In the US, an organic crisis?

The US appears to be headed towards what Antonio Gramsci and other Italian political theorists call an “organic crisis of the State.” It involves the simultaneous and compounded fractures of economy, society and politics, which together constitute a tipping point in a nation’s history. Social contradictions are exacerbated, class and identity divisions are exposed and governments prove incapable or incompetent in offering peaceful relief or resolution to what is a very “delicate and dangerous” situation.

The moment of crisis is brought on by a catalyst or precipitant that cannot be resolved by “ordinary” institutional means. The turn then is towards “extraordinary” means, which often involve, under the guise of re-establishing “law and order,” the imposition of authoritarian controls on the body politic in order to “cleanse” the nation-State of the “impurities” that elites–often led by so-called “charismatic men of destiny” who are most often self-serving if not malign in intent–see as the root source of the national malaise. The classic examples of this phenomenon come from interwar Europe but there are plenty of others, including the military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of Central America and the Southern Cone of the 1960s-1980s.

This is the danger. Although the sources of American discontent are many and lie deep, the Trump administration and its Republican allies seek only to address the immediate “problem” of public unrest while working to reinforce their partisan interests. Already, the language used by the Trump administration with regards to political opponents, immigrants and others seen as obstacles echoes the language used by authoritarians of the past, something that is now accompanied by open calls for increased repression of protesters. The administration and its media acolytes have shifted their attention from the police murder of an unarmed black man to blaming “radical leftists” for the looting and vandalism that has swept the nation in response. Media coverage feeds into that narrative, as its focus fixates on scenes of destruction and violence. Less attention is paid to the underlying causes of mass collective violence in the US and the history of unsuccessful peaceful resistance that gave way to it, or to the fact that looting and attacks on symbols of authority and power is a major venting mechanism for oppressed populations the world over. The media coverage is on the symptoms, not the cause, and the government response is an example of the problem, not the solution.

The government response was predictable but has been worsened by Trump. He blames movements like Antifa and threatens to unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on demonstrators, not too subtlety evoking images of police violence against peaceful protestors in the US South in the 1960s. He says that “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” echoing the words of a Southern police chief from that era. He speaks of “thugs,” infiltrators, agitators and even “Radical Democrats” opportunistically exploiting the moment for selfish gain.

Media pundits have likened the current moment to the situation in 1967-68, when a wave of race riots swept the country in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy amidst the ongoing protests against the Vietnam War and the cultural wars between hippies and hardhats. However, this situation is worse. In 1968 the economy was robust and the political establishment, for all of its old pale male characteristics, was stable and united on ideological fundamentals. The crisis of the day was social, not existential or organic.

Today the US is a bitterly divided country in decline with a dysfunctional political system, an economy in recession and a society swept by social, ideological, racial and class divisions–all blanketed in a pandemic and backdropped by a slow moving climate disaster.

There are other points of difference. Technological advances have widened the coverage of as well as the communication between protests, thereby amplifying their impact and the linkage between them. Rather than radical leftists (such as those who challenged the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s), now well-organised rightwing extremists have infiltrated the protests in pursuit of what is known as “acceleration theory,” whereby acts of violence in the context of otherwise peaceful protest are used as accelerants that bring social contradictions to a head and quicken the path towards open race war. Along with so-called “replacement theory,” where it is claimed that unless it stands and fights now, the white race will be replaced by non-white races in the near future due to demographic trends, acceleration theory was the ideological underpinning of the Christchurch terrorist and many other perpetrators of mass murder in recent years. It is what lay at the heart of the neo-Nazi March on Charlottesville and it is not only deeply rooted in the the US but is, however obliquely, encouraged from the highest levels of the Trump administration (see: Stephen Miller).

Where there are parallels with 1968 is in the mobilisation of the National Guard in several states, the imposition of curfews in cities and states, and the declaration of states of emergency in many areas. Trump has ordered mobilisation of active duty military police units as reinforcements for local police and Guard units. Yet even here the situation is now more acute. After years of militarisation, local law enforcement agencies deploy sworn officers in storm trooper outfits and wielding military-grade weapons along with an assortment of “non-lethal” crowd control instruments. Many police are veterans of recent wars given special admission to law enforcement, and many of the equipment they use is surplus inventory from those wars. Not all of these officers have eliminated the combat ethos from their personal ideas about law enforcement. In any event, the approach of US repressive apparatuses as a whole addresses the immediate expressions of community rage but does nothing, and in fact often is counter-productive to, resolve the underlying problems in US society.

