Times of rising fascism are periods of open, brutal, class war (where the sheets literally slip off). Events of the last year show the desperate need for working class self defense of our communities.
One can learn some useful lessons on the need to treat proto-fascist mobilization harshly and with concerted action, before it grows, in the putting down of the Kapp Putsch in Berlin in 1920, under conditions of Weimar democracy, and two years before Hitler’s own Beer Hall Putsch. One might also ask what contributed to the decisive mass actions of the German working class that did not see a similar response to a fascist push in 1932 when the Nazis successfully broke the resistance (a resistance that never really crystallized for specific reasons we should understand. And what does it say to us about the fight against fascism today?
The Kapp Putsch was an early attempt by the proto-fascist Rightwing in Germany to make a show of strength and to overthrow the liberal Weimar Republic and institute an authoritarian Rightwing government. The revolt in March of 1920 was led by Wolfgang Kapp who was the founder of the far Right Fatherland Party and by General von Luttwitz. The putsch leaders were motivated by their resentment at the conditions of the Versailles settlement to end World War One, a resentment that motivated the Nazis as well and which was shared by many Germans. Notably, von Luttwitz’s Erhardt Brigade used as its primary symbol none other than the swastika. Like later fascist groups, including ones today, Kapp’s Fatherland Party claimed to be beyond politics, above the political fray (neither Left nor Right in today’s terms). The force for the rising was the Freikorps, the precursor to the Brownshirts.
Of some note, the fading of the workers’ and solders’ councils that had played crucial parts in the rebellions of 1918 and 1919 (the Bavarian Council Republic, etc.) played a major part in creating a context where the Rightists thought they could act. The need for compromise seemed diminished to them. They miscalculated. The German working class, and its organizations were united and militant.
In 1920, 1,700,000 German workers went on strike in order to defeat proto-fascism and the far Right but also to push past the limits of the Social Democrats. The working class found unity in its response to the far Right mobilization. The Kapp Putsch was frustrated fundamentally, fatally as workers in various regions went on general strikes. There was organizational development and there were spaces for development of ideas and debates over strategy and tactics on a large scale.
The state showed its true colors as only one participant in this armed Rightwing uprising against the government faced any jail time. And the judges gave him a break because of his “selfless patriotism.”
In Germany in the 1920s the working class was well organized and had a decent understanding of what fascism and violent Rightwing populism meant. By the mid-1930s they had been brought to despair and the institutions of the social democratic Left had played a major part in that. In 1920 at the time of the Kapp Putsch, the Social Democrats seemed to offer people a better life and an alternative to the misery of capitalism and war. This was not so by 1932 at the time of another fascist coup attempt, this time in Prussia.
The German Social Democratic Party, the ruling “socialist” party that had previously come to the aid of the German bourgeoisie in putting down the anarchist and communist uprisings of 1918 and 1919, from the 1920s onward had been at work implementing austerity policies and turning workers away from their class interests (toward phoney national ones). By 1932 German workers had less reason to defend the Social Democrats when the came under attack from the far Right. This politics also allowed some ground for the communist critique of the Social Democrats as “social fascists,” the fatal line of the Communist International. The austerity attacks on the working class allowed for a split of the Social Democrats and the Communist Party. This contributed to the context that allowed the Nazis to rise.
It was the failure of the Social Democrats, and the Left broadly, to provide any alternative to capitalist conditions and to address the desires of the working class for better lives, that motivated much of the work of radical psychoanalyst and libertarian communist Wilhelm Reich in his attempt to understand the mass psychology of fascism. For Reich, the Left bore some responsibility in not developing policies and practices that connected with working class desire. This allowed some to turn to the Right while simultaneously weakening the resolve of many to fight. What was the Left fighting for after all.
In 1932, rank-and-file members of the Reichsbanner were armed and ready for an uprising against the Rightwing government that was about to cede power to Hitler and the Nazis. It would have changed history. But the legalistic Social Democratic leadership prevented it.
In the account provided by historian Richard J. Evans:
“In the situation of July 1932, when Hindenburg, the military leadership and the conservatives were all extremely anxious to avoid provoking a civil war in Germany, an armed uprising by the Reichsbanner might have forced a climb down by Papen, or an intervention by the Reich President. One can never know. The call to resist never came. The law-abiding traditions of the Social Democrats compelled them to put a ban on any armed resistance to an act that was sanctioned by the head of state and the legally constituted government, backed by the armed forces and not opposed by the police.” (2003, 286)
As Evans puts it further:
“After 20 July 1932 the only realistic alternatives were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army. The absence of any serious resistance on the part of the Social Democrats, the principle remaining defenders of democracy, was decisive. It convinced both conservatives and National Socialists that the destruction of democratic institutions could be achieved without any serious opposition.” (2003, 287)
The communists proposed a united front with social democracy for a general strike. The working classes were in favor of a general strike. The social democratic workers, however, did not go against social democracy. The Communist Knorin (by no means a pristine source to be sure) suggested in 1934 that even limited resistance to preserve Weimer democracy (far from proletarian revolution) would have compelled the fascists to retreat and in denying the fascists power would have contributed to their collapse. It may have won over some of their soft base of support in the middle strata and peasantry.
Even in January of 1930 there was a chance, though conditions were already not as favorable for the working class resistance. Then, too, the Social Democrats worked to prevent a general strike and opposed a communist demonstration.
In 1920, the unions and the socialists worked together to put down the proto-fascist coup, despite its support by the armed forces. By 1932 that unity was gone. A year or so later so was the Left and so was the possibility of a successful anti-Nazi resistance. By then the only option would be military.
Disarming Resistance and the Fatal Illusions of Electoralism
The German working class in the 1920s and 1930s was the most powerful, armed working class (non-statist) force in the industrial West. Yet in the 1930s the Social Democrats disarmed or stood down the armed wing of the working class and the party. This was true in Austria as well as in Germany. These forces outnumbered and could have outgunned the fascists at crucial points in the 1930s.
The disarming of the socialist armed wings was related to the electoral illusions of the Social Democrats and gives us some lessons on the dangers of electoralism as an approach to fascism. The Social Democratic Party was concerned with its electoral chances and wanted to maintain an image of respectability as means to election success. A futile, and historically fatal pursuit.
Thus they shut down the force that could have defeated the fascists in the baseless hope that they could achieve an electoral path to marginalizing the Nazis. It bears little additional discussion but to note that this electoral strategy was disastrous.
And it remains so today. One can see hints of it though in liberal attacks on ANTIFA and appeals to vote Democrats into power as if no lessons have been learned about how liberal centrism might work to stem the growth of angry Rightwing resentment and white supremacist mobilization. And note too that this plays neatly into ongoing projects of neoliberal social war. So-called mainstream conservatives are even calling for elections of Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and we can refer too to neoliberal conservatives who sided with Doug Jones against the repugnant Republican Roy Moore (or at least offered write in votes rather than support him) as evidence of a new Rightist centrist (actually quite far Right itself) consensus using Trump to move politics further Rightward along with neoliberal Democrats.
The Democratic centrism under Clinton already played a part in the unlikely election of Trump of course. And the Democrats continue to provide only more of neoliberal desperation and despair that fuels Rightwing and white working class resentment and anger (with racism and patriarchalism too of course). And this could serve to broaden susceptibility to Rightwing appeals (as being the only real, possible, realistic alternative).
Now is a period of economic and political crisis. People are looking for answers. That is partly why Trump could get elected in the first place. The search for answers in a time of crisis does not always yield the best answers. People sick of the usual approaches will look outside the usual frames of politics. Democratic-patriotic and pacifist-patriotic appeals are fatal now as they were under the German Social Democrats.
Charlottesville and Since
In the period of 1920 to 1932 antifascism had a mass movement and strength that does not exist today. The movement is more marginalized and is by no means a mass movement with broad connections to large sections of the exploited and oppressed.
Charlottesville represented an attempt of the alt-Right to show their overall strength in one place. This was no putsch. It was merely an effort by a fascist Rightwing, feeling emboldened in the first year of the Trump presidency to come out publicly, provide a rallying point for fellow travellers there and elsewhere in the United States, and show some sign of hoped for unity and strength. But it actually showed the relatively minor significance and limited capacity of fascist forces in the US right now. The alt-Rightists picked what they thought was the best place at the best time. They sought a concentrated level of public action, one where their forces would hold a critical mass. But the response against them in Charlottesville and in cities all over the US showed how marginal they are.
And it also showed the strength and appeal of anti-fascism and what might be called the Left (however this might be conceived broadly as anarchist, socialist, communist, etc.). This was a testament to the courageous action of people in Charlottesville opposing the fascists and of the organizing work done there. It showed the necessity and effectiveness of shoving the fascists off the stage. It did not come without a terrible cost, of course, as fascists killed Heather Hayer and injured others.
Even with a president who is sympathetic to them the fascists in the United States are not having the attraction and base that the antifascists (and the Left more broadly) are. Indeed the broad Left, and the radical anti-capitalists and anti-statists associated with it, are finding perhaps the greatest attraction they have had in generations.
A problem for the far Rightwing is that they do not have a class constituency that they can appeal to. Capital certainly cannot and will not meet peoples’ needs. The alt-Right appeals, as fascist have historically, to the disaffected middle strata, the declasse who feel pinched by capital and by organized labor. In today’s context they are a component of the middle strata who view themselves as entrepreneurs or artisans (new tech workers, etc.) who feel deprived of the American Dream promised them as they toil in service sector work or the “gig economy.”
Some move to the far Right over a belief that they have to compete over the little that is still available in a context of austerity and social scarcity. And there is a danger that more of the white working class can be moved to the far Right as the supposed electoral alternative of the Democratic Party continues to offer the neoliberal “no alternativism” and “lesserevilism” they put forward in the figure of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Fascism is not at a [point where it will take power any time soon. Capital permits fascists to take power when they feel there is some pressing need for it. Right now they have no need to invest in that kind of unruly and unpredictable power. The regular mechanisms of neoliberalism are still working to repress, regulate, and control the working class and resistance movements.
In the 1920s and 1930s, fascism always rose up after a failed socialist or communist revolution. Or failed republicanism in the case of Spain.
Overcoming the Psychological Fundamentalism of Non-Violence
Some have expressed a squeamishness about using violence against fascists today. Debates have broken out over the desirability of punching fascists. These are largely tedious. There should be little controversy over the fact that fascists should be punched wherever and whenever they appear. While some might suggest that this is not enough and more needs to be done the answer is, yes, of course. Part of the discussion here is that mass direct action is necessary against mobilizations of fascists—particularly where they grow beyond what they are now. Building that larger anti-fascist base is essential. It does not change the fact that punching fascists is right and proper.
Opposing and overcoming—putting down—fascism and fascist movements in the present period will, of necessity, require overcoming and opposing the prejudices of non-violence and the ingrained, socialized, commitment to non-violence in strategies, tactics, and organizing with social movements. This fundamentalist, almost religious, commitment to non-violence, an essential feature in keeping dominated populations pacified and manageable, has infected social resistance movements within liberal democracies like Canada and the United States.
