Why “Anarchist” Is Not a Synonym for “Leftist”

Yesterday I wrote that right-wing websites objected to calling the Michigan kidnap plotters “right wing.” At least one was on record as being opposed to Donald Trump, after all. More than anything else, the righties argue, the Michigan Meatballs are opposed to government authority, which makes them anarchists, and anarchists are all lefties.

Actually, there are all kinds of anarchists, and you can find anarchism across the political spectrum proposing many different perspectives. And they aren’t always violent. The definition of anarchism as nihilistic, chaotic destruction of existing orders is a minority view in academia. See the entry on anarchism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

But if we are talking about anarchy as nihilistic, chaotic destruction of existing orders, why is that automatically a “leftie” position? The Right in the U.S. has, over the past several decades, perpetrated a knee-jerk campaign against all things “liberal” by equating liberalism with Big Government and over-reaching, coercive do-gooder programs that restrict their freedoms. Yet the American Left is also associated with anarchy? How does that work?

It’s certainly true that in world history, anarchism has been associated with left-wing extremists such as the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). But IMO the 19th century European anarchists have to be understood in the context of 19th century European politics and society, in which hereditary monarchies and titled nobilities were still in charge, and in which capitalism was just a newfangled way to exploit the powerless and oppressed masses.

However, right-wing rhetoric to the contrary, the huge mass of American leftism today is no where close to Marxism, and the huge majority of American lefties are in no way interested in abolishing private property. Instead, they are all about using the power of government to protect ordinary people from the predations of the powerful, not tearing down the government for whatever reasons people tear down governments.

Let’s unpack things a bit. Anyone paying close attention to street violence this year will have noticed that a lot of violence being blamed on the Left is being perpetrated by right-wingers.  (See Who caused the violence at protests? It wasn’t antifa at the Washington Post.) We’ve had a problem going back years in which much right-wing terrorism, such as abortion clinic bombings, isn’t recognized as terrorism. On the other hand, if anyone in a leftie demonstration so much as scribbles graffiti on a sidewalk, it’s a “riot.” A lot of our problem with definitions is that they are inconsistently applied.

Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

Further, the FBI defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” These guys fit that definition:

Yet we don’t call them terrorists, do we?

I am not saying that no one who identifies with “the Left” ever commits acts of terrorism or violence. Of course that happens. But the overwhelming majority of real violence associated with political views is coming from the Right in the U.S.  This month a DHS report came out and said White supremacists remain the deadliest U.S. terror threat, for example.

But we don’t address right-wing violence comprehensively because powerful conservative politicians find the rightie terrorists useful. You might remember that back in 2009 a DHS report on the threat of right-wing violence was met by hysterical shrieking from Republicans and conservative media personalities who called it a “hit job” on conservatism. The DHS eventually withdrew the report, which turned out to have been prescient.

Right-wing anarchy and terrorism have been festering in the U.S. for a long time, a lot longer than Donald Trump has been in politics.  The Know Nothings of the antebellum 19th century were nativist terrorists who attacked and burned Catholic churches, schools, and convents, and who engaged in violent riots that left immigrants — mostly German and Irish — dead in the streets. The Know Nothings were not anarchists, but they were definitely terrorists, and hyper conservative. Not lefties. Know Nothingism faded during the Civil War, but after the war the leftover threads of it were woven into another terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan.

At Slate, Fred Kaplan has a point when he says the Michigan kidnap plot was not about Donald Trump. The plotters are a type of anti-government radical who have been around for at least a few decades. They represent a dumbed-down version of Ayn Rand’s objectivism taken to extremes. These radicals deny any authority to government, except maybe local government, unless local government does something they don’t like. Back in the 1980s and 1990s a branch of this crew formed the “sovereign citizens” movement, and if you don’t remember them do read this article at the Southern Poverty Law Center. A snip:

In the early 1980s, the sovereign citizens movement mostly attracted white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.

I ran into some of these specimens on the old pre-web USENET. They genuinely believed this. They also believed they were not obligated to pay federal taxes if they didn’t volunteer to do so and that the United States has secretly been under martial law  either since Lincoln was president, or possibly since Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803. I’m serious.

The sovereign citizens were interconnected with the militia movement that arose in the 1990s, and there’s a good archive article on that crew at the ADL website.  And you can draw a straight line between the 1990s militia movement, Timothy McVeigh, and the Bundy family.

But where did all this anti-government hysteria come from? IMO a lot of it got fired up during the desegregation era of the 1950s and 1960, when government decided that separate but not equal would no longer do. I’ve said before that the modern libertarian movement took off in the U.S. after President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to enable black teenagers to enter the public high school. And then in the 1960s Lyndon Johnson kept enacting Big Government Programs like Medicare, which the Right feared put us on the road to Communism, and the Great Society, which the Right saw as a transfer of wealth from White people to Black people. And then came Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s crusade to make “government” a dirty word. And you can draw a straight line from all that to the Michigan kidnap plotters.

So, it may very well be that the Michigan crew are not Donald Trump fans, but that sure as hell doesn’t make them lefties. They are solidly in the American tradition of right-wing extremism.

And it’s also the case, as the SPLC article notes, that some of the current right-wing anti-government groups have done such a good job of tamping down white supremacist rhetoric that they occasionally attract Black members who are unaware of the group’s origins. But that doesn’t make them lefties, either.

Although I know there are some pods of left-wing anarchists out there, the enormous majority of left-wing demonstrations are about reform, not chaos and destruction. Most of the progress toward economic and civil equality for more than a century has come through government reform and government programs. This year’s BLM and other leftie demonstrators are not anarchists. They want a government and society that protects their rights and works for all citizens, not just the wealthy, and they see democratic government as an essential part of that effort.

But the Michigan plotters do not want to reform government. They want to end government. Government is slavery, one said in a video. And mandatory mask orders are tyranny, which makes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a tyrant.

There’s a lot in the mashup of sovereign citizens and private militias that doesn’t add up to coherent ideology. It’s like someone calling himself a patriot while flying a Confederate flag. Many of these people fancy themselves to be great patriots who practically worship the Constitution even though they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the government the Constitution establishes. I suspect most of them aren’t terribly bright, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous

I sincerely hope that if Democrats re-take the White House and the Senate,  right-wing terrorism in all its forms finally will be taken seriously as terrorism and no longer tolerated. No more goons allowed to terrorize abortion clinics. No more armed thugs allowed in government buildings. I’d make open carry illegal for people not working in law enforcement, and then eventually maybe we can start disarming police. Cops in a lot of other countries don’t carry guns, you know.  Well, I can dream.