There is another source of concern beyond the fact that the Trump administration’s response is an example of the political dimension of the organic crisis. Increasingly under siege because of his incompetence and imbecility, Trump’s behaviour is getting more reckless and unpredictable. There is growing apprehension that he may do something drastic (read: stupid) to divert attention away from his domestic failures. This could be starting a war with Iran, increasing the tensions with China, provoking a cross-border dispute with Mexico or pursuing a number of other foreign misadventures. It could also include postponing national elections under the rise of a national emergency declaration, with the argument being that the combination of public health and public order threats require extraordinary counter-measures, including a delay in voting. Regrettably, it is within Trump’s powers to do so.

All of this must be seen against the backdrop of an international system in transition, where ascendant and descendent powers jockey for position in the move from a unipolar to a multipolar world. It is possible that what we are seeing in the US today is the domestic manifestation of its decline, a former superpower now cracking under the stresses of attempting to hang on to lost empire while at the same time seeing long-simmering (yet obvious) internal contradictions come to the surface. Adversarial powers see this evolution and will no doubt attempt to take advantage of it, to include exploiting US internal divisions via disinformation campaigns as well as presenting direct challenges in areas of contestation abroad. That may well accentuate the erratic actions of an unhinged president enabled by a coterie of grifters and opportunists and unburdened by a political opposition or national bureaucracy that can or is willing to intervene in defence of the nation (if nothing else, by ignoring his orders).

Whatever happens over the next few months, the stage is set for an ugly outcome.

21 thoughts on “In the US, an organic crisis?

  1. Yes – it is all looking pretty apocalyptic in the US. I’ve just been reading about Trump and his family taking shelter in a bunker at the White House because of the protest there. And I read Robert Reich’s opinion piece in the Guardian headlined “Fire, pestilence and a country at war with itself: the Trump presidency is over”. The awful thing is I doubt that it actually is, and any means to keep this regime in place will most likely be used. As I said once before I sincerely hope I am wrong.

  2. The tweet has been deleted and I can’t find any reference to the NYPD doxing New York Mayor De Blasio’s daughter by putting her full address up on the NYPD Twitter account. Literally the only competent course of action is to send in the National Guard and relieve all NYPD officers of there badges and guns. In fact the whole American police force is acting independently on the people and the constitution. Yknow this is America’s Berlin Wall moment.

  3. To me the obvious parallel is not 1968, but much more recent – the 2014 Ferguson protests. The national guard was deployed then, too.

  4. I’m not sure there is an historical parallel for dismantling the police force.

    There’s one lot of cops dropping dynamite from helicopters onto an apartment building where there’s a gun fight with residents and police.

    Guys, America has literally gone full Gomer Pyles

  5. I am sorry, but if you think that the closest parallel to today’s protests is Ferguson, then you once again have missed the forest for the trees.

  6. I may well be missing something, I have not done a deep dive. Can you lay it out – what are the critical commonalities between the current protests and the 60s protests, that the Ferguson protests lack?

    Sam: Is your reference to the police dropping dynamite something contemporary, or is it a historical reference to the 1985 MOVE bombing?

  7. I believe the relevant reference in this case is from John F. Kennedy (RIP): “those who make peaceful protest impossible make violent protest inevitable.”

  8. So I guess America went Gomer Pyle in 1985 and has been Gomer Pyle for the last 35 years

  9. There was that time national guardsmen shot all those university students during Vietnam. We could go way way back really.

    What does the constitution even mean in America. Reporters are being arrested – no free press, there’s no right to protest, freedom of speech is suspended. There’s no emergency powers, no martial law. America is literally a dystopian state full of made up rules.

    If I could choose a parallel it would be the fall of the Berlin Wall only this time it’s the thin blue line.

    The shit thing is, well I still mostly blame Obama and Eric Holder for that patriot act and rolling back everyone’s rights I mean yes I know guys, Trump does this and that and he’s incompetent and well no one can say that Obama wasn’t component he was a damn constitutional professor for Petes sack. Americans really need to start throwing boxes of tea into the harbour.

