THERE IS A LOADED GUN sitting on a table again.
A crowd has gathered around the table. They watched the man who had it before clean the gun, reload it, and place it there. Now, it’s time for them to decide who gets it next, as they wait for the dead bodies to be dragged from the room.
This last guy? He killed people pretty cleanly. Sure, some of them were innocent, some of them were kids. But he did it so politely that everyone could admit it wasn’t so bad this time. They’re all worried though–of the two people who might get the gun next, one of them is really inexperienced, hot-tempered. The people who want him to have the gun also want him to shoot a lot more people than that last guy. The other possible shooter, though–she’s pretty nice. Shifty, not very honest, but she’s got some good points. She warns everyone that if the other guy gets the gun this time, he’ll kill some of the really vulnerable people. He doesn’t like women or Blacks or trans people. He’s said some bad words about the Muslims and Mexicans in the room.
She promises that she’ll use the gun for good. He promises that he’ll shoot the gun well. He’ll make the whole room great again, keep strangers from getting in. She promises she’ll point it at some other countries who have guns too.
While most everyone in the room is arguing about which of them should get the gun, there are the wounded in the corners of the room, bleeding out from the last guy’s charismatic shooting spree. There are also the parents of those that got killed cursing the gun. And a small handful are talking in quick whispers, asking a question no one ever asks. They remember how the last guy broke his promises, how he made sure the gun was loaded before he put it back on the table, and how the two would-be shooters aren’t promising not to use the gun, only promising to use it well…
Liberalism vs. Leftism
If you had trouble following the analogy above, I’ll parse it clearly: The loaded gun is the nation-state, and the two primary camps are the Conservative and Liberal parties in every Western Capitalist Democracy. Those in the corner, of course, are what we generally call “The Left.”
If you live in an English-speaking country, Left and Liberal have probably become synonymous in your mind, but they are hardly the same. This confusion doesn’t occur so much in continental European countries like France, Spain, and Germany: in those countries, Leftist movements and groups (anarchists, communists) have more political power. The strikes last year in France, for instance, were instigated by Leftist trade-unions against a government led by a social-democrat (Hollande); likewise in France, Germany, Greece, and Italy, anarchists and communists fight street battles against fascists and liberal-state police forces simultaneously.
In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, there is no such clear division. At least some degree of this is on account of legislative actions and policing against labor unions and radical organizers: in the United States, the power of unions has been almost completely broken, and Democratic and Republican governments alike have engaged in infiltration, sabotage, and entrapment of anarchist groups for decades, particularly of the green (eco) and red (communal-ist) varieties.
What now passes for ‘Left’ in all these countries looks remarkably like the centre-right governments in Europe. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy was more pro-capitalist and pro-war then Nicolai Sarkozy’s government in France, and Hillary Clinton’s platform was more conservative (and imperialist) than Angela Merkel’s conservative government in Germany.
The Limits of “The Overton Window“
This right-ward drift of American ‘leftism’ is usually explained by means of what is called the Overton Window. In this conceptual picture, politicians and elected leaders can only call upon a limited number of actions and legislation within what is considered an acceptable ‘window’ of ideology.
Those who use the Overton Window to explain why American ‘leftism’ seems ‘centrist’ compared to Europe make two errors. While cultural and societal norms definitely define what appears to the majority of the public as acceptable vs. extreme, political parties themselves wield the power to shift this window through police and legislative actions. By police actions I mean the long-standing suppression of anarchist, marxist, indigenous, and Black resistance groups by the FBI under both Liberal and Conservative governments in the United States, and by legislative I mean (at minimum) the collaborative suppression of so-called ‘third parties’ by both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Likewise, the Overton Window assumes that politicians actually care what the majority of people who elect them want and that liberals would take stronger ‘leftist’ positions if only their people would accept. This is true only if we take into consideration the power of wealth in elections: corporations, banks, and the very wealthy have much more influence over getting politicians elected than community groups or individual electors.
And anyway, the Democratic party in the United States has repeatedly made clear where their own Overton Window is. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the US House of Representatives recently re-iterated what every Leftist has known forever about the Democratic party: “we are capitalists.” Hillary Clinton, likewise, made clear to her wealthy donors her support for capitalism against popular opposition to fracking and the Dakota Access Pipeline when she told those private bankers that those protesting such things should “get a life.”
Liberalism, particularly in America, is staunchly pro-capitalist and only cares about the environment when doing so doesn’t scare off political donors.
The Liberal parties in the United States and elsewhere have never been anti-capitalist. In fact, Liberalism is by definition capitalist, though so-called Social Democrats (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the United States) or the British Labour Party offer select and relatively insignificant socialist policies to mitigate the damage done by capitalism. The programs they argue for — nationalized (so-called ‘universal) health care and direct income assistance (‘universal’ basic income) — do not directly challenge the capitalist system; rather, they merely modify it in order to keep it functioning.
Not only do Liberals not challenge the capitalist system, they are just as nationalist as the conservative ‘opposition.’ Nationalism takes myriad forms, but all instances of it hold one thing in common: the imagined community of the Nation is paramount to all other individual concerns.
