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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The fanatic and democracy

Earlier this week, Joel Olson, assistant professor of Political Science at Northern Arizona University, spoke at ASU on the topic of “Abolitionist Fanatic Rhetoric and the Letters of Wendell Phillips.” Joel used to live in Phoenix, where he organized and participated in Phoenix Copwatch and Bring the Ruckus (now a national revolutionary organization). I had many occasions to meet, speak and organize with him over the years, and he proved himself to be an intelligent, principled and honest organizer and critic in that time.

Probably the first local anarchist publication I ever read was the broadsheet BTR put out, which I used to pick up at a record store I worked at in the mid-90's. In the last year I read his book, The Abolition of White Democracy, which I recommend highly. Joel and I do not always see eye to eye on issues, but it was Joel who introduced me to New Abolitionist/race traitor politics, which has had profound influence on me.

I wasn't able to make the talk because I had to work, but I listened to the audio today and would like to recommend it to readers of this blog. In it, Joel uses the example of the abolitionist movement - in particular the Garrisonian wing - and the writings of the great orator and committed abolitionist Wendell Phillips to explore conceptions of fanaticism and the role of the fanatic in democratic struggle.

The question Joel seems to have been investigating lately is the orientation that revolutionary movements ought to take towards moderate or liberal elements. These elements often frame themselves against supposedly irrational radical - or fanatical - movements at the same time that they immerse themselves in the liberal democratic myth of the responsible middle ground, in which disagreeing sides can dialogue and come to compromises. American democracy treats the middle ground as hallowed ground. In this 'pragmatic' democratic tradition, fanaticism is treated as irrational or unrealistic, and fanatics are denounced by so-called reasonable moderates in the name of justice and democracy.

But, what surprised Joel as he did his research was not the propensity of moderates in the abolitionist movement to denounce 'fanatics', but rather the tendency of radicals to embrace the 'fanatic' label. He notes that "when the moderate anti-slavery crowd called them [the Garrisonians] 'fanatics' they didn't shrink from that label but instead they embraced it."

Continuing, Joel sums up his thesis this way,
"[a]n interpretation of Phillips demonstrates that fanaticism, which I will define as 'the mobilization of collectivities according to a friends/enemies dichotomy by non-state actors who are willing to sacrifice themselves or others in such a mobilization...' I argue that when we understand fanaticism in this way, we see that it's not inherently undemocratic. That what zealotry really is is a critique and a rejection of political moderation - not a rejection of reason, of rationality or anything like that. And, as such, fanaticism and reason can be consistent. And furthermore, it can be consistent with justice and democracy in times when moderation lends support to the enemies of democracy... so at certain points in history perhaps fanaticism is the more democratic option over liberal moderation."
This seems like a fair conclusion, and one that those of us who study history and have organized in broader movements will understand. While it can be useful at times, the moderate middle is also the engine of co-optation and recuperation, so how should committed revolutionaries - or fanatics, to use Joel's term - relate to this malleable center? One possibility is to treat it as a potential ally and therefore to moderate our own actions and rhetoric. But another way of looking at it is to view the moderate middle as an impediment to revolution. In that case, perhaps the proper course is not to take a moderate angle, but rather to stick to extremist positions, putting pressure on the middle, thus polarizing the debate and forcing recuperationist moderate elements to choose sides. This was the strategy of the Garrisonian abolitionists.

In an odd coincidence, I have been finishing up Dan Berger's excellent book on the Weather Underground, Outlaws of America. I was reminded while listening to Joel's talk of a section of that book dealing with the rise of the SLA and Weather's response to it. After the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the press - after years of denouncing Weather as dangerous extremists - suddenly found in them a moderate alternative to the violence of the SLA. Berger writes:
That hurt. As the [Weather] communique said, "It is a new experience for us to be described as a moderate alternative in the Hearst press. This has never happened before. New Left 'moderation' is invented now as another racist weapon against Black revolution." In response, Weather urged activists not "to do the enemy's work" by "asserting their own moderation and legitimacy" in contrast to the SLA. Instead, Weather wished for the safety of both Patty Hearst and the SLA. Its wish was not fulfilled.
Even while Weather had disagreements with SLA, particularly over the murder of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster (killed in 1973 for proposing a school ID system), they admitted that SLA's actions had "carried forward the basic public questions and starkly dramatized what many have come to understand through their own experience: It will be necessary to organize and to destroy this racist and cruel system."