This commitment takes on a psychological (rather than strictly tactical or strategic) aspect—structuring visions of justice, perceptions of legitimacy of action, and understandings of proper or appropriate resistance behavior. It shows how we view ourselves and how we might act in the world to change the world. And it has come to be used as a moral-psychological bludgeon to attack and condemn those within our movements and communities who would pursue other means—direct action and self defense.
This fundamentalist approach to non-violence not only serves to buttress the state and its institutions of domination and control—the true source of social violence, indeed the monopolists of violence in society. It also serves to keep us vulnerable and unprotected against vigilantes of the Right—those who have no qualms about using violence and are often formally trained in the use of violence through military or police training, etc.
Make no mistake—states have no hesitation in deploying violence against movements of the exploited and oppressed. And neither do Rightists who side with the institutions of authority. And the Rightists (militias, “patriots,” Minutemen, survivalists, etc.) are way ahead of progressive forces in terms of training, equipment, and, crucially, the psychological readiness and preparedness to use force against us. We have a lot of work to do to train ourselves and to ready our minds to act, to overcome our socialized and internalized, habitual, non-violence.
Capitalism is always violence. Fascism is a more desperate, unburdened attempt to break resistance. We must understand issues of state imposed violence and repression in relation to fascism.
The state can always turn to fascism for its own aims. White supremacy already relates to racist criminalization and the policing of racialized people and communities. There is a connection to anti-terror laws, programs, and fear politics. These practices have been deployed to target migrant groups and also to break resistance movements and groups and we need to understand that.
Non-violence and legalism go hand in hand. In the face of fascist risings, even in early periods, they are disastrous.
The lessons of history, the working class response to the Kapp Putsch in particular, shows the necessity and capacity of mass direct action to put down fascists and fascism early. It shows the effectiveness of such action. And it shows the rightness of it. Regardless of what the moralists of non-violence might suggest.
At the same time another lesson is provided by the subsequent disarming of the working class in Germany and Austria by the Social Democrats. This took away the real working class force that could have overcome the Brownshirts through overwhelming force and defended communities under attack by the fascists. In the absence of this force—again, disarmed by its own would-be leaders and nobody else—those communities were left without adequate defense. We know the outcome. And no moralists of non-violence can change that. That is why anti-fascists insist on punching Nazis, And why we need more.
At the time of the Kapp Putsch the proto-fascist and far Right forces were much larger, stronger, and better organized than the proto-fascsists are today in the United States and Canada. And by quite a bit. They had already had the experience of violently suppressing the workers’ uprisings of 1918 and 1919. They had given the government something to fear. Still, the mass direct action and militant response of the working class in 1920 was able to put down the rising of the Freikorps in 1920.
The basis of antifascist resistance is that we are stronger together. The emphasis is not scarcity but sharing and caring together. A promise of some abundance and security rather than scarcity and precarity. Our strength remains in solidarity and committed, principled action together with a focus on defeating fascism and white supremacy. Our tactics can be diverse. Our goal, as in 1920, is united.
Fascists always target unions and labor organizations. We need to understand this. If it is not defeated definitively it will grow. People can and will turn to fascism out of desperation and a sense that there are no other options.
Of course the current working class and working class organizations (notably unions) in the United States and Canada have no mass based militance, no armed capacities, and few experiences of street fighting resistance. Perhaps more to the point, they have no organized self defense groupings. This is true even in US states where gun possession is accepted and regular activity and in open carry states where a public display of armed working class self defense could be made. Ironically perhaps there is an inverse correspondence between union membership and open carry laws as many open carry states are also highly anti-union and with “right to work” laws in place as well as open carry laws.
Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin
Knorin, V. 1934. Fascism, Social-Democracy and the Communists. New York: Workers Library Publishers
A dramatic shift in American political discourse began in 2015. This was not the emergence of white nationalism as a revolutionary political force, we have had that since the earliest “wages of whiteness.” Instead, a new form of racist popularization occurred when the Alt Right, a new branding for pseudo-intellectual American white nationalism, hit a synergy with certain points of the culture like the Trumpist populist phenomenon and the troll culture of 4Chan. The Alt Right became a buzzword for the media, an elusive movement that was bringing Millenials into “white identity” politics. After 18 months of coordinating with nativist elements in more standard American conservatism, the Alt Right’s movement culminated in their attempt to stand on their own: Unite the Right in Charlottesville.
Since their confirmation transformed into a horror film, they have been hit hard by the culture and the media infrastructure, leaving their future undecided. They have seen unprecedented growth, building on the increasing mistrust Americans have with public institutions, but questions arise about whether or not the far-right will be able to capture additional ground in 2018. Building on what we have seen over the past several years and drawing together what we know of the composition of the Alt Right and the history of insurgent fascist movements in the U.S., there are a few expectations that are clear for the Alt Right in the next year.
Difficulty Reaching the Public
What allowed the Alt Right to recruit en masse was their access to the culture through democratized web institutions. Social media and web publishing allowed them to be on the same Web 2.0 channels as major media outlets, which allowed subculture celebrity to drive their talking points. Hashtags, memes, and trolling created a style of argumentation that allowed them to Trojan Horse ethnic nationalism, all while playing to contemporary social issues and antagonism.
The openness that they have relied on is all but dead at the close of 2017. What has been termed “mass platform denial,” the banning of Alt Right figures and institutions from major web platforms, has decimated the financial and social infrastructure that Alt Right institutions like the National Policy Institute and The Right Stuff have depended on. Web hosting and archiving services, podcast hosting, financial transaction services, email design software, social media platforms, and just about every other vessel for commercial speech have been severed to them. This has forced these organizations into a corner where they are creating subpar services, like Gab or Hatreon, to sustain their stream of outreach and using pay subscription services that limits the reach of their message. While you used to find their podcasts on iTunes, popular Alt Right accounts like Ricky Vaughn on Twitter, and heavy funding coming through small donations on Patreon and PayPal, they are all but gone from the mainstream Internet. With the death of Net Neutrality and the further enforcement of Terms of Service on Twitter, they are only going to find it harder to reach out to the undecided, a problem that they share with many sectors of the left as well.
It is hard to have an Alt Right public event today. The National Policy Institute is the largest Alt Right conference in the country, taking place twice a year and often held at the publically-owned Ronald Regan building in Washington D.C. After recent clashes with antifascist protesters, Richard Spencer was booted from this location and, after being unable to find anyone else to host him, ended up hosting the conference with a fraction of his usual patrons in an unheated barn. After they figured out who Spencer was, the owners of the facility canceled the conference halfway through and banned them from the premises.
This is the world for the Alt Right now, and the only exception the have found is at public universities. Spencer has always argued for using public institutions since it is harder for them to suppress speech, and this has meant his special focus on universities. He has successfully held speeches at places like the University of Florida – Gainesville and Texas A&M, and after a successful lawsuit at Auburn University he is using the courts to force universities that deny him to allow him on campus at great cost to the student body. Spencer is currently battling with the University of Michigan to get on campus, despite mass campus walkouts and building occupations.
This level of campus focus, as well as with groups like Identity Europa who want to pull from dissident areas of college Republications, antifascist university groups like the Campus Antifascist Network have formed to do ongoing counter-organizing. This dynamic of clashes, like we saw over the last two years when figures like Spencer or Milo Yiannoupoulos appear, is almost guaranteed to continue.
Acts of Violence
There is a common dynamic to American white nationalism that is important to identify. White nationalism is unpopular on its own, so it often has to ally with slightly more moderate areas of conventional conservatism so that can mainstream its message on issues like immigration. As time goes on, the more moderate contingent of the coalition begins to turn on the radicals, blaming them for left attacks. This has happened in the past, and today this contingent is labeled the “Alt Light,” the nativist Civic Nationalists like Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern, and Ann Coulter. The betrayals hung heavy since the election of Trump, so Unite the Right on August 12th was the Alt Right’s chance to try and stand on its own away from the more centrist counter-parts. They were defining themselves to the right, including Klansman and neo-Nazis.
When that betrayal takes place, the radicals begin acting in desperation. Their organizing isn’t working, the general public rejects their message, and the motivating issues become even more bizarre, conspiratorial, and radical their focus in on their echo chamber. It is that equation that breeds acts of “seemingly random violence,” which is acts of racial terror that could have been predicted because of the stoking of fascist thought leaders. While the leadership, including people like Richard Spencer, would decry this violence as destructive to their aims, the rhetoric and ideology itself necessitates these acts of violence. This “Lone wolf” strategy has already begun with attacks by Alt Right figures on the fringes, the most obvious of these being James Alex Fields Jr. attack on protesters that causes multiple injuries and the death of activist Heather Heyer.
Even the infighting among actual white nationalists creates further instability, a factor that is ever present in the white nationalist movement. Are Jews the prime concern? What about Muslims? What do they do with queer members? All of these create critical problems for having any unity.
There is no reason to believe that these acts of violence are in decline, and as the situation becomes more severe for the Alt Right it will likely lead to more desperate acts of cruelty. Desperation on the far-right is what motivates colossal acts of terrorism, which is both terrifyingly predictable and obvious.
The concern with predicting failures in the world of the Alt Right is that people will assume their decline and fall is assured. It is not. Instead, there is a good chance that they will be able to recover and to reap recruits and power from the ongoing racial tension and the reactionary sectors of the white working class that have been tricked to work against their own interests. Instead, we need to come back with a massive antifascist movement, one that will continue to put pressure on their public appearances and media platforms, shutting them down before they have the ability to gain power.
It’s the holiday season, which means plenty of opportunities for uncomfortable interactions with friends and family who are truth deniers. For example, my close friend invited me to her holiday party recently, where I sat across the table from her brother Mike. We got to talking about Donald Trump’s recently-successful efforts to ban people from many majority-Muslim countries from entering the US and his retweeting of anti-Muslim videos.
Mike strongly supported Trump’s ban and rhetoric, and other anti-Muslim policies. By the end of that meal, he grew to be much more tolerant and inclusive of Muslims. To get him to update his beliefs – something I do regularly during interviews with conservative talk show hosts – I relied on my research on how to get people to accept the facts, specifically a strategy that can be summarized under the acronym EGRIP (Emotions, Goals, Rapport, Information, Positive Reinforcement).
The typical response to truth deniers of presenting facts and arguing is generally not effective in changing people’s minds on charged issues. Research on the confirmation bias shows that people tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to their beliefs. Moreover, studies on the backfire effect reveal that when people are presented with facts that challenge their identity, they sometimes develop a stronger attachment to their incorrect belief as a defense mechanism.
If someone denies clear facts, you can safely assume that it’s their emotions that are leading them away from reality. You need to deploy the skill of empathy, meaning understanding other people’s emotions, to determine what emotional blocks might cause them to deny reality. In Mike’s case, it was relatively easy to figure out the emotions at play through making a guess based on what research showsabout what conservatives value: security. I confirmed my suspicion through active listening and using curiosity to question Mike about his concerns about Muslims, and he shared extensively about his fears about all Muslims being potential terrorists.
