By any other name: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2021

I picked up an archaic paper flyer pinned to an obsolete cork board in the now-defunct Market Street branch of FLAX Art Supplies. The handbill advertised a web designer and mobile app developer—Daniel Goodwyn—who offered to teach virtually any platform or software. I wanted to learn social media to prepare for self-publishing my novel 1% Free, so I called. He was cheap. We arranged to meet at Philz Coffee on 24th Street.

“I only drink Philz coffee,” Daniel said.

We met six or seven times at the end of 2015, beginning of 2016. Daniel was an evangelical Christian favorable to fundamentalism, but he wore his religious beliefs close to the vest. He didn’t proselytize. Instead, he would produce his worn King James Bible from his backpack before starting each lesson. I pulled out my Handbook of Denominations by Mead, Hill and Atwood our third meeting and we were off discussing Christianity between social media tutoring. We talked dispensationalism, cessationism, and biblical inerrancy. He’d attended 24/7 worship and prayer events, and would soon do web design for the messianic Jews for Jesus organization.

Donald Trump was beginning his presidential campaign so our conversations weren’t overtly political. Several years later, on September 15, 2020,  Goodwyn was arrested for not wearing a COVID mask riding a Muni bus. On October 17, 2020, he co-sponsored a sparsely attended SF Civic Center far right Free Speech/anti-Big Tech rally with fellow self-proclaimed Proud Boy Philip Anderson. A much larger riotous antifa protest crowd attacked the ersatz Proud Boys and shut down their rally. On January 2, 2021, Goodwyn refused to mask up, leave, or identify himself at a Wyoming gas station and was arrested by local authorities. Finally, on January 6, 2021, he attended the “Stop The Steal” Trump rally and stormed the Capitol building, for which he was indicted by the FBI on January 15 and arrested on January 29, 2021. He was pictured proudly wearing his red MAGA hat to both the Civic Center and Capitol building riots.

I was appalled reading Goodwyn’s story in the SF Chronicle. And not just because of how quickly he went from relative normality to the fascist fringes, but because of how a significant portion of the country went along with him. It’s one thing to wholeheartedly buy into a mythology—reincarnating some imagined Davidic order of ancient Hebrew worship as primitive Christianity versus contesting the nonexistent voting irregularities and fantasy fraud of a supposedly “stolen election.” But when is belief in virgin birth considered normal and belief that COVID is a hoax considered extreme? It’s a distinction without much of a difference. Why debate your location once you’re already in cloud cuckoo land?

There are fascist forms of Christianity: Christian nationalism, Dominionism, Christian Identity. But Goodwyn’s mainstream Christian beliefs—like most religion—are fantasy, not fascism. I’m not interested in distinguishing between spirituality and religion so much as in keeping the two at arms length. I’ve dabbled in both but I consider them interconnected, subjective, and personal in contrast to my more objective historical, scientific, and materialist mindset. I’ve always had religious/spiritual tendencies, experiences, and affiliations; sometimes central and other times peripheral. I was a Sunday school Catholic raised by parents who wanted me to receive the first four sacraments but also enrolled me in public schools. I hung out with liberal Unitarian ministers, Quaker draft counselors, itinerant Catholic Workers, and committed Liberation Theology advocates in high school during the anti-Vietnam War movement. And I was religious-adjacent to all the crap New Age spirituality for which my generation can be blamed.

During my first semester at Ventura College in 1970 I fell in with the Campus Crusade for Christ crowd and became a born-again Christian for five months. My first mystical experiences were spiritual not psychedelic. But I was a far left Christian anarchist who held up the example of the anti-war civil disobedience of the Berrigan brothers and waved about David Kirk’s little red book Quotations From Chairman Jesus, to the distress of my fellow Christians. I’d calligraphied two slogans on the glove compartment door of my 1958 VW Beetle to summarize my worldview at the time: “He is risen” and “peace, love and smash the state.” “Forget the politics,” an exasperated friend once snarled, “just read your Bible.” I lapsed into agnosticism, if not outright atheism, soon thereafter. Or as I quipped at the time: I gave up Catholicism for Lent and saw the light when I smoked marijuana. My involvement with Zen Buddhism through my alcoholic recovery practice beginning in 2010 meant simultaneously reviving my spirituality and reinforcing my atheism. After all, Zen Buddhism is the closest thing you can get to atheism and remain religious.