We see here Weather advocating for fanaticism - for sticking to legitimately extremist politics as a way to move forward - and for avoiding the tendency to moderate one's politics in response to criticism from movement liberals or enemies. Berger continues, later in the book, discussing Weather's affinity for another militant labeled crazy by the moderates of his day, John Brown.
Besides providing a historical backing for the WUO's militant anti-racism, Brown's image was also perfect for the WUO as a counter to the pathologizing process that deems white anti-racism "crazy" and "guilt-ridden." Coming of age amidst Black ghetto rebellions and open repression of the Black freedom movement (whether nonviolent civil rights marches or Black Power militants), the Weather Underground identified with Brown's staunch anti-racism. The risk of being branded crazy by the war-makers, the racists - even by liberals - was worth it if it meant the WUO was standing up for humanity and on the right side of history. Perhaps one of Brown's contemporaries put it best, saying that all people "who are ready to die for their principles have been charged in their day and age as impractical and unbalanced. It is the explanation mediocrity offers for greatness."

The WUO itself, in a brief mention of Brown in Prairie Fire, called him an "example to us of dedication, belief in the people's power to affect history and the willingness to risk everything in the cause of liberation.
For Weather, the middle is not a territory to capture, it is a territory to destroy. The middle was, in Joel's terms, siding with anti-democratic forces. So, therefore, moderation was a capitulation and a betrayal of the core values of a movement for justice. Moderation was not a virtue in the face of such tyranny and horror.

In an age in which fanaticism at home and abroad is universally decried by the liberal elite, Joel asks, "The question that Phillips raises, I believe, is whether fanaticism is always anti-democratic. And, the corollary is, is political moderation always consistent with democracy and justice. What is the relationship, in other words, between fanaticism and democracy in America." This is a question worth considering for anarchists, especially since the recent history of the movements we have participated in has involved so much compromise, accommodation of liberal elements and avoidance of polarization. The lesson of the Garrisonians seems to be that there is a time and place for polarization and, yes, fanaticism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just got that book on the weather underground for my b-day. looking forward to reading it.

this discussion relates to why i have felt that it is very important for anti-border folks (esp white/citizens) to show a blatant and loud anti-border message. if that message isn't there, then simple "immigrants' rights" for those who would wave american flags seems radical somehow.

Tue Sep 19, 02:03:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Liam Sionnach said...

This is some comments i posted and another questioned from inforshop.org.

Liam says: I've found my self becoming more and more uncomfortable with the WUO and the "white radical" of yesteryears's continuing ability to frame racial discourse post-mortem. While extremism does play a historical role in the acomplishments of radical politics cum democratic discourse, I 'm not sure if we shoud submit fully to the "my malcolm X to your martin luther king" argument just yet. Certainly WUO, is not the best place to make either arguement. Berger, while searching for meaning and too many similarities of the '60s to today, ignores fundemental flaws in SDS, WUO, and the whole of new left. He misses any meaningful critical engagement with WUO and their bankrupt "politics of solidarity." While phoenix insurgent is not flying the leftist flag of false-unity yet, I fear the same uncritical engagement with a lack of authentic extremism, directly related to the white radical's in ability to recconcile an existential crisis--it can know what it means to have privilege and what it means to be radical, but it cannot recconcile the two beyond a conclussion of white exceptionalism,--continues to legitimate such anti-colonial and racial discourse that cannot be useful to an authentic insurrectional struggle within post-industrial societies.

