On Becoming Mainstream and Beyond

When I founded Attack the System over 20 years ago, my objective was to lay the blueprint for an insurgent anarchist movement in North America that could eventually take down the US regime and ruling class, in solidarity with those under attack by US imperialism in each of what Ross Douthat recently identified as the “three zones of the empire” (the continental 50-state empire, colonized nations in Europe and East Asia, and nations directly under attack on the periphery, formerly known as the “Third World”).  For readers who are new to ATS or who have not ventured through the entire archives of ATS, the following essays are a sample of what I was writing about during the first decade of ATS.

Anarchism or Anarcho-Social Democracy?

Philosophical Anarchism and the Death of Empire

Liberty and Populism: Building an Effective Resistance Movement for North America

Weimar America

The Ten Core Demographics of Alternative-Anarchism/Pan-Secessionism

These writings were produced beginning in the late Bill Clinton era, throughout the George W. Bush-era, and into the early Obama era. As far back as the 1990s, I started to realize that the left/right conflict in the US was essentially a conflict between contending cultural and economic interests within the middle to upper class (which constitutes the global 1% in terms of income and consumption). Studying anarchist history, I additionally came to realize that the historic alliance between anarchists and the general Left (see France, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere) has also been a disaster and that a new approach is needed.

What I proposed instead was a kind of “anarcho-populism” that conceived of an approach to politics that would be a left/right radical center libertarian-populism that constituted a political realignment beyond the left/right dichotomy toward an anti-system vs. pro-system dichotomy. Such a realignment would be populist (the people vs the elite) and “anarchist” (decentralist, anti-statist, localist, federalist, voluntarist, mutualist, etc.) The anarchist part was a reflection of not only my ideological biases but also practical necessity (accommodation of the range of interests involved in such a coalition). The strategic formulation that I devised for this new anarchist paradigm involved the concept of “pan-secessionism,” i.e. territorial, economic, institutional, and other forms of withdrawal from the existing system through the creation of systems of dual or parallel power. My views on this question were based on lessons that can be learned from the successes and failures of past revolutionary movements.

For example, the American Revolution of 1776, while reflecting the limitations of its time, was largely successful and managed to avoid the blood purges of the French Revolution. Similarly, with the exception of Yugoslavia, the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics managed to avoid massive bloodshed or the creation of a new totalitarian regime, unlike the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Revolution. Additionally, I came to reject the “culture war” framework of domestic US politics that was already a thing in the 1990s out of the recognition that it is precisely this kind of inter-sectarian and inter-tribal conflict that leads to the bloodshed experienced in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Lebanon, India/Pakistan and other places plagued by tribal-sectarian civil wars of the 20th century.

Heavily influenced by Spanish anarchism, I postulated the idea of an “anarchist vanguard” of what Bakunin called “principled militants” (like Spain’s FAI, and not the Leninist concept of a “vanguard party”) that would be oriented toward developing the anarcho-populist movement described above, with the goal of eventually applying the pan-secessionist tactical model in a manner similar to the traditional anarcho-syndicalist concept of a “general strike” albeit in a much more comprehensive way that would not only be oriented toward worker action but would also be a kind of pan-institutional model of “attacking the system.” Recognizing that most anarchists are cultural leftists, I expected that the cultural components and divisions of such a movement would be managed along geographical lines. For example, the urban component of anarcho-populism would be leftist in orientation, even far left, while the suburban regions might be more moderate in cultural orientation, and the rural areas, smaller towns, and deep red zones reflecting the deeply rooted cultural conservatism of those regions. The same way an Afghan revolutionary might recognize the possibility for Western-style liberalism to be practiced in the larger cities, but impossible for the more remote, agricultural, or sparsely populated areas inhabited by traditional people. Or the same way as in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries where it is common to find people with 1950s-era mores living a few miles away from folks with 10th-century mores.

The major weakness in this position was that I overestimated the actual commitment of many “radicals” to radicalism, but underestimated the entrenchment of “culture war” psychology, which has only become much more intense in the past 20 years. Right now, the USA is experiencing what is essentially a religious conflict between different existential viewpoints, our own version of the Sunni/Shia rivalry in the Middle East, pitting the believers in the traditional American civil religion and/or traditional religion (the Red Tribe) versus believers in cosmopolitan universalism, progressive religion, or Enlightenment rationalism (the Blue Tribe). As a Nietzschean/Stirnerite moral skeptic who doesn’t “share the values” of either major “tribe,” I underestimated the intensity of the commitment of the two tribes to their particular sectarian outlook, in the same way, an atheist in the Middle East might have difficulty personally understanding the psychology of the Sunni/Shia rivalry.

