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

 

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.

I’m against it!: “What’s Left?” January 2019, MRR #428

I’m against it.

Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
“I’m Against It,” Horse Feathers

I’m against it.

The Ramones, “I’m Against It,” Road to Ruin

I’m against it.

Capitalism that is. I’m against capitalism because it prioritizes profit over human need, exploits workers, engenders economic instability through overproduction and underconsumption, promotes social inequalities, degrades human community, destroys the environment, and encourages short term thinking at the expense of longterm planning. There is a vastly better alternative to capitalism in the form of socialism.

My antagonism toward capitalism is a standard, rational form of opposition. “A” is bad while “B” is good, so here is why I oppose “A.” I’ll call this vanilla opposition.

Then there’s contrarianism. It’s the opposition of that Beatles song “Hello Goodbye” the lyrics of which proclaim: “You say ‘Yes,’ but I say ‘No’.” It’s a reflexive, unconscious form of opposition. It’s actually a very punk form of opposition. In Anarchy Comics #3, published in 1981, Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney penned the comic “No Exit” about hardcore punk rocker and visceral anarchist Jean-Paul Sartre, Jr., who gets transported 3000 years into the future when anarchism has finally prevailed and where “There’s no more war, oppression, sexism, racism, ageism, shapeism, sizeism!” Needless to say, J-P doesn’t react well. At one point he freaks and starts to “fuck shit up.” J-P’s future hosts admonish him: “Really J-P! There’s no need for this alienated behavior!! Since all property belongs to everyone, you’re only hurting yourself!!” To which J-P responds: “Yeah? Well, if it’s all mine too, I can wreck it if I want to, right?”

Such is the essence of this form of opposition, which I’ll call reactive opposition. MRR once had a columnist who specialized in this type of opposition and routinely played Devil’s Advocate in the pages of the magazine. If Tim Yo or other MRR coordinators insisted there be no racism, sexism, or homophobia this columnist would go out of his way to defend sex with children or call gays “homos.” I hung out with him a couple of times and whenever people reacted angrily to his antics a sly smile would cross his face. Ultimately, he was fired when his column was rejected for calling women who had survived sexual assault “cry babies” suffering from “survivoritis” in letting themselves remain victims. Ironically, he whined he was a victim of MRR’s anti-free speech PC attitude. In this era of Trump and Kavanaugh, he’s on Facebook writing post-MRR columns in which he regularly defends Trump and the horrors of Trumpism. As a dutiful contrarian, of course.

Finally, there’s what I call dark opposition. Dark opposition stems from the seductive charms of the transgressive. The English Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem intended to exalt his Christian faith by retelling the Genesis story of the fall of man. Called Paradise Lost, its main problem was that the figure of Satan, as evil incarnate, came off as way too charismatic and downright noble. So attractive was Milton’s portrait of the devil that Paradise Lost was a best seller in its day while his sequel of the story of that goody two-shoes Jesus, Paradise Regained, was a flop. Every modern rebel, whether adolescent or political, identifies with Satan when he declared “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I’ll spend the rest of my time discussing dark opposition based on the appeal of transgression, or what in Star Wars lingo is called the “power of the dark side.”

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the 1960s moors murders and the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines when her character says “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.” The draw of transgressive evil is never to be underestimated. Numerous books have been written on the subject and several youthful subcultures have actively embraced the dark side of things, the most prominent being Goth.

But the appeal of the left-hand path goes back all the way to Vedic Vāmācāra practice and Tantrism which eventually entered Western spirituality through Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Aleister Crowley. The latter couched it in terms of the occult and ceremonial magic where the right-hand path equated to benevolent white magic while the left-hand path meant malevolent black magic. Magick if you will. This distinction is common with occultists, among them parafascist Julius Evola who emphasized that those pursuing the right-hand path worked selflessly for the glorification of the divine while those on the left-hand path worked egocentrically for the glorification of the self. After the second World War, esoteric Nazism and Hitler worship emerged in various forms of völkisch spirituality in neo-völkisch movements, pioneered by such individuals as Savitri Devi, Robert Charroux, and Miguel Serrano. This is paralleled in the revival of anti-modern elements of tribalism, paganism, Traditionalism, and mysticism in everything from right wing politics (Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite) to music (industrial, black metal, neo-folk), terms often preceded with the combining form neo- (as in neo-tribal, neo-pagan, etc.) This is part of an opposition to modernism, of a revolt against the modern world.

Rarely has this amounted to a conscious embrace of the power of evil however. More often, and especially among the young, this has meant flirting with the devil, being naughty, getting an adrenaline rush, emotional thrill, or sexual charge from teasing the dark side. Sometimes it’s conveyed as a conscious provocation, the deliberate use of highly charged language and symbols to outrage those who are invariably labeled “squares.” This is the calculated method of musicians and bands like Boyd Rice and Death in June in the industrial and neo-folk genres who dress fash and talk fash but never actually claim fascism as an up front affiliation. In the end, a small percentage consider their embrace of the left-hand and the right-wing a positive good. That’s the stance of most involved in the ultranationalist Patriot movement because isn’t patriotism a good thing after all? Robert Anton LeVey defined his Satanism as a Nietzschean übermensch philosophy in opposition to the prevailing Christian herd mentality of society at large. And the virulently anti-semitic, Hitler-worshipping murderers of the neo-nazi Atomwaffen Division death squad believe that a new, expanded Holocaust—in which not just Jews and Leftists, but the immoral, degenerate and weak will be exterminated—is a positive, healthy social good.

These diehard characters are downright proud of their badass transgressive Nazi selves, unlike assclown Gavin McInnes and his ilk on the ultra-right who, when called out for throwing a Roman salute or reveling in racial slurs, disguise their dark shit with their disingenuous reactive crap. “Can’t you take a joke?” is their common refrain. Occasionally those who are in dark opposition are actively aided by those who are in reactive opposition. The Elbo Room, a long-standing San Francisco dive bar, recently closed its doors due to lease/landlord issues. In December, 2015, the Elbo Room gained notoriety by proudly hosting a show for the band Death in June and co-owner Matt Shapiro said: Death In June is not a Nazi band, nor a group that preaches hate. While they use controversial imagery and have songs with subject matter that some may find challenging, they are definitely not Nazis, nor hateful. I come from many generations of Jews. Do you think I could look my mother in the eye after booking a Nazi act? Shapiro wasn’t dissembling, he actually believes DiJ aren’t fascist, let alone Nazi or white supremacist. He called out the police against protesters he falsely claimed were wielding knives. “These folks were menacing and looking for trouble.” We have to take Shapiro’s word that DiJ are not fascist and that protesters threatened violence in this prime example of reactive opposition. Had it been the former MRR columnist mentioned above, he would have defended DiJ because they are fascists, in deference to his free speech absolutism. How punk.

Not.

Luis Buñuel once said: “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt,” implying a measured application of transgression to life. I’ll be the first to admit my vanilla opposition is neither aggro enough nor sexy enough for most rebels-in-waiting. Yet reactive opposition and dark opposition are so fraught with problems I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’ll readily admit having started out in reactive opposition in my youth and I’m sure some would argue that my present vanilla opposition is a sorry climb down from those heady days. But I’m quite proud never to have entertained any dark oppositional tendencies beyond faking Nazi mannerisms with a tiny group of friends taking German in high school. Now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court, I can sincerely call that a “youthful indiscretion.”