How does Joel Olsen's impossible desires of anti/post-white democracy, not a politics to be reccuperated by white civil society and later called the conclusion of civil rights?

new abolitionist! one more effort if you are to be a insurrectional critical race social eschatologist!

Anonymous replies:

I have to say that I have read Berger's book and several others on the WUO and he seems quite fair, and does indeed deal with the problems WUO had, externally and internally.

As for the rest of your post, anonymous, you may have to rephrase it. That last sentence in the first paragraph is almost 90 words long and is highly jargonistic. It would be useful for me if you would define your terms and back them up with examples.

liam says:
While I agree Berger attempts to engage with WUO's problematic white privilege and patriarchy, he fails, like so many to move beyond a "that's just how it is, but we can deal with it" arguement. This same logic names oppressive relationships presently reproduced in anarchist scenes and desires a recconciliation from within as if the problems were a matter of pulling weeds and not endemic to privileged bodies world views. I think the problems are existential and can resolved only through a different narative of history. "White" is not a narative, but a totalizing component of western civilization. It is something that is, through a colonizing force, prefined onto a subject of civil society through historical process, that errases other culture. Whiteness cannot be simply intellectually rejected by whitened folks, nor can anti-whiteness by an ideology that supports fanatic action, if we want more than the WUO or other 'exceptional whites" naratives.

My problem with the Weather and anarchists continual engagement with their racialized moralizing, is three fold.
1. They did not follow their own logic of "excpetional whites" to it's logically conclussion, infact when faced with that challenge, they retreated and concluded, as stated in an interview in the WUO movies, "'that' was terrorism."
2. The excepetional white narative cannot be more than a minority; less than may be needed.
3. The excepetional white narative is not motivated by self interest for liberation and is therefor unsustainable. One might examine the reasons in which WUO folks (excluding Gilbert) surfaced and turned them selves in.

It is a long sentence...
I'm not sure which terms you need defined. but we'll try existential - having to do with existence; the way inwhich one orients them selves (ethically -or- morally, philisophically - politically...etc) based on their existence.
If regards to the white radicals "existential crisis," I am (generally) speaking of the inability of the white radical to resolve the fact that to be white is to have privilege; to benefit from oppression. Yet to be radical, revolutionary or insurrectional, is to oppose the systems that grant that privilege and are oppressive. Privileged bodies can understand them both and recognize what the logical conclussion implicit in "white" and "radical" are but have not historically or presently been able recconcile two. I fear phoenix insurgent's praise for Joel Olsens fanatic anti-white democratic discourse, retreats back to "the excpetional white" narative.

The reason I mentioned post-industrial societies, is to make an arguement that an analysis of the industrial capitalism (i.e. Marx, classical anarchism) or imperial capitalism (i.e. Lenin, Mao, "3rd worldists") cannot apply to the conditions of precarity within the constraints of the post-industrial neoliberal US. Even if, as phx insurgent or Joel argue, whiteness and race may be a key to opening up the possibilites of authentic social struggles that can demolish The World as we know it, anarchists must reframe a disocourse with new naratives that can and must (as in life/death situation) destroy white civil society. The WUO and fanatic "exceptional white" falls short.

I hope that make's more sense.


Thu Sep 21, 11:11:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

Out of curiousity, have you read Berger's book? I ask because we seem to have read it differently. Anyhow, your post is long, but just to take a part of it, I think the mass imprisonment of people of color certainly is just one indicator pointing to the current relevancy of white supremacy to the maintenance of the modern order. The actions of vigilante white supremacists like the Minutemen is another.

As for precarity, certainly it is a increasing feature of modern capitalism, but I don't think that that really has much to say in terms of the system of white supremacy, except perhaps that people of color at the bottom certainly suffer as well, if not moreso, under the precarious system. Indeed, it seems to me that right now capitalism is playing off white workers sense of entitlement to secure, good-paying jobs, and turning them against immigrants... who also suffer precariosity (?). After all, what is day labor but the ultimate precarious existence?

Tue Oct 03, 07:36:00 PM 2006  

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