Next, establish shared goals for both of you, crucial for effective knowledge sharing. With Mike, I talked about how we both want security for our society. I also pointed out how sometimes our emotions lead us astray. We might want to eat all the Yule log on the table, but it would harm our health, so we should focus on our goals over our gut intuitions.
Third, build rapport. Using the empathetic listening you did previously, a vital skill in promoting trusting relationships, echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel. In the case of Mike, I echoed his fear and validated his emotions, telling him it’s natural to feel afraid when we see Muslims committing terrorism, and it’s where my gut goes as well.
Fourth, move on to sharing information. Here is where you can give the facts that you held back in the beginning. There were eight terrorist acts in the US motivated in part by Islamic beliefs in 2016, with nine terrorists in total. Given that there are about 1.8 million Muslim adults in the US, you have a one-in-200,000 chance that any Muslim you see would commit a terrorist act in one year. That’s like picking out a terrorist randomly from the number of people in several football stadiums, and focusing our efforts on surveilling Muslims will make us less secure by causing us to miss the actual terrorists.
Moreover, the FBI praises Muslims for reporting threats, and anti-Muslim policies will make Muslims less likely to report threats. Besides, we already see Trump’s anti-Muslims rhetoric used to recruit terrorists in the US, and more anti-Muslim policies will only result in more materials to recruit terrorists. The key here is to show your conversation partner, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their current truth denialism will lead to them undermining the shared goals we established earlier.
Mike was surprised and moved by this information, presented in an emotionally-sensitive manner. He agreed that anti-Muslim policies seem unwise, and we should be more tolerant and inclusive for the sake of increasing our security, even if that’s not how we intuitively feel. I offered positive reinforcement for his orientation toward the facts, a research-based tactic of encouraging people to change their identity.
Think of how much better your holiday dinner could go if you use EGRIP instead of arguing!
Below is an interview with Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It author Shane Burley discussing the Alt Right, anti-fascism, and what a mass movement looks like.
So where did the Alt Right come from?
The Alt Right really comes from a few converging political movements, both inside and outside the U.S. The real beginnings of this goes back to France in the 1960s when a number of far-right intellectuals laid the groundwork to “rebrand” fascist ideas using the language of the left. The European New Right, led by figures like Alain de Benoist and Guillume Faye, used the language of the New Left, appropriated the arguments of post-colonialist and national liberation movements, and attempted to engage in a type of “cultural struggle” as proposed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Their ideas really were to pick up where the German Conservative Revolutionary movement and Radical Traditionalist thinkers like Julius Evola left off and argue for a going after the culture with nationalist values. If they change the way that Europeans think about the world, and think about themselves, maybe this can allow a radical shift in politics down the line.
They argued that they were “anti-colonialist” and that white European nations had been “colonized” by forced of “globalist” capitalism and modernity. Their argument was then for “Ethnopluralism,” a sort of “nationalism for all peoples,” that could then fight the destructive elements of modern multiculturalism, internationalism, and capitalism. This approach avoided racial slurs, violent white nationalist politics, and the baggage of fascist political parties, and really laid a heavy intellectual groundwork for a new generation of fascists who wanted to appear as academics rather than Klansman.
The next is really paleoconservatism, a sort of far-right American conservatism that defined itself in opposition to the hawkish foreign policy of the neoconservatives that were coming into power inside the GOP in the 1980s. They saw themselves as a part of the “Old Right,” which was likely a fantasy rather than a reality, which was isolationist, traditional, and America First. The paleocons were aggressively conservative on social issues, especially in reaction to queer rights and the AIDs crisis of the 1980s, and were reactionary on racial issues. Pat Buchanan was the best known of these figures, though he was moderate by their standards.
The third real key element to the Alt Right is old fashioned white nationalism. The white supremacist movement in the U.S., rebranded in the 1990s as white nationalism, has a train going back to the early part of the century as it had to define its ideas as the rest of the world was leaving vulgar racialism behind. Many of the major Alt Right institutions, such as American Renaissance, VDare, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, trace back to years of white nationalism past. The difference with the Alt Right was really one of tone and class rather than ideas. There has always been a suit and tie contingent inside American white nationalism, but the Alt Right wanted to scrape the top of that intellectual layer off and crystalize it. The ideas were not much different, but they wanted to make sure that it would mimic radical movements on the left that have huge depth inside the academy.
The Alt Right, really then the Alternative Right, was a concept created by Richard Spencer with a web zine of the same name in 2010. He wanted to capture an energy he found while working at the paleoconservative magazine Taki’s Mag that was coalescing around different schools of thought. The European New Right had largely not had major texts translated into English, but they were starting to make their way over, and that was a huge foundational set of ideas for the Alt Right. Against modern conservatism, capitalism, Judeo-Christianity, and Americanism, it instead wanted an elitist, traditionalist, and aristocratic right. It broke with American conservatism, which was still founded in enlightenment values, and was open that it believed race was real, identity was fixed, and human beings were not equal. Paleoconservatism had been considered the edge of mainstream conservatism for years, so that is where a large amount of the its founding energy came from. It was white nationalism of America that ended up giving it its focus on race and its aggressive tone, which then allowed it to merge with the troll culture found on places like 4Chan and the Men’s Rights Movement.
From that cauldron it created its own synthesis, a more academic foundation for its racism, an aggressive revolutionary aspect from white nationalism, and the communities and connections from paleoconservatism.
What is the ‘Alt Light’ then?
The Alt Light is the sphere of slightly more moderate right-wing people that surround the Alt Right, giving them cover and helping to mainstream their ideas.
Fascism has always required a bridge to the mainstream. Even inside the GOP, open white nationalism is not going to bring a ton of converts on its own, it needs to have a stop over point if their ideas will have currency with the beltway. Political movements have done this in years past, whether it was the Goldwater campaign, pro-Segregationists in the 1960s, or paleoconservatism in the 1980s-90s.
Today, the battle is more cultural than traditionally political, just as the European New Right had always wanted. The ideas and community were also forged online, so it would make sense if it was online cultural figures ranting on social media rather than fringe politicians.
The most obvious of the Alt Light was Breitbart and, now, Rebel Media. Milo Yiannoupoulos was the first to really champion the Alt Right’s ideas without committing to open white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-egalitarianism. Later it would be Gavin Mcinnis and his Proud Boys, Lauren Southern, Alex Jones and the conspiracy and patriot crowd, or anti-immigrant nutjobs like Anne Coulter. The “free speech” rallies have been this in the physical world, as have many patriot militia types.
The main point is that they are often “civic nationalists” rather than racial ones: they are simply more inclusive in their authoritarian nationalism. This means, though, that the Alt Right and the Alt Light won’t agree on some of the really big questions like race and eugenics. In that way, the Alt Light, like any of these more moderate crossover movements, are built to betray their more radical counter-parts. In the end, Milo refused to really endorse the Alt Right’s racialism, the same with figures like Laura Loomer, and, therefore, they were unable to continue the relationship. This is a very traditional process as well. The more moderate folks who were helping to mainstream the white nationalists eventually betray them and leave them behind. And the alienation that those nationalists feel during this process is often what leads to desperate acts of violence.
Is it this process of marginalization that is leading to acts of Alt Right violence? Is this violence going to increase?
It is hard to say definitively that the violence of the Alt Right is going to escalate, but the pattern is pretty well established. Right now it appears as if acts of organized violence from Alt Right and white supremacist groups is increasing, especially in the wake of the “free speech” confrontations with antifascist groups and with the debacle at Charlottesville, and that violence is turning bloody. At the same time, acts of “seemingly random violence” are increasing, with the murder of Heather Heyer just being a recent example.
This process of white supremacist terrorism, which often plays out as “seemingly random violence,” is often less random than it appears. In the 1980s, after decades of failure to meettheir objectives, many insurrectionary white supremacists took to the strategies of “lone wolf” terrorism and “leaderless resistance.” These eschewed more formal revolutionary organizations for random acts of violence that were intended to have a “propaganda of the deed” effect on the white working class. They believed that these acts would spark “racial consciousness” in white people and create a race war. In periods when more conventional organizing, both community organizing and political organizing, fail to show white nationalists any results, these attacks increase exponentially. These are also mixed with the increase of violent street formations, which in years past included KKK and skinhead projects and today look more like the Proud Boys and Vanguard America.
With the massive platform denial that the Alt Right has faced since Charlottesville and the growth of a mass antifascist movement, this is largely where the Alt Right is at. Desperation, failure, and the inability to meaningfully organize leads to increased acts of violence. While the Alt Right has been hit very hard in the last few months, it isn’t gone, and its acolytes will likely turn towards violence before they simply disappear.
Antifascist organizing has seen a massive explosion with a whole number of organizations and types of projects out there. What kind of work should someone do who is just now wanting to get involved?
This really depends on who they are, where they are, and what they want to do. The honest truth is that we always want novelty in times of crisis, and there is certainly some room for that, but this is also a good opportunity to re-establish and re-enforce the organizations that have been doing this work for years. Many organizations go back more than a decade and have a great handle on antifascist praxis, from how to handle neo-Nazis taking space to doxxing and reporting detailed information to even drawing together mass coalitions. The first real step would be to look at those organizations that have a track record in doing the work and see if that is something you can connect with. This is doubly important given the very real material threat that white nationalists offer to people’s safety. Not only are they targeting marginalized communities, but they are going after those that dare to stand up to their growth, and they often target individuals and make examples of them. This means that it is important to not behave recklessly or go off half cocked, and instead work with organizers who are experienced, know how to do the work, and give it the care and respect it deserves.
The other thing would be to look at what skills and resources you bring to organizing work, and what type of organizing and projects you can fit into your life. I don’t offer this line as a way of providing an “out” to the actual organizing work, it requires organized coordination in formalized groups that are going to do the not-always-fun organizing work, but it is important to make sure that you are able to continue contributing over time. It is not uncommon to find activist projects that explode with excitement only to peter out months down the line when those doing much of the work find that it is unsustainable in the way planned. Instead, find a pace and commitment you can sustain over time because continued involved over longer periods is always going to be most effective.
I would also caution against putting too much faith in large electoral or reformist movements, they often fail to deliver the kind of movement building or direct action necessary for antifascist work. Instead, it may be good to look at organizations that have a deeper foundation in their analysis, that look at the ways that capitalism and white supremacy feed and necessitate insurrectionary fascist movements. We are not going to Democrat our way out of the rise of populism and white nationalism, and instead we are going to need to have much deeper solutions. This will also require looking towards community defense as the Alt Right and neo-Nazis pose a threat of violence. Plainly put, they are out there murdering people, and if we do not organize to stop them then this will only increase.
When did white nationalism first come on your radar? This isn’t exactly a new thing.
