Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” How much truer is that statement now than in 1776! We’re poised on the precipice, peering over into the crocodile pit below, where fascists swarm and writhe in sanguinary anticipation. Humanity is on the verge of losing its footing and plunging headfirst into the open maw of reptilian sadism. Where you stand, in this climactic moment of history, determines whether you are reptile or hominid.
We know where the majority of the ruling class stands, in their contempt for the poor, for the future, for democracy, the working class, the natural environment, the impartial rule of law, social cooperation, community, and a rational public discourse: they’re on the side of the reptiles. Whether it’s the boorish, amoral mediocrity of a Brett Kavanaugh, the rank hypocrisy of a Lindsey Graham or a Susan Collins, the naked cupidity of a Jeff Bezos, the proud Israel-fascism of a Chuck Schumer, the unfettered evil of a Mitch McConnell, or the undisguised corporatism of a Nancy Pelosi, a Barack Obama, and virtually every other politician on the national stage, the ruling class despises morality and law as an insolent threat to its unchecked power. Almost as offensive as these people’s lack of all principles besides unwavering loyalty to the rich is their aggressive mediocrity, their transparent conformism and cowardice. One is stunned at the gall of such insipid nonentities to believe themselves superior to the rest of us.
Even from the perspective of their intelligence, these elitists don’t exactly distinguish themselves. Consider one of the more honored and allegedly intellectual specimens: Anthony Kennedy. In what I suppose constituted an attempt at self-criticism, he recently offered the following rueful analysis of the state of the nation: “Perhaps we didn’t do too good a job teaching the importance of preserving democracy by an enlightened civic discourse. In the first part of this century we’re seeing the death and decline of democracy.” The lack of self-awareness takes your breath away. The man responsible for the supremely anti-democratic decisions in Bush v. Gore, Citizens United v. FEC, Shelby County v. Holder (which gutted voting protections for minorities), and Janus v. AFSCME (which by harming unions harms democracy), and who vacated his seat during the term of a president who prides himself on his authoritarianism and disrespect for the rule of law, is chagrined and apparently puzzled that democracy is declining.
Evidently the man is an imbecile, devoid of the capacity for self-critical reflection and empathic understanding of opposing arguments. And yet he’s an esteemed member of the ruling elite. (Precisely because, one might maliciously suggest, of his incapacity for critical thought.)
How maddening it is that such indoctrinated fools have power! It’s the blind leading the sighted!
Anyway, it’s for the rest of us to decide where we stand. Will we stand idly by, cynical and apathetic, while what’s left of society is dismantled, piece by piece, as a sacrificial offering to the great god Mammon? Or will we, fueled by sheer rage, stand up as one to the orgiastic misanthropy of our “leaders” and smash their petty little self-aggrandizing ambitions into dust? Will we march in the streets, occupy offices, organize mass strikes, take over workplaces, and confront our political “representatives” wherever they turn and wherever they are at every moment of the day? Or will we remain the domesticated dogs we’ve become under the long-term impact of corporatization, bureaucratization, and privatization?
In a time of universal atomization and a zombified-consumerist public life, the redemptive power of collective rage shouldn’t be scoffed at. It is in fact key to the recovery of our humanity, our de-robotization, and to the very survival of humanity itself. We should embrace our rage, cultivate it as though it were the tree of life, cherish it, for its power of both motivation and social transformation is prodigious.
The plaintive cries of establishmentarians to restore “civility” in the public sphere are laughably self-serving and shouldn’t be taken seriously. “You don’t call for incivility,” Megyn Kelly says in response to Representative Maxine Waters’ call for exactly that. Angry left-wing responses to Trumpism are “unacceptable,” according to Nancy Pelosi. “We’ve got to get to a point in our country,” says Cory Booker, “where we can talk to each other, where we are all seeking a more beloved community. And some of those tactics that people are advocating for, to me, don’t reflect that spirit.” And poor, long-suffering Sarah Sanders sent out a tweet of Solomonic wisdom after the owner of a restaurant had asked her to leave because of her noxious politics: “[The owner’s] actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
In short: let institutions operate as they’re supposed to, and don’t enforce accountability on public officials outside the electoral process. By all means vote us out of office if you don’t like our policies, but don’t make life uncomfortable for us.
The truth is that, from more than one perspective, the decline of civility or politeness in the “political dialogue” is a sign of progress, not retrogression. Politeness upholds the politics of “respectability,” which is the politics of conservatism, hierarchy, and the status quo. It coddles the powerful, even as they’re enacting substantivelyuncivil, which is to say destructive, policies aimed at everyone who lacks the money to buy influence. The essence of politics, which is but war by other means, has always been “incivility”—struggle over resources, competing agendas, bribery, corruption, the defense of privilege against the unprivileged and the latter’s struggle to wrest power from the former. There is a “beloved community” only in the milquetoast liberal imagination of a Cory Booker. The task for actual democrats is to bring the war to the doorstep of the privileged, to make them viscerally aware of the stakes involved, even if it means directly acquainting them with the wrath of the dispossessed. They’ve been sheltered far too long.
Even from the other side, the side of the reptiles, there is something to be said for Trumpian insult-flinging and demagoguery. At least it serves to take the fig leaf of high principles and public-spiritedness off the reactionary policies of almost fifty years. When Obama deported millions of immigrants and separated tens of thousands of families, it seemed as if no one cared. Now that Trump is doing it (arguably in even more sadistic ways), even the establishment media expresses outrage. The vulgarity and blatant evil, in short, tend to radicalize everyone who still has a vestige of moral consciousness in him. That’s useful.
