“…He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game”
“The tactical, or if you will, ‘technical,’ task was quite simple — grab every fascist or every isolated group of fascists by their collars, acquaint them with the pavement a few times…”
“The pundits on the TV will talk of integration
Most of them agree there’s too much immigration
They’ll talk of social policies, things they should’ve done before
Whatever you say, don’t mention the war —
If you bomb somebody, they might just bomb you back”
I’m sitting at a cafe in the north of England. I landed at the Manchester airport the night after the suicide bombing there. The normally bustling airport was almost completely empty — life is anything but normal here. Soon after that event, I got the news about the multiple stabbings by a white supremacist on a train in my home town of Portland, Oregon. Then last night as I was going to bed in a hotel room in Leeds, I turned on BBC only to hear the breaking news about the van-and-knife attacks that were ongoing at the time. (Actually they were over by then, with the three attackers killed by police, but nobody knew yet when I tuned in whether or not there were more of them.)
These events represent only a tiny fraction of the death that has been meted out by suicide bombings, aerial bombings, stabbings, and gunfire by state and non-state actors in many other countries over the same week, with scores killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Mexico and elsewhere. This, of course, is to say nothing of the many more who have died in the past week due to malnutrition and car accidents.
With the fast-moving nature of this multitude of violent events, it’s easy to get lost in the details, and overlook the blaringly obvious fact that all of these things are very intimately related, and all of this ongoing violence is ultimately — and often directly — a consequence of endemic and growing inequality, both within and between societies.
Today in Portland there is a white supremacist rally that is scheduled to happen downtown, and an anti-fascist rally will confront it, with lots of riot cops in between the two groups, presumably. Masked, primarily white youth will destroy property, get beaten and arrested by cops, and this will dominate the news cycle.
I sat down to write this now because all day I’ve been thinking about the stabbings in Portland and the attacks in London, and all the similarities between these two events. The fact that they both involved knives and happened within a week or so of each other helped to make the connections for me, but there are many other, far less superficial connections that need to be made.
And then I was thinking about the planned antifa protest in Portland today, and whether I would go to it if I were there. While I have no moral problem with following Trotsky’s advice on what to do with fascists, he was, as he would have been the first to explain, talking about appropriate tactics at a certain place and time — and if you read the rest of the essay that the oft-quoted bit above is derived from, he makes that context abundantly clear.
But whether or not Trotsky would agree or disagree with Jesse Jackson on whether or not antifa should protest the “alt right” in Portland today, and what kinds of tactics they should attempt to employ if they did, the thought of attending that rally also got me thinking about whether I would go to a rally in London or Manchester against Islamic State, if anyone were to organize one.
I wouldn’t. But why? Isn’t Islamic State a horrible bunch of genocidal killers? Well, yes. But the young Englishman who blew himself up at the Manchester Arena last month was, just like the extremely troubled racist on the train in Portland, a pawn. People like them are the predictable result of divided, unequal societies with hysterical, racist pundits and politicians — politicians who have a longstanding tendency to “solve” many of their problems through militaristic violence.
Obviously, anyone in any society, confronted by a knife-wielding attacker of any color, creed, religion, etc., should ideally defend themselves and others against such people. It is entirely right to praise any such efforts as heroic, and entirely right to mourn and remember the dead. But this doesn’t mean falling victim to the divide-and-conquer tactics of the ruling class.
Most politicians are not the bumbling idiots they appear to be. (Whether Trump might be an exception to this rule is not the point.) Insurgent campaigns within some political parties notwithstanding, for most of US history and most of modern British history as well, the powers-that-be have consisted of two main political parties, both of which have ruled in the interest of capital and empire. In both countries (and many, many others) these ruling classes have systematically, cynically created and exacerbated divisions in society in order to maintain those divisions, so that people will fight over crumbs, rather than going for the whole loaf.
These neocolonial powers have also systematically used these divide-and-conquer tactics to create and/or exacerbate conflicts within different groups in societies they control (or seek to control), such as the Sunni/Shia divide in many predominantly Muslim countries.
At the same time, the wars and the very real refugee crises in the Middle East and the so-called refugee crises in Europe and the United States — all largely manufactured by US foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America over the past century or so — are also used to foment racism and division in western societies as well.
My understanding of history and my experience traveling extensively in 25 or so countries leads me to the conclusion that, at least among the more prosperous nations in the world, there is no country more successfully divided and conquered than the United States.
While there are many other countries ruled by two main political parties that have few significant differences between them, both parties and their policies are much further to the militaristic right in the US than anywhere in Europe. The way this plays out in terms of people’s lives is we have a shorter lifespan, a vastly more huge problem with poverty, homelessness, property speculation, housing costs, police brutality and endemic violence of all kinds — the biggest prison population in the world, and so many other problems that were created by bipartisan consensus.
It seems clear to me that the main way the US ruling class has been so much more successful than its European counterparts at screwing its own population, as a rule, has been the rulers’ ability to take advantage of the racism that they systematically created over the course of the past centuries. For a long time this division was a largely black-white one in most of the country. As the whites-only immigration policies have very slowly given way to allowing immigration from places other than Europe, the dynamic of racism in the US has evolved to include other marginalized groups.
If I or any other self-styled anarchist intellectual could tell you how to get from point A to B, I would. I don’t know, and nobody else seems to know, either, otherwise maybe we’d be making some progress here, rather than just watching an ever-increasing series of imperial wars and terrorist attacks combined with austerity budgets, even more privatization, “free trade” bills, bank bailouts, rapidly increasing stratification of wealth, mushrooming homelessness, etc.
But where point B is located is abundantly clear. And knowing where we need to get to is extremely important, for this is a very large part of the equation in terms of who controls the narrative.
We need to remember that the “alt right” is our main problem just as much as Al-Qaeda or Islamic State is. These movements are real, they’re terrible, and terribly violent, but they are just symptoms of a much, much bigger set of problems. Those problems — the problems that have given rise to these movements — are the same problems. And if I were to try to boil down all of those problems to one word, it would be this: inequality. And how inequality can be exploited by ruling classes, racists, and terrorists alike.
This state of ever-increasing inequality in the US, the UK and much of the rest of the world has inevitable consequences. The vast majority of people in most societies won’t take the bait, but a significant number will. And this number will grow, unless we can manage to change the course of the future in this particular respect. If we can do that, then the consequences of inequality will begin to dissipate until they become insignificant. If we fail, we’ll have lots more weeks like this last one, and much, much worse.
Once the political “choices” in places like France and the US are between a capitalist and a fascist, supporting the capitalist against the fascist will only delay the inevitable. I am not here taking a cut-and-dried position on whether or not one should bother supporting the capitalist vs the fascist, whether or not one should go protest the “alt right” when it manages to gather more than a couple dozen testosterone-poisoned young men in one place, etc. These kinds of tactical choices can vary depending on the situation, and I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that the problems, divisions, violence, etc. will grow as long as inequality and poverty continues to grow.
And I also know that the solution is equality. Neither May or Macron’s Clintonian capitalism nor Trump’s neofascist politics of deception will bring us forward — on the contrary, these sorts of rulers will only guarantee everything gets much worse, very quickly. And if we busy ourselves primarily with arguing with the pawns of the game, it seems clear to me that we’ll achieve less than nothing.
Now more than ever, we need to remain focused on the goal, rather than on the consequences of not achieving that goal. I don’t pretend to know how we get there, as I’ve said — but I’m sure there are many different ways that societies can move in that direction, through large, militant, visionary and well-organized social movements, whether those movements are regional, national or global.