In particular, my criticisms of “anarcho-social democracy” in the first article linked to above have become particularly relevant because most left-wing anarchists in North America are in fact functional social democrats, irrespective of what label they may claim for themselves, and essentially have no level of political awareness or knowledge beyond ordinary left-liberalism, with others falling into the historic trap of embracing Marxism. Most left-wing anarchists have essentially adopted the same primary value system of figures like Hillary Clinton (even if they find her neoliberalism lamentable) in the sense of viewing the so-called “deplorables” as the primary enemy, even while failing to recognize the constitutional changes that have taken place among the US ruling class in recent decades, where digital capitalism and the professional-managerial class have eclipsed industrial capitalism and the Chamber of Commerce-like old bourgeoisie as the dominant sector of the power elite. In other words, left-wing anarchism is now, for the most part, a reactionary position. And those anarchists who are not “anarcho-social democrats” (e.g. many American anarcho-capitalists and American national-anarchists) have frequently fallen into the trap of becoming right-wingers even to the point of embracing figures like Donald Trump in some instances, which would be the equivalent of anarchists and libertarians joining the Wallace Democrats in 1968, an interesting novelty but one that is ultimately self-defeating.

Nevertheless, many of the ideas and concepts that I wrote about during the early years of ATS have become increasingly mainstream or commonplace, as a review of the articles linked to above will indicate. The American empire has started to recede in a way that has slowed the globalization process, with globalization now facing the additional obstacle of the pandemic. Populist sentiments have certainly escalated not just in the US but in many places. The demographic sectors that I referenced have been at the forefront of recent riots and other forms of upheaval. The concerns I expressed about the possibility of a “Weimar America” in 2005 (a scenario that the ATS paradigm was intended in part to avoid ) are now much more realistic, although I don’t really think Weimar or Spain in the 1920s/1930s is the best analogy to the present circumstances. Our present political situation in the US is largely a continuation of the rivalry between the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians in 1800, albeit with something of a reversal of roles. The Jeffersonians were economic conservatives (landed agrarian gentry) but cultural cosmopolitan “liberals” (anti-clerical and pro-immigration) while the Hamiltonians were economic progressives (favoring the merchant class and the rising industrial revolution similar to today’s rising tech revolution) but cultural conservatives (pro-religion and xenophobic). Today’s progressives favor both the digital capitalist tech revolution and cultural cosmopolitanism while today’s conservatives favor “traditional values” and the old bourgeoisie, petite bourgeoisie, and post-bourgeois proletariat. Either way, the kind of political and cultural polarization that often precedes civil war is indeed becoming more pervasive.

During the time that I was developing the ideas described above, I considered the most serious political issues in North America to be US imperialism (because it is killed millions of people), the reproletarianization of labor (the US now has what amounts to a Latin American-like class system), and the use of the criminal law as a means of escalating state repression. While movements to achieve basic civil rights for traditional outgroups in the mid-20th century were overwhelmingly successful, and resulted in a revolution not only in law but in social mores and institutional norms as well, the focus of state repression subsequently shifted to the use of overcriminalization as a means of strengthening the state through the standard model of targeting “an enemy within,” a process that began with Nixon’s and Reagan’s “War on Drugs” but then expanded to include general wars on crime, guns, gangs, terrorism, and virtually everything else, with an additional layer to these “conservative” forms of repression eventually being added by the progressive side in the form of “political correctness.”

But most “leftists” don’t really give a damn about fighting “the system.” For example, the antiwar left is one of the smallest sectors of the left (at least in terms of focus and emphasis), and the civil libertarian left is practically non-existent at this point. Even the labor left is puny. Most “economic leftists” are middle-class professionals who want a large welfare state for themselves and are more concerned about protecting public sector employment interests. The only other things they care about are the “Jesus is coming!” climate hysteria (which amounts to a modern pantheistic religion with its own Levantine apocalyptic framework, and which has no practical dimension at all), and the IDPol umbrella, which is simply about enhancing the upward mobility of elite and middle-class members of traditional outgroups through playing the victimology card.

