Fred Perry, Proud Boys, and the Semiotics of Fashion

Anya Simonian


Over the past week the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” organization whose members are tired of apologizing for “creating the modern world”, have garnered media attention. Along with the disruption of an Aboriginal ceremony in Halifax by Proud Boy servicemen, the group is gaining notoriety for clashes with anti-fascist (Antifa) activists. Additionally, the Proud Boys have been involved with so-called anti-Sharia rallies . In New York, two Proud Boys and one “Proud Boys Girl” recently parted ways with their employers after their involvement with the alt-right group came to light and a social media campaign demanded the businesses take action. Proud Boys have degrees of membership. To become a “Fourth Degree” Proud Boy, aspiring members take part in “a major fight for the cause.” Founder Gavin McInnes explained: “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa [anti-fascist activists],” to rise through the ranks.

Much Proud Boy media coverage has mentioned, in passing, the group’s “uniform”: a black Fred Perry polo shirt with bright yellow trim. The Washington Post’s recent article, “The alt-right’s Proud Boys love Fred Perry polo shirts. The feeling is not mutual” went further in its attempts to explain why Proud Boys have adopted a shirt that, at first glance, seems best suited for white middle-class dads out for a round of golf or game of tennis, quoting Zoë Beery’s piece in The Outline, ” How Fred Perry Came to Symbolize Hate “. While both articles offer an overview of the shirt’s popularity among Mod and traditional Skinhead subculturists and its eventual cooptation by racist skinheads and neo-Nazis, neither emphasizes the degree to which the brand has long served as a site of political contest between the radical left and the far-right. Since the early 1980s, attempts to associate the brand with right-wing politics have been met with resistance from two main camps: 1.) anti-racist skinheads and 2.) “traditional” (non-racist) skinheads — both of whom refuse to cede the meaning of the Fred Perry brand to the far-right in the same way that one might fight for the liberation of an occupied space.

The word skinhead most often conjures up images of white hooligans, or a particular aesthetic adopted by neo-Nazis. Yet, what it means to be a skinhead has changed over time. Periodizing skinhead culture is challenging but, broadly speaking, it can be broken down into three eras: the middle to late 1960s period of apolitical, multi-racial working class youth; the 1980s period of White Nationalist cooptation of the skinhead aesthetic and overtly anti-racist and left-wing skinhead political responses to that cooptation; and the period from the late 1980s to the present, in which the meaning of the skinhead culture and aesthetic is continually contested.
Skinhead Origins

In the late 1960s, the first skinhead subculturists were born of multiculturalism: the fusion of Jamaican “rude boy” styles and music brought to England by Jamaican immigrants in the post-war years, and the working class culture of the English Mods (short for Modernists) who decked themselves out in fine Italian suits and shoes, listened to American soul, jazz, and R&B, and rode Vespa scooters. Mod women sported miniskirts, flats, and sometimes men’s clothing. Skinhead style emerged in Britain in the late 1960s as a simplified version of the Mod aesthetic that placed greater emphasis on projecting working class masculinity and a love of Jamaican reggae and ska.

Social scientists took note of these subcultures and worked to explain their meaning in relation to a changing post-war Britain. The seminal work on subculture studies to which all later studies pay homage, or attempt to refute, is Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain,edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. Published in 1976, Resistance Through Rituals, as well as the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from which the work emerged, understood youth subculture in Marxian terms as a manifestation of social, political, and economic change. The historical context for the CCCS interpretation was the post-war period of the 1950s that saw the rise of commercial television, age specific schools, and extended education that brought youth together for longer, more isolated periods of time. Adding to these challenges were the recent violence of war and more fatherless children as a result of war deaths. These factors contributed to the making of an isolated, and later unique subculture of resistance.

Drawing from Italian Marxist theorist Antionio Gramsci, a driving foundational assumption of Resistance Through Rituals is that one or more dominant groups in society hold “cultural capital” and subordinate groups or classes find ways to express or challenge their subordinate experience in their own culture. This dominant culture, according to the CCCS, exists solely within the framework of capitalism, whereas the struggle for “cultural capital” becomes a struggle between those with capital versus those who labor. The dominant culture acts as a hegemon and attempts to define and contain all other cultures, giving birth to opposition from less dominant cultures against this cultural hegemony. Although the less dominant culture (i.e. the subculture) enters into resistance against the dominant culture, the subculture is in fact derived from the “parent,” or hegemonic culture, and will inevitably share many of its attributes. For example, working-class culture is considered by the editors of Resistance Through Rituals to be a “parent culture,” yet the youth subcultures that arose from it have their own values, uses of material culture (which are often derived from the parent culture but are re-appropriated and given new meaning), as well as territorial spaces. The Fred Perry represents both an appropriation of the parent culture and a territorial “space” where politics play out.

The editors of Resistance Through Rituals write:

Sub-cultures, then, must first be related to the ‘parent cultures’ of which they are a sub-set. But, subcultures must also be analysed in terms of their relation to the dominant culture – the overall disposition of cultural power in the society as a whole. Thus, we may distinguish respectable, ‘rough’, delinquent and the criminal subcultures within working class culture: but we may also say that, though they differ amongst themselves, they all derive in the first instance from a ‘working class parent culture’: hence, they are all subordinate subcultures, in relation to the dominant middle-class or bourgeois culture. [1]

From this angle, Resistance Through Ritual examines the predecessors of the skinheads — the Mod subculture of the 1960s which, in its most basic terms, consisted of dressing sharp in the latest high fashion (but only wearing particular high fashion brands, often stemming from styles of those involved in organized crime in 1950s and 60s Britain), hairstyles, soul and rock n’ roll music, all-night clubs, riding Vespa scooters, and taking amphetamines. The Mod was all about style, and this sharp style, combined with the “uppers” they took, were cast by the CCCS in terms of opposition to the hippie culture of the day that to many Mods seemed to spell a slow, do-nothing death. This seemingly odd combination of interests was explained in terms of working-class resistance by Dick Hebdige in his contribution to Resistance Through Rituals, “The Meaning of Mod”:

The importance of style to the mods can never be overstressed – Mod was pure, unadulterated STYLE, the essence of style. In order to project style it became necessary first to appropriate the commodity, then to redefine its use and value and finally to relocate its meaning within a totally different context. This pattern, which amounted to the semantic rearrangement of those components of the objective world which the mod style required, was repeated at every level of the mod experience and served to preserve a part at least of the mod’s private dimension against the passive consumer role it seemed in its later phases ready to adopt…

Thus the scooter, a formerly ultra-respectable means of transport was appropriated and converted into a weapon and a symbol of solidarity. Thus pills, medically diagnosed for the treatment of neuroses, were appropriated and used as an end-in-themselves, and the negative evaluations of their capabilities imposed by school and work were substituted by a positive assessment of their personal credentials in the world of play (i.e. the same qualities which were assessed negatively by their daytime controllers – e.g. laziness, arrogance, vanity etc. – were positively defined by themselves and their peers in leisure time). [2]

As mentioned above, the skinheads were born from a combination of Jamaican immigrant “rude boy” culture and Mod subculture. Originating in the middle to late 1960s, the skinheads were of solidly working-class origin and resented authority and social pretensions. The skinhead community developed at a time of worsening conditions for working-class youth, and the CCCS interpreted this subculture as an attempt to recreate a traditional working-class community. Although the skinheads came from the working class, fewer opportunities meant that they almost acted out or performed working-class values rather than lived them. The early skinheads were intensely aware of their self-image and played up their exaggerated working-class style. They wore Doc Marten work boots, suspenders and blue jeans or Levis Sta-Prest jeans as a way to identify with this style and lifestyle in decline. Yet, they coupled this look with Ben Sherman button down dress shirts and Fred Perry tennis shirts — a scaled down Mod look — in an appropriation of neat middle-class style that turned middle-class values on their heads. This tennis shirt, worn by working-class skinheads, became a symbol of solidarity and a new kind of “class.”

At clubs in the evenings the skinheads would often wear suits like those of the Jamaica “rude boys” and dance alongside Jamaicans to Rock Steady and ska music. Anti-racist and traditional skinheads — sometimes dubbed Trojan Skinheads for their love of Trojan Records, producers of Jamaican music — look back on this period as a golden age for their subculture. The phrase “Spirit of 69′” which originated in the 1980s is used by traditional/Trojan skinheads as a reference point for what skinhead culture can and should be about: inclusion, racial harmony, and a multicultural celebration of working class culture. Naturally, the CCCS interpreted skinhead solidarity as an act of resistance to a hegemonic order and its particular characteristics felt by working-class kids coming of age in the post-war years. By the 1970s, however, this variety of the skinhead subculture had largely faded away, but elements of it would be revived, in bastardized form, in the following decade.