Ultimately, though, it hardly needs arguing that Trumpian “incivility” is disastrous, e.g., in its promotion of white rage and white supremacy. But this is exactly why the time has come for the politics of extreme disruption, as expounded and defended in that classic of sociology Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.
The Usefulness of Violence
As Piven and Cloward show, mass social disruption and civil disobedience were essential to the victories of several major popular movements in the twentieth century: the 1930s’ unemployed workers movement (which indirectly brought forth the modern welfare state), the industrial workers movement that unionized the core of the economy, the civil rights movement, and the welfare rights movement of the 1960s that forced huge expansions of welfare programs. Even the scores of urban riots between 1964 and 1968 had a partially constructive impact. In the violent summer of 1967, for example, the Pentagon established a Civil Disturbance Task Force and the president established a Riot Commission. Seven months later, the commission called for “a massive and sustained commitment to action” to end poverty and racial discrimination. “Only days before,” the authors note, “in the State of the Union message, the president had announced legislative proposals for programs to train and hire the hardcore unemployed and to rebuild the cities.”
Without going into further detail, the lesson is already clear: not only “disruption” but even rioting can, potentially, be constructive, given the right political environment. This doesn’t mean riots ought to be encouraged or fomented, of course; they should be avoided at almost all costs. But when conditions become so desperate that waves of riots begin to break out, we shouldn’t too quickly condemn them (or the rioters) as hopelessly irresponsible, self-defeating, primitive, immoral, etc. The state’s immediate response might be repression, but its longer-term response might well be reform.
Other scholars go further than Piven and Cloward. Lance Hill, for instance, argues in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement that the tactic of nonviolence wasn’t particularly successful in the civil rights movement. SNCC’s peaceful local organizing in the early 1960s didn’t bring about many real, tangible gains: months-long campaigns succeeded in registering minuscule numbers of voters. White power-structures, racism, and Klan violence were just too formidable. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “moral suasion,” his hope to shame Southern whites out of racism, failed utterly. So the strategy shifted to provoking white violence in the full view of television cameras—and, as with the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana, inflicting violence as well (mostly in self-defense). By 1964 things were threatening to get out of control, with riots and some white deaths, so the government was able to pass the Civil Rights Act—which it proceeded to enforce only sporadically, usually when compelled to by violence or its threat.
Nonviolence was a useful tactic for getting white liberal support, but without the threat of black violence always lurking in the background it would have accomplished little. “One of the great ironies of the civil rights movement,” Hill says, “was that black collective force did not simply enhance the bargaining power of the moderates; it was the very source of their power.”
In general, the point is that people have to act in such a way that authorities will feel compelled to give them concessions lest social hierarchies be threatened. In the long run, needless to say, the goal is to replace the authorities, to empower people who actually care about people. But in the meantime it’s necessary to extract concessions—by putting the fear of God, or, far more frighteningly, of revolution, into the heads of the thugs at the top. The credible threat of violence can, then, bring results, as history shows.
One last example, perhaps most apposite of all, is the near-chaos that engulfed the nation in the early 1930s, as unemployed workers took to the streets and violated the “rights of property” on an epic continental scale. As I’ve related elsewhere, the epidemic of protest, “eviction riots,” and thefts in, e.g., Chicago between 1930 and 1932 impelled Mayor Anton Cermak to repeatedly appeal in desperation to the federal government. “It would be cheaper,” he told Congress in early 1932, “to provide a loan of $152,000,000 to the City of Chicago, than to pay for the services of federal troops at a future date.” Because of the panic that widespread theft and violence induced in businessmen and government officials like Cermak, Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation began that summer to give loans to states for providing relief to the unemployed. A year later, Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration started distributing $500 million worth of grants to the states, followed by massive jobs programs, and the New Deal proceeded to alleviate the misery of tens of millions of Americans. All because of the power of collective rage and defiance.
In 2018, after the consolidation of a reactionary regime on the Supreme Court, it is long past the time for organized collective violations of “law and order” and “property rights.” It’s time to badger elected officials at every moment of every day, and to foster political polarization so that the ground caves in beneath the feet of the “centrists.” Conditions aren’t yet desperate enough for collective looting and rioting—since, after all, the economy is booming! (right?)—but it’s necessary at least, in the coming years, to stoke such fears in the minds of the rich. Monolithic, sustained, savage repression cannot work for long in a nominally democratic country like the U.S. Radical reforms are inevitable—if, that is, we rise up en masse.
A “Crisis of Legitimacy”
The one good thing about Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is that it completes the delegitimization of the most undemocratic and typically reactionary institution at the federal level. Having an obvious perjurer, sexual harasser, overgrown frat boy, and overtly partisan hack on the Court strips away whatever patina of honor and impartial dignity that farcical institution still had. It has now lost all pretense of representing not only the will of the people but even the rule of law. This fact, too, will facilitate radicalization.
The entire political economy, and the august institutions that protect it, are being thrown into question.
The whiff of revolution is in the air, just starting to float, here and there, on the breezes blown back from the future into the present. The scent is positively revivifying.
It’s a good time to be angry. And to translate your anger into action.