Following from my last speculations on the fractured conflict that the George Floyd protests and riots brought up, further developments of autonomous zones and alt-right infiltrations have shed more light on these conflicts that “have fractured into the dynamic tension between different tribes and the narratives they proscribe”. These developments have shades of the Occupy movement in 2011 and right-wing movements with a similar attitude toward central government control who attempted self-government, but they are emplaced in a wider culture war dynamic that means the issues and relations become muddled.
They also have to be emplaced in the coronavirus hangover, where the absence of normal governmental functioning and the intra-elite conflict that has governed much of America’s response to the pandemic has had an effect in determining a multiplicity of means toward alterity, springing forth different political imaginaries that wrap things like the anti-lockdown protests, the George Floyd protests and the development of autonomous zones and violent riots into a fractured battleground where traditional party politics or the norm of peaceful protests are meaningless anachronisms.
“By 2019 a number of fault lines polarizing (US) society have developed. Two of these fault lines, the one between the poor and the rich, and the one between the liberal coasts and the conservative heartland, have been deepened by the Corona shock”. These fault lines however have not simply strayed the bounds of US politics but have opened chasms between different demographic groups and entrenched more tribal dynamics in the way different movements or policies are discussed between these opposing factions. The reaction itself to George Floyd’s killing is indicative of the dynamic I’m talking about. While among liberal and left-wing media it was seen straightforwardly as police brutality and murder, within right-wing and pro-Trump media circles there has been greater scepticism over the police brutality narrative as well as calling into question George Floyd’s character. Polling itself indicates similar disparities, where “Republicans find themselves the outliers on a lot of questions: 72% of Republicans approve of the way Trump has responded to the protests; 65% say the protests have been mostly violent; and 72% say the police haven’t used enough force in responding to looting and vandalism”. Support for or scepticism of the protests seems to be strongly correlated with one’s political predispositions, revealing the culture war dynamic these protests and riots are ensconced within.
This culture war dynamic and the intra-elite conflict that has emerged acutely under Trump’s presidency are part of a wider decentring of political power in the US, of which the emergence of autonomous zones and the fragmentation of social movements/civil society is a part of. Since the end of the 2008 financial crisis, and with antecedents in the 90s gridlock politics, the polarisation of elites and politics has ramped up with the increase of filibusters, governmental shutdowns and culminating in the election of Trump and the instantiation of an elite battlefield, pitching all branches of government in conflictual lock-ins, meaning they must work together but at the same time oppose each other’s policy proposals and mechanisms. “Intense intra-elite competition, however, leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on ‘dirty tricks’ such as character assassination”. And coronavirus and the lockdown have exacerbated these tendencies, as governmental elites have split along state and national axes, with governors and mayors asserting authority in the absence of concerted action from Washington, creating alternative power bases that are exploitable as they descend into vacuums. Central government action has been tepid, as powers invoking the capability to commandeer productive capacity for medical production hasn’t been used and decentralised actors, from healthcare authorities to states and national guards have filled these in through non-FDA approved virus tests, small-scale production of sanitiser gels and masks, and early implementation of social distancing measures and temporary business closures.
These dynamics can also be seen in the wider contexts of societal/ideological waves and cycles, particularly those of Turchin’s double helix cycles of inequality and social cooperation and Perez’s great surges. Turchin posits that political violence and societal instability are cyclical in nature, varying within time-bound phases where low levels of inequality and intra-elite competition are inversely correlated with high levels of social cooperation. “Unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites tire of incessant violence and disorder. They realise that they need to suppress their internal rivalries, and switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order. We see this shift in the social mood repeatedly throughout history — towards the end of the Roman civil wars (first century BC), following the English Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and after the Fronde (1648-53), the final great outbreak of violence that had been convulsing France since the Wars of Religion began in the late 16th century. Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality”.
