I’ve finished reading Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, following a tip from David Hines. It’s an excellent detailed history of the American radical underground during “the long 1970s”. The details that Burrough provide will be interesting to anybody who does research on the mechanisms and dynamics of political violence.
It also tells us a lot about where we are in 2017 and what to expect in the coming months.
The wave of political violence in America of the 1970s followed a fairly typical course, familiar to me from reading the histories of disintegrative periods in past societies. In my research I have used models of epidemics and forest fires to understand these dynamics (for readers with a mathematical bend, the details are in Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, but I also talk about this in War and Peace and War using non-technical language).
Here’s how an epidemic of political violence typically develops—and then dies out. I will use the Weather Underground, the best known and most influential American terrorist group of the 1970s, to illustrate the key transitions. But it’s worth emphasizing that the overall dynamic is quite general. It thus provides us with a kind of a road map as to what to expect in the next few years.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Phase 1. The days of rage. There is little serious violence (the kind that leads to deaths), but this is the phase when verbal violence escalates. People belonging to various groups demonize their enemies and increasingly call for their destruction. This is when the boundaries are established and fault lines deepen. During the Sixties the main faultline was between the Radical Left and the Establishment (really, the state and the governing elites). The issues motivating the radicals were the opposition to Vietnam War, draft resistance, oppression of African-Americans, poverty, and corporate greed. The most important dynamic during this phase is the crystallization and radicalization of the cohesive, “fused” (to use the term favored by my colleague Harvey Whitehouse) groups that will later spearhead actual violence. The escalation of verbal violence leads to the breakdown of social norms that guard against physical violence. In simpler words, it’s when the rage boils over and it becomes acceptable to kill other people, if they are on the other side of the barricades.
Phase 2. The triggers. These are specific, highly symbolic events that are needed to translate the rage into action. The most frequent triggers are “sacrifical victims”. This could be a self-sacrifice (such as the self-immolation of that fruit vendor in Tunisia), but more frequently the sacrifical victim is killed almost by accident.
The triggering event that transformed the Weathermen into a terrorist organization was the murder of Fred Hampton. By all accounts, it was an extrajudicial execution of a highly charismatic and popular activist and Black Panther leader by the Chicago police/FBI. Hampton became a martyr for the anti-racism movement, and his murder persuaded the Weathermen to go underground.
Phase 3. The spiral of violence. The first victims must be avenged, which creates more martyrs and triggers a chain of revenge and counter-revenge. It’s surprising how personal were the motives that drove the majority of “actions” by the Weather Underground (and also by Black Liberation Army). This dynamic of revenge and counter-revenge is very similar to how tribal warfare in small-scale societies develops.
Phase 4. Burn-out. Eventually most people get tired or even sick of incessant and unproductive violence. The most violent individuals are killed off, or imprisoned, or lose support. Having experienced violence at first hand most people are repelled by it; the population becomes “immunized” to the spread of ideologies that glorify violence. Phase 4, thus, is the opposite of Phase 1; it’s when the Rage subsides. As the Rage goes away, violence declines, and so does the need to avenge it. The spiral of violence unwinds in the opposite direction. But the critical change is in the social mood of the majority of the population, who turn against violence. At the same time the radicals themselves become tired of it too, or are simply decimated. The BLA was decimated, they simply lost the war against the state apparauts. The Weather Underground was partly decimated, but most of its leaders, like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, were not killed or imprisoned; they simply gave up after seeing the futility of further violence.
According to a Mao’s dictum,
Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together?
But Weather Underground (and other terrorist organizations of the 1970s, especially BLA) were like fish flopping on the shore. The overwhelming majority of Americans were against them. The radicals’ supporters numbered only in thousands, and by the end of the decade in hundreds. Ordinary Americans readily reported any suspicious activities to the authorities. When a policeman was down, passing motorists stopped to give them aid and called for help on the police radios. The BLA, a much more violent organization than the WU (they robbed banks and killed cops), was ground up in a matter of months by the FBI with the help of broad popular support.
All this history is very relevant to us today. Currently we are going through Phase I, “the Days of Rage.” There are also significant differences between the coming violence spike of 2020, and the 1970 one, but that’s a subject for another post.