Similarly, the often-contradictory beliefs of the right-wing MAGA milieu—distrust of powerful “liberal” elites, COVID as hoax or Chinese bioweapon, vaccines as ruse or social control mechanism, Democrats “stealing” the election from Trump, etc—are certainly delusional but not explicitly fascist. The worldview that a shadowy cabal secretly controls things undergirds both QAnon’s outright idiocy of a secret sect of devil-worshipping pedophiles who dominate Hollywood, big business, the media, and government and more traditional fascist/Nazi/white supremacist antisemitic tropes like the canard that the Jews run the world. Fascism had been building during the four years of Trump’s presidency with the increasing radicalization of right-wing MAGA populism; the mobilization of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, III Percenters, QAnon; and the sense of Weimar deja vu. It’s a wonder those yahoos proudly selfied their own comically failed Keystone Kops insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Spencer Sunshine addresses the hardcore threat posed by the rise of overtly fascist/neo-Nazi/white supremacist tendencies and groups:
We see how they make other right-wing movements more extreme, how they take over cultural and religious milieus, as well as organize in geographical communities—and of course see (and are often subjected to) the violence that inevitably follows. Of course, we do also worry that they will expand into a significant political force, although this has been a rare phenomenon in the United States. It is these movements directly in front of us that are our main concern, not the looming fear that a Nazi administration will be in power in the near future.
But how to think about all the ordinary conservatives apparently going along for the ride? They seem hellbent on asserting their precious individualism while practicing an insipid herd behavior.

Personally, I was stunned I’d gotten to know one of the default ultra-right players in this drama. I’d set up my Facebook account under his tutelage so he was my “friend zero.” He stayed off my posts until this last year when he made a couple of loose comments here and there. Then January 6 happened and he dropped off most social media. At 32, Goodwyn has left behind his so-called “impetuous youth.” “He’s very principled but not always over the right things,” his father told the judge presiding over his case. I’m tempted to offer him the same advice I got back when I was 18 to “forget the politics, just read your Bible.” But I guess the feeling of having god on your side is pretty overwhelming.

I’m also tempted to call Goodwyn what I’ve been called as part of the Left for a half century—a fellow traveler. What else to make of a semi-normie evangelical Christian who willingly bought into the reactionary, meta-fascist MAGA narrative and wholeheartedly participated in the January 6 quasi-putschist assault on the US Capitol building? I’ve been on the left of the Left for over 50 years—first as a left anarchist and then as a left communist. As a libertarian socialist/Marxist I disdained social democrats and denigrated Leninists: disagreeing, arguing, and fighting with them while organizing, demonstrating, and protesting with them around so many causes. I’ve been called a pinko, fellow traveler, and useful idiot by folks on the right. So it’s nice to claim turnabout is fair play labelling useful idiots like Daniel Goodwyn with what Nazi Party sympathizers were called—Mitläufer or “tag-along.” The American occupiers of West Germany had a five-tiered hierarchy in their denazification program after the defeat of Hitler, with Mitläufer the most controversial category. Above Entlastete (exonerated) and below Minderbelastete (minor offenders), Mitläufer were loosely defined indirect supporters of Nazi war crimes not directly implicated in any formal Nazi criminal activity.