Within the early skinhead subculture there had always existed a focus on masculinity, or acting “hard” in order project an “authentic” working-class ethos. This masculinity was expressed in the skinhead interest in soccer and the joining of “firms,” or soccer clubs that rooted for their favorite teams and often used violence against opposing firms. The “firm” was also an expression of the desire to protect territory and, most importantly, an expression of collective solidarity. With the introduction and quick commodification of punk rock in the late 1970s, a second wave of skinheads was born. These skinheads, connected to the punk scene rather than the ska, Rock Steady, or reggae scenes of their predecessors, still aped working-class style while sporting the Fred Perry brand, yet their music was Oi — a more aggressive, simplified version of punk that could never go mainstream. Non-racist bands like Cock Sparrer, The 4-Skins, The Last Resort, Sham69, and The Cockney Rejects led the way.

While this second wave of skinheads was at first largely apolitical, their penchant for soccer hooliganism made them prime recruits for England’s far-right National Front. The Young National Front (YNF) began to recruit second wave skinheads at soccer matches, appealing to skinhead working-class sensibilities by scapegoating immigrants for the decline of the white working class. By 1979, the YNF had established Rock Against Communism, a music festival featuring white nationalist bands. In subsequent years neo-Nazi bands like Skrewdriver would bring hundreds of disaffected youth into the National Front. Along with this came the adoption of a new skinhead aesthetic that included the traditional Fred Perry or Ben Sherman shirt and Doc Marten boots, but added to it a paramilitary edge that included flight jackets, larger boots, more closely cropped hair, and symbols of white nationalism. This bastardization of the aesthetic and its coupling with far-right politics made its way to the United States in the 1980s.

Anti-racist and traditionalist responses to the aesthetic and political hijacking of the original “Spirit of 69′” skinhead subculture were swift. As historian Timothy S. Brown put it:

Reacting against this trend-which they considered a bastardization of the original skinhead style-numbers of skins began to stress the cultivation of the “original” look, making fashion, like music, a litmus test for authenticity. Violators of the proper codes were not skinheads, but “bald punks,” a category to which racists-who, in the eyes of purists, failed completely to understand what the subculture was about-were likely to belong. The connection between right-wing politics and “inauthentic” modes of dress was personified in the figure of the “bone head,” a glue-sniffing, bald-headed supporter of the extreme right, sporting facial tattoos, a union-jack T-shirt, and “the highest boots possible.” Although the emphasis on correct style was not explicitly political, it grew-like insistence on the subculture’s black musical roots-out of a concern with the authentic sources of skinhead identity. As such, it was heavily associated with the attempts of left-wing and so-called “unpolitical” skins to “take back” the subculture from the radical right in the early 1980s. [3]

In an effort to “take back” the subculture and its symbols from the radical right, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) was founded in New York City in 1987. Although anti-racist skinheads and left-wing anti-racist skinhead bands like England’s The Oppressed had challenged the far right through song and protest, SHARP represented the first attempt to organize skinheads as a multiracial movement against racist, right-wing “boneheads.” SHARP’s logo was, in part, the logo for Trojan Records, producers of the Rock Steady and ska music so beloved by those first wave British skinheads. In fashion, SHARP emphasized a return to the early styles of skinhead dress, and sought to reclaim the Fred Perry brand (among others) as a symbol of multiculturalism, working-class pride, and the early skinhead subculture in general. As SHARP spread throughout Europe its growth, at times, led to violent clashes with white nationalist skinheads. The Oppressed led the charge in Great Britain, performing confrontational Oi music that pitted the group and its followers firmly against their racist opposition. For example, in their simple four chord song “I Don’t Wanna,” singer Roddy Moreno belts:

I don’t need no bigotry

I know where I’m from

I don’t need no racial hate

To help me sing my song

I don’t wanna make a stand

But what else can I do?

I don’t wanna be like you

Don’t wanna fight your race war

Don’t wanna bang your drum

I don’t wanna be like you

Don’t wanna live like scum

The Oppressed associated themselves with groups like Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and wrote anthems like “The AFA Song” meant to inspire the skinhead left in its fight against the right — a fight that often resulted in street battles between rival skinhead factions in Europe:

We don’t carry shotguns

We don’t carry chains

We only carry hatchets

To bury in your brains

So come on

Let’s go

So come on

Let’s go


In addition to overtly anti-racist organizations like SHARP, “traditional” or “Trojan” skinheads in the 1980s and 1990s avoided the political question altogether and instead simply decided to live the inclusive values found in the first wave skinhead movement while celebrating working-class pride coupled, at times, with an occasional soft patriotism. Other smaller groups like Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH) formed alongside SHARP that added a heavier dose of left-wing politics to SHARP’s anti-racist stance.

Both groups have worn the Fred Perry and both have incorporated the laurel wreath symbol associated with the brand into album covers and traditional and anti-racist skinhead tattoos. The Fred Perry polo then, for them, is an object reclaimed, re-sanctified, and restored to its original meaning.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, echoes of these conflicts between left, traditional, and right-wing skinheads continued, though never quite reached the fever pitch the conflict had reached in the 1980s.

As we move further into this period of political and ideological polarization, brought on by capitalist crisis, we are seeing old partisan battles reignite. It is no surprise then that the Proud Boys have adopted such a politically-charged piece of clothing for their unofficial uniform. For those with an insiders’ view of this decades-old culture war, the Proud Boys’ adoption of the Fred Perry polo makes an unequivocal statement: we identify with the far-right uses of this brand. The adoption of the Fred Perry is not lost on Antifa, the Proud Boys’ primary political opponents. Fashion, as one variety of symbol system, projects a clear political orientation for those able to “read” the language of what is signified by the brand. As anthropologist Edward Sapir pointed out: “The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the … symbolisms attaching to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given cultures. The difficulty is appreciably increased by the fact that some of the expressive elements tend to have quite different symbolic references in different areas.”

For those who have adopted or who understand the skinhead subculture in all its variegated forms, the Fred Perry, viewed in certain contexts, sends one of three messages: that one espouses white nationalist politics, far-left politics, or that one is a traditional skinhead who celebrates multiculturalism. For those in the latter two camps there has been a long-standing contest to wrest the symbols of the “Spirit of 69′” from the hands of those who would corrupt them. While “ownership” of a brand may seem trivial or ill conceived, this “ownership” embodies a struggle for agency, space, and the dominance of an ideology through appropriation of contested material culture.

[1] John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, “Subcultures, Class and Culture,” inResistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[2] Ibid, 76.

[3] Timothy S. Brown, “Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany.” Journal of Social History 38, no. 1 (2004): 157-78.


Americanism Personified: Why Fascism Has Always Been an Inevitable Outcome of the American Project

Colin Jenkins


“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This quote, which has often been misattributed to Sinclair Lewis , is wise in its recognizing the authoritarian potential of both nationalism and organized religion. In slight contrast, Professor Halford E. Luccock of the Divinity School of Yale University said in a 1938 interview , “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.'” Luccock’s view was that of a Christian theologian during the height of Nazi Germany, likely meant to not only downplay the role of religion but perhaps more so warning against the false idolatry of nationalistic reverence.

Despite the tidbits of insight offered, both quotes underestimate Americanism as a highly-authoritative and dominating national project in and of itself. At the time of both quotes, America had already cemented strong elements conducive to fascism: an economy based in capitalist modes of production, a geography created through mass extermination of Native American populations, white supremacist ideals rooted in both dominant culture and pseudoscience , and aggressive expansionist and imperialist projects throughout the Western hemisphere. It should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler studied, admired, and was inspired by the US genocide of Native Americans as well as its subsequent reservation program. “Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history,” John Toland wrote in his book, Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography . “He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”

This notion of American fascism is certainly nothing new. As Steve Martinot explains in his invaluable essay on ” Fascism in the US ,” this discussion has been around for a long time:

“In an early, now canonical discussion of racism in the US, Pierre Van den Berghe (1967) pointed out that a prevalent racial despotism coexisted with constitutionality, a confluence he characterized as ‘herrenvolk democracy’ – ‘democracy for white people.’ In his book, Friendly Fascism, (1980) Bertram Gross argues that the US under Reagan began moving toward a form of governance closely analogous to 1930s European fascism; he compares the social consequences of corporate influence to Mussolini’s ‘corporate state.’ George Jackson finds no better word than ‘fascism’ to describe the psychotic use of power and violence by which white prisoners relate to black, or by which the prison administration maintains its hierarchical system — and which he sees mirrored in white-black relations outside the prison.”

