The Queasy Liberal
Once in a blue moon, which is still far too often, one encounters the lie that Nazism was a manifestation of the left. A quick way to refute this myth is to note that Nazism’s immediate tasks upon taking power were destroying the German Communist Party, sending communists and socialists to concentration camps, banning unions, and resolving Germany’s business-labor arbitration crisis to the exclusive benefit of business. Nazism protected private property and improved conditions for profit, and the Nazis of course ultimately launched a genocidal crusade against the “JudeoBolshevist” Soviet Union. Purveyors of the Left-Nazism fallacy generally take the term “National Socialism” at face value, overlooking that this oxymoron was intended to lure members of the German left to a political party that saved capitalism through substituting national “racial” consciousness for class consciousness.
Whereas fascism – whose rise, as Karl Polanyi noted, always corresponded to crises in the market system – sought to destroy communism and received ruling class support in its efforts to do so, fascism’s relationship to non-revolutionary leftism, or liberalism, was far more ambiguous. It was, after all, the Social Democrats who crushed the 1919 German revolutionary uprising, deploying the Freikorps to murder Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Indeed, liberals have a long history of allying with counterrevolutionary movements during revolutionary upheavals, and fascism was counterrevolution par excellence. While liberals bristle at fascism’s contempt for the rule of law, when it comes to protecting their investments the bourgeoisie will choose the police state over communist appropriation any day of the week.
And it is this historical relationship between liberalism and fascism that helps elucidate Chris Hedges recent demonization of the Black Bloc, i.e. militant protest tactics. David Graeber and Peter Gelderloos have shown the abject fallaciousness of Hedges’ argument, as Hedges egregiously distorts the Black Bloc, attributing to it a monolithic and sociopathic purity that is belied in reality by activist fluidity and solidarity. And Hedges betrays a deep misunderstanding of his subject when asserting that the “feral” movement (Hedges concedes that he based his analysis not on the Black Bloc itself but on a few hours of John Zerzan’s radio program and some Green Anarchy articles) practices only spontaneous property destruction. The Black Bloc has deliberately targeted banks, multinational corporations, and the INS. More importantly, these protests more often than not begin as and restrict themselves to mere unpermitted marches. That is, the liberal conception of freedom is so narrow that protests that are not sanctioned by the state are seen as violent and criminal – a “cancer” to be eliminated.
Hedges’ denunciation of “violence” – which for him includes “the shouting of insulting messages to the police” – is a reflection of textbook liberal ideology since it diminishes the ubiquitous institutional violence that the (relatively) militant protests he disdains are responding to. Hedges of course asserts that he is concerned that OWS does not alienate the mainstream, but since the mainstream appears to be catatonically blasé about the slaughter of civilians abroad and mass police brutality and incarceration domestically, perhaps it might be more thoughtful to challenge rather than accommodate the mainstream’s presuppositions.
As Gelderloos writes, Hedges’ condemnation of political violence is based on an erroneous conception of the Civil Rights Movement. Whereas Hedges sees the Black Bloc as homogeneous, he isolates elements of the Black protest movement that in fact reinforced one another. Hedges’ assertion that the establishment was more threatened by Martin Luther King than Malcolm X ignores that it was precisely King’s ability to leverage the threat of Black militant violence that forced, for instance, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce to accept desegregation. Violence – which considering disparate power relations and prevailing conditions is more accurately self-defense – is a historically effective political tactic.
That Hedges blames the failures of OWS on the Black Bloc is at first glance bizarre. Police departments did not need excuses to evacuate and arrest protestors, and what excuses were provided invoked health and other arbitrary regulations. Similarly, hostility to OWS – at least according to thousands of comments on national mainstream online news sources – has been based on ideas that protesters are indolent or filthy; there has not been a national cooling to OWS because of widespread national protester violence, because this violence has not occurred.
But the strangeness of Hedges’ discussion in fact reflects the contradictions of liberalism within capitalist crises. For on one hand, Hedges is interested in reforming a political-economic system that has little reason to respond to anything that cannot threaten its power. But on the other hand, he wants to purge OWS of its militancy because he is unwilling to challenge the system as a whole. But while liberalism here reaches a dead-end, the ongoing crisis in capitalism is unlikely to subside. And as the state removes its gloves and increases its repression of, among others, the small minority willing to put their necks on the line to try to improve the world, Chris Hedges has reminded us whose side liberals are on.
Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at email@example.com