No, it’s not, it really has been one of the most consistent features of the white supremacist institutions of the U.S. It is really one of the ways that the system of racial injustice gets its sharp teeth. In the segregation-era South, it was insurrectionary groups like the Ku Klux Klan that helped reinforce the system through the extralegal violence of lynchings. Technically not state sanctioned, but encouraged and socially condoned anyway. White nationalism has also always existed as the sort of violent reclamation of privilege. In times of crisis, rather than choosing to target the white supremacy that enforces worker subjugation, they scramble after lost privilege and attack people of color. This violence is a consistent feature of the way white supremacy works in late capitalism, reinforcing itself repeatedly.
I began looking at what was then called the AlternativeRight.com in 2011 when famous Holocaust Denier David Irving was touring through upstate New York, where I was living at the time. When doing research I ran across a podcast that was covering different far-right figures, and the interviewer had a certain way of speaking that seemed as though it could catch on at some point. That was Richard Spencer, then editing his webzine AlternativeRight.com and hosting a podcast called Vanguard Radio. From there he sort of lingered in the background through 2014, seeing increased opposition internationally and even in his then home of Whitefish, Montana. It wasn’t really until 2015, though, that the huge Internet cadre going under #AltRight came forward, and his movement got energy beyond their quiet conferences and academically-toned articles.
How have antifacists been approaching the rise of the Alt Right? What has been different or successful in the last couple of years?
The Alt Right, for years, focused on an academic demeanor. Their move towards what they call “IRL [In Real Life] activism” is pretty recent. So one of the main sites of struggle was things like their public conferences, especially from the National Policy Institute and American Renaissance. Organizations like the One People’s Project has made it a focus to confront those conferences for years before the term Alt Right was commonly known, they even got the American Renaissance conference shut down in 2010 and 2011. The National Policy Institute conference has also been a site of growing protests, with attendants photographed and doxxed regularly. This has created such an issue that Richard Spencer, who runs NPI, was unable to even get the same public venue this year as he had for the past several. Instead they had to cram into an unheated barn whose owners booted them when they realized who they were.
One place that has become an increasing location of conflict is on college campuses. Groups like Identity Europa have honed on college recruitment, and “crossover” groups, who we often call Alt Light, like Turning Point or many Trumpist College Republican groups, have acted as a trojan horse for Alt Right ideas and members. So antifascist campus groups have grown heavily, and flashpoints like the appearance of Milo or “free speech” rallies have seen huge battles. Richard spencer wants to focus on public universities since they are more indebted to support his “free speech,” which means they will use hundreds of thousands of dollars of public subsidies and student tuition funds to pay for security if he appears. The Alt Right is also about “cultural struggle,” the Gramscian battle to change the culture to make it more palatable for their influence. All of this means that the college campus if very important and a main focus for them.
This has inspired a massive growth in college campus centered groups that are challenging them. The Southern Poverty Law Center, known for its lawsuits that have crippled white supremacist organizations and for its detailed reporting on hate groups, has moved in the direction of campus organizing. Their Columbia University chapter has taken on speeches by Mike Cernovich and the founder of the European Defense League, along with the Liberation Collective.
The Campus Antifascist Network is another huge example, growing really quickly since its announced formation only in August. They have been taking on huge challenges, defending professors threatened by fascists, confronting events by Milo and other speakers, basically responding to Alt Right organizing on campus.
The success of different projects has really been from the willingness to do the hard organizing work, to commit to high quality research and journalism work, and to build connections with a real world presence. The organizations that are successful are not just avoiding interacting with fascists, they are getting into the middle of things. Here in Portland, groups like Rose City Antifa, the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, the Unite Against Hate coalition, the Rural Organizing Project, among others, really have come together to challenge the space occupied by far-right outfits like Patriot Prayer, who have basically protected explicit white nationalist groups. They challenge them directly, often with thousands of people in tow.
The increase of the far-right’s “free speech” rallies, which were happening in notably liberal cities simply to get a reaction, saw an increase in this battle over space. In Boston, directly after Charlottesville, a similar event sponsored by Proud Boys brought out 40,000 people in response. This did not just go to another area of the city, but came directly to the space that the fascists hoped to hold. The Alt Right’s event was effectively canceled by this, and then they continued the march, growing the community presence, reaching out to affected communities and people interested in organizing, and creating a strong and vibrant set of alliances.
Groups like the IWW’s General Defense Committee have used this mass movement antifascist approach, working in plain sight and building a mass movement with the community while refusing to allow white nationalists to have space. Redneck Revolt has done similar work in more rural areas, trying to connect with the people that would be the recruiting base for “Patriot” militias. Groups across the gamut, from non-profits like the SPLC, the Rural Organizing Project, and the Montana Human Rights Network, to militant antifascist groups, have all stepped up a presence to create long-term organizing solutions that don’t see each incident as a one-off affair.
With the growth of the Alt-Right and the Trumpist movement in the US, the Left has grappled with how to understand and define fascism in the 21st century context. The conditions, players, and tactics are fundamentally different than its first manifestations, and so many antiquated studies have left inarticulate descriptions or inadequate culprits as roadmaps for understanding fascism today. Instead, these twenty-five statements are a proposal for how to understand the essential core of fascism–what binds it together as a modern impulse despite its different manifestations across cultures and time.
Fascism in the 21st century has direct continuity to the insurgent movements that tore apart Europe, culminating in the Second World War. The methods, tactics, and strategies have changed, but the potential of the genocidal-racialist machine remains, and the ideologies are linked through history.
Fascism does not necessitate a specific type of statecraft (or a state…
The front-runner candidate for Alabama Senate, Republican Roy Moore, called The Washington Post “fake news” after the newspaper published a thorough investigation reporting on sexual encounters between Moore and multiple teenage girls, one as young as 14. Moore’s attacks on this highly-reputable newspaper are part of a recent broader pattern of prominent public figures using the label of “fake news” to denounce quality investigative journalism that reveals corruption and abuse of power. Such attacks pose an urgent and systemic danger to our democracy, as they encourage corruption and abuse of power by undermining credible media reporting on such behavior.
As a high-quality, well-respected venue, The Washington Post would not publish such a controversial story without a thorough investigation. The article was based on multiple interviews with over 30 people who knew Moore at the time the sexual encounters happened, between 1977 and 1982. The journalists were careful to paint a balanced story, including some negative facts about the women who accused Moore, such as divorces and bankruptcies.
Perhaps most telling of the high quality of reporting and credibility of the newspaper is the fact that a number of prominent Republican leaders are calling on Moore to withdraw from the race. Immediately after The Post publishes its story, Republican Senator John McCaincalled for Moore to step aside immediately, and Montana Senator Steve Daines withdrew his endorsement, as did Utah Senator Mike Lee. After a fifth woman stepped forward to accuse Moore independently of The Post’s story, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell statedthat Moore “should step aside,” and so did Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
On the other hand, Republicans well-known for making false accusations of mainstream media outlets being “fake news” defended Moore and supported his attack on The Post. For example, former Donald Trump adviser and head of Breitbart Stephen Bannon accused the The Post of being “purely part of the apparatus of the Democratic Party” for conducting its thorough investigation. Prominent Virginia Republican Corey Stewart also refused to criticize Moore and instead attacked the newspaper. A number of Fox News commentators,such as Gregg Jarrett, also attacked The Post.
Unfortunately, these attacks on quality investigative reporting represent part of a broader trend of conservative politicians across the country adopting the tactic of condemning media as “fake news” whenever there are stories unfavorable to them. As an example, Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin tweeted that the reporter Tom Loftus of the largest newspaper in Kentucky, The Courier-Journal, is “a truly sick man” for “sneaking around” Bevin’s manor. Loftus at the time was working on a story about how Bevin faced an ethics complaint over an accusation of bribery for purchasing this manor for about a million dollars below market price from a local investor, Neil Ramsey. Apparently, shortly before getting a million-dollar discount on this manor, Bevin appointed Ramsey to the Kentucky Retirement Board, which oversees $16 billion in investments.
Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie used a similar approach when caught abusing his power. He ordered a number of state-run beaches in New Jersey closed on June 30, yet he used a closed state beach in Island Beach State Park for himself and his family on July 2. Reporters for New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, secretly photographed him and his family using the beach. When asked about whether he was on the beach that day, Christie denied it. When confronted with photographic proof, Christie did not acknowledge and apologizing for his lies and his abuse of power in using a closed public beach for the benefit of himself and his family. He instead attacked The Star-Ledger for its reporting.
Without the attacks on the media, the investigations of Christie and Bevin would have simply revealed the sordid affairs of corruption and abuse of power. Our democracy would have worked correctly with voters appropriately getting the important information from credible sources, the largest newspapers in Kentucky and New Jersey. With these accusations, Bevin and Christie distract attention from the corruption and abuse of power, and instead present themselves as fighters against supposed media bias.
In doing so, Moore, Bevin, Christie and many others are tapping the anti-media bias of the Republican base inflamed by Trump’s attacks on the media. He has expressed pride over his branding of high-quality venues like “CBS, and NBC, and ABC, and CNN” as “fake news.” We are now reaping the whirlwind of politicians caught engaged in immoral, abusive, and corrupt behavior using Trump’s anti-media rhetoric to protect themselves and continue engaging in such activities.
Now, it doesn’t mean that Democrats will not try similar tactics. For example, the prominent film director Harvey Weinstein, a well-known and high-profile fundraiser for and influencerin the Democratic Party, accused The New York Times of publishing fake news when they revealed his sexual harassment. However, neither the Democratic base nor prominent Democrats bought this accusation, and Weinstein was quickly ousted from his leading roles.
By contrast, Bevin’s popularity in the polls was climbing in Kentucky, a conservative state, at the same time that he was making his accusations. Moore has continued to be staunchly supported by the Alabama Republican Party and base, despite the accusations and the withdrawal of support from many mainstream Republicans. Only in New Jersey, a liberal-leaning state, did voters express discontent over Christie’s behavior.
However, all of us – regardless of our party affiliation – will be greatly harmed if politicians are able to get away with corruption, immorality, and abuse of power through labeling of credible media sources as fake news. This tactic is posing an existential and systemic threat to our democracy, and we must do everything possible toprotect quality journalism and overall promote truthful behavior.
P.S. Want to promote truth and fight lies? Take the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, get your friends to take it, and call on your elected representatives to do so.
With today being Samhain (Halloween), we thought we would share this now classic essay/zine on the radical history of this holiday and tradition. We have reposted the version found at Mask Magazine, including their photo selection, and have also included a link to the zine version below.
By Bradly Stroot
Origins of the Halloween Spirit
Though widely recognized across North America, the origins of Halloween are poorly understood by many of its celebrants, likely due to their dark, unsavory, and disorderly nature. Its calendar date and etymology are undeniably Christian (from “All Hallows’ Evening,” the night before All Saints Day on November 1st), but the spirit that animates this “Halloween machine” is widely thought to originate from the pagan New Year celebrations of the Keltoi people (or Celts) of Ireland.
