Saturday, February 19, 2011

Schmittian Fictions

The thing about Schmitt is his lucubrations tap fictions and produce powerful and compelling images of worlds and societies that are absurdly unrealistic - absurdly wrong about reality - but which can be made to seem very "believable" because their simple mythology is pleasureable in many ways, like action movies or other conspiracy theories in the anti-semitic mold. One can picture the mechanics and inhabitants of his imaginary worlds vividly, as film noir buffs can picture femmes fatales, and this promptness of fantasy to produce variations on inputs is easily mistaken for persuasiveness about history and human affairs. His pronoucements are all wrong and mainly ridiculous, ("identity politics" of an extreme Star Trekky sort, everyone motivated by tribal affiliations and tradition/ideology no matter how inconvenient to material interests and situation) but to an uncritical consumer they have, like stereotypes, an instant ring of truth or plausibility. As historical knowledge and understanding has declined in formally educated circles and critical faculties have been eroded by the spectacle blitz, Schmitt's "theory" has come into fashion.

An interesting problem regarding this impact of Schmittian/cocaculture attraction to overcome reasoned critique with essentially emotional appeals that feel intellectual, that fool you into thinking you smell something real when you only see an odorless image of it, becomes enlighteningly clear after an engagement with Joel Olson's compelling examinations of fanaticism.

He began this work before 9/11 and as a result of extended engagement with the Garrisonian abolitionists during the writing of a Duboisian study of race and US democracy. By the Rethinking Marxism conference in 2005 his case about extremism had assumed its present shape (the paper was called "Fanaticism and Communism"). As an anarchist who shows more inspiration from Schmitt than Marx (though some of both), Olson developed it seems a focus on the white abolitionist fanatics as the movers of abolition in the US in a way that marginalises the non-fanatical structural enemies of slavery, the enslaved themselves, who can be considered intransigent opponents of the institution of slavery without being definable as "abolitionist fanatics" (or locked into the prioritizing of a rigid friend/enemy distinction) in any meaningful sense. (It is even possible that Turner was some kind of mystic provided by his spiritual beliefs with grandiosity and assurance of divine aid/destiny that emboldens, but even if that were the case one would not call his opposition to slavery itself "fanatical". Nothing can be more reasonable than the enlightened self-interest of a class/caste of slaves' - or an individual's - abolitionism.) Olson's justified fascination with the committed, voluntary white accessories of black rebellion leads him to overemphasise their impact until the abolition of slavery seems to be principally their cause the way the settlement of Hebron is the cause of radical right Zionists. The Garrisonians were important, absolutely - perhaps more important than the more widespread abhorrence and sympathy of basically all of humanity excluding those with direct benefits from slavery - but they were secondary to the non-fanatical, much broader based resistance of the enslaved.

This focus on the committed volunteer warriors already justifies itself as a glamourisation, that is, as a pleasure for the reader or listener, the pleasure of a kind of narrative made possible by the exaggeration of the primacy of Brown, Phillips, Garrison, Foster (truly heroic men all) in the abolition of the peculiar institution in the US.

Once this role for the heroic white volunteer abolitionists is secured, Olson goes on to group their activites with others, dispersed in time and place, that seem to be of the same type on a number of counts. In one notable essay, he forefronts Randall Terry and Operation Rescue. Looking beyond the US one could add radical ultraZionist Israeli settlers and the Taleban. But what should become apparent to Olson is overlooked - that because the Garrisonian abolitionists were joining an existing popular movement of the structural antagonists of what was opposed, they differ enormously from these other movements that seem to be driven solely by voluntarism and zeal. (Fetuses put up no resistance to abortion; there is no population of unwilling women upon whom abortion is forced for Operation Rescue to join in struggle). Olson speaks of the importance to these fanatical movements of building a constituency - he excludes from his definition violent zealots who may inspire some copycats but don't seek to, and cannot, change "common sense" - but one cannot really deem the enslaved in the US a "constituency" of white abolitionists won over to abolitionism by The Liberator and the boldness and righteous fearlessness of the white volunteers. With this implication he seems to make a common anarchist error when he moves to taking the Garrisonians as models for the kinds of fanatics - devoted revolutionists - who will be required for revolutionary change today in the US: he seems to marginalise the class struggle and the variously intensified and relaxed but never-lapsing resistance of the structural antagonists (not volunteers who need special personalities but just ordinary people of varying degrees of consciousness and zeal in a determined position) to stage a more glamorous vision and more appealing narrative of social transformation which seems to hold out something of an answer to the question of how one sparks a significant potentially revolutionary upheaval.