As a settler-colonial project steeped in white supremacist domination and capitalist ideals, America is and always has been an ideal fascist breeding ground. The current rise of Donald Trump, the “alt-right,” neo-Nazism, and white nationalism is nothing new, it is merely Americanism becoming further personified through the vulnerabilities opened by the failures of capitalism and the weakening of liberal democracy – systems that were constructed on shoddy, hypocritical foundations to begin with.
Fascism as a Capitalist Phenomenon

“People that are more concerned with the trappings of this pseudo mass society and its spectacular leisure sports; parades where strangers meet, shout each other down and often trample each other on the way home will never see the ugly reality of fascism. Amerikkkan fascism is so effective in emotionally appealing to people’s desires and fears that when we point out to them that Amerikkkan capitalism has had 200 years to disguise and refine its face, and 50 years to consolidate fascist control of the country, they would simply dismiss us.”

– Shaka Sankofa Zulu

Fascism, as a conscious and working ideology, was intentionally constructed to serve as a polar opposite to the materialist conception of thinking that scientific socialism (Marxism) was based in. Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, specifically noted this in his Doctrine of Fascism, which he wrote with Giovanni Gentile. Fascism is a collectivist ideology, much like socialism; however, fascism calls on a societal tie that differs greatly from that of socialism. While socialist collectivism is rooted in an inclusive, communal responsibility to have basic material needs met for all, fascist collectivism is rooted in an exclusive, nationalistic responsibility to dominate and conquer peoples who are viewed as not belonging. While socialist collectivism is based in worker-control of the means of production, fascist collectivism is based in a natural adherence to corporatism, which takes form in concentrated control of the means of production (mimicking that of capitalism). While socialism seeks to undermine and ultimately destroy the capitalist system, fascism seeks to fortify the late stages of capitalist accumulation by merging corporate power with the State.

As socialists view the working-class struggle as the primary vehicle to creating self-determination, fascists flatly reject economic (material) motives as a potential driving force for societal change. The authoritarian nature of capitalism is an ideal precursor to fascism. Because of this, fascism seeks to take the reins of the system and use it to carry out its nationalistic project that is based in a form of heritage or national identity as determined by the fascists. The Doctrine of Fascism explains ,

“Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, [which posits] the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society.”

The authoritarian nature of capitalism is rooted in its most elemental relationship – that between the owners and the workers – which naturally creates minority class dominance over the majority class. Fascism seeks to transform this class dominance into national dominance. Because of this, parasitic billionaire exploiters of the capitalist class (like Donald Trump) become welcome members of this nationalist project, and exploited workers who embrace fascism are more than willing to overlook the complicity of the creators of their own misery as long as these overseers are willing to repent through an embrace and renewal of ethnic nationalism.

The natural extension from capitalism to fascism is impossible to ignore. In structural terms, as concentrations of wealth and power are created through the mechanisms of capitalism, so too are widespread dispossession for the masses of people who exist under the system. Despite the construction of robust welfare and police states, which have been implemented to prevent this widespread dispossession from transforming into civil unrest, the weight of such unequal power dynamics is bound to crush the experiment we’ve come to know as “liberal capitalist democracy.” This has never been more evident than in the neoliberal era, where both globalization and so-called “free-market” ideology have unleashed the system to do what it is designed to do.

An anarcho-capitalist (American “libertarian”) analysis of fascism, presented by Sheldon Richman in the Library of Economics and Liberty, recognizes at least a part of the natural connection between capitalism and fascism, without overtly saying so:

“Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the ‘national interest’-that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.”

While Richman would surely argue that such elements – autocratic control, currency manipulation, and the end of entrepreneurship – are not natural byproducts of capitalism, they perfectly describe the stage of monopoly capitalism (actual existing capitalism) that has inevitably developed as a result of the most basic mechanisms of the system: the labor-capital relationship and the private ownership of land as a means to exploit. In other words, what American “libertarians” like Richman describe as “corporatism” or “crony capitalism” is really just a mature and naturally developed stage of capitalism. The “cronies” are merely the benefactors of this inherent process. This point has been illustrated by many economists outside of the establishment , and perhaps most effectively and intensely by the Monthly Review school.

The insurmountable weight that capitalism has brought down on “democracy” has demanded the need for more authoritarian adjustments within government, as societal unrest becomes more likely. This mature stage of capitalism creates a ripe environment for fascism, both in its creation of a highly-centralized State apparatus that has already meshed with corporate power , as well as in its need to recruit masses of foot soldiers from within the systematically dispossessed population. The Fascist Doctrine describes the transfer of the “Liberal State” to the “Fascist State”:

“The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality — thus it may be called the “ethic” State.”

The transformation that Mussolini and Gentile describe is that of a capitalist state with pluralistic tendencies that are conducive to capitalist growth to one of a corporatist state with homogenous tendencies that are designed to protect and grow nationalist interests. While modern fascists in the United States tend to focus on “multiculturalism” and what they refer to as “cultural Marxism,” they fail to realize that the same structure which shaped these social dynamics happens to be a prerequisite for the fascist transition. The Western capitalist system required a massive, intercontinental slave trade to get started, centuries of internationalist/globalist expansion to spur continuous growth, and an imperialist agenda that has displaced entire societies throughout the global South. In other words, the tactics that have been used to feed the capitalist system, most of which could be characterized as crimes against humanity , not only created the incredibly unequal distributions of wealth and power both nationally and internationally, but also created the societal makeups that fascist foot soldiers decry. In this sense, capitalism has not dug its own grave, like Marx once promised that it would; it actually has birthed the inevitability of fascism.
From “Liberal State” to “Fascist State”

Through capitalism’s reliance on imperialism, the transition from Liberal State to Fascist State has already begun. In order to be formally transitioned into fascist control, it merely needs time, political direction, and a forceful wresting of power from the entrenched Liberal State. Once completed, the nature of imperialism shifts from one of economic motivations to one of nationalistic motivations. The doctrine discusses this process:

“For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and it’s opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death. Fascism is the doctrine best adapted to represent the tendencies and the aspirations of a people, like the people of Italy, who are rising again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude. But empire demands discipline, the coordination of all forces and a deeply felt sense of duty and sacrifice: this fact explains many aspects of the practical working of the regime, the character of many forces in the State, and the necessarily severe measures which must be taken against those who would oppose this spontaneous and inevitable movement of Italy in the twentieth century, and would oppose it by recalling the outworn ideology of the nineteenth century – repudiated wheresoever there has been the courage to undertake great experiments of social and political transformation; for never before has the nation stood more in need of authority, of direction and order. If every age has its own characteristic doctrine, there are a thousand signs which point to Fascism as the characteristic doctrine of our time. For if a doctrine must be a living thing, this is proved by the fact that Fascism has created a living faith; and that this faith is very powerful in the minds of men is demonstrated by those who have suffered and died for it.”

While gaining control of the State is formally accomplished through the emergence of electoral movements, it still requires a groundswell of support from the lower classes. The class divisions created by capitalism, especially within post-industrialized societies like that of the US, present the most opportune dynamics for what is sometimes referred to as “right-wing populism.” Not only is the emergence of an industrialized middle class a key component in this development, but even more crucial is the subsequent collapse of this middle class. This second stage has been occurring in the US since the 1980s, with the onset of neoliberalism and globalization. Politically speaking, it has manifested itself in Reagan’s neoliberal blueprint, the neoliberalization of the Democratic Party, the complete economic abandonment of the American working class by both major parties, the rise of proto-fascist groups like the Tea Party, the triumph of lesser-evilism, and now in the rise of 21st-century neo-Nazism and white nationalism, both of which have helped buoy an actual billionaire capitalist to the White House.