The Keltoi, whose name is likely derived from kel-, the Indo-European prefix for the “hidden,” were a diverse constellation of Celtic-speaking tribes that spread across much of Europe and the British Isles between the Iron Age and Early Middle Ages, even occupying Rome for a period of time around 400 BCE. Because of these hidden people’s refusal to commit their oral history and scholarship to written records, much of the most spectacular accounts of these “primitive” pagans and their “bloodthirsty” human sacrifice have been written by their imperial enemies like Julius Caesar and thus should be considered suspect at best.
What is known almost for certain, however, is that many Keltoi of the British Isles believed in an afterlife called Tir na tSamhraidh, or the “Land of Summer.” The doors to this Other world were only opened once a year on Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), the period between the two nights of October 31 and November 1. According to Nicholas Rogers, the author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,
“Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead. It was quintessentially ‘an old pastoral and agricultural festival […] It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh, the ancient mounds or barrows of the countryside. To ward off these spirits, the Irish built huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice. […] In Celtic lore, it marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness. […] It represented a time out of time, a brief interval ‘when the normal order of the universe in suspended’ and ‘charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.’”
These liminal interludes, as Barry Cunliffe calls them in The Celts, were particularly dangerous because “they were times when anything could happen and it was only by careful adherence to ritual and propitiation that a precarious order could be maintained.” Lisa Morton, another Halloween scholar and the author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, crucially adds that this was the only time of the year with a relative abundance of food and alcohol which contributed to Samhain’s festive and mischievous atmosphere. She also adds that, in addition to Beltane on May 1st, it was one of the two most important days in the Keltoi’s often frightening heroic folk tales, like that of,
“the Formorians, a race of demonic giants who have conquered Ireland after a great battle, demand a yearly tax of two-thirds of the subdued survivors’ corn, milk, and children, to be paid each year on Samhain. The Tuatha de Danann, a race of godlike, benevolent ancestors chronicled in Celtic mythology, battle against the Fomorians for years, but it takes the Morrigan, a mother god, and the hero Angus Og to finally drive the monsters from Ireland – on Samhain, of course.”
In these multiple accounts of Samhain, we can find themes that will come to define Halloween and follow it through its long history – particularly those of liminality, excess, celebration, mischief, darkness, fire, demons, and, perhaps most important to this essay, rebellion. When I obsessively began researching Detroit’s Devil’s Night a month ago, it was not immediately clear what its connection with this larger tradition would be, but as a began to work backward I began to uncover a genealogy that I couldn’t ignore. From the anti-Christian heresy of the medieval British Isles to the widespread arson of 1980s Detroit, we will see as this spirit of Halloween will continue to intersect with several notable subversive moments throughout its long life, constantly re-inventing itself to evade the forces of law and order.
The Witch Hammer, c. 700-1590 CE
Though Samhain provided Halloween with these raw, disorderly materials, it actually gave the holiday very little in terms of concrete practices or symbolism, excepting bonfires. These traditions, including the name of Halloween, came later in the Medieval period with the violent imposition of Christianity and its holy days, All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day.Originally celebrated on May 13 as a remembrance of Christian martyrs who had died at the hands of pagans, Lemuria (as it was previously known) was moved to November 1st by the Pope and rebranded as a more palatable, positive celebration of “all the saints.” Later, the early Church added All Souls’ Day on November 2, conveniently bookending the celebration with an opportunity to pray for the souls of the deceased that were trapped in Purgatory. According to Morton, however, “it seems more likely that the gloomy, ghostly new celebration was added to cement the transformation of Samhain from pagan to Christian holiday.”
Three centuries later, this gloomy and ghostly nature of All Souls’ Day transformed from an exceptional, temporary celebration to the daily reality of most Europeans as the Black Death began to spread throughout the western hemisphere. Beginning in 1346 and peaking around 1350, the plague killed as much as 60 percent of Europe’s population and left the surviving population with an unavoidable preoccupation with death. This, coupled with the simultaneous spread of the printing press, led to the mass circulation of Danse Macabre imagery and a generalized perception of Death as a personified subject, which one can still see in modern celebrations of Halloween. Though the figure of Death was originally portrayed as an animated skeleton, the opportunity was quickly seized by the Church and early capitalists to re-purpose this body of enmity in order to target a rebellious subject whom they had both long considered a threat but were now finally strong enough to destroy: the witch.
According to Arthur Evans’ recently republished 1978 book, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture,
“Despite its contempt for magic, the early church did not organize a full-scale attack against magicians and witches because it was not yet strong enough. The Christianity of the early middle ages was largely an affair of the King and the upper class of warlords. The rest of society remained pagan. In addition, early medieval Christians were hampered by a general breakdown of centralized authority in both church and state. Anarchy favored paganism.”
However, as Evans continues,
“By the early thirteenth century, […] the church was much better organized and ready to act. Its immediate target was heresy: the numerous and widespread attempts to combine traditional Christianity with elements of the old religion. To deal with this, the church launched crusades and started the Holy Inquisition. […] Now it began to look at the historical sources of heresy – the surviving old religion that modern historians view as ‘folklore,’ ‘peasant fantasy,’ and ‘strange fertility rites.’ Feeling its privilege, power, and world view threatened by these sources, the fifteenth-century ruling class fantasized that Satan was conspiring to overthrow the power of Christ’s church on earth.
With this consolidation of sovereign power and the figurative marriage of Satan and witches began what came to be known as The Great Witch-Hunt. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici traces the lineage of this mass genocide beyond just the Christian elite’s fear of paganism but to a whole world of generalized peasant revolts and the powerful, undomesticated women who likely organized them. Though this population was likely quite heterogeneous and their activities today may be likened to those of midwives, abortionists, sex workers, and popular healers among others, their enemies were able to collapse their commonalities into the identity of the witch, which could then be surgically targeted for removal.
According to Evans, the early Church “turned homosexuality into heresy” and began to collapse the two identities so that to call someone a heretic was to call them a homosexual, and vice versa. And “because of the methods of the Inquisition, […] great numbers of Lesbians and Gay men must have lost their lives.” We can also assume that the many individuals who today might have self-identified as transgender were likely also targeted for extermination. Besides the story of Joan of Arc: Transvestite and Heretic, there is unfortunately very little other research into this history and, therefore, my only reference point for this period will be Federici’s figure of the witch-as-woman.
The authorities obsessed over that these witches largely lived alone, relied on public assistance, were sexually “promiscuous,” and encouraged non-procreative sex (by means of contraception and abortions). Because these activities interfered with male supremacy, heteronormativity, population growth, compulsory labor, domestication, and order – in a word, civilization – the witch started being painted as a threat to life itself. According to Federici, “Witches were accused of conspiring to destroy the generative power of humans and animals, of procuring abortions, and of belonging to an infanticidal sect devoted to killing children and offering them to the devil.”
But, according to Federici, these accusations did not spontaneously generate from the witches’ own neighbors overnight. Instead, a highly-organized campaign of indoctrination was introduced from above and spread from to village to village traveling public officials. All this was only possible with the mass generation of propaganda using the most advanced technology of the day – the printing press. Of particular importance to re-imagining these rebellious women as demon-worshipping baby killers were the widely circulated copies of the Malleus Maleficarum and the evocative images created from the engravings of Hans Baldung Grien. In his most famous work, Witches’ Sabbath, one can see precursors to images of witches we still can find on Hallmark cards today – deformed bodies gathering around a bubbling caldron with their animal familiars (later portrayed as black cats), and flying through the air to their subversive meetings with the devil.
Of special significance to the history of Halloween is this last component – the mass gathering of witches at the Sabbath, or Sabbat. Though widely exaggerated by its enemies, some historians have speculated that the Sabbat was an actual nocturnal gathering of thousands where peasants plotted popular revolts against ruling social enclosures.
Given the potentially subversive nature of these massive gatherings, it should be of no surprise then that the “witches” who attended became a target of extermination to the forces of order. Curiously, according to Morton, this is about the same period when a term closely resembling “Halloween” first begins to appear in the English language.
“The choice of All Hallows’ as a major holiday for witches and devils was no doubt coerced from the accused with a political agenda in mind. […] A spectacular witch trial took place during the reign of the Protestant king James I: in 1590, dozens of Scots were accused of having attempted to prevent James from reaching his queen-to-be, Anne of Denmark, by gathering on Halloween night and then riding the sea in sieves while creating storms by tossing live cats tied to human body parts in the water. After the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, as they were called, Halloween was forever to be firmly associated with witches, cats, cauldrons, brooms, and the Devil.”
Mischievous Nights c. 1600-1900 CE
After this brutal erasure of an entire population and the undomesticated form of life that they represented, one can see a marked change in the culture surrounding the celebration of Halloween, particularly in its embrace of romance, parlor games, and tempered mischief in place of unbridled revolt. According to Rogers, one popular tradition of this era was a public choral performance that encouraged marriage and procreation with refrains celebrating “the wise virgins awaiting the coming of the bridegroom.” These public affirmations of marriage also announced the beginning of the seasons of Christmas and misrule, a temporary period of permitted mischief wherein urban leaders were ritually usurped from power in mock coups by impersonated sheriffs and mayors.
Simultaneously in the countryside, according to a sixteenth century account written by Philip Stubbs, large groups of drunken revelers would parade the churchyards with their horses, singing and dancing “with such a confused noise that no man can heare his own voice,” and demand contributions from their neighbors in order to continue their “Heathenrie, Devilrie, and Drunkennesse.” According to David J. Skal, the author of Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, it is also within this era that the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern develops, complete with a Christian folk etymology of harmless mischief:
“Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on earth until Judgement Day. Jack’s perpetual prank is decoying of hapless travelers into the murky mire.”
In this new era of “civilized” Christianity, previous bloody wars between pagans and early Christians were replaced by relatively minor inter-religious skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics – that is, until November 5, 1605. Successfully recognized by its simple injunction to “Remember, remember the fifth of November!”, this was the day that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic malcontent, was caught placing thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a vault beneath the protestant House of Lords, later known as the Gunpowder Plot.
Fawkes was soon publicly hanged as a Catholic traitor and the date of his failed attack was chosen by the Parliament as “a holiday forever in thankfulness to our God for deliverance and detestation for the Papists.” Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night (as it came to be dually known) co-existed peacefully for about 40 years until, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of all festivals excepting the anti-Catholic celebration. It was then, due to their relative proximity of one another, that November 5 began to take on many of the sinister and mischievous elements of Halloween. Young people would spend weeks preparing for the night by going house-to-house dressed in rags and demanding firewood or money for the massive bonfire roasts of Pope effigies that would come to define the night, a tradition that some historians consider as the origin of trick-or-treat, which will be discussed later. According to Rogers, if no firewood or money was given, it was “considered quite lawful to appropriate any old wood” from these households.