Similarly unstable periods of US political history are visible, with militant labour strikes, race riots and the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic strongly affecting political stability throughout the 1920s, with the 1929 stock market crash aggravating tensions as unemployment soared and productivity slumped. An increasing periodicity of rioting, protesting and governmental/societal distrust can also be seen emerging from the 1980s, where the breakdown of the New Deal coalition and the emergence of a globalised capitalism meant stagnant or reduced real wages, slumping productivity and an increased tribalism within politics. From the LA riots to the Ferguson and Baltimore protests in 2014, as well as analogous right-wing actions (Waco, the Oklahoma bombing, the Tea Party movement, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover and the development of siege accelerationism as an ideological totem pole of various movements), a variety of actions and protests reveal deep divisions and distrust not just with government but between its various factions, as well as the emergence of alternative power bases in regional governments and stigmergic political groups.
Perez’s idea of great surges of techno-economic and socio-institutional development align with Turchin’s secular cycles of political stability. The breakdown of labour relations, the rise of trade unions and the anti-trust populist movement emerged from the crest of the associated steel and heavy engineering techno-economic paradigm that determined the nature of economic organisation from the 1870s to the 1920s. As this system broke down due to a lack of investable opportunities and the emergence of the oil and gas paradigm that would eventually succeed it, productivity levels slumped, financial speculation grew, and inequality rose. These macro-quantitative analyses reveal the underlying assumptions and norms that saw contradictions and conflicts grow as the expectations of a prevailing paradigm of organisation were failed by the realities of its potential to grow any further. Beneath these macro-quantitative variables lie meso- and macro-qualitative ones of an organisational paradigm that informed the ways opposition was organised and the methods through which political action was taken.
In the 1920s this can be conceptualised as the emergence of grand movements of collective action, with militant trade unions and international ideologies conflagrating opposition to the failures of governments to reign in speculative finance and provide productive employment. These oppositions led to a form of coalescence in the New Deal coalition of the 1930s and 40s. The establishment of this organisational norm can be seen both in corporate organisation (where large oligopolies controlled a variety of sub-organisations and divisions) and in further social movement action during the Civil Rights era, where a collective civil rights movement was augured through various protests and sit-ins, leading toward legislation that intended to entrench voting rights and end Jim Crow-based segregation.
The recent variety of protests, riots and social movements portend the end of the current techno-economic paradigm (that of telecommunication and computerisation) through their organisational form. They are decentralised, stigmergic and focused on a variety of actions, from police brutality to economic equality and ending racism. This reflects the structural forms inherent to the current neoliberal paradigm. The emphasis has not been on grand associational movements that aim toward a change in power at the centre and the emergence of compromise, but of spontaneously-emerging actions and movements that aim at specific changes within an interlocking system of movements and policies. Protest movements from the 1990s and 2000s, like the WTO protests and the Occupy movement, fit within this organisational paradigm. They were within a network organisational format of nodal politics, a “move from the politics of mass organisation to the politics of intra-competitive automaticity, where interests are reflexive and contingent, to be organised on certain planes and in certain nodes but never to be organisationally curtailed by political-ideological striations”. This is the plane through which the fractured conflicts of networked stigmergic actions have developed, refracting the dominant modes of neoliberal systems.
And this is what the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone grew out from, as police power was curtailed in certain districts of Seattle, leading toward the spontaneous emergence of an autonomous district that resists police power and overarching governance, being “part protest, part commune” that loosely links with the continuing riots and protests seen within the post-coronavirus landscape and following from organisational predecessors seen through the 1990s and 2000s. The nature of the autonomous zone is as a frontier for various political demands, from the restructuring of the justice system and the abolition of the Seattle Police Department to the full emphasis of a decentralised political system that gives full representation to working class and minority populations and centres equality and racial justice at its core. It also shows a tension in its relation to established methods of politics (elections, voting, the legislative process, etc.) in its uneasy relationship with the Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant. As reported, a “speaker decried Sawant’s cooptation of the movement to push her own agenda. ‘Please stop using Black Lives Matter for your political campaigns.’ the speaker said, also noting the whiteness of many speakers at recent protests. ‘I’m really sorry, I want to tax Amazon too, I want to do all these things too, but this is not a movement for you to be politically active, for you to be politically correct, and for you to gain all these votes. Please stop taking advantage of us’”. The CHAZ is not simply a political outlet that is to be reintegrated into the normal modes of politics, but a conceptual alternative that points toward new methods of organising.