Gaining political support from the working class seems like a difficult proposition for those running for office, since the political parties in power are the same parties which have abandoned most Americans for the past several decades. However, this is where fascism’s reliance on emotion and identity, or what Mussolini refers to as “duty,” “holiness,” and “heroism,” over material need becomes so powerful. The structural dispossession of masses of people by macro-systems like capitalism is difficult to pinpoint, especially when systemic understanding is absent. Left-wing populism relies on these understandings, as well as the expectation that material conditions will motivate the working class to act in its own best interests, which are diametrically opposed to the interests of capital, bourgeois politicians from within the liberal democratic system, and of course billionaire businessmen. Fascism makes things easier, focuses on a national/racial identity, and deems all who exist outside of that identity to be enemies of the State. The structural pressure created capitalism, especially against that of the former middle class, or against anyone feeling as though they’re losing privilege, creates an environment conducive for recruitment. This process was never explained more succinctly than by George Jackson :

“The shock troops of fascism on the mass political level are drawn from members of the lower-middle class who feel the upward thrust of the lower classes more acutely. These classes feel that any dislocation of the present economy resulting from the upward thrust of the masses would affect their status first. They are joined by that sector of the working class which is backward enough to be affected by nationalistic trappings and loyalty syndrome that sociologists have termed the ‘Authoritarian Personality.’ One primary aim of the fascist arrangement is to extend and develop this new pig class, to degenerate and diffuse working-class consciousness with a psycho-social appeal to man’s herd instincts. Development and exploitation of the authoritarian syndrome is at the center of ‘totalitarian’ capitalism (fascism). It feeds on a small but false sense of class consciousness and the need for community.”

The authoritarian nature of fascism is found in its reliance on identity, a fluid concept that allows for some maneuverability within the minds of its adherents, while also shoring up the herd mentality that becomes rooted in its perceived national agenda. In other words, the individual within a fascist movement may perceive themselves, the movement, and even the ultimate goal of the movement in varying ways; however, when called upon to act, their actions will always fall in line with the national agenda as set by its directors. This is why fascism requires the presence of strong leaders. Much like the Orc armies in JRR Tolkien’s famous Hobbit series, the foot soldiers of fascism are easily swayed into violent action for a greater good that is constructed by a strong, charismatic leader. And with this support, those leaders can accomplish electoral feats previously unheard of.
Punching Down: The Fascist Engine of White Supremacy and Xenophobia

Despite the structural failures of both capitalism and “liberal capitalist democracy,” American fascism would find difficulties materializing without a strong element of identity. Whereas left-wing populism clearly relies on the material desperation of the working class under capitalism, fascism’s reliance on the vague concepts of “holiness” and “heroism” needs a constructed and recognizable identity. In America, the structural and cultural phenomenon of white supremacy serves as this identity, and therefore acts as the engine needed to redirect the widespread angst developed through the systematic dispossession created by capitalism and “democracy” into a nationalistic movement.

It is important to understand that white supremacy is not something only reserved for jackbooted neo-Nazis giving “Heil Hitler!” salutes, but that it is a systemic phenomenon which is heavily seeped in American culture. It is both a conditioned mentality and a material reality. The conditioned mentality that Black lives are substandard has been shaped through centuries of popular culture, from the racist Minstrel shows of the early 19th century, which utilized the ” coon caricature” to lampoon Black people as dim-witted, lazy, and buffoonish, to modern TV shows like COPS, which perpetuates the racist stereotype that Black people are more prone to debauchery and criminality. The material reality has been shaped by two and a half centuries of chattel slavery followed by various forms of legalized systems of servitude and second-class citizenship, including sharecropping convict leasing Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. This history has built complex layers of institutional racism carried out under the guise of legality, and a systematic ghettoization supported by both ” white flight” and widespread discriminatory housing and employment practices, all of which have combined to shape a uniquely intense experience for Black Americans who must face both class and racial oppression.

The two factors (conditioned mentality and material reality) interplay with one another in a way that is increasingly disastrous for the ways in which American society views and treats its Black citizens. Because of the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, people on average are less empathetic toward their Black counterparts. Studies have shown that white children as young as seven years old believe that Black children feel less pain than them; that emergency medical personnel are less likely to give pain medication to Black and Latinx children who are in pain; and that “Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people.” The material reality shaped by institutional racism has created a landscape where Black people are disproportionately poor, unemployed, and in prison. Martinot talks about this seemingly never-ending cycle that is centered within a highly racialized criminal punishment system:

“The social effects of this process are catastrophic, yet familiar. Not only does felonization of a population insure massive unemployment (a general tendency not to hire people with a record), but routine felony charges amount to systematic disenfranchisement (14% of black people by 1998, according to Fellner and Mauer). Recent studies indicate that one out of every three black men under the age of 30 has been through the judicial system in the last 25 years. To continually remove a sizable number of people from a community in this way constitutes a massive disruption of its social coherence. This disruption buttresses its criminalization as a community in white society’s eyes, and rationalizes the disinvestment of capital and a general financial obstruction of community asset accumulation. Racial oppression, impoverishment, imprisonment and police impunity are all of a piece.

Ultimately, the increase in prison population has become one of the arguments, in social discourse, for further drug laws and racial profiling. It is a self-generating cycle. What is significant about it is that it is not perceived by white society at large as an extant injustice. Instead, more prisons are called for and accepted, again with a sense form of cultural familiarity (“how else are we going to deal with crime?”). This acceptance euphemizes itself in political campaigns as being “hard on crime” as opposed to addressing the social conditions that generate crime. It inhabits a white consensus in solidarity with the police and prison industry that have allowed for their untrammeled growth — a consensus whose content is white racialized identity.”

When turned on its head, white supremacists can use this current reality to support their arguments that Black people are in these positions because of “poor decisions,” “a lack of personal responsibility,” “a lack of work ethic,” “laziness,” or even some type of biological shortcoming, as is argued by so-called “race realists” (the modern term for pseudoscientific racism). Individualizing systemic problems is both a convenient way to blame victims of societal oppression, by basically ignoring history, and the result of a general lack of historical and practical knowledge regarding how systems shape lived realities for people within those systems.

The latter point helps explain why ignorance is naturally drawn to reactionary politics, and why fascism has always been the likely outcome for America. As most Americans suffer from extreme deficits in sociological, historical, economic, and systemic understanding, any reaction against personal misgivings (which are experienced by the working class as a whole under capitalism) will surely default into raw emotion for many. This is fascism’s advantage, as it feeds off aimless frustrations. Ignorance is easily swayed; and guiding these frustrations into an intense anger against women, immigrants, Muslims, Black people, Brown people, or LGBTQ people, is easily accomplished.

Ignorance is also a harbinger to cowardice. Due to a lack of general understanding of the world around them, such people grow to see the world as a dangerous place. So they must back themselves into a corner, stockpile guns, become suspicious of any and all who do not look like them, and brace themselves for the globalist, Illuminati-led, Bilderberg-planned, Soros-funded, politically-correct, cultural-Marxist New World Order. Their lack of understanding leads them down a delusional rabbit hole, and their vulnerabilities and insecurities breed a cowardice that drives them to “punch down” at those who appear even more vulnerable than they. This authoritarian stance taken against class peers, and its need to dominate and brutalize marginalized people, is just waiting to get swept up in the fascist tide. And for many Americans, it inevitably has.
The Struggle Against Inevitability

Since the inevitability of American fascism is deeply rooted in both capitalism and white supremacy, any resistance against this fascist tide must be focused on destroying these two systems. Therefore, the only suitable orientation to embrace is one of a left-wing populist, internationalist, working-class, anti-racist ideology. The black-clad, masked anarchists and anti-fascists who have been physically confronting Trump’s shock troops in the streets are firmly rooted in this orientation. They are the front lines of this struggle, but their effectiveness will ultimately be dependent on a mass, organized movement that includes political and labor-oriented groups on the left, and most importantly liberation groups that are rooted in justice for people of color and immigrant populations.

The upcoming war against American fascism will occur on multiple fronts. First, ground troops of the left (antifa and others ) are desperately needed to confront the violent, bigoted, gun-obsessed right wing that has formed under the banner of Americanism. These ground troops must be armed and proficient with guns, physically conditioned, and trained in hand-to-hand combat skills. A guerilla orientation influenced by the teachings of Che Guevara and Abraham Guillen , among others, and rooted in the approach of the original Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton’s rainbow coalition (the BPP, Young Lords, and Young Patriots) is vital. Included in this need are community defense projects that can protect working-class people from the immediate dangers posed by right-wing militia groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and police.