It also around this same time, according to Rogers, that the oldest recorded use of “Mischief Night” is noted by a headmaster to describe his school’s theatre performance that ended in “an Ode to Fun which praises children’s tricks on Mischief Night in most approving terms.” Though originally celebrated on May 1, it eventually found it’s home on in Great Britain on November 4, the night before Bonfire Night, and later in the US on October 30. According to Rogers, it was during this transitional time that Halloween itself began to reappear in the British Isles as a festival distinct from Bonfire Night while still retaining some its most disorderly practices such the targeted destruction of private property, particularly by young, working class men in Scotland and Ireland.
“Mimicking the malignant spirits who were widely believed to be abroad on Halloween, gangs of youths blocked up chimneys, rampaged cabbage patches, battered doors, unhinged gates, and unstabled horses. In nineteenth-century Cromarty, revelers even sought out lone women whom they could haze as a witch. […] ‘If an individual happened to be disliked in the place,’ observed one Scot in 1911, ‘he was sure to suffer dreadfully on these occasions. He doors would be broken, and frequently not a cabbage left standing in the garden.’ Such was Halloween reputation as a night of festive retribution that in some parts of Scotland the imperatives of community justice prevailed over private property, to a point that the Kirk-session found it impossible to enforce law and order.”
These accounts of masculine mob attacks to deliver “community justice” to “unpopular” neighbors and “lone women” are not included as an endorsement for their obviously proto-fascist and misogynistic nature; instead, these moments illustrate how, by means of the witch-hunts and other violent forms of domestication, women had been excluded from the sphere of rebellion and continued to be a target of attack. It is also important not to overlook these moments’ qualities of retribution and ungovernability that will better situate the widespread vandalism of Irish-American immigrant youth and Detroit’s prolific teenage arsonists.
Black Halloween, 1845-1945 CE
Much like the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, the potato blight of 1845 dramatically impacted the course of Halloween’s evolution as it spread across Ireland, killing both the country’s staple food crop and over one million Irish peasants from the resulting starvation. Over the course of the next seven years, one million more Irish would leave their homes, many sailing to North America where they soon outnumbered all other immigrant groups combined. It is not surprising then that this is also the context in which that Halloween celebrations and revelry, long disdained by earlier Puritan settlers, begin to appear in the United States. As Lesley Pratt Bannatyne writes in her book Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, “Wherever the Irish went, […] Halloween followed along.”
In their new homes across North America, Irish immigrant youth continued to experiment, innovate, and spread new forms of devilry during the Halloween season, often creatively adapting to the idiosyncrasies of each environment. In some Midwestern towns, this took the form of removing farmers’ gates to free their animals, while on the East Coast, this took the form of weaponizing the relatively abundant supply of cabbages. Lamenting that “gangs of hoodlums throng[ing] the streets” had replaced the “kindly old customs” with “the spirit of rowdyism,” William Shepard Walsh, a nineteenth-century historian details that:
“Mischievous boys push the pith from the stalk, fill the cavity with tow which they set on fire, and then through the keyholes of houses of folk who have given them offence blow darts of flame a yard in length. […] If on Halloween a farmer’s or crofter’s kail-yard still contains ungathered cabbages, the boy and girls of the neighborhood descend upon it en masse, and the entire crop is harvested in five minutes’ time and thumped against the owner’s doors, which rattle as though pounded by a thunderous tempest.”
In keeping with Halloween’s long tradition of liminality, Tad Tuleja posits in his essay Trick or Treat: Pretexts and Contexts that these attacks on rural households:
“may be seen as an attack on domestic borders. The majority of popular pranks were ‘threshhold tricks’ that assaulted, if only temporarily, ordered space. […] Buggies, which provided cohesion to far-flung rural communities were ‘dysfunctionalized’ by being placed on barn roofs. Even the popular custom of tipping over outhouses served metonymically as an attack on the house-as-home.”
Though many of these mischievous deeds against rural neighbors were treated with a wide berth of tolerance by the authorities of the day, the tactics of urban immigrant youth soon sharpened and escalated to the alarm (and beyond the control) of fledgling police forces, taking on a character resembling something closer to asymmetric urban warfare. After the collapse of the American stock market on October 24th, 1929 (or Black Tuesday, as it came to be known), the next few years saw Halloween mobs specifically targeting symbols of luxury and the infrastructure of the metropolis, with a notable peak in 1933 (uncoincidentally at the height of America’s Great Depression) that came to be known as Black Halloween.
According to multiple accounts by Lisa Morton, Nicholas Rogers, and David Skal, this period was marked by youth gangs ripping down street signs, sawing down telephone poles, opening fire hydrants, disabling streetlights, barricading streets with stolen gates and refuse, dragging tree stumps onto railroad tracks, removing manhole covers, tearing up the boards of wooden sidewalks, smashing storefront windows, holding shopkeepers hostage, unhooking poles from the tops of streetcars, spreading grease on trolley car tracks, putting empty barrels over church steeples, attacking the police, and burning “almost anything they could set afire.” Rogers adds that as the celebration of Halloween started to spread westward, so did these flames. In 1908, anonymous vandals in Belton, Texas burned several freight cars, houses, and 1000 bales of cotton which in total cost the city upwards of $6 million in today’s money, when adjusted for inflation.
Many of these attacks were focused around immobilizing the movement of commerce through the metropolis but specifically, as Rogers observes, “the new symbol of prosperity, the automobile, became the object of destruction. Revelers soaped windows, deflated tires, and at busy intersections unceremoniously ‘bounced’ cars, or rocked them from the back to the discomfort of the passengers.” Skal also notes the class antagonism to be found within these accounts, adding that,
“one report took special notice that a car overturned by a ‘mass attack’ of hoodlums was a ‘sedan of expensive make.’ The stucco of America’s social contract was likewise severely chipped by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, and in a small way, the customs of Halloween pranking reflected more generalized anxieties about civil unrest.”
Skal goes on to write, in a notable account of multiracial rebellion, that
“on Halloween 1934, the pranks of masked children parading through the streets of Harlem rapidly escalated from harmless flour and ask pelting to rock throwing to automobile vandalism. The police estimated that four hundred youngsters, both black and white, were involved in the various melees, which culminated with a car being heisted and rolled down a fifty-foot embankment in Riverside Park, where its tires were slashed.”
Though it would be pleasant to imagine that these sorts of multiracial conspiracies were common in this period, it should not be surprising that not only was this rare, but actually antithetical to many of Roger’s accounts of non-white participation in these mobs. In fact, three years earlier on Halloween night of 1931, a violent street battle developed between 400 black and white adults on the same streets of Harlem. As urban youth began to materially sabotage the fragile economy, white mob attacks began to develop into larger race riots, and widespread looting overtook the Halloween celebration of the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, it was not to be long before the forces of order would have to once again intervene to restore order to the holiday.
The Taming of Halloween, c. 1945–1960
After three decades of annual insurgency by tireless immigrant youth, it became obvious to authorities that the rebellious spirit of Halloween had to be severed from the holiday once as for all. As Skal writes, “although Halloween never even registered in the national debate, the many local controversies surrounding the holiday echoed much larger political themes about anarchy, order, and wealth distribution.” He continues, citing the accidental death of a young girl (after her dress caught fire from a Jack-o’-Lantern) as another source of public unease regarding Halloween, which,
“to many observers, seemed nothing but an invitation and excuse for social disaster. Fear of a seething underclass was a strong subtext of other reform movements of the early 1930’s; film censorship campaigns, for example, got especially worked up about the Halloweenish content of horror and crime movies, each genre anarchic in it own way. Such entertainments were widely viewed as demoralizing threats to public order, October 31 all year long.”
This particular passage is striking because it likens to the desperate counter-revolutionary concessions of the Roosevelt’s New Deal with the concerted efforts to “civilize” Halloween by police, schools, politicians, churches, and civil groups. While this certainly took on forms of updated strategies from previous centuries – erasure in the form of film censorship, romance as costume balls, parlor games as church lock-ins, and so on – it also presented a newly available option in the post-Depression era: consumption. Rogers explains that “by making Halloween consumer-oriented and infantile, civic and industrial promoters hoped to eliminate its anarchic features. By making it neighborly and familial, they strove to re-appropriate public space from the unorthodox and ruffian and restore social order to the night of 31 October.”
Though there is evidence that Halloween rebels were being bought off with candy as early as 1920, it is not until after the Halloween unrest of the mid-1930’s and post-WW2 production boom that we begin to see trick-or-treat being explicitly promoted as a tangible solution to restore order to the reviled holiday.
The precise origins of the tradition itself are disputed by some historians, but many agree that it partially arose from Depression-era “house-to-house parties” that some neighbors would co-operatively host on Halloween to save money. Morton notes that one of the first national mentions of the term “trick-or-treat” can be found in a 1939 article entitled A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigage?, which specifically names the practice as “a method of subverting rowdy pranking.”
“Whatever its specific sources, inspirations, or influences,” writes Skal, trick-of-treating “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property protection strategy during the late Depression.” However, he continues,
“it is the postwar years that are generally regarded as the glorious heyday of trick-or-treating. Like the consumer economy, Halloween itself grew by leaps and bounds. Major candy companies like Curtiss and Brach, no longer constrained by sugar rationing, launched national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween. […] The begging ritual was modeled for millions of youngsters in the early fifties by Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in Disney’s animated cartoon ‘Trick or Treat,’ accompanied by a catchy, reinforcing song of the same title.”
In addition to promoting trick-or-treat as a subtle alternative, Rogers also cites this specific Donald Duck cartoon as a propaganda piece critical for “the taming of Halloween,” explaining that “rather than experience real-life shenanigans, children could find them in a Walt Disney cartoon.” By the late 1950’s the enmity that had come to define October 31st had been almost completely supplanted with a fabricated ethic of consumption, whether in the form of candy or experiences. This “generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” as Jean Baudrillard conceived of a hyperreality, was apparently so effective that one police sergeant in Los Angeles publicly expressed his confusion about the disappearance of teenage rebels after an oddly peaceful Halloween in 1959.
Of course, these measures were not applied uniformly across the entire continent, and in some places the destruction previously associated with Halloween were simply displaced to the day before, on October 30th. As Rogers recorded of an older man’s prouds remarks of his boyhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, “there was only mischief. The adult world could not buy us off with candy or shiny pennies. They didn’t even try.” In these small pockets of lingering mischief, particularly in the newly developed suburbs of the period, the vandalism took on a decidedly less class-conscious tone, reverting to a previous form of pranks that targeted “unpopular” or stingy neighbors by smashing their pumpkins or stealing their gate. And because of their relative isolation to one another, many of the areas developed hyper-localized terms for their own sports, like Vermont’s Cabbage Night, Montreal’s Mat Night, upstate New York’s Gate Night, New Jersey’s Mischief Night, and Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night.
This map from Joshua Katz, NC State University, visualizes where people call the night before Halloween “mischief night.”