The main pushback I have received from the left has usually been rooted in some kind of evangelical universalism, and typically amounts to “But in Preston’s system someone, somehow, someway might be racist, eat meat, or not be able to get an abortion and use a unisex toilet. ” I’ve certainly received criticism from right-wingers as well, and the right-wing is at least as bad if not worse. The main problem with right-wingers is that many of them can’t get over what a friend calls their “homo for a man in uniform” fetishization of the military and police (although that may be changing if January 6 is any indication).  And then you have the Randroids who deify “entrepreneurs” (modern robber barons) as Nietzschean ubermensch, evangelicals who are like a woman who still pretends like her ex-husband still loves her 20 years after their divorce and who now worship a leader who privately despises them, and “white nationalist” retards who think they’re going to have a Fourth Reich in America. I’ve also come across right-wingers who, in a manner similar to their leftist counterparts,  can’t bear the idea that, yes,  in post-America LA would probably still be a sanctuary city and Connecticut would still probably have gun control and Seattle would probably be a socialist republic city-state.

But, ironically, the general ATS paradigm is largely moving into the mainstream political culture at this point, although in a piecemeal, chaotic, non-directed way rather than in the organized, conspiratorial way originally envisioned, as the links below indicate.

Pan-Secessionism is Now a Mainstream Idea

Forms of Pan-Secessionism That Are Actually Happening

For example, ATS has in the past been accused of fostering “red/brown alliances,” which appears to be a reference to the paradigm developed by post-Soviet Russian figures like Eduard Limonov and Alexander Dugin, who favored alliances between anti-capitalist leftists and the nationalist right, the “National-Bolshevik” concept developed in Weimar Germany by figures like Ernst Niekisch and which reemerged in the post-Soviet era, and the left-wing of the early German Nazi Party led by figures like Otto and Gregor Strasser and Ernst Roehm. A similar concept that was known as the “red/brown/green alliance” developed in France in the era of globalization, and amounted to communists, nationalists, and Islamists forming parliamentary blocks against neoliberal interests. On a very peripheral level, such concepts have been very marginal influences on the ATS paradigm, along with many other left/right crossover efforts like Murray Rothbard’s and Karl Hess’ efforts to form an Old Right/New Left alliance in the 1960s or the tactical alliance between the Portuguese section of the FAI and the Portuguese Blue Shirts against the Salazar regime in the 1930s, or Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition that allied the Black Panthers with Appalachian rednecks. A tendency similar to Hampton’s emerged in the US militia movement in the 1990s in the form of the North American Liberation Front.

These “red/brown alliance” accusations are now being made against much more mainstream figures than myself, including leftist journalists or politicians like Max Blumenthal, Jimmy Dore, Glemn Greenwald, The Jacobin magazine, Krystal Ball, Brianha Joy Gray, Jill Stein, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang, as well as conservatives like Tucker Carlson. What seems to be happening is that class divisions have become so wide that some of the more intelligent and thoughtful (or at least strategically-minded) conservatives have realized they can’t ignore it, and many leftists are starting to realize that they can’t declare the entirety of the white working class to be their enemy if they are serious about “class struggle” or at least winning elections.

Increasingly, I am seeing articles in the mainstream press speculating about the possibility of a breakup of the United States or a possible civil war, even from otherwise pro-establishmentarian or at least non-radical sectors like the neoconservatives (e.g. Bill Kristol’s buddy David French), The New Republic, liberals like Joel Kotkin or this writer from Quillette, or non-political outlets like GQ. And if there is a “solution” to the present levels of conflict that exist in the US that does not involve breakup or civil war, I am at a loss as to what it might be. Often, an otherwise divided society can unify against a common threat or during a time of crisis. The pandemic has been just such a crisis, and yet the pandemic has exacerbated political, cultural, economic, and other divisions to an even greater degree.

Virtually all of the self-proclaimed anti-statist, anti-authoritarian, libertarian, decentralist, communal, utopian, countercultural, or anarchist factions in the US have failed miserably during this course of events. What larger and more competent and foresighted movements of these kinds might be doing at this time would be seeking ways to dissolve the present system, without having a civil war or violent revolution that results in blood purges or dictatorship. Instead, most insist on playing the losing “culture war” game and aligning themselves with one or another system faction, rather than stepping forward with practical plans for system dissolution in ways that are fair to all of the contending interests to the greatest degree possible, while recognizing the paramount importance of avoiding the errors of France, Russia, Germany, Spain, India, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.

It’s going to be a long hot century.

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