Second, a multi-pronged attack against the capitalist system is needed. This must include a return to militant labor organizing and the inclusion and politicization of low-wage service sector workers. This must also include a left unity project that creates a coalition of anti-capitalist political, labor, and social justice groups that can effectively bring in and give the reins to immigrant laborers, the unemployed and underemployed, and specifically those who are most marginalized due to their racial, gender, or religious identity. A rejection of both capitalist political parties (Democrats and Republicans) is necessary in this struggle, as is a rejection of the lesser-evil approach to electoral politics that has brought the entire system rightward over the past 40 years.

Third, a struggle against government repression is unavoidable. The American government has a brutal history of crushing anti-capitalist dissent: the Haymarket martyrs , the execution of Joe Hill, the targeting and forced exile ofBill Haywood, the Palmer raids, the framing of Sacco and Vanzetti McCarthyism, Communist blacklists, COINTELPRO , the MOVE bombing , the imprisonment of folks like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and Oscar Lopez Rivera, and the forced exile of Assata Shakur , are a few examples. Legitimizing the movement with a formidable, nationally-based political wing can help with this. A third party rooted firmly in anti-capitalism is needed to serve as a vehicle for spreading class consciousness among an American working class that has been strategically and historically shielded from this. While electoral victories would be nearly impossible and largely ineffective in the current structure, political pressure and education is a crucial tool that should be used to create legitimacy and transparency.

This struggle must be carried out with an understanding of the role that liberals and many progressives play in protecting the fascist movement. While conservatives and those on the “alt” and far right represent a clear enemy, liberals can sometimes pose as allies when it comes to mainstream political rhetoric. History shows this is not the case. It shows that no matter how progressive their platforms may appear, liberals will always side with the capitalist system and, most importantly, with their own stability and comfort within the system. This has never been more evident than in their recent support of a proven corporatist and war hawk in Hillary Clinton, their red-baiting propaganda since the election, their blanket condemnation of anti-fascists, their constant cries against counter-violence, and their false equivalencies against “extremists on both sides.” The fact that the Democratic Party sabotaged Bernie Sanders, a politician whose platform is nothing more than that of a New Deal liberal, shows how far to the right they have moved since the inception of neoliberalism. Nancy Pelosi’s honest proclamation that “we’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is” while answering an unscripted question from a student at a January “Town hall” appearance perfectly captured the smug elitism of the party, especially when considering Pelosi herself is married to a wealthy “businessman/investor” and has a net worth in the range of $43 to $200 million. Capitalism has been great for her and her family; however, not so great for 200 million Americans. And now we have a war on our hands.

No More Confederate Nostalgia in NOLA

Darryl Barthe


For the last few days, armed men in New Orleans have been protesting the removal of monuments to a failed, White Supremacist, republic. The workers tasked with carrying out the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans are working in flak jackets and with masks to obscure their identities since threats of violence have surrounded the plan to dismantle statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Pierre Beauregard. Many of the “protestors” at these monuments are not from New Orleans but have traveled from elsewhere in the South in order to express their disapproval of the City Council of New Orleans’ decision to remove monuments to men who raised armies against their own country in order to defend slavery.

It would be easy to attribute this latest episode of white racial outrage to the rising tide of “populism” surrounding the ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Yet, the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, in particular, had been the cause of controversy in 1989, 1993, and 2004. White Supremacy and racism wrapped in a veil of “heritage” is not new for Louisiana.

It would be even easier to connect the liberal insistence on removing these monuments to the Charleston Church Massacre. In June of 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because he believed black people “rape (white) women and are taking over our country.” Roof wrapped himself in symbols of White Nationalism for pictures he posted of himself online before he went on his rampage and so, of course, liberals concluded that these symbols were problematic and, to be fair, these symbols are problematic. However, what is more problematic is that the United States has existed as a White Nationalist Republic for much longer than it has existed as a, nominally, representative democracy where all citizens enjoy equal protection under the law.

The American South, and specifically the Confederate States, lost a war that they fought in order to preserve slavery. That same war that the Northern States won was a war to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery in the South. After the Civil War, there was a mad rush to reconciliation that resulted in the reinstitution of “White Rule” in the Southern States through a regime of racial terror. The Battle of Liberty Place was one episode of racial terror and violence, inflicted on New Orleans by White Supremacist terrorists, and was fought between the Metropolitan Police Force and the White League, a White Supremacist paramilitary organization comprised mostly of Confederate veterans that served as a street army for white conservative politicians in New Orleans.

The Monument to the Battle of Liberty Place is a monument to Louisiana’s “redemption” and the reinstitution of the old, antebellum caste order following the period of Reconstruction, when people of color in the South enjoyed the briefest semblance of the rights of citizenship guaranteed by the Constitution. Redemption of the South for White Rule meant the dispossession and disenfranchisement of non-white people. It also entailed a rearticulation of slavery through the criminalization of black life. Indeed, the legacy of that political program persists today in the form of a mass incarceration state that has extended the life of that “peculiar institution” of American slavery into the 21st century. And Louisiana, in particular, stands out as the state with the highest rates of incarceration in a country that incarcerates more people than any other in history. [1]

To be certain, that is the “history” and the “heritage” that is currently being reified and dignified through the demonstrations of armed men flying the Confederate battle flag (“the Stars and Bars”), in New Orleans tonight. They hide their threats behind a fig leaf of free speech, but the very history they are celebrating is a history of treason and lawlessness. They are a modern day White League (replete with token people of color, desperate for white approval) hinting at a willingness to resort to violence should anyone -even the elected government of the city of New Orleans-dare to abandon the trappings of a failed rebellion perpetrated by their ancestors, men who were wicked and ignoble, who betrayed their country and who fought and killed and died to preserve their right to buy, sell, rape and murder black people.

Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Pierre Beauregard were all men willing to throw in their lot with a slave regime and do not deserve to be commemorated for that decision. To pretend as if these men deserve to be lauded for leading men into the jaws of oblivion, in defense of an evil regime ruled by men whose position was “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery” is absurd, and it is long past the time that the people of New Orleans recognized the absurdity of it and put an end to it. [2] None of these men deserves to be elevated on a pedestal, and the question of celebrating the history of the Civil War is moot: the South remembers the heroes of the Civil War every 4th of July when they celebrate the birth of the Union.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu will face waves of criticism for his decision to remove these monuments. Those criticisms don’t matter though, and Landrieu should not waste time arguing with his detractors in this matter. The fact that the men tasked with dismantling these memorials must hide their identities and conduct their work wearing Kevlar vests is a testament to the character of the people who oppose Landrieu’s efforts in this. Those people deserve no reasoned consideration at all. Mitch Landrieu, the first white mayor of New Orleans since the Civil Rights era came to an end (the last white mayor was his father), was the person who had to get this done, and he did.

[1] “The peculiar institution” was the way that Kenneth Stampp described the American slave system in his book The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: A.P. Knopf, 1969).

[2] See Civil War Trust “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” civilwar.org May 5, 2017)

Remembering Martin Luther King in the Age of Trump

Jim Burns


This year’s celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assumes special significance, poignancy, and urgency as we remember King during the same week that Donald Trump assumes the U.S. Presidency. My university, like many other institutions across the United States, paid homage to Dr. King. Yet leaving the commemoration, replete with speeches that praised King’s dream, I wondered whether the paradox of celebrating the life of a Black anti-capitalist, anti-war radical juxtaposed with Trump’s empty “Make America Great Again” sloganeering was lost on many of those in attendance. Trump’s victory, which stunned so many White liberals, resulted from a historically proven winning strategy that tapped White fear through racist appeals for “law and order” and virulent anti-immigrant sentiment tied to economic stagnation.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, many in the White liberal academic, media, and political establishment, who apparently viewed Hillary Clinton as entitled to the U.S. Presidency, fumbled to explain Clinton’s defeat. Columbia University Humanities Professor Mark Lilla, for example, in a New York Times Op-Ed , characterizes the electoral outcome as “repugnant,” yet he condemns liberal identity politics and the “obsession with diversity” for producing Trump’s victory. Lilla offers his own “make America great again” prescription for a “healthy” national politics based not on affirming and appreciating difference, but on “commonality” and returning to the liberal politics of the New Deal, racial exclusivity and all. Lilla’s appeal to contextualize education about the “major forces shaping the world” in their “historical dimension” sits uncomfortably beside a stunning lack of historical perspective, particularly in the presentation of Whiteness as a neutral norm and the glorification of the American project as the assimilation of difference.