We see this best regarding the militarization of Liberal Democratic states, particularly the United States. The US has the largest military in the world, and in 2014 (the latest available numbers) spent $610 billion dollars on it: three times the next highest budget (China) and 34% of the world’s total military spending. In case you need a reminder, Barack Obama was president in 2014. That’s right: that was the budget under a Democrat.
In comparison, the Russian Federation spent 84.5 billion that same year, or 14% of what the United States spent. I bring up Russian for a very good reason: currently, Liberals in the United States are obsessed over the threat Vladimir Putin poses to America, and Democratic Party politicians and operatives seem certain that Trump’s potential ties to Russian business deals and potential Russian involvement in the recent election constitute treason.
Treason is, of course, a betrayal of the state and the people it claims to represent on behalf of a foreign power. It’s a crime against a Nation, not against individuals. That many Liberals now hope Trump’s frightening rise to power can be thwarted by claiming he is a traitor to America might seem at first a mere political move, but it belies something much more frightening: Liberals are Nationalist, just like the conservatives and fascists they claim to oppose.
The Big Red Button
The Nationalist foundations of liberalism can be seen not just in the construction of Russia (a nation which spends 86% less than the US on its military) as a clear and present threat, nor just in the Democratic Party’s military appropriations, but also in the way Liberals have pushed for more government surveillance powers.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York at the beginning of the last decade, then-president George W. Bush presided over the creation of new state-policing powers. The Department of Homeland Security and its subsidiaries (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol), now the primary enforcement arm of Trump’s anti-immigrant (that is, anti-foreigner) orders, subsequently received increased funding under Obama.
But more insidious was the expansion of surveillance powers under a Democratic President, including a peculiar executive order signed just a few days before Obama left office. Executive Order 12333, signed by a president widely seen to be on the side of the people, made it possible for the National Security Administration (the NSA) to make all their domestic intercepts freely available to other police agencies:
The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself.
Why would liberals, after Trump was elected and just days before he was to take office, give such an order?
Return to the analogy with which I began this editorial, and you have your answer. Liberals and Conservatives both increase the power of the state because they know they will eventually hold control of that state, just as much as the two camps in my analogy make sure to reload the gun before passing it off to the opposition.
Currently, we in the United States are urged by Liberals to oppose Trump because he has access to the ‘big red button’ of nuclear capabilities, of a massive surveillance state, of a militarized Department of Homeland Security, and all kinds of other “loaded guns.” What they politely fail to mention, however, is that Liberals helped build those nuclear capabilities, increased military spending, expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, and gave the government more surveillance powers.
That ‘big red button’ happens to be in the hands of someone quite terrifying at the moment. But what a Liberal will never allow to be asked is what Leftists — particularly anarchists — demand: why should anyone have access to the means of destruction? What good is a nation anyway, especially if it proves itself repeatedly to be a way of eliciting popular support for wars against others?
Vote For Us, or Your Friends Will Die
Nationalist fears against weaker foreign powers do not constitute the only way that Liberals suppress leftist opposition to capitalism and the state. Their most insidious strategy has been wielding identity politics against the very people the social justice framework attempts to liberate.
To understand this, we need to look first at what is meant by identity politics. In an essay published on Vanity Fair, James Wolcott (a media critic and film reviewer, not a political theorist) warned against the so-called ‘alt-left’ (a constructed term) and an animosity they supposedly share with the fascist alt-right:
Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the “alt-right” and an alt-left.
Wolcott ends that essay, incidentally, by calling on the ‘deep state’ (the CIA) to end Trump’s regime, just as many other Liberals now do.
There is no alt-left, though. The term was first floated just after Clinton’s defeat by Liberals who put the blame for her loss on low Black voter turn-out and on leftists who refused to mobilize their groups to vote for a pro-capitalist, pro-war candidate (who’d previously called Black men “super-predators” and told environmentalists to “get a life.”)
The matter of identity politics requires more attention, though. In an incredible retort to Vanity Fair’s piece, Devyn Springer clarifies the leftist stance on identity (emphasis mine):
Because what Wolcott said was the “alt-left” has a “disgust” with identity politics, but what he meant to say was the left has dialectical analysis of the limits of identity politics. Lower the the proverbial fire into the gasoline puddle surrounding this paper-thin article, Wolcott conjures tired and recycled sentiments of ‘Bernie Bro’ leftists with a total disregard for identity politics, intersectional politics, and political theory surrounding the two. While these people do exist, they are but marginal voices among the left, a left largely compromised of people of color, women, disabled folks, queer and trans individuals, Muslims, immigrants, and other otherized individuals who’ve taken a class-analysis to approach the ways in which individuals of different identities are oppressed. It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.
It’s probably important here for some readers to know that the author is in many of the identity groups for which Hillary Clinton was trotted-out as champion:
Let me explicitly say that, as a Black queer Muslim who is the child of immigrants living a low class life in the US south, to ‘loath’ someone both directly and indirectly responsible for millions of people’s oppression is a good decision. The left’s “loathing” of Clinton cannot, and should not, be equated to the right’s simply because they exist in completely different form.