Technically, Goodwyn is Minderbelastete with his co-sponsorship of the San Francisco riot and participation in the Capitol riot. But the US government has a long, sorry history of accommodating right-wing extremism, from aborting Reconstruction in restoring the defeated Confederacy to the Union to the superficial denazification of Germany and Austria after WWII.(1) With Trump and his minions still at large, there will be no foreseeable de-Trumpification of America. Sympathizer, ally, collaborator—at what point does it cease to matter? Daniel Goodwyn is indicted on several conspiracy-related Federal charges and his saga remains Great Dictator Chaplinesque.(2) I expect he will be handled with kid gloves.(3)

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Statement of Facts, re: Daniel Goodwyn,” Case: 1:21-mj00063, filed 1-15-2021
“Feds Track Down Bearded Proud Boy Seen Smashing Capitol Windows With Police Shield” by Adam Rawnsley and Pilar Melendez (Daily Beast, 1-15-2021)
“SF Proud Boy the Latest Charged by FBI for Storming the Capitol” by Joe Kukura (SFist, 1-15-2021)
“S.F. man, a self-proclaimed Proud Boy, charged by FBI in Capitol riot” by Trisha Thadani (San Francisco Chronicle, 1-16-2021)
“SF web developer, allegedly seen on Baked Alaska’s livestream, charged in Capitol riot” by Katie Dowd (SFGATE, 1-17-2021)
“Web designer who allegedly stormed Capitol refused to wear mask after arrest, feds say” by Kevin Krause (Dallas Morning News, 2-12-2021)
“United States of America v. Daniel Goodwyn,” Case 1:21-cr-00153-RBW, filed 7-28-2021
“FBI says Capitol riot suspect tried to chew through his mask after agents made him put it on during arrest” by Natalie Musumeci, Madison Hall and Michelle Mark (Insider, 7-29-2021)
“Unfinished Thoughts on Fascism #2: Real Existing Fascism in the United States” by Spencer Sunshine (unpublished, Patreon only, 7-5-2021)

FOOTNOTE 1:
The exception was the 1775-83 American Revolutionary War. More Loyalist colonials were forced into exile—mainly to Canada—than were Royalists exiled during the 1789 French Revolution.FOOTNOTE 2:
Daniel Goodwyn, a “self-proclaimed” Proud Boy, was charged Friday with knowingly entering or remaining in a restricting building without lawful authority, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.

According to a criminal complaint, Anthime Gionet, a far-right social media personality who goes by the name “Baked Alaska,” called out Goodwyn’s full name while live-streaming the riot.

Goodwyn then asked Baked Alaska to stop “doxxing” him and stated Gionet’s full name. As a Capitol Police officer tried to usher Goodwyn out of the building, he called the cop an “oathbreaker” and yelled for people to get the officer’s badge number, the complaint states.

Gionet also referred to Goodwyn in the live-stream as “SFThoughtCriminal,” the name of a far-right Telegram account popular with members of the Proud Boys.

Goodwyn was later identified when an associate contacted the FBI. He messaged the associate on Instagram while still inside the Capitol, saying, “Tell your dad if he doesn’t want his guns I can find some folks who will.”

Later, Goodwyn wrote on Instagram, “I didn’t break or take anything but I went inside for a couple of minutes.” (from the Daily Beast, 1-15-2021)

FOOTNOTE 3:
Daniel Goodwyn calls himself a citizen journalist and this claim will likely be his main defense in challenging the Federal charges brought against him. I have long supported the alternative media that arose beginning in the 1960s which in turn gave birth to citizen journalism. Also known as participatory, democratic, guerrilla, or street journalism, this type of reporting is proudly opinionated, subjective, activist, and embedded in the communities it covers. But the right to take pictures and record videos in public and then blog about it afterwards doesn’t mean you’re not also a fascist fellow traveler or wannabe who can be arrested and convicted or sued and bankrupted or doxxed and taken down for your sketchy behavior. Whether or not I agree there’s such a thing as objective journalism as claimed by the mainstream media, I consider Daniel Goodwyn and his ilk (James O’Keefe, Andy Ngô, et al) at best as selfie journalists who make themselves the story and take great pleasure in streaming themselves doing so. At worst they work hand-in-glove with the far right, tailoring their activities and messages as propagandists for if not outright members of the right-wing groups they purport to report on.