I remember the 1960s. I’m still sick of it. And the current batch posing as emissaries from the Ministry of Truth.
the terrorists were right, but lived a society that subscribed to wrong.
the american elite are vile humans, and they have taught the middles to respect them. even mao would admit there is nothing to be done with america, beyond an individual choice not to support the government any more than necessary to survival.
Fascinating Peter. I very much look forward to the upcoming post you allude to at the end.
Today’s elite and state and academia are leftist, and are turning a blind eye to leftist violence, or even instigating it. Hopefully, Trump is allowing them to beclown themselves and set themselves up for a vicious payback with no mercy shown.
The US has historically suffered far more right-wing violence. Just look at the huge number of lynchings.
The same people who are willing to pepper spray a nice white lady as she attempts to talk to the media about why a homosexual Jew can’t give a speech on the grounds of an US university campus in a previous era were lynching blacks.
The same people who verbally ridicule blacks like Kanye West as they give their support for Trump were in a previous era lynching blacks.
Killing has nothing to do with political beliefs. People who lynch and kill do not have an active conscience. You find them on what is known as the left and the right.
It’s unproductive and cynical to label a person a killer just because they have been ascribed to a set of beliefs.
That “homosexual Jew” is Milo Yiannopoulos, and he is a practicing Catholic. Those objecting to his presence are objecting because he is a right-wing troll, not because he is homosexual. It must be pointed that there has been plenty of violence from the fringes of the Right, though it has not been very organized. The evidence:
https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/02/13/hate-crimes-since-the-election-heres-whos-been-targeted-since/21712876/ From that news story,
That’s the number of hate incidentsThinkProgress has tracked since Nov. 9, 2016, when Donald Trump was declared president-elect. Of the 261 incidents, 109 — or 42% – “included specific references to Trump, his election, or his policies.”
Now, the number does seem notably smaller than Southern Poverty Law Center’s 867 reported post-election hate crime incidents. ThinkProgress’ tracker only included acts of hate violence toward individuals and communities rather than public and private places — like vandalized mosques or spray-painted churches. The incidents listed in ThinkProgress’ database also only included incidents that were backed up with news coverage, police reports or through the publication’s own investigation into the incident.
The accused politician allegedly stated “I love this new world; I no longer have to be politically correct.”
The Trump Administration’s response? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/28/trump-is-reportedly-hinting-that-anti-semitic-incidents-are-false-flags-it-wouldnt-be-the-first-time/?utm_term=.0540ca59394a From that news story,
President Trump seemed to suggest Tuesday that the recent bomb threats and vandalism at Jewish community centers and cemeteries across the country might be false flags, according to a Democratic attorney general who met with him. And Trump’s comments came the same day that one of his top advisers suggested the culprits could be Democrats.
Here is a link from Berea College:
There were 4,743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. About 3,446 of those lynched were Black. It is important to note many places that conducted lynching lacked police services, and some portion of those lynched had committed serious crimes.
Obviously, this is a tragedy in our Nation’s history. But if you compare it to say the body count in the Spanish Civil War or the American Civil War, we are talking about a drop in the bucket. Heck, Chicago in 2016 had 762 homicides, so about 5 years of Chicago crime levels will get you to a Black body count approximating 86 years of lynching.
If I had to hazard a guess, It would be that one of the not so insignificant differences between the 1970/2020 cycles is the size of the population that appears to be willing to currently participate in the verbal rhetoric. It stands to reason that statistically this would eventually result in a commensurate increase in population that will be willing to behave violently.
Interesting times indeed.
Another difference I can think of between 1970 and 2020 is that the ages of the participants tends to be a little different. Currently, there’s a cohort of young people who are members of Team Red growing up into that trouble making age. More grist for the maelstrom.
Given that so much of modern troubles are based around mass immigration, a thing which will continue to increase given the wealth gradient between and birthrates within the First and Third Worlds, I can’t so that I’ve seen much on the issue in Pr. Turchin’s books. The situation seems well suited to an ecological mindset on human affairs.
It’s happened before and it’ll certainly happen again. Mass colonization of a (seemingly) underutilized and underdefended piece of property is one of the human conditions. I can’t say that there was a cadre of Romans who rioted in order to allow more Visigoths into the Empire, but no doubt there was some arguing about the matter.
How do you measure the size of the population engaging in this rhetoric? Twitter didn’t exist in 1970. I would say a relatively small population is having its voice amplified by social media and a corrupt mass media. The objectors are a thin social-elitist shell that’s easily cracked.
