardino in 1959. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Dictator Juan Batista fled Cuba as revolutionary hero Fidel Castro entered Havana. China suppressed an uprising in Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to escape to India. Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. San Bernardino was suburban, often hot, and almost always smoggy. Only when Santa Ana winds scoured the basin of smog blown in from Los Angeles did I clearly see the surrounding, magnificent mountain ranges. There were more and more days growing up when I couldn’t see the mountains at all from my neighborhood, which was home to the first MacDonald’s in the nation.

I watched Disney’s 1959 series The Swamp Fox on our family’s tiny black and white TV.  Filmed in color, the series depicted the exploits of Francis Marion as played by a young Leslie Nielsen. A commissioned officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, Marion ably led the irregular militiamen of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment as they ruthlessly terrorized fellow American Loyalists and engaged in asymmetric warfare against British Army regulars known as Redcoats. He avoided direct frontal assaults against larger bodies of troops, instead confusing his enemies in the field with swift surprise attacks and equally sudden withdrawals. Considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare, Marion successfully used irregular methods and maneuver tactics to outwit his opponents. He has been credited in the birth of the US Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets.

Proclaimed a Revolutionary War hero, Marion was a leader in the profoundly conservative American Revolution. The soldiers under his command, known as Marion’s Men, weren’t impoverished, oppressed peasants but were mostly independent freeholder farmers who served without pay, and supplied their own horses, weapons and often their own food. Britain’s relatively autonomous American colonies were permitted to rule themselves with minimal royal and parliamentary interference for decades, an unofficial policy called “salutary neglect.” Under British mercantilism, the colonies supplied raw materials for English manufacture while acting as markets for those finished goods. Benign neglect allowed the colonies to develop structures and traditions of self-government under this arrangement. When Britain instituted the restrictive Navigation Acts in 1651 to consolidate a coherent imperial policy, an end to salutary neglect didn’t happen immediately. But when Britain clamped down in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, tightening the reigns of political control by imposing tax and trade regulations, tensions mounted until the established, affluent, independent American colonies rose up in reluctant revolution.

I cheered for Disney’s version of Francis Marion, but I was too young to understand the contradiction of such a military hero being simultaneously revolutionary and conservative. The American Revolution has been described as one of the first modern revolutions based on Enlightenment ideas generally, and classical liberalism in particular. That the American Revolution and representative figures like Marion can be simultaneously conservative, liberal and revolutionary is actually not unusual in the annals of American history. Antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine and Matthew Lyons both suggest there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism.

“The struggle between centralization and decentralization is at the core of American history,” academic historian Anthony Gregory wrote.  Whether considering Louis Beam’s overarching “leaderless resistance;” the specifics of Christian Reconstructionism; Posse Commitatus,  the Patriot Movement and White Nationalism; the Tea Party; or the terrorist extremism of Atomwaffen Division and the boogaloo bois—rightwing decentralism seems genuine enough. It’s matched by leftwing decentralism starting with the importance of anarchism to revolutionary working class struggles prior to the 1919-20 Palmer Raids. The grassroots nonviolent resistance of the Civil Rights movement and the participatory democracy of early SDS; the adoption of the affinity group model in the revival of American anarchism (through groups as diverse as Black Mask/UAW-MF, the Clamshell Alliance and the anti-globalization movement); Occupy Wall Street; and present day antifa and Black Lives Matter organizing efforts continue this development of Left decentralism. There are still plenty of centralized authoritarian organizations around, from the American Nazi Party and National Alliance on the fascist far right to Marxist-Leninist vanguard formations like the Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation on the Left. But is it too soon to declare political decentralism as a unique and defining feature of American politics generally?

Let’s step back from the particulars here and widen this political discussion to an examination of tactics and strategy more broadly.