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Manhunt: Deadly Games review: “Lefty” Hooligan, March 2021

There’s a point in the Netflix series Manhunt: Deadly Games when ATF agent, explosives expert and good-ol-boy Earl Embry says of Richard Jewell—the man falsely accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing by the FBI and the media—that he was an easy target.

“Fat. Southern. Poor.” Played by Arliss Howard, Embry drawls. “He’s presumed guilty ‘cause he’s a bubba. Yeah, well … Hey, I’m a bubba.”

During the media feeding frenzy following the bombing, a newspaper posts the libelous headline “The Bubba Bomber” over Jewell’s picture. A subplot in Deadly Games involves the North Carolina Regulators militia that might as well be called bubba anarchism. Welcome to this installment of American Exceptionalism: Extremist Edition.

The FBI smeared Richard Jewell for the Olympic Park bombing and never cleared his name. Eric Rudolph committed it on the sly, then went on to bomb two abortion clinics and the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta, Georgia, taking credit for these three bombings after fleeing to the Nantahala National Forest near Murphy, North Carolina. Described as one of the most remote places in the country by Manhunt, the Nantahala is 500,000+ acres of forested wilderness, deep ravines, compact foliage and over 30,000 caves. The wilderness and surrounding area is home to militias, survivalists, sovereign citizens and other people wishing to escape the Federal government, including the North Carolina Regulators. The Regulators militia trace their lineage to Colonial times when they fought against the British during the War of Independence. According to the Manhunt storyline, the Regulators then fought against the Continental Army, turning against George Washington when he became a Federalist.

Not quite true.

The gun toting, anti-abortion, homophobic milieu of the Regulator militia is portrayed sympathetically and lovingly, especially when compared to the invading army of FBI agents trying to capture the fugitive Rudolph by unsuccessfully occupying the town of Murphy and the surrounding Nantahala wilderness. Yes, the Regulators are an all white, all male paramilitary organization, but they are depicted as defiantly resisting the Federal government by practicing a well-armed decentralized direct democracy that engages in civil disobedience and direct action. They hold regular council meetings when any member can speak and decisions are made democratically. And when the Regulator’s leader, Big John, realizes they’re being played by Rudolph and contemplates working with the Feds to hunt him down, other militia members threaten to depose him using the militia’s own rules and regulations.

But is this fictionalized portrayal of American realities actually bubba anarchism? Antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine (“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right”) and Matthew Lyons (“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment”) both imply there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the US far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism. Devolving American white ethnonationalism down to county, municipal, and individual levels means recognizing the possibility of an ethno-pluralism where decentralized racial nationalist enclaves can exist side by side. “These ethno-pluralist views can facilitate a politics that, on the surface at least, is not in conflict with the demands of oppressed groups,” according to Spencer Sunshine, who grants it’s an “ethnic or racial pluralism that is opposed to multicultural and cosmopolitan societies.” Matthew Lyons contends that “[m]any of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control [authoritarianism] through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.” I’ve scoffed that what such far right extremists want is “libertarianism now, fascism later.” But what if this is a genuine ultra right populism that is decentralized in form yet fascist in content? A unique decentralized American fascism? America seems to be full of exceptional exceptions.

“Ayn Rand is just a bad writer,” Karl Hess said after acknowledging her influence on him. “A misogynistic, solipsistic writer. Emma Goldman is actually the source of the best in Ayn Rand.”

Sitting in the large auditorium at Moorpark College, California circa 1970, he was scheduled to give a lecture on anarchism. But only me and three other people showed up, and for the life of me I can’t remember how I heard about the talk in the days before email, the internet and social media. Karl Hess—Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter who was rumored to have coined the phrase “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”—had turned left anarchist and industrial worker skilled in welding in 1965. From 1965 to 1971 he worked with anarchist capitalist Murray Rothbard in an attempt to unite left and right libertarianism. He got involved in the appropriate technology and back-to-the-land movements, moved to rural West Virginia, and became a survivalist. Hess eventually returned to the rightwing fold and joined the Libertarian Party in 1986.