There is a lot of righteous asabiyya behind Trump and his supporters. There is very little cohesion among the decadent Democrats and Republicans. They’ve devolved to a rabble standing for selfish ambitions reflected in absurd identity politics that are not mutually compatible.
These people used to have power over “the message” but they have lost it to alternative media; and over the US government, which they have now lost to Donald Trump.
So I have a theory they will turn on themselves, on anyone within their ranks who tries to reform them. So I’m not convinced about widespread violence. Trump won by a massive landslide, partially obscured by illegal voting and fraud. The country is behind him and is not going to turn on each other.
He’s a phenomenon – more support among blacks, gays and Jews than any Republican ever, and, of course, traditional white Americans. The women who are currently unhappy due to Fake News about him will soon realise he’s not that bad.
So the Main Event over the next few years in my opinion is the core of the old order support turning on itself and the arrest of their leaders and exposure of their crimes.
I’m seeing here some remarkably evidence-free assertions about US politics, and even some demonstrable falsehoods. It seems to me that there is trouble brewing on both the Left and the Right.
On the Left, the likes of Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement. For the most part, it has been nonviolent, except for an obscure and gratuitously destructive “Black Bloc” that likes to show up at its demonstrations.
On the Right, the likes of the Tea Party and white nationalists like Richard Spencer (“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”). Though they have also mostly been nonviolent, there have been exceptions like Dylann Roof, and from some Tea Party members, we’ve seen “We come in peace — this time”, implying that they would willingly become violent.
So might the US soon become like Germany around 1930, with gangs of left-wing and right-wing young men battling it out in the streets?
If it’s just young men battling it out on the streets, the problem is rather contained. The scary scenario is the something like Spain about 1934. That will happen when either the right or the left does not accept the result of an election. I’d say the US is much closer to that Point now than at any time in last 100 years or so.
“men battling” are always young – that is the law of the nature.
But there are more interesting, IMHO, questions:
1. who and how is paying for the violent, asocial “young men”
2. does the acting government have enough political will & power to:
– stop the violence financial sponsors?
– countermeasure the street violence?
3. what can & should common, non-violent citizens do to restore the law & order,
if the acting government fail?
There are many troubling trends in the U.S. just now, but oddly, the comment thread here has cheered me up by reminding me of one counter-trend: our aging population. A few years ago, there was an article in the Cliodynamics journal (http://escholarship.org/uc/item/79t737gt) that looked at the relationship between the growth rate of the young, urban population and the intensity of internal violent conflict. As you might expect, high growth rates of the young urban population are associated with more high-intensity conflict. It wasn’t said in the article, but it’s pretty clear that it is not the young female urban population that is driving that, either.
But, while we are an urbanizing society, we are also an aging one. Perhaps one thing that could help us to avoid settling things by shooting each other?
In fact, the cohort of 20 somethings (especially those aged between 25 and 29) has been growing and will start declining only after 2020. This is one of the factors that I have taken into account when forecasting the 2020 peak of political violence. So we first need to survive the next few years before the trend gets reversed.
“the comment thread here has cheered me up by reminding me of one counter-trend: our aging population. ”
Given the wealth gradient and the birthrate in places like sub-Saharan Africa, you can guess what the endgame is for an aging population.
I think a better period of comparison would probably be the “Red Scare” era in the teens and twenties of the last century, in terms of the questions of immigration, national identity and violence.
Is there anything anyone can do to stop this from evolving and happening, as you say, in the 2020s?
I still want to know why we, Americans, are not more afraid of a descent into violence. Yeh, there are lots of folks offended, but not enough actually worried about authoritarianism.
I get that there is a pattern. I accept there are cycles, 50 year and 150 year. And political elites having an outlet to lord over us is even reasonable. But I’ve yet to see real fear of authoritarianism. Its rarely mentioned in media and nonexistent in daily life.
Yeh, its a scary topic, but that’s the point: its inherently difficult to worry about. Its only when a “Discord” like ww2 or civil war is recent will we keep a vigil. A few decades and a new generation is all ot takes to become oblivious to a new set of political elites capturing and then ruling over us.
And we may only emerge from theis forseeable coming storm when we’ve been hurt enough to want to keep vigil again.