This then relates to the prevailing organisational methodologies the George Floyd protests and riots are refracting and upending. While previous related instantiations like the 1992 LA riots or the Occupy movement were a reflection of the organisational norm, being networked, individualistic and tied together by a loose confederation of shared narratives, symbols and policies, the recent examples of similar movements (both of the left and the right) has seen a greater fuzziness in the connective tissue between linked protests. The George Floyd protests have a loose connective framework as the issues concerned are primarily related to which municipal district or state they are based within, as with the Free Capitol Hill demands. This represents a change in method as they move from the network form of interconnected, national movements to a more localistic, post-network form of smart mobs and temporary zones that are caught within wider dynamics of a multiplicitous intra-elite conflict, and a culture war that creates various dichotomies at various scales. As the wider stagnant cyclical nature of socio-institutional evolution continues to fragment into various narratives with opposing actors, the organisational norm of neoliberalism (of the socially networked individual scaling up into a confederated group) itself fragments into this post-network topology of localised instantiations of loosely-formed decentralised narratives (focused around racial justice, police brutality and a governance of alterity depending on the locale).
Shadows of these protests in elements of the alt-right show similar organisational dynamics as the post-network form metastasises across political action. Whether it be the Boogaloo movement, the wider militia movement or fragments of the alt-right and populist right, they exhibit dynamics similar to this two way lock-in that the George Floyd protests have been enveloped in: that of a multiplicitous metanarrative of culture war and intra-elite conflict that decentres national politics alongside localised actions on the ground that aim at immediate reform/revolution. The Boogaloo movement specifically represents this, as at the level of the immediate it is focused on violent anti-government and anti-police action, “cyber-swarming” things like police standoffs or protests. At the wider level its focus is the stoking of civil war and the potential to unleash chaos, fighting against government and left-wing forces that it sees as its enemy in the wider culture war. This forms part of the siege accelerationism being increasingly documented, whereby far-right groups coordinate actions online that aim at furthering social tensions, from committing acts of violence within protest movements to lone-wolf activities. “In a United States made even more unstable by a contentious presidential election season, and the social and epidemiological effects of COVID-19, every protest or street battle and its aftermath will carry the potential for serious acts of violence. As protests over the death of George Floyd heated up in Minneapolis on May 26th, members of Boogaloo groups across Facebook considered it a call to arms”.
The anti-lockdown protests themselves are another representation of this two way lock-in, as they combined elite interests through astroturfing of events by pro-Trump and conservative political action groups and localised actions aimed at fostering a pro-business, anti-government ethos amongst certain state demographics (particularly lower-middle class unemployed people and out-of-pocket small business owners). By distinctly making these protests an outlet for social groups who are overwhelmingly pro-Trump, the culture war narrative was only broadened.
As with Charlottesville three years ago, these multiplicitous protest movements and autonomous zones of political action are “a microcosm of actual politics strewn of its institutional fancies. When dialogue is incapable of political solutions, and centralised forms of power still abound, violence and conflict become the main means of expressing discontent and forcing one’s way onto any political scene”. However instead of centralised forms of power simply abounding, they have fragmented into the two way lock-in, as the politics of Washington is swayed by the politics of the protest movements of various shades. And while these movements represent a cyclical shift in the patterns of organisation, moving from the network forms that enveloped the neoliberal era of surrounding social institutions to a post-network form of smart mobs, memetic warfare and cyber-activism that is more temporary, localised and narrativistically decentralised, they don’t seem to represent an endpoint. Instead they sit in a field of indeterminacy with each attempting to accelerate the conditions for reform or overthrow. The events of CHAZ and other autonomous zones and protests are measured in hours and days, suggesting a temporariness that doesn’t lay the path forward for further action except more of the same. There is no forthcoming national dialogue, no reconciliation but instead a standstill moment that increasingly defines the coronavirus hangover politics finds itself within. It seems inevitable that the Seattle police will go back into the Capitol Hill area and that new social action will turn the gears in a different direction soon. There is interminable conflict and a constant present of actions repeating themselves over and over.
 Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital