For a moment there it felt like I was going to have to side with the police. Since March, the coronavirus has threatened to make everyone into morons. As if to assert America’s dominance by leading the world in deaths, the American right had been preoccupied with a single cause: going back to work. Their forms of disobedience ranged from the stupid (doing push-ups outside the gym) to the unhinged (bearing arms in a capitol building). If they kept up the provocation, perhaps it wouldn’t be too long before they “got what was coming.” They were no angels. It was bizarre to hear the usual mouthpieces of power sounding off against authority and the state. But it was, in its own way, refreshing.
For the first time in 3 years, conservatives were sounding like responsible skeptics of authority. And they had a point—an important point, about the dangers of government restrictions and the need for civil liberties, which their opponents had no right to disregard. But this point was negated almost immediately by the start of June, when popular unrest against state repression actually manifested, as countless Americans took to the streets in protest of racist cop brutality. The right, which was so eager to take up arms against the state for closing Baskin-Robbins, found it suddenly more pressing to take up arms against the people for looting Target. Suddenly the right’s call to stop “martial law” became the call to “send in the troops.” After sounding nearly anarchistic in their defiance of the “police state,” conservatives discovered they rather do like the police after all. Well—which is it?
The schizophrenia of right-wing politics is nothing new. In the first half of the 20th century, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises became an intellectual forebear of the right-wing ideology known in America as “libertarianism.” In my lifetime, this ideology found its best expression in the “Tea Party,” a popular conservative movement that arose under President Obama and turned out not to be so “grassroots” after all. The movement’s demands were often conflicting or incoherent, but they revolved around a basic core of opposition to “big government,” belief in “liberty” and defense of “the free market”; at times, their rhetoric crossed over into anti-government hostility and threats of armed revolt. The fact that so many of these “anti-statists” went on to champion President Donald Trump—despite his authoritarianism, and his departure from free-market orthodoxy—is both here and there. It speaks volumes of their actual principles. And it is not unprecedented: they are following in the footsteps of Ludwig von Mises, who in 1927, at the same time and in the same book where he was defending an ideal of “limited government” in the name of “freedom,” wrote:
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.
Fifty years later, a student of Mises called Friedrich Hayek, another influential libertarian, defended the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile as preferable to the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende, who was ousted and killed in a U.S.-backed coup. The so-called “Chicago Boys,” Chilean economists who studied under libertarian scholar Milton Friedman, served as Pinochet’s advisors. Friedman was also the advisor of Ronald Reagan, who once said that the brave American volunteers who helped to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist dictator General Franco were “fighting on the wrong side.” Around this time, President Reagan happened to be financing and directing right-wing terrorists (a.k.a. “freedom fighters”) in Nicaragua, in violation of international law, and eventually against domestic law as well.
The strange marriage on the right between anti-authority and pro-authority postures goes back even further. In the French Revolution, forces in the Vendée countryside launched a rebellion against the central authority of revolutionary Paris—a “rebellion” in the name of monarchy. In the U.S. antebellum, Southern whites were very eager to use the power of federal government to enforce their ownership of slaves; from the Civil War and onward, white supremacists turned against the federal government, when it was used for abolition and civil rights. In the Lochner era of U.S. legal history, right-wing jurists found a way to weaponize the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “liberty” to oppose government regulation of business; this and similar arguments are still used now to scale back legal protections of workers and minorities. In 1955, William F. Buckley claimed that his right-wing magazine, the National Review, was “out of place” in an “age of conformity,” that conservatives were “nonconformists” who stood for “dissent from the Liberal orthodoxy,” and thus were “the hottest thing in town”—and this was at the height of mainstream McCarthyism. One hears fatuous echoes of this sentiment when figures on today’s right say that “conservatism is the new punk rock.”
I don’t think these sentiments are insincere. Conservatives really do see themselves as “going against the grain,” even if they often find themselves very supportive of the grain. This isn’t strictly speaking contradictory. Whether one is for or against “authority” in the abstract is the wrong question. There’s a through line that links royalism to insurrection, owning slaves to fighting the state, libertarian thinkers to fascist dictators, Tea Party rebels to presidential cheerleaders, anti-state militias to pro-cop bootlickers. It’s the question of power, and more specifically of property.