The Demonization of Halloween, c. 1967-Present
On July 23rd, 1967, after the police raided a party for two returning Vietnam GIs at an illegal speakeasy on the Near West Side of Detroit, crowds made up mostly of black residents soon gathered outside and began throwing bottles and stones in retaliation. The police were forced to retreat and the remaining crowd quickly seized the opportunity to pillage a nearby clothing store. The incident quickly widened into full-scale looting throughout the entire neighborhood. Sidney Fine, in his book Violence in the Model City, recorded accounts from witnesses that described this moment as possessing a “carnival atmosphere” of multiracial looting, in which the police were totally outnumbered and were forced to watch this “gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of buildings” from a careful distance. By the next afternoon, the first fire had been set at a nearly grocery store and a small mob blocked a firetruck from putting out the flames. According to historian Herb Colling, the local media initially refused to report on the unrest for fear of it spreading to other parts of the city, but the unavoidable smoke of a burning Detroit soon began to fill the city’s skyline.
Over the next 24 hours, the fires and looting spread across the entire city targeting both black and white-owned businesses, notably resulting in 38 handguns and 2,498 rifles being appropriated by the rebels. In response, President Johnson was forced to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 that could authorize the use federal troops to put down an insurrection against the U.S. Government. Beginning at 1:30am on July 25th, over 8000 Michigan Army National Guardsman and 4700 U.S. Army paratroopers descended upon the city to violently put down the uprising. In the following three days, countless horrors of brutality, sexual assault, and assassination were visited upon those who continued to fight against the forces of order.
By July 28th, after the last fire has been set, the troops began to slowly withdraw from the city and authorities began to survey the damage. All told, the five-day period between July 23-28 resulted in 2509 stores being looted or burned, 7231 arrests, 1189 injuries, and 43 deaths, 33 of whom were black residents. Unlike the 1943 Detroit race riot, however, observers noted a high participation of white residents in looting stores, setting fires, and sniping cops which raised questions about whether the uprising could be simply categorized as a ‘race riot.’ The Great Rebellion, as it came to be known instead, set off a wave of unrest that would continue to spread to over two dozen cities and return to Detroit the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is following this period of social upheaval and counterinsurgency that one finds the development of a diffuse anxiety within the white population over “inner city issues,” and their subsequent mass exodus to the suburban peripheries, later known as white flight. In these shiny new refugee camps for the white middle class, an alienating fear of the Other lingered and would soon prove to be a death knell for trick-or-treat, one of their children’s last remaining sources of autonomy and comradery outside the family unit. Much in the way that authorities were forced to suppress the mischief they initially promoted in place of unbridled revolt, they now found themselves losing control over the unrestrained throngs of begging children that they created to replace the uncontrollable vandals before them. As Morton argues:
“Given trick or treat’s almost universal suburban popularity, its emphasis on representation of outsiders, and the way it empowered its participants, it was perhaps inevitable that trick or treat was about to experience a backlash. Adults, it seemed, were unwilling to grant their children that power after all. In 1964, a New York housewife named Helen Pfeil was upset at the number of trick or treaters whom she thought were too old to be demanding candy and handed them packages of dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool. Within three years, the urban legend of children being given apples with hidden razor blades surfaced, and parents began to worry about Halloween.”
Though only two deaths (both of which were later attributed to family members) and a small number of injuries were reported over two decades of “Halloween sadism,” the media was quick to portray the holiday as rife with poison, satanic cults, and stranger danger. As one 1975 Newsweek article leading up to Halloween claimed,
“If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home with something more than just an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.”
Civic groups and churches again rushed to this opportunity for a decisive social enclosure, that is, of removing youth from the street once and for all. Across the continent, thousands of “alternatives to trick-or-treating” were suddenly being hosted at shopping malls, museums, zoos, schools, spook houses, and community centers while some hospitals continued to reinforce the paranoia of Halloween sadism by offering to x-ray the die-hard trick-or-treaters’ candy for dangerous metal objects.
These “tales of Halloween sadism,” Rogers eloquently argues,
“were measured against the vision of a stable, congenital decade of trick-or-treating in the 1950’s. This was a decade of Cold War politics and Red scares. Yet beyond the zone of leftist agitation, it was also a decade of relative social peace, of continuing baby boom, of consumer affluence and suburban development. The 1960’s and 1970’s, however, posed new challenges to the social and political fabric of the United States. This was the era of civil rights agitation, of urban ghetto riots, of student and antiwar protest, of youth countercultures, of feminism and gay liberation, of Watergate. In the South, African-Americans defeated Jim Crow, but in the North they faced de facto resegregation as whites fled to the suburbs in the wake of rioting in Watts, Newark, and Detroit.”
Within five years of The Great Rebellion, the composition of Detroit’s population had completely changed, producing a majority black inner city ringed by a hostile periphery of white suburbs. “In the aftermath of the riot,” As Ze’ev Chafets explains in his once controversial 1990 book Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, “Detroit became the national capital of disingenuous surprise. People suddenly discovered what should have been obvious – that beyond the glittering downtown, the leafy neighborhoods, the whirring computers, there was another city: poor, black, and angry” that “seethes with the resentments of postcolonial Africa.” This comparison was clearly not lost on those who would soon be tasked with recycling counterinsurgency measures developed against anti-colonial uprisings to be used against a new form of annual black insurgency – that of Devil’s Night.
Although 1983 is widely recognized as the official beginning of Devil’s Night because of its dramatic increase in dumpster fires, there is evidence to suggest that there was an already low-level insurgency associated with Halloween dating back to at least 1979 and, conceivably, to 1967 itself. It was only in 1984, probably due to a combination of the widespread media hype of the 1983 arsons and the World Series victory by the Detroit Tigers on October 31st, that there was a marked increase in building fires. With over 297 fires on October 30th alone, 1984’s Halloween season set the high water mark for destruction with “the worst fire scenes I’ve seen since the riots of 1967,” according to a former Detroit Fire Department chief.
This last statement should also not be overlooked, because within it is a glimpse of authorities’ conceptual framework for viewing Devil’s Night – that is, not as an isolated incident, but as an aftershock of The Great Rebellion that rivaled its destruction and, therefore, should be eligible for the same levels of counterinsurgency. But to do would require more than just a single comparison; it would require resorting to racist and supernatural tropes to target an opaque and population that had long been mystified the white population. Much in the same way that the witch was manufactured to target a heterogeneous population with the figure of a supernatural, life-stealing Other, the figure of the Devil had also been revived to literally demonize the insurgent black youth of Detroit. According to Carole Nagengast’s Violence, Terror, and the Crisis of the State, “the goal of state violence is not to inflict pain; it is the social project of creating punishable categories of people.”
Though many residents and politicians speculated about the circumstances that produced the widespread arson of 1984, David Skal notes that the influential Detroit Free Press newspaper noticeably avoided any sociological analysis in the months after, instead favoring a “law-and-order approach to Halloween Eve arson and crime, including gun control, aggressive prosecution, and more jail cells.” According to the authors of an enlightening research paper entitled Preventing Halloween Arson in an Urban Setting, it was the following that Mayor Coleman Young then created a “Devil’s Night Task Force,” tasked with goals of “reduced arson, raised community awareness, and increased involvement in the fight against arson” over the next decade. Each spring, appointees from the mayor’s office, Detroit Neighborhood City Halls, city departments (including public health, fire, police, youth, public lighting, law, recreation, information technology, planning, among others), community organizations, churches, public schools, and the private sector would convene to begin creating strategies based on insights gleaned from previous years.
With these in hand, fire and police officials from each neighborhood would collaborate with neighborhood snitches and influential clergy to create “decentralized action plans” to enact a larger eight point, city-wide strategy: Deployment of Public Safety Personnel, by means of mobilizing all available police, firefighters, and helicopters; The Elimination of Arson Targets by means of towing abandoned cars, removing tires from dumping sites, and demolishing thousands of vacant homes and buildings; Volunteer Training by means of offered orientations to Adopt-A-House volunteers who wanted to guard abandoned buildings or Neighborhood Patrols who wanted to seek out arsonists on foot; Media and Communications by means of an aggressive PR campaign to convey “the dangers of arson”; Activities for Children and Teenagers by means of church and city-sponsored movie marathons, dances, carnivals, etc.; Youth Curfew in the form of a 6pm curfew for those under 18, whose violators would face expedited processing at temporary nighttime courtrooms; and Prohibition on the Sale of Fuel by means of criminalizing the sale of dispensing of gasoline into portable containers.
In each of these eight headlines, we can find almost perfectly mirrored strategies depicted in Kristian Williams’ essay The Other Side of COIN, many of which he directly cited from U.S. Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and British brigadier Frank Kitson’s strategies against anti-colonial movements in Kenya, Cypress, and Northern Ireland. Of particular significance to many of these strategies is the goal of “monopolizing the use of force” and establish legitimacy in doing so, which the Army field manual asserts as “the main objective.” One can particularly see this in the conflicting strategy of guarding and demolishing abandoned homes, a clearly desperately attempt to re-establish control over a territory that had subverted its monopoly on destruction by self-immolating. As part of maintaining its fragile legitimacy, however, the city couldn’t simply call in the National Guard again; instead it had to source its army from the remaining loyal segments of the city’s population to do its bidding. This “Halloween anti-arson intervention,” when viewed through Williams’ simple equation reveals its obvious and undeniable nature: Community Policing + Militarization = Counterinsurgency.
Between 1985-1996, largely by means of these counterinsurgency strategies and anti-gang initiatives, the city of Detroit was able to considerably reduce Halloween-time arson within the city. Though it is tempting to conclude that this may have been the moment when the rebellious spirit of Halloween was finally killed, to do so would deny the almost constant low-intensity insurgency that remained and would later spread to other cities like Camden and Cincinnati. In 1994, after the new mayor of Detroit publicly declared the death of Devil’s Night and mobilized a significantly smaller number of citizen patrols, the numbers of arsons dramatically rose, forcing him to mobilize an army of 30,000 “Angel’s Night” volunteers the following October. Given this constant obligation to douse its flames, perhaps we should not speak of the death of Halloween, but instead, its temporary imprisonment.
But if the history presented here is any indication, moments of disorder are not only unpredictable but evasive by their very nature of disrupting of linear time and ordered space. As the rare moments of social peace between upheavals become ever shorter and the fires of Detroit blends into Camden and Ferguson’s into Baltimore, it’s possible to conceive of the spirit of Halloween returning not as a discrete moment in October, but, in the words of one old revolutionary, “a holiday without beginning or end.”
President Donald Trump signed a directive on August 25 following up on his earlier tweets that he “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Whatever you think about the decree, the spin from the Trump administration about it amounts to the gaslighting of the transgender community.
Consider the terms of this order. It prevents any new openly transgender recruits from joining the armed forces. It also orders the military to evaluate the status of currently-serving transgender soldiers and potentially get rid of them as well in line with Trump’s original tweet: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is putting together a group of experts to study the matter. Transgender troops decried the order, saying it will create “complete inequality,” in the words of one. The director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Palm Center said that Trump is “pull[ing] the rug out from under a group of service members who have been defending our country.”