I’m sure from Hess’s perspective, it was all just anarchism. No need to split hairs. For someone like me who kept tabs on his career, he was extremist, pragmatic and quintessentially American. I don’t subscribe to linear political spectrums, or circles where left and right tendencies meet at opposite authoritarian and libertarian poles. And constructing politics as a horseshoe doesn’t help. Karl Hess engaged in serial extremism, moving from right to left and then back right again. With A Common Sense Strategy for Survivalists and his quixotic 1992 run for governor of West Virginia, Hess arguably reimagined the rightwing politics of bubba anarchism. There was no mystic libertarian fusion, no matter his advocacy that left and right anarchism work together however.

As for Deadly Games, the producers concoct a plausible storyline, drawn from speculation rampant at the time, that the FBI approached the Regulators with evidence that Rudolph had also constructed the Olympic Park bomb—a weapon of mass murder—to tarnish his rightwing Christian hero cred for the abortion clinics and lesbian bar bombings. To prove, in fact, that Rudolph was not ideologically or religiously driven but rather motivated by a god complex desire to kill large numbers of innocent people and law enforcement personnel. The Regulator militia turns against Rudolph and the last episodes of this Manhunt series swoons over scene after scene of FBI and Regulator troops commingled, rank in rank, combing the Nantahala to ferret out Rudolph. This Fed/militia working together kumbaya moment is also pure fantasy.

I’m tempted to ask whether there’s something in the water that accounts for America’s exceptional political craziness. I understand that culture has an outsized effect on character formation, although I’m dubious about the idea of a national character. I remember never feeling more American in my sense of humor, friendlessness and informality than when I was traveling abroad and homesick. But when I was studying the Articles of Confederation—the first national government the US had before the Constitution—as a graduate student, I realized America was more committed to decentralism than I’d originally thought.

Frederick Engels wrote that: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon.” Revolutionary anarchism during the Spanish civil was rabidly anti-clerical, slaughtering priests and burning down churches as lingering instruments of feudal oppression. In my estimation, form rarely trumps content. The patriarchal, homophobic, racist content of the fascist American far right certainly supersedes their anarchistic organizational forms. Does Spanish anarchism’s vehemently atheistic, anti-religious content, with its resulting brutally authoritarian consequences, nullify its admirably decentralized structures and revolutionary governance?

As for Karl Hess, the balance sheet is decidedly mixed. During his left anarchist phase, Hess was a defender of the Black Panther Party and avid supporter of the New Left. He joined and worked in organizations like SDS and the IWW. During the same period however he worked to build bridges between left and right anarchists with Murray Rothbard—a profoundly nasty anarchist capitalist who defended property rights over liberty and presaged the alt right in his vicious racism, misogyny and homophobia—voicing nary a criticism of this piece of shit. Hess didn’t descend into vile fascist scapegoating during his final survivalist/libertarian phase, but that’s small comfort to those who appreciated his legacy. I often think that Karl Hess’s left anarchism was simply an aberration, well-intentioned but a detour from his overall rightwing trajectory.

Manhunt is intended to be an ongoing anthology series, the first season being Unabomber. Theodore Kaczynski’s anti-technology, anti-civilization rant became the cornerstone for both  rightwing green primitivism and post left anarchism, and both Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph were high profile bombers eventually tracked down and captured by Janet Reno’s FBI under Louis Freeh. The acting and production values in both Unabomber and Deadly Games are excellent, although I dispute some of the history and historical interpretations in both. One nifty touch is in the last episode of Deadly Games, we see Eric Rudolph entering ADX Florence Supermax prison to serve a life sentence where he takes the cell across the hall from Ted Kaczynski.