Examine two organizing models: the decentralized network of autonomous cells versus the centralized, hierarchical pyramid. The horizontal network is easy to organize and difficult to completely stamp out. So long as one autonomous cell persists there is the potential for the whole network to regenerate. But the network also has difficulty in effectively mobilizing bodies and resources, so it’s not surprising there are no historical examples of decentralized networks of autonomous cells succeeding unaided in overthrowing a government or seizing state power. The pyramid is more difficult to organize but comparatively easy to destroy. Decapitating the organization’s head is often sufficient. And the centralized, hierarchical pyramid is very efficient in mobilizing both bodies and resources, which is why it’s the organizational model of choice throughout history and across the globe.

The discussion of network versus pyramid is related to the one about cadre versus mass that I’ve touched on in previous columns regarding revolutionary organizing. As with the latter dichotomy, the polarity between network and pyramid gives rise to proposals on the Left to combine the best of both forms into some type of hybrid structure. The Uruguayan Tupamaros—under the guidance of anarchist-Marxist Abraham Guillén—organized its clandestine guerrilla cells into autonomous, parallel, hierarchical columns each of which could replicate the whole organization. The more cultish Ruckus Society claimed to be neither vanguard nor network. The EZLN in Chiapas proposed “mandar obedeciendo,” while the YPG/SDF in Rojava claimed that democratic confederalism could bridge the divide between network and pyramid structures. I’m not familiar with whether the Right is experimenting with similar hybrid efforts. But given how easily the FBI has taken down Rise Above, Atomwaffen and boogaloo cells, decimating their respective umbrella movements in the process, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There are historical instances where the success of horizontal cellular networks cause governmental power to disintegrate to the point where the state collapses as a consequence of society becoming unmanageable, a default overthrow or seizure of power. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya is arguably such an example in which the initial civil war merged with a second civil war to create generalized social chaos that continues to this day. Such a situation might theoretically arise in this country if leftwing and rightwing decentralized social movements become strong enough simultaneously to make society ungovernable at the base. An equally ridiculous wet dream has been nurtured by Keith Preston who proposes that Left and Right unite in a common pan secessionist movement. But when J.P. Nash responded to Jim Goad’s book Shit Magnet by proclaiming his political philosophy to be: “‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later,” he expressed a sentiment all too common on the Right. The libertarian Left is much more committed to decentralism, but historical circumstances can betray practice as when the Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communist Party smashed their respective anarchist revolutions.

John Steinbeck’s famous quote (“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”) was plainly intended to refer to Communist Party organizers in the 1930s and not to their working class subjects. But as Meagan Day points out in a Jacobin Magazine article: “There’s a grain of truth in this [quote]. Americans have more faith in upward economic mobility than nearly anyone. We have a special — which isn’t to say totalizing — attachment to the idea that class origin is not destiny, and that anyone who works hard and is smart enough has a shot at a high standard of living. This meritocratic conviction sometimes shades into a belief that rich people’s wealth is deserved while poor people are lazy and unintelligent.” Thus we have the oft repeated argument that poor and working class Americans frequently vote against their class interests “with objections to increased social spending or defenses of tax cuts for the mega-rich.” Day argues that Americans are far more class conscious and “genuinely aspire to redistribute our nation’s wealth and build an economy that serves the working class” than is generally assumed.

Karl Hess, Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter who transitioned from rightwing libertarianism to leftwing anarchism, argued that the generic “logic of decentralization and the impulse of people to take things onto their own hands” is capable of toppling totalitarian and corporate capitalist states alike (per James Boyd). I’m dubious. I’m also dubious that it’s advisable or possible for American rightwing and leftwing decentralist movements to work together and take down the US state. Call me Mr. Doubtful.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“A Primer on the 30’s” by John Steinbeck
“From Far Right to Far Left—and Farther—With Karl Hess” by James Boyd
The Power of Habeas Corpus in America by Anthony Gregory
“The Myth of the Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire” by Meagan Day
“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right” by Spencer Sunshine (unpublished)
“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment” by Matthew Lyons

 

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