Any reasonable person can see that the decree blatantly discriminates against transgender individuals, meaning treating them differently and worse than others. Yet the Trump administration explicitly denies this reality. According to the official briefing the press on the directive, it did not represent in any way discrimination against transgender individuals. The official stated that Trump will “continue to ensure that the rights of the LGBTQ community” are protected, and is not going back on his campaign promise in 2016 to “fight for” that community.
Why make statements that are so clearly false? There is no doubt that the directive discriminates against transgender people, so what explains the blatant lies?
This type of deception falls into the category of gaslighting, a psychological manipulation that aims to create doubt about the nature of reality. Often occurring in abusive relationships, gaslighting is so harmful that victims often report that the impact of this manipulation is worse than the original offense. It can make you doubt your reality, grow confused, vulnerable, and uncertain, unable to fend off the manipulations of the perpetrator and even fall into accepting their reality, known as the gaslight effect.
Trump’s administration has used gaslighting extensively as a psychological weapon. Denying reality creates confusion and uncertainty, a highly useful outcome since the victims of the gaslighting are unsure about what to do next. Should they expend their resources demonstrating the obvious truth of reality, or should they focus on addressing the problem at hand?
In this case, the transgender community is the target of Trump’s gaslighting. The issue they face is whether to address the blatant lies coming from the White House about the decree, or emphasize fighting Trump’s discriminatory actions.
The solution is to make the gaslighting tactic itself unacceptable. Political and social science research shows that trust is vital for healthy democracies. Citizens in a democracy have a basic expectation of their public officials being trustworthy, in their words and actions. In return, citizens comply with laws, pay taxes, and cooperate with other government initiatives. In comparison to a democracy, an autocratic state bears a much higher resource burden of policing to make its citizens comply with its laws. When political leaders act in ways that destroy trust – as the Trump administration is doing through misleading statements and outright lies – people will increasingly stop complying with laws and paying taxes.
While Trump is making short-term gains for conservatives, he is undermining the stability of our political system as a whole. No one – liberals nor conservatives – want the chaos and disorder that would result from the destruction of trust. All can recognize the terrible dangers posed by such denial of reality to our democracy.
Even worse, other politicians, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are adopting Trump’s tactics. For instance, Christie ordered a number of state-run beaches in New Jersey closed on Friday, June 30, 2017, yet he used a closed state beach in Island Beach State Park for himself and his family on July 2, 2017. At a press conference later that same day, he was asked about being on the beach during the time of the beach shut-down order. In a classic example of gaslighting, Christie said “”I didn’t get any sun today.” When Christie’s spokesperson was shown the pictures, the spokesperson responded “He did not get any sun. He had a baseball hat on.”
Christie’s use of gaslighting to justify corruption and abuse of power points to the normalization of gaslighting within our political system. Only by coming together in a nonpartisan manner to call out such lies and commit to truth can we hope to make gaslighting unacceptable and preserve our democracy.
In the wake of the violent attacks and subsequent murder at the Unite the Right rally this past weekend in Charlottesville, the world is turning on the Alt Right even more than it already has. The people who attended the rally, carrying torches and violently brutalizing Black Lives Matter and antifascist protesters, have been outed in mass doxxings. This has forced a way of mass firings of white nationalists, caused families to disown their racist relatives, and gotten many to repent entirely.
The Daily Stormer did what many Alt Right outlets refused to do, they doubled down after the car murder took place, saying that the real tragedy was the car being destroyed and they were happy “the fat slut” was dead. He was referring to Heather Heyer, the young woman run down as she protested blocks away from the Nazis. Her family was subsequently unable to have her memorial service afterward after Nazis threatened further attacks on her family. Associate of the Daily Stormer, going by Azzmador, was quoted as saying that the Unite the Right rally could not go on because of “Jew” politician running the city along with “criminal n*****s.”
Subsequently, Anonymous hacked the Daily Stormer and took control of it, before Andrew Anglin wrestled control back. Then the hosting company promised to take down the website, and businesses were refusing to deal with the Daily Stormer. While it is good this is happening now, the real question is why this did not happen before. Anglin then moved his website to the “Darkweb,” where he is only available through the Tor service. This may give him anonymity, but it shrinks his reach to almost nothing.
The Daily Stormer officially went offline, and was followed shortly by Red Ice Media. Red Ice had almost ten thousand subscribers, largely building off of its history as a conspiracy and alt spirituality website, so their money likely bought them a lot of leeway. That is quickly dissolving as their capitulation with murderous white supremacy is taking place. The video on their homepage describes how they have been hacked, making it impossible to keep going right now. The longer they are offline, the better.
To keep this up we need to continue to identify the web hosts for Alt Right websites and to pressure those companies to pull the contracts. There is often anti-racist language in the Terms of Services that can be exploited for this, but the main point is to use our pressure as a united community to show that there will be consequences if companies continue to deal with white nationalists.
In 1941, two years into World War II, socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht released a play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (in German: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui) which chronicles the rise of Arturo Ui, a fictional 1930s Chicago mobster, and his efforts ruthless efforts to dominate the cauliflower racket. Subtitled A Parable Play, Arturo Ui is a satirical allegory of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany before the start of World War II. Brecht’s depiction of the Nazis as gangsters references a reality of Nazi governance, the Nazis operated as gangsters, a point made by social historians. It further speaks to the Nazi emplacement of its own gang members into key positions within the existing government structures, especially the bureaucracy, and takeover of those structures once in power. This is a trend that can be observed in interesting ways in the developing goon presidency of Donald Trump. The most notable recent example is the naming of Anthony Scaramucci to the position of Communications Director.
In Trump we are seeing a re-cartelization of the economic sphere. Trump is a goon and he admires goons. As fascists did he is putting his own people into the administrative and bureaucratic state, And they are gangsters and goons. He is getting rid of the bureaucracy that forms policy.
The State as a Racket
In War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, the sociologist Charles Tilly, in writing about the state has famously said:
“To the extent that threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves commonly stimulate, or even fabricate threats of external war, and since the repressive and extractive activities of governments often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in essentially the same ways as racketeers.”
Neoliberalism has already decimated any notion of popular sovereignty or social welfare. The crisis of capitalism results in the crisis of the traditional parties and the liberal democratic order. The ruling class can no longer rule in its familiar ways. As this crisis deepens they become more ruthless in their attacks on the working class and its historic gains (social welfare, etc.). Health care, education, social welfare, etc. Become “luxuries” (which the truly luxurious strata become envious of). Attacks on these bare, but essential services, ratchet up already churning resentment and anger.
With the stripping of the state of its “luxuries” or inessential (for capital) features it is returned to its status as what Friedrich Engels called “armed bodies of men,” of gangsters—it is restored to the status of a racket.
So the army, police, prisons, are underwritten and grown. So too the Brownshirt industries associated with them. But the dictatorship of capital is no longer disguised. This is the resort to fascism.
In a period of sharp crisis the disguise slips. And it can slip. Obscuring ideology is not needed. How else to understand Trump’s open appeal to police across the country to not be too nice to suspects being arrested (in a context of racialized MS-13 panic), in front of a group of cheering and applauding cops.
As an aside we might suggest that the strange attack on MS-13 is a one-sided gang war-waged from the White House. And it occurs while his regime is raiding families of Latin American background in California, New Mexico, Arizona, etc.
Capitalism in crisis has always in periods given rise to the bare gangster form. Marx identified it as Bonapartism. The deep crisis of capitalism produces armed thug gangs who can oppose working class resistance.
In fascism, the state loses its monopoly over non—state violence. That is partly the threat of the Brownshirts. They are a parallel force of violence that shows up the loss of the state monopoly. With fascism, the bourgeoisie gives over power to the gangsters, the thugs, the goons.
The Trump Gang
If the protection racket us a scheme in which a group provides protection (to business, clubs, etc.) through violence enacted outside of the sanction of law, then the Trump regime, like all fascist regimes, has taken form as a base protection racket, a gang. This type of authoritarian formation maintains existing property relations while taking a piece of the pie for their own benefit. The Trump inner circle is made up of gangsters.
This is highlighted in liberal terms with the undermining or circumventing of the judiciary. It cannot provide legal protection. Trump poses it as incompetent. One can see this most forcefully in his attacks upon the courts over his Muslim ban. The Muslim ban is itself a racialist, fascistic offering of protection (for nativist whites, Christians, etc.) against a “foreign” other posed solely as a threat—and terroristic one at that.
As in an extortion racket there is also an implied threat that the protected may also be turned on themselves if they do not come through—so Trump’s call to let Obamacare implode—with costs assumed by poor whit Trump supporters (and Republican insiders alike).
The distinction between capitalist and gangster is simply one of state definition so it is not surprising that a capitalist would be surrounded by gangsters. One need not go into detail on the Kushner clan. Insider Jared’s father Charles Kushner was sentenced to two years after pleading guilty to 18 counts of making illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering (involving a nasty case in which he set up his’ wife’s husband in a videotaped fling with a sex worker). Trump is of and for such people. This is his milieu. This is he.
Trump becomes the autonomous figure—the decider who can stand above the fray of divided politics. Trump is a magical gangster. He has a calling—it is the market. His is a counter-revolution based around the market, in the face of impending catastrophe.
At the same time he always has an alibi. His is an alibi of being. It does not allow the acknowledgement of the other. Except, that is, to destroy the other. He admits freely and jokingly to sexual assaults, in public, but denies the very realities of his accusers.
Postscript: Farewell Mooch, We Hardly Knew Ye
At the time of his appointment, commentators noted that Scaramucci was nothing more than “a thug for hire.” Unlike Steve Bannon, Scaramucci had no agenda beyond self-debasing loyalty and no ambition beyond time with the boss. In the end he got neither.
Like the gangster Nazis in power, Scaramucci immediately took out two figureheads of the Republican orthodoxy, Press Secretary Sean Spice and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. In their place are committed Trumpites Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, notably a military guy, General John Kelly. The Scaramucci hire is symptomatic of the gangster mode of organizing. It follows and reproduces the Nazi gangster inclination for management of underlings through envy, fear, aspiration, in which all are expected to give complete loyalty (typically unrequited) to the leader who need show none. This latter point was made hilariously clear when Scaramucci was himself tanked only 10 days into his role, surely a record of sorts.
Of course history tells us that the generals felt uncomfortable with the gangsters in the SA (largely because they viewed them as a potential competitor breaking the monopoly on violence). We do not want to read too much into John Kelly’s urging of Trump to dismiss the Mooch but on the night of July 30, 2017, it would seem that at least one long knife was out. Still the unexpected hit on the loudmouth who talked too much is not entirely outside of Trump’s gangster management of the White House.
We might finally remember that for Brecht, the name Ui was meant to sound like a pig screaming.
Brecht, Bertolt. 1941. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: A Parable Play.