SOURCES:
“On Authority” by Frederick Engels
Dear America and Mostly on the Edge autobiographies by Karl Hess
“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment” by Matthew Lyons
“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right” by Spencer Sunshine (unpublished)
Manhunt: Deadly Games by Spectrum Originals on Netflix

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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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American fascist exceptionalism?: “What’s Left?” September 2019 (MRR #436)

If you can’t tell the difference between glorification and ridicule—does it matter?

—Spencer Sunshine

I read recently that San Francisco’s Financial District, called “Wall Street West,” is being downgraded. The district is both downsizing economically and shrinking physically. Financial services are moving online and it’s just too damned expensive for employees in downtown banking and financial companies to live in the city anymore, thanks to the booming tech industry’s gentrifying impact on San Francisco. I remember back fondly to Sunday, February 16, 2003, when a quarter of a million people protesting Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq shut down the Financial District and briefly the Bay Bridge. Mass anti-war protests continued to disrupt “business as usual” in Wall Street West for weeks to come.

I’d forged my leftist politics and love for street action during the ’70s, but America’s steady rightward reaction and the sudden international collapse of the Soviet bloc over the next two decades depressed the hell out of me. The resurgence of Left activism with the Iraq War was quite heartening. I wanted to be in the thick of those demonstrations despite having fractured the big toe and one of the sesamoid bones in my right foot in an accident several months before. I was hobbling around in great pain but nevertheless elated to be experiencing popular street politics once again, exhilarated to be roaming the city with a small group of friends demonstrating, blockading traffic, participating in impromptu sit-ins, engaging in general vandalism and mayhem, etc. I had my black bloc gear in hand, but I was in no shape to participate in those tactics.

Then, out of the swirling chaos, an odd vision materialized. Tony marched along Market Street at the head of a one-man parade. I’d known Tony from San Diego where he’d played in hardcore punk bands and belonged to an infamous Maoist communist party. We met again when we both moved to the Bay Area, when Tony was a postmodern Leftist studying at UC Berkeley and in post-hardcore bands. Now, he was dressed in a pure black Army combat uniform, shouting anti-war slogans. Black combat boots, black trousers with black tactical belt, black jacket over black t-shirt, black patrol cap, black megaphone. “1, 2, 3, 4; We Don’t Want Your Fucking War! 5, 6, 7, 8; Organize To Smash The State!” So why the all-black getup? Was it parody or was Tony serious? Had Tony gone full anarchist and was this a militarized black bloc outfit? Was it some homage to Third World socialist revolution, paying tribute to the VietCong and the EZLN? Had Tony joined the Army or the police and was he now a Special Forces or SWAT recruit? Had Tony perhaps gone rightwing fascist and was he aping the Falange or SS wardrobes? Or was this all camp, an elaborate, theatrical performance piece? My signals were getting crossed.

I was simultaneously intrigued and bewildered, befuddled by the semiotic mixed messages.

I’m in the middle of a three-part series on Third Positionism, a type of “red/brown” politics that claims to “go beyond Left and Right.” Those politics are dead serious about mixing far left and far right elements into a confusing new type of Fascism that, in the case of Perónism for instance, attempted to fuse extreme nationalism with pro-working class initiatives. Third Positionism might prove as baffling as my reaction to Tony, but it’s nevertheless genuine. Let’s talk instead about deliberate obfuscation by the far right in throwing up ambiguous slogans, symbols, memes, texts, ideas, etc., calculated to muddy any political or social discourse.

In Spencer Sunshine’s unpublished piece “Industrial Nazi Camouflage,”* he discusses the evolution of the industrial music scene, noted for its fascination with the taboo and transgressive. Warning that it’s never a good idea to play with Nazi imagery because you can’t control how such imagery is interpreted, Sunshine is intent on figuring out who in the industrial music scene was innocently flirting and who loved Nazism, who was being ironic and who was offering a sophisticated critique, who was obsessed and who was willing to commit, who believed in fascism theoretically and who was engaged in fascist activism. He periodizes that scene into a time when individuals and bands were fascinated with but not yet committed to Nazism, to active Nazi participation between 1986 to 1996, and finally to lying profusely about those involvements back in the day as well as their current fascist commitments. Ultimately, Sunshine suggests that if you can’t tell whether something is genuine or a joke, or someone is being upfront or engaged in camouflage, does it really matter?