  10. The Patriot Act was passed in 2001 under George W Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

  11. Sam:

    It was Bush 43 who signed that Patriot Act into law. Obama’s fault was to not repeal it entirely, but that was a political impossibility given the composition and attitude of Congress. The shooting you refer to was the killing and wounding of students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guards in 1970. The MOVE bombing did not generate nation-wide protests and in fact attempts to amplify the revulsion against that action were dampened by the Reagan administration. The fact that MOVE was a fringe movement even within African-American political and activist circles made downplaying of the event easier for the authorities.

    I am not going to run down every reason why the closest parallel is the 67-68 moment, and I have outlined why this moment is significantly different. I suggest that you and Gorkem read Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (pp.210-212 in my edition), to get a better sense of the concept of “organic crisis” and why the current situation is of a magnitude difference to what came before. His prescience is chilling.

  12. I still don’t like what Obama did. If it wasn’t for him extending the patriot act far beyond its scoope I don’t think we would have gotten all the violations to the constitution, violations to free speech, violations to the right to bare arms, they can’t protest, there’s no free press/media. Mass Surveillance was a big mistake.

  13. @Sam: How did Obama extend the patriotic act beyond its scope?

    @Pablo: Thanks for the rec! I am familiar with Gramsci but I am not sure that the current events speak to Gramsci’s theory in a way that the Ferguson protests didn’t. Can you elaborate on your analysis?

  14. Gorkem:

    I suggest that you re-read my post, especially the first two paragraphs, which are in large part drawn from reading the Prison Notebooks. Italian political theorists (whom I happen to have an affinity for) have been preoccupied with issues of instability and problems of governance in fluid times in a measure that Anglo-Saxon theorists were not. That is why people like Machiavelli, Bobbio and Negri serve as good foundational stones for the so-called transitology literature. Based on my understanding of both the Italians as well as the voluminous transitiology literature, I simply contend that today’s situation is a compound “organic” crisis in a measure that Ferguson was not. Remember, it is not just the underlying socio-economic inequalities and injustices that make for the difference. So too does the economic moment, the nature and quality of political leadership and the specific type of government response to protests, as well as externalities such as a pandemic, all of which were quite different in 2014.

  15. Gorkem:

    2 things come to mind. Obama failed to protect whistle blowers or give defendants evidence in there own trial.

    I’m not good enough to have clarity of what it was like under Bush2 but at least I know Bush used hard power more than soft powers of coercion.

  16. @Sam: You cannot really understand the Patriot Act without understanding the Bush administration. The Patriot Act was one of his signature policies.

    I think that the idea that the Patriot Act was an Obama policy partly lies in generic blindness towards the past – sadly a bipartisan phenomenon – and partly in quite cynical attempts by conservative opinion-makers to associate Obama, and Democrats as a whole, with the unpopular aspects of security policy. Notice how conservatives are no longer complaining about the Patriot Act, TSA overreach, etc etc, now that there is a conservative in the Oval Office.

  17. The first shots in the twenty first century American civil war has been fired

    Lots of people are willing this incident on to be nothing more than an isolated incident rather than planning and organising and moving with a purpose.

    So maybe we shouldn’t do this anymore and fix our own police force, the cultural side I mean, perhaps recruiting less foreigners and instead have more exchange programmes and perhaps pay them better and maybe the police force will get access to better recruits.

  18. People get extra immigration points if they want to be cops or nurses. That’s a dud policy now anyway with boarder restrictions in place.

    The issue is that I hear through the great left wing grapevine that some people want to get rid of police departments or disband the whole thing. I may have mentioned that myself.

    But once we start delving into disbanding the police force things get really tricky fast. Then it becomes the lord of the flys survival of the fittest type thing which would be terrible.

    So I want to insert the small idea the Black Panthers used to push, this idea about about having some sort of local citizens assembly where locals could hire and fire local cops and I think that would be a fantastic thing for everyone Yknow maybe even get the PTTA to run the thing. I’m just thinking aloud that’s all. There’s so much dystopian dreaming going on Yknow as sone as there’s a crises everyone’s like nows my chance to be a gangster and straight lawlessness. I’d rather toil away on my own thing.

  19. “People get extra immigration points if they want to be cops or nurses.”

    Are you talking about New Zealand or the USA?

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