Our entire economic system, and one’s ability to survive within it, depend on the institution of property—on the accumulation of capital based on private ownership of property. This is not a frivolous concern, nor is it solely in the interest of the wealthy; workers, whose livelihoods depend on wages from the owners, need it too. When the pandemic lockdowns were announced, everyone was concerned about the cost of slamming the brakes on the economy. The simple fact is that the protection of human life meant that the economy will suffer. For those of us on the left, this dilemma was an argument against the economic system. For the right, it was an argument against the protection of human life. The one cost that conservatives cannot bear is an intrusion on the institution of property. For the sake of Mammon and Moloch, grandma had to go.
So when the pandemic led to lockdowns, the right-wing backlash took two main forms. The first was denial, either of the pandemic’s severity or of the virus itself, which meant the lockdowns were superfluous. The second was resignation, accepting the reality of the virus but prioritizing the economy, which meant that human life was superfluous. (There was sometimes a third response, according to which the virus was both a fabricated hoax and a dangerous bioweapon, and both were the fault of China, liberals or globalists: take your pick.) Either way, the state’s attempts to curb the stress and spread of a global pandemic was seen as an infringement of American lifestyle and business, an infringement not worth the gains in human lives, but worth taking up rifles to resist. Don’t tread on me and all that.
About a month ago, conservatives were drawing an analogy between the work restrictions and the rise of Adolf Hitler, warning that concern for “public safety” was being used to enable tyranny. The analogy was not just false, it’s entirely backward. The Nazis didn’t come to power by restricting business in the name of public safety; they came to power with the backing and support of business—in particular, the middle-class “small business” owners we’re told so much to pity—in order to make the working class—who were gaining power through the Socialists and the Communists—go back to work as usual. In any case, I took them at their word and wrote a tongue-in-cheek post on Facebook, saying: Yes, “public safety” should not be used to curtail freedom and control the citizenry, which is why we should abolish the police. Based on some of the responses, it seemed that the right, for all their talk about freedom mattering more than public safety, lack the courage of their convictions. In light of recent events, and how soon it took for them to sing a different tune, it seems they also lack the convictions of their courage.
Many “law and order” types, including the president, were quick to condemn the killing of George Floyd. Even some cops are joining in on the collective apology “to the Black community” and are resolving “to do better.” For what it’s worth, I do believe in their sincerity. I even believe George W. Bush when he says that it is “time for America to examine our tragic failures.” (We may begin with our failure to prosecute George W. Bush for crimes against humanity.) Not being racist is easy. It is part of the national civic religion. Even so, many Americans are positively baffled that the protests have taken the form of “riots.” They are confounded that a dispossessed and impoverished people in the middle of a pandemic with record unemployment have taken up “looting.” They are bewildered why people are still mad even after the “few bad apples” have been pruned, and they are shocked to discover the meaning of the acronym “A.C.A.B.” They continue to wonder why a brutalized population are fighting back, and based on their preferred response, they seem to think the reason is that the people have not been brutalized enough.
This tells you more about where they stand than any statement of racial animus or empathy. It also accounts for the apparent dissonance between the right’s cheerful view of cops today and their hostility just last month. There is a common thread that ties their repulsion to the lockdown and their revulsion to the looting, and how they relate to state authority in general. It is the same reason that led Mises and Hayek to side in practice with murderous dictators while denouncing them in principle; that made the Slave Power change their minds about the federal government; that pushed the paranoid right from saying “martial law is bad” to “martial law is good”; that is the reason why police exist in the first place. That reason is the sanctity of property.
When safety-minded closures interfered with business, the state was bad; when it came to protecting businesses and property from vandals, the state was good. This would be the case regardless of any commitments, or lack thereof, to “racial justice.” Certainly the hysterical crackdowns on the protests have shown the state to be quite willing to mete out violence, regardless of race or station, regardless of their peacefulness, and regardless of any pat photo-op by officers kneeling like Colin Kaepernick. The logic of police violence, if not exactly color-blind, is at least equal-opportunity where property is concerned.
To the extent that the protests have “shed light” on racial terror in America, they’ve served a useful role in the performance of national grief. State-sponsored terror against black people is one of the most enduring grievances in America’s history. But the struggle is about more than bearing witness to suffering. Anyone can bear witness—Citigroup, Warner Media, Amazon and Apple have all resolved, in tandem with police chiefs and politicians across America, to “have the conversation.” To bear witness isn’t to bring change or to enact a solution; it isn’t even to identify the problem. Bearing witness is the recognition of a symptom. A politics of grief confuses the symptom for the illness and recognition for the cure.