Moreover - and this is most important - these other movements with which Olson wishes to categorise abolitionism (which is nothing but the class struggle of slaves) are, fanatical as the rank and file may be, the pawns and tools of a cynical, and indeed a liberal, ruling class.

There is a superficial similarity to be noted between the passionate commitment of some Garrisonian abolitionists - noticeable because it could not be attributed to self-interest in any proximate sense - and the passion with which Israeli settlers staking out "illegal" outposts in "Judea and Samaria" express themselves and conduct their project. But what makes these right wing puppet movements fanatical - and white American abolitionism is the only example of a "fanatical" movement in modernity that is not right wing - is not the passion for the content of their conviction, but the facing of opposition and the willingness to obliterate it. There is a social element - the element of structural conflict - the centrality of which to his own definition (fanaticism as "the political mobilzation of the refusal to compromise" depends on certain conditions) Olson gives insufficient importance in order to fulfill the Schmittian requirement for political storytelling which demands a central caricature of "liberalism" (as formlessness, amalgam, deriving from the paradoxical figure of money as every and no commodity, all-absorbing capital and universally alien Jew) as villain.

It is unsurprising then that in his talk, Olson pictures the enemy of anarchists today as people who "own yachts" and who might reprehensibly encourage others to acquire them - a description which occults the essential exploitative relation which subjects labour to capitalists by staging in a showy, immediately recogniseable way the resulting inequality, an object of moral opprobrium and a display of unfairness within a bourgeois framework, with confused hints about how it comes about and no consideration of the real relations of power which might permit the transformation of the situation. In this vacuum of material reality, the powers of decadent insatiable luxury on the one hand, and of righteousness and conviction on the other, seem to have no rivals and no obstacles to action but the lethargy and apathy of the majority of humanity.



  1. Today is the day for historical context, it seems. I just want to underline how Olsen has to ignore salient aspects of Garrison's politics as well as those of other prominent white abolitionists to create his account.
    Two comments on Garrison. First, he vacillated in his strategic goals. But at one extreme, if you'll pardon me the term, was secessionism.The free states should secede rather then live under the sinful slave constitution. The political issue that slavery poses is the moral pollution of innocent white souls, not the slaves themselves and their immediately coercive exploitation. Secessionism is an aboloitionism that is racist in substance. Garrison's moral framing of the issue and principal concern with the corruption of worthy innocents is the same as Olsen's yacht argument.
    Second, Frederick Douglass collaborated with Douglass at his newspaper and in his campaigns. But eventually left because Garrison did not treat him as a peer. Garrison's day-to-day political conduct, like his politcal vision, was racist. He rather literally could not see the interests and the struggles of the slaves. In some ways, Garrison's white abolitionism worked against the interests of slave abolitionists.
    Just by way of contrast, the abolitionisism of Thaddeus Stevens, for example, would force any analysis to incorporate the slave struggles. Before the Civil War, Stevens, already elected to the House of Represenatives, was best known as a defense lawyer in the trial that followed the Christiana Massacre. The massacre took place in 1851 just a few miles north of where I am writing. A Maryland slaver, his son, a U.S. marshall and a gang of "slave catchers" had entered Pennsylvania to retrieve run-away slaves. The self-liberated slaves were armed and were joined by free blacks from from the area. Whne the slavers tried to "catch" them, the free men shot and killed the slave owner and wounded his son. The run ways continued to Canada. In frustration, the federal government charged local whites who had refused to assist the slave catchers with treason. Even in a biased court, Stevens demonstrated that the charge was as absurd as it sounds. Stevens was an agitator and publisher, but he did not act as an autonomous pole of abolitionism. At the trial he was effectively defending the right of slave resistance and literally the right to suppport that resistance. Steven's personal relations with black activists and intitmates also contrast with Garrison's, but would take too much space to discuss now. Politically and personally, I find Stevens a more important and interesting figure than Garrison. Wish Olsen had too.

  2. thanks Chuckie - that's so illuminating. I never knew much about the Garrisonians; it always struck me that in US 7th grade text books they are the white heroes hollywood needs to give the white students "someone to identify with" who isn't the villain and loser; I always had an icky feeling about Garrison from what I read. My impression was always that this group supplied a lot of text to the archives but was not central to the struggle against slavery in the US (by the enslaved and former slaves) and that there was, as with the Wilberforce and the French celebrity amis des noirs, this same moral opposition that isn't exactly solidarity (largely because of the class divide). Race makes it plainer but the shortcoming of the fanatics, moved by a voluntarily adopted idea, are evident in many instances...and the more interesting comparison than the one attraction Olson would be one clarifying the contrast between some extremist groups which form into (more or less felicitous) relations to existing popular struggles and those which have to try to build a "constituency" as fan base.