It has been the practice of liberals in both the United States and in the United Kingdom to position themselves as the primary defenders of oppressed minorities within each nation. However, they do not position themselves as our champions against capitalism and state oppression, but rather against conservatives and foreign adversaries (particularly radical Islam, and now Russia). This was in sharp focus particularly during the recent US Election and the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom: in both countries, Liberals painted the vote as nothing less than a hostage situation.
Consider the rhetoric of the Democratic Party in the United States after Clinton was chosen as their presidential candidate. The same ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’ dichotomy which George W. Bush used to elicit support for the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan repeated: if you were not voting for Clinton, you were consigning Black, women, trans, disabled, queer, and other minorities to a brutal death. Likewise, the Remain camp in the UK warned of similar fates to oppressed minorities there.
Were such statements only warnings not to vote for Trump or not to vote “Leave,” we could perhaps forgive the rhetoric. After all, the rise of the fascist right in both countries would seem to prove their deep fears have come true. But these were not just arguments against voting for the opposing side: they were indictments of anyone who did not vote, or voted for a third party (in the US). That is: vote for Clinton/vote Remain…or else.
This is why leftists oppose so-called ‘identity politics,’ which can be better called Liberal Identity Politics. Liberals have become quite good at manipulating the competing identities of oppressed peoples for their own benefit. Clinton’s statement about “super predators,” for instance, manipulated [white] women’s fears of out-of-control Black bodies, pitting Black identity against [bourgeois] Feminist identity. Similarly, racism against Blacks was employed by Clinton in her failed bid against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, just as Barack Obama employed chauvinism against women to win that nomination. Anti-Semitic ‘red-baiting’ was used by the Clinton campaign in 2016 against Bernie Sanders, just as Bernie Sanders’ campaign tried to repeat Obama’s successful use of misogyny against her.
In all these cases, Liberals employed identity politics against other Liberals.
Those of us on the Left (no, Sanders was not a leftist) who watched this have more than enough reason to suspect that the once-liberatory social justice framework now serves the nationalist desires of politicians more than it serves us. Conservatives employ identity politics just as well, especially to drum up support for foreign invasions: the invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, was effectively framed as a war to liberate women from the patriarchal Taliban, regardless of whether or not those women were hoping to be liberated by bombs and occupation. And the fascist right (‘alt-right’ in the United States, ‘New Right’ in Europe) frames their politics now as “Identity Politics for Whites.”
In all cases (Liberal, Conservative, Fascist), identity is used as a weapon and method of control, cynically re-directing the self-description of people back into the machine of nationalist oppression.
The Return of the Left
The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom points both to the rise of nationalism (and soon, fascism). Those events also, however, herald the end of Anglo-Liberalism in both of those countries.
We must see this as good news, and also as a warning.
The complete failure of the Democratic Party in the United States to manipulate identity politics in a way that could win them the presidency (against the most pathetic excuse of a demagogue the world has yet seen) means nothing less than this: the Democratic Party in the United States has little political power any longer.
Insofar as Liberals have set themselves up cynically as the party of the oppressed while building up the power of the state and protecting the interests of capitalism, Leftists in the United States can now build actual anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist movements.
Black Lives Matter and the NODAPL movement at Standing Rock are both signs that indigenous and oppressed peoples have begun reclaiming their own power rather than allowing Liberals to co-opt their revolutionary struggles. Similarly, antifascist organizing against alt-right groups and leaders — despite Liberal attacks against their actions — shows that the Left has finally made a real break from the nationalism of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats are pissed.
That’s where the warning comes in. In every significant Leftist populist movement in the United States, the Democratic Party has shown itself quite adept at co-opting the struggles of the poor and oppressed. Resistance is ‘in’ now, Liberals are already starting to realise their fashion is out of date and seeking new ways to update their image.
How might they co-op these movements? Re-branding our politics as anti-Trump movements, re-directing leftist anger at capitalism and the police-state into electoral and establishment politics. The police were militarized before Trump, the security state exploded in size under Obama, Clinton openly advocated for military engagement in the Middle East, but in our current moment of terror, it will be easy for many to forget this. If a charismatic new Liberal were to rise suddenly, promising an end to Trump, only our memory of Liberalism’s relentless betrayal could stop them.
We who seek a better world must become not just revolutionaries, but keepers of the memories of Liberal betrayal. While Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” Liberals will soon be promising the same thing, a return to the halcyon days where they had control over the military and police, where they got to be the ones holding the gun to our heads, smiling, telling us they were on our side.
When the Liberals try to co-opt us, we must be ready. We must not settle for anything less than the end of the American Empire, the end of Capitalism, and the end of any political system that would promise to point a gun at another’s head on our behalf.
Rhyd is the managing editor and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He and Alley Valkyrie are currently raising funds to live in France — find out how to help them here.
Like this essay? You’ll probably really like Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism. It, and all our other books, is available here.