Katherine Franke, Lilla’s colleague at Columbia, provides that critical perspective in her response in theLos Angeles Review of Books . Franke characterizes the liberalism championed by Lilla as the “liberalism of white supremacy…that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction.” The Trump phenomenon, and analyses of it such as Lilla’s, represent, as Franke points out and as Michael Kimmel writes in Angry White Men , a sense of White, heteropatriarchal aggrieved entitlement. Anyone who possesses the deep understanding of American history advocated by Lilla would conclude that Trump’s victory actually demonstrates the victory of the White heteropatriarchal identity politics long deployed through relations of institutional power against many Others. Trump’s election is no anomaly; it illustrates a history of White terror and backlash against demands by historically oppressed groups for their rights and human dignity.

Returning to the memory of Dr. King, his life and legacy have long suffered the tragedy of many civil rights leaders, who have been caricatured to comfort White America and fit a partial historical narrative to preserve the status quo. King’s vast body of public intellectual work and activism have been reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech, trotted out yearly to absolve the guilt and paralysis many Whites feel for their lack of personal commitment and action in the struggle for justice-racial, economic, social, and political-for which King and many others fought and died. Understanding King requires engagement with the entirety of his evolutionary thought, for example his Letter from Birmingham City Jail , in which he clearly articulated his disappointment with the white moderate “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Yet a major aspect of the justice that King fought for, which seems lost in the sanitized celebrations of his life and work, included economic justice for all the people of the world. In an August 16, 1967 speech entitled ” Where do We Go from Here? ” King concluded that “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society”:

“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

James Baldwin echoed King’s skepticism of the White moderate in his 1965 essay The White Man’s Guilt . White Americans, Baldwin wrote, possess the ability to see the “disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility,” but in lacking the “energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it.” Baldwin, like King, appeals to the force of history, not as something exterior to us, but as something that we embody, a force that exercises unconscious control over us and “is literally present in all that we do.”

Yes, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in what Gore Vidal famously called the United States of Amnesia illustrates yet again the masterful and predictable use of the White identity politics of fear, racial divisiveness, and class oppression. Trump’s election demonstrates the dearth of meaningful dialogues about class in our political discourses, specifically the intersection of race and class, and the historic expunging of the class consciousness of working people through the destruction of organized labor. Super-wealthy plutocrats like Trump and much of his cabinet, to whom Adam Smith referred in his day as “the masters of mankind,” maintain a clear sense of class consciousness lost by so many in the burgeoning precariat of disposable people mired in contingent work and living increasingly tenuous lives. Remembering Dr. King in the age of Trump should remind us that we cannot realize the totality of King’s dream without immersing ourselves in the full range of his thought and the grandeur of the Black intellectual tradition more broadly. Commemorating King’s life should also remind White Americans that we cannot develop a more complete and humane understanding of our country, ourselves, or the world without engaging with the force of history to which the African American intellectual tradition is integral.

American Gracchi

Nicholas Partyka



When I originally conceived this essay in the fall of 2015 Donald Trump was merely one candidate for the Republican party nomination, and at the time perhaps not even the most outlandish. His surprising electoral college victory this fall prompted me to reconsider this essay, or rather some of its questions. In brief, my argument, or rather suggestion, is thus; If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, then, Whither an American Marius, or an American Sulla? At the close of the essay that follow I ask, What would a 21st century American Marius or Sulla look like? The election results, as well as the political and social atmosphere around the election have caused me to wonder, Might Donald Trump be an American Sulla?

As for a comparison between the men themselves, I think that would not come off. Donald Trump is a narcissistic short-fingered vulgarian whose scandal ridden, legally checkered career speaks for itself. What kind of analogy might we be able to make between Donald Trump and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix? Well, we must first examine the political career of Sulla. Sulla was from a very blue-blooded Patrician family, but not a wealthy one. He made a late entrance into politics due to his penury, which he overcame thanks due to receiving a couple fortuitous inheritances. He then became a successful military commander serving prominently in important Roman wars. It is, for example, Sulla who actually tricks Jugurtha into surrendering. He also distinguishes himself in the Social wars, as well as the wars against Mythridates. Sulla is best remembered for leading his troops into Roman and establishing a dictatorship. A position he used to ruthlessly suppress his enemies, brutally slaughtering any who opposed him, as well as re-shape the Roman constitutional order in a way that restored the supremacy of the Senate, and thus, of the optimates.

The social and political consequences of the economic dynamics that had been playing out in Roman society since the Punic Wars had given birth, at a certain point, to a spectacularly new kind of politician in the Gracchi brothers. The populist tumult fostered by, and exploited by these revolutionary siblings was one of the main ingredients that eventually caused the fall of the Roman republic. The other big ingredient is the client army. The pioneer of the client army is a man taking a page from the Gracchi brothers’ book. This man is Marius. Sulla is best understood in comparison to Marius; for indeed, through much of their lives these men were political opponents. Sulla was an optimate with a power base in the Senate, while Marius was a popularis with a power base in the Assembly, and among the people. Marius, much like Napoleon centuries later, was endeared to his soldiers because of his egalitarian policies. Rome had been faring poorly in the Numidian War for years, due to a stubborn persistence of inappropriate tactics and policies. On big problem was the populating of officers positions from among the nobility without regard for military skill or experience. One of Marius most popular reforms was to base promotions on merit. This had the dual effect of making for a more effective fighting unit, but also, and not insignificantly, made his soldiers extremely loyal since under him they could achieve more social mobility through a more meritocratic system of promotions.

Sulla, like most of his Patrician counterparts, did not like the way Marius was so popular with the people, nor do they like that he was enabling the use of the army for social mobility. The last thing conservative elites tend to like is to see members of the lower classes rising in the social hierarchy. Sulla’s vision of reform then was one of restoring the senate to its traditional position of superiority. The main vehicle for achieving this end was the castrating of the office of Tribune, which Sulla was able to do in his capacity as dictator. His other main vehicle was proscription. Sulla adopted a practice of posting lists of people who he deemed enemies of Rome, and who then had twenty four hours to leave Rome or else be executed as a criminal. Most of these people killed themselves so that they could keep property in their families. Just to give a complete picture of Sulla, before adopting the practice of proscription he simply had his enemies arrested and summarily executed. He saw his work as to secure the superiority of the Senate over the Equites, and the Assembly by the most direct means. In fact, once he had done what he considered a sufficient job he retired as dictator and decamped to his country estate never again to interfere with politics in Rome.

Sulla is thus remembered as a brutal and reactionary figure. And, ultimately, a failure. This is because the constitution he put in place ended up lasting only a decade or so before being overthrown by former lieutenants of his. If anything, the bloody vigor that was required for Sulla to reform the Roman constitutional order as he did acted to accelerate the political decomposition that caused the ultimate collapse of the republic. Perhaps this then is the similarity between Trump and Sulla. Both represent violent outbursts of reactionary classes struggling to retain their grip on power as the society they preside over drifts out of their control. Indeed, in the end, the Roman Senatorial class was only able to retain its social power by sacrificing its political power under the Principiate and the Empire. In making himself primus inter pares Ceasar Augustus abolishes the republic in practice while retaining many of its forms and trappings. Might not Donald Trump’s election signal such a turning point in American history?

One might, as many do, see Trump’s victory as an outburst of an aging, angry, white America feeling itself being left behind; feeling itself losing grip on its monopoly of social, cultural, and political power; losing its grip on its ability to understand the forces at play that shape the course of modern life. Even in Trump’s very campaign slogan one hears echoes of the intentions of Sulla; “Make the Senate Great Again”. This then is the similarity, a society wracked by inequality and violence, & marred by poverty and deprivation in which traditional elites, against the tide of history, attempt to put the old order on newer, more solid footing, hoping vainly that it will withstand the forces of change. In the end, Sulla’s programme was doomed to fail, and the scale of the violence needed to do it was a major clue. In just the first few days after Trumps’ election we saw hundreds of incidents of hate-based intimidation, harassment, and attacks. Might this also be a futile struggle against historical, and economic forces that is doomed to be a mostly Pyrrhic victory? Can we see in the success and popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump alignments of political forces akin to those that marshaled behind Marius and Sulla respectively? If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, and Sanders and Trump are the Marius and Sulla, then Whither our American Ceasar? Is our American republic on a similarly downward trajectory as the Roman republic? Do we live in the age of a moribund republic?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I ask them because of the thought they provoke or inspire in the reader. This is, or at least ought to be, a sobering moment for citizens of all political ideologies given the immense unpopularity of both candidates. Given the many and repeated, and unabashed, instances of the President-elect saying or doing something grossly offensive or insensitive, mocking or dismissive, demeaning or bigoted against every group in America save white people during his entire campaign it is critical to reflect on the health of our republic. It is essential for all to reflect on what the results of this election mean for our country, and its future, and, perhaps most ominously, with the divisions laid bare in this election, whether or not it has one.