Treat it all as fascism or fascist adjacent is what I say.

The otherwise insipid, reactionary, ahistorical critique of the alt-right offered by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies does get that the far right uses intentional obfuscation and ironic misdirection as deliberate tactics, as ways to maintain plausible deniability and camouflage their true intentions. They want normies to be confused about their true message, unable to know when to take them seriously and when to shrug them off. Gavin McInnes loves to make the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter in his sad career that includes a lackluster stint as a comedian. His internet “talk shows” often featured calls to violence as in “I want violence. I want punching in the face.” But when his critics lambasted him for promoting violence he invariably deflected such criticisms by demanding “Can’t you take a joke?” In one motion, McInnes and his ilk throw out threats of violence while simultaneously denying they are being threatening or violent, masking their intentions with crude humor or irony that they then claim their viewers simply don’t get. It’s the perfect ploy for the far right to seed confusion among people trying to suss them out.

The antifascist Left is neither confused nor amused however.

What then to make of some supposedly unique, if bewildering aspects of the far right in the US? Both antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine (“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right”*) and Matthew Lyons (“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment”) imply there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party pioneered the shift from white supremacy to white nationalism, allowing American fascists to parry Leftist calls for “Black Power/Black Separatism” with “White Power/White Separatism,” encouraging white nationalists to work with black nationalists along pro-segregation/anti-miscegenation lines, and developing the strategy of a white ethnostate that portended scenarios of side-by-side racialist nationalism. Drawing inspiration from American history, two ultra-patriotic movements arose opposed to the power of the Federal government; the Posse Comitatus Movement of the 1960s (from posse comitatus common law traditions) and the Militia Movement of the 1990s (from the colonial/Revolutionary War institution of the independent local militia). Both took the States’ Rights Movement further right. Deeply distrustful of government beyond the county level, Posse Comitatus proposed the county sheriff as the highest lawful authority whereas the Militia Movement insisted that any armed citizenry organized into decentralized militia groups was the highest civil authority. Given the various failures of the States’ Rights Movement, elements of these two movements within the Patriot Movement now propose extending white ethnonationalism down to county, municipal and individual levels, implying the possibility of an ethno-pluralism where decentralized racial nationalist enclaves can reside concurrently. Finally, there’s leaderless resistance as put forward by KKK member Louis Beam, which uses a decentralized, horizontal structure of small, independent cells to resist what is considered a tyrannical Federal government.

“[T]hese ethno-pluralist views can facilitate a politics that, on the surface at least, is not in conflict with the demands of oppressed groups,” according to Spencer Sunshine, who acknowledges it’s an “ethnic or racial pluralism that is opposed to multicultural and cosmopolitan societies.” Matthew Lyons argues that “[m]any of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control [authoritarianism] through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.” Before declaring the US far right a unique American “wild west” Third Positionism however, consider that the alt-right’s flirtations with decentralization might be at the very least a purely defensive reaction to the exigencies of battling the Federal government. At most, it may be an outright deception designed to confuse and obfuscate. That the American far right on every level is enamored with the Führerprinzip leadership principle—from their own charismatic cult leaders to a president who governs by executive decree and routinely violates the Constitution—makes it likely in any case that the far right’s much vaunted decentralism will be the first thing abandoned come their fascist revolution.

I’ve talked about the libertarian-to-fascism/alt-right pipeline before, a process as disingenuous as the industrial music scene. For me, the far right’s appropriation of the Left’s aspirations for freedom and self-determination is the sly semiotic joke here. And thus our differences with them do matter.

* Spencer says: Both essays are available as special items for Patrons who give at least $2 a month to my Patreon. However, if you’re broke (and boy have I been there), drop me a line and I’ll send you copies: www.spencersunshine.com/contact.

 

How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.