We already know what arises from such politics: sensitivity workshops, implicit bias trainings, diversity-hiring in law enforcement, allyship manuals, ethnic studies curricula, “progressive” prosecutors, privilege lessons, amplification of voices, displays of ritual empathy. The band-aid is applied, the symptom lingers. It’s because they’re addressing the wrong questions. A perfectly trained, wholly unbiased, procedurally compliant, racially integrated, community-involved police force would still kill too many black people (and other races for that matter) because that is what the cops exist to do. More specifically, they exist to generate revenue, to protect the owners of property, and to control the “surplus” population and other marginalized sectors of society—to keep the poors in line. So long as minorities are represented disproportionately among the poor, the demography of police violence will reflect the demography of general inequality, however “woke” the cops may be. Both the protest suppressions and the underlying brutality that caused them are part of the same process, and they serve equivalent functions: maintaining the prerogatives of property.
The right was never truly interested in resisting the police state, at least not on a foundational or principled level, and why should they? The police are on their side. Just take a look at the comparatively disciplined police response to the lockdown protestors bearing arms in a state building to intimidate a legislative assembly. There is no doubt a racial aspect here at work. (When the Black Panther Party tried this stunt in 1967, it led to the passage of the Mulford Act prohibiting open-carry of loaded guns in California, signed by Ronald Reagan with the support of the N.R.A.) But viewing the latest videos emerging from the “black lives” protests around the country, with the cops all but declaring open season on the citizenry (including bystanders and journalists) for the sake of big-box retailers, one gets the feeling that the difference in treatment owes itself to a difference of interests more than just skin-deep.
In a perverse and ironic way, the typical roles of the law-and-order right and the scofflaw left have been somewhat reversed. The ones who were bringing guns to threaten senators may have kept their guns unfired, but their intent—the disruption of lawful policy-making—was nothing less than an affront to the law itself, with an end-goal of unleashing a pandemic onto millions of workers and their families. What’s more, their goal of “opening the economy” wouldn’t make the police state less any coercive; it only shifts the burden of coercion onto the working class, forced under threat of starvation to return to hazardous and lethal work conditions, and without legal protection. Meanwhile, the ones who damage property are doing so in opposition to the excessive or arbitrary use of force by the police—in other words, against the state’s own lawlessness—for the sake of human lives. Make no mistake: there is no comparing the two. Those who threaten property for the sake of human lives have nothing in common with those who imperil lives for the sake of property. Guess which side bears the brunt of state repression.
If there is any commonality to be seen, it would be that between a lawless force of law enforcement and a protest movement in the name of business. Each reveals in its own way an essential truth of tyranny. Tyranny is more than just the existence of control. It’s about power—who wields it, how and for what ends. One of the gravest misconceptions about the German Nazi Party is that they were a bunch of killjoys with their noses in a rule book. In fact, what the Nazis did was to suspend the existing law, unleashing power at its most violent, cruel and unrestricted. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes:
Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with, the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’ He tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay—we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master. . . . Obedience to the master allows you to transgress everyday moral rules: all the dirty things you were dreaming of, everything you had to renounce when you subordinated yourself to the traditional, patriarchal, symbolic Law you are now allowed to indulge in without punishment, just as you may eat fat-free salami without any risk to your health. . . . A passionate ethnic identification, far from further restraining us, is a liberating call of ‘you may’: you may violate . . . the stiff regulations of peaceful coexistence in a liberal tolerant society; you may drink and eat whatever you want, say things prohibited by political correctness, even hate, fight, kill and rape. It is by offering this kind of pseudo-liberation that the superego supplements the explicit texture of the social symbolic law.
It isn’t hard to see something similar, if in miniature, in the alt-right’s gleeful “triggering” of “snowflake” sensitivity, or in the Trump supporter’s flouting of liberal pieties. It isn’t hard to see it, too, in the reckless calls to “end the lockdown” and “go back to work,” casualties be damned. I can’t say for sure, but one suspects a certain thrill must have shivered through the spine of Officer Chauvin (a most unfortunate or fitting name, depending how you look at it) as he drove his knee into the neck of Mr. Floyd, bound and subdued upon the ground for all to see, just as easily as one presumes our boys in blue must feel a safety valve release as they rake with bullets and choke with gas and spray with weaponized capsicum or otherwise put the leather and the club to the people they protect and serve. In Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a group of wealthy “libertines” abscond to a secret castle to indulge in an orgy of torture, sex and death; in Pasolini’s film adaptation, the libertines are reimagined as Italian Fascists. Pasolini put it best: “There is nothing more anarchic than power.”
New York, 2020.