The crisis of 133 B.C. certainly seemed highly significant to those involved in it and those observing it. However, it was to take on much larger significance as time went on. For this crisis signaled the rising momentum of social, political, and economic forces that would undermine the Roman republic within a century. For only thirty years after the crisis of 133 B.C. (and even fewer years after the crisis of 121 B.C.) would be born the man who rode highest on the tide of these forces, and who would ultimately kill the republic, Gaius Julius Caesar. Thus, the crisis of 133 B.C. has come to be seen as the opening salvo in the process that results in the fall of the Roman republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire.

The great crisis of the 20th century, the Great Depression, also seemed a momentous event to those caught up in it. Might it not also come to take on a higher historical significance in decades not too distant from our own? Might not future generations of Americans come to see the first third of the 20thcentury A.D. as similar to the last thirty years of the 2nd century B.C.? Might perhaps a future American Marius look back and see in the Roosevelts, Teddy & Franklin, the American Gracchi?

When we look at the political careers of the Gracchi and the Roosevelts in parallel we will notice some striking similarities. Similarities that I think illuminate important aspects of the contemporary political landscape. Often, it is only with the clarity of hindsight, afforded by examination of history, that larger features of contemporary political reality can be put in a spotlight. Though analogies can, and should, only be pushed so far, the commonalities we will see ought to be somewhat unsettling, that is, if one is concerned for the fate of democracy and democratic citizenship in America.

I must note here the perilous nature of comparisons between modern America and Ancient Rome. Such comparisons are made often, and usually quite poorly. Most often such comparisons come down to a very broad analogy between the political, economic, and military hegemony each possessed in its era of dominance. We must, with Marx, emphasize the important differences between capitalist and pre-capitalist economic formations. Though a model of class struggle may be applicable to the ancient world, as G.E.M de St. Croix adroitly demonstrates, the Roman Empire is not capitalist. Though it may contain capitalistic elements, as indeed Marx was clear that some features of capitalist economies pre-date capitalism, one must not confuse the oligarchy of the wealthiest Romans with a bourgeoisie.

This note of caution registered, I must point out that what is at issue here is not a comparison between modern American and Ancient Rome as empires, or as the international hegemon, or even the nature of that hegemony. What I want to focus our attention on here is a comparison between economic and social dynamics, and the political forces they create or unleash. We’ll see that in different eras, dissimilar as they undoubtedly are, interesting similarities emerge that might incline us to see ourselves, and our modern conflicts, in the history of Ancient Rome. It is upon noting these similarities that we come to the unsettling questions about the future of democracy in America. If the Roosevelts are the American Gracchi, then is an American Marius, or more ominously an American Sulla, in our future? Indeed, just like Marius and Sulla, many former US Presidents have parlayed military success in war-time into political careers; perhaps most notably, Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower. And, in the heart of the Great Depression many Americans wondered aloud whether or not an American Mussolini, a man who modeled himself on Roman strong-men of the past, could lift the nation out of depression. Is the American republic declining? Do the similarities of the economic and political forces at play, and underlying, the crises of 133-121 B.C. & 1929-1945 A.D., signal that our republic is as sickened as the Roman republic? Is there a cure for what ails our republic?

I must pause here to make an important note. Though I have spoken of the “Roman republic”, and of “American democracy”, one must recognize that these terms are highly problematic. Ancient Rome was indeed a republic of free citizens, but, of course, citizenship was very heavily restricted. Modern America is a democracy, which co-exists with high levels of economic inequality, racial and gender injustice, widespread socio-political exclusion and alienation. I will continue to employ this terminology throughout, but always cognizant of the limited scope of their meaning within the economic and political contexts of their respective epochs.
Lex Sempronia Agraria

Yes, 133 B.C. was an eventful year for the Roman republic. But the crisis that was ignited that year, and which smoldered until flaring up again in 123-121 B.C., and then again from 50-44 B.C., did not just spring into existence. Rather, the crisis that erupted was the result of years, decades, of slowly accumulating forces and pressures. It will do us well then to take some stock of the situation the Romans faced in the years before, and leading up to, 133 B.C.. If we are to understand the political career of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, then we must know something of the texture of the economic and political scene into which he inserted himself.[1]

The source of the economic and social problems that created such political tumult was, in a word, the latifundia. These very large, slave-worked estates owned by the wealthy Patrician elite of Rome. The growth of these displaced many small farmers, Plebians, who typically would re-locate to the city of Rome itself. Outside of the resident plebian population of Rome and the freedmen, they were the major contributing source of the classical Plebs Urbana. As part of the severance package from military service, troops were usually given land to farm as small farmers. The Roman ideal was that a Roman man would produce enough in the way of agricultural products on his small-farm to meet his families’ consumption needs, and hopefully a surplus to sell.

However, many former soldiers turned out to be terrible farmers; others found out they hated farming; others were pushed off their land against their will by more powerful neighbors; others lost their farms while away on extended military service in the Punic wars or the subsequent Roman wars of conquest. In any event, more and more good Roman land in the Italian peninsula was being consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer land-owners. This was all in spite of the Lex Lincinia Sextia, passed circa 367 B.C., which limited Roman citizens to the possession of not more than five hundred jugerum (one jugerum is approximately ½ acre). Aside from the illegal dispossession and displacement of small-holders, the latifundia grew larger and larger as a result of the illegal appropriation of public lands, the ager publicus, by wealthy aristocrats.

Thus, in the years up to 133 B.C. what one sees in Roman society is the growth of the large, slave-worked plantations, which causes increasing unemployment among a class of persons who are Roman citizens and veteran soldiers, and who flock in increasing numbers to Rome itself, swelling the ranks of the “urban mob”. These are the folks who come more and more to make up the ranks of the Plebian Assembly, the Concilium Plebis. This group became increasingly restive as their economic plight worsened. The spoils of military hegemony brought a flood of slaves into Rome, while Patricians used their social and legal privileges to illegally acquire very large, very profitable estates. As has been common throughout history, the tumult and disorder engendered by a century of warfare from the First Punic war in 264 B.C., through the end of the Third Punic war and the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C., provided the opportunity for many wealthy Romans, Patricians and Plebians, to become even wealthier. In the wake of these wars, which saw Rome rise to preeminence in the Mediterranean world, it looked to many Roman citizens not among the Roman Patrico-Plebian oligarchy that the benefits of the conquests were going mainly to the elites, not to those who did the fighting and the dying.

This then is the environment into which Tiberius Gracchus emerges when he is elected Tribune of the Plebs in 133 B.C. But who is this Tiberius? First, he is of an old and distinguished Patrician family. His mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the great Scipio Aemilianus, victorious general of the Third Punic war who destroyed Carthage. Thus, to be elected Tribune was deeply shocking to many, especially other Patricians. Remember that to be elected Tribune one must be a Plebian, and so Tiberius had to legally renounce his Patrician status in order to stand for the position at all. Had he been older he could have run for Consul, a more traditional position for someone of his background, but he apparently decided he could not wait to begin his political career, so urgent were the problems facing Roman society.

Second, he is a Popularis, that is, one of the Populares. This is to say that Tiberius’ political base was among the Plebians in the Assembly, and not among the optimates in the Senate. This was a fairly new development in Roman political life. Cynical observes will dismiss Tiberius as a political “adventurer”, a power-seeker. The upper-class bias found in much of the writing of and on classical history reaffirms this perception of the elder Gracchi. And yet, in fragments of the speech with which he introduced his bill paint a different picture. In describing the plight of dispossessed Roman citizens he says,

“Hearthless and homeless, they must take their wives and families and tramps the roads like beggars…They fight and fall to serve no other end but to multiply the possessions and comforts of the rich. They are called masters of the world but they possess not a clod of earth that is truly their own”.[2]

As Tribune in 133 B.C. Tiberius undertook political action to address what he saw at the crisis in Roman society. In seeking solutions to this crisis he enacted measures that directly challenged the power of the established Senatorial elite. As a Popularis, he acted to bring more legal and political rights, economic benefits, and social privileges to Roman citizens, as well as working to extend citizenship rights to more of Rome’s Italian allies. He also acted to directly attack the basis of aristocratic power, land ownership. In the ancient world, when land was the main means of production, as well as the basis of economic independence, and with it social prestige. Tiberius was able, through much resistance, to pass his Lex Sempronia Agraria. This was a land-reform measure designed to break-up the illegal latifundia and redistribute land to dispossessed Roman citizens. Knowing that the aristocrats in the Senate would be hostile to his proposals Tiberius, much as a Popularis would, took the unorthodox action of appealing his case to the Plebian Assembly, which was much more receptive to his ideas. As a result of Lex Hortencia, passed circa 287 B.C., legislation passed by the Plebian Assembly was binding on Patricians too; which it had not been up to that point.

Then, late in the year, Tiberius caused a constitutional crisis with his appropriation of the legacy of Attalus III of Pergamum. Attalus, King of Pergamum, died without an heir and bequeathed his entire estate to the Roman people. Traditionally, this kind of matter was handled by the Senate. It was one thing to redistribute land, which even many elites grew to accept, but in order to give the re-settled farmers a chance they would need capital to stock the farms with the necessaries of farming. In order to pay for this, Tiberius decided to appropriate the Attalus’ legacy. He got the Plebian Assembly to vote to do so, and as a result of Lex Hortencia, there was nothing the Senate could do. This was, even for a person like Tiberius Gracchus, a stretch of constitutional authority, and indeed for many it was an outright breach. Tiberius had already acted haughtily in – probably illegally- dismissing a fellow Tribune, a man named Octavius, in order to remove the last obstacle to the passage of his land-reform bill.

In order to see why Tiberius’ appropriation of Attalus’ legacy caused a constitutional crisis we must take a look at the institution of the Roman Senate. In the period directly after the kings, the Roman senate, which had been merely an advisory body, seized control of the reigns of the Roman state. The Patrician and the Plebians had together expelled the odious Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and circa 509 B.C. founded what we now call the Roman republic. The slogan around which this new regime coalesced was “SPQR”, which translated into English means in essence, “the Senate and the Roman people are one”. On one level it announces the fact that Patrician and Plebian unity drove out the hated kings, and that their combined strength under-pinned the new regime, whose legitimacy was predicated on preventing kings from ever returning. On another level it very clearly announce that the Patricians, the Senatorial class, were a group separate from and superior to the “people of Rome”, i.e. the Plebians and freedmen. It also very clearly announces the order of precedence in the new regime. The Senate and the Roman people are one, but the Senate comes first. Thus, the Senate, or the Senatorial class, came to dominate all or most of the major positions in government, especially the consulship. Until the time of Tiberius Gracchus the political primacy of the Senate was little in doubt.

So, when news of Attalus’ bequest reached Rome in late 133 B.C., the Senate took its time discussing what to do at its own leisurely pace. It never occurred to them that someone would do what Tiberius Gracchus was about to do. They were just as shocked as they were earlier when Tiberius renounced his Patrician status to become Tribune, something it never occurred to anyone, Patrician or Plebian, that anyone would even think of doing. So, while the Senate dithered, Tiberius acted. But his action directly challenged the Senate’s traditional prerogatives, threatening to take away some, perhaps in the long term all, of their power. By the time of Tiberius Gracchus the example of democratic Athens was well known. Pericles, Ephialtes, and others had successfully broadened to scope of the power of the Assembly at the direct expense of that of the Athenian version of the Senate, the Areopagus, stripping it all functions save adjudicating murder trials by 462 B.C..

By these actions, and others, Tiberius Gracchus made plenty of enemies for himself, enemies with important positions in the Roman state. Once Tiberius was no longer Tribune, his enemies could, and in all likelihood would, exact some revenge on Tiberius; the direct and obvious implication being that they might murder him. As Tribune, Tiberius’ person was constitutionally sacrosanct. All Plebians swore an oath to protect the tribune from any physical attacks. So, when his term of office expired he would be vulnerable to his enemies, many of whom would likely be able to legally use state powers to pursue their ends. Thus, Tiberius forced further constitutional crisis on the Senate by running for re-election, the legality of which was by no means settled and obvious. Roman law at this time prohibited certain senior magistrates from being immediately re-elected to their post. Tiberius’ argument was that since the office of Tribune was an office of the Roman people, i.e. the plebs, not of the Roman state, i.e. the patricians, and thus this prohibition did not apply to him. Despite vigorous resistance to his re-election campaign from the optimates it looked likely that Tiberius would be re-elected Tribune.

On election-day, Tiberius was allegedly seen pointing to his head. This news was carried to the Senate, which was meeting close by, where it was universally agreed that Tiberius was attempting to make himself king. For, again, per Lex Hortencia, any bill the Plebian Assembly passed, was law. So, if they voted Tiberius king, then he would be king. And if “SPQR” meant anything, it very much meant, “no more kings”. Now Tiberius’ supporters have claimed that his pointing to his head was a pre-arranged signal to some of his closest allies that he felt his life in danger, and they should rally to him. In any event, the Senate was so enraged, and perhaps after under-estimating Tiberius more than once already, they decided to act swiftly to prevent the sentina urbis (the bilge or dregs of the city) from destroying their republic. The Senators broke up their furniture to make bludgeons, and stormed off as a group, around 300 persons armed with rocks and clubs, towards where Tiberius and his supporters were. They felt they had little choice as the sitting Consul refused to lead the Senatorial army against a sitting Tribune. When the dust cleared, Tiberius and hundreds of his followers, those who had not successfully fled the scene, had been clubbed to death in the street by the Senate.

The bitter irony is that, as provocative as Tiberius’ actions may have seemed to the optimates, the best men, the terms of his Lex Sempronia Agraria were fairly generous towards them. In fact, Tiberius inserted a compensation clause in his bill. He was going to have the state pay some of the illegal holders of public land to give it up. Senatorial elites, who monopolized land ownership, especially land in and around Rome itself, were going to be paid for land they had stolen in the first place. Not too bad a deal. And in hindsight, taking it might have been preferable to the century of internecine civil strife and violence that followed from not taking it.
Theodore Rex

Theodore Roosevelt was the first United States President to be born in a city, to go by his initials, first to leave the country during his term of office, he was the youngest President, he was the first to win the Nobel Peace prize, first American to win any Nobel Prize, first President to own and automobile, first to do down in a submarine, first to use transatlantic cable to send diplomatic messages, first to grasp the potential of publicity and the burgeoning mass media, and first to dine with an African-American in the White House, among many other firsts. He was an author, naturalist, historian, conservationist, hunter, imperialist, and progressive, among other things. Clearly, these were revolutionary times, and clearly Theodore Roosevelt represented a new force in American politics. The world was changing, that is, being changed, ever more radically and seemingly at an increasing pace, by the economic and political forces of capitalism and liberalism. The early part of the 20th century saw the emergence of a unified national market in America, mostly through the agency of the consolidation of firms. The world most of us today consider “modern” was quickly coming into being, with all the attendant social dislocation and duress for those on the bottom o the social hierarchy.[3]

Teddy, like Tiberius Gracchus, had a Patrician upbringing, enjoying the benefits of upper-class privileges. They both entered politics in a time of high corruption, high economic prosperity, as well as constitutional transformation and crisis. Both also had a popular political orientation. Teddy Roosevelt championed many progressive causes during his tenure as President, resulting in many important benefits for working-class Americans. Teddy fought corrupt political machines, tired to get a “Square Deal” for the American people, who he saw as too often being taken advantage of by predatory capitalists. Lastly, like Tiberius Gracchus, Teddy’s main political nemesis can be summed up in a single word, trusts. This was the height of the age of the Robber Barons, and of the monopolistic consolidation of America’s largest industries. Much like the times of Tiberius Gracchus, the era of T.R. was one of economic prosperity, but mainly for the wealthy. There was a widespread sentiment that the benefits of industrial capitalist society were accruing principally to one class, namely, the capitalists. The predations and manipulations of the giant trusts, reported often in the increasingly frenzied world of competition between newspapers, were perhaps the most glaring symbols to many of this fact. That this problem of trusts and their growing power was recognized can be seen in the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890.

After the close of the Civil War, American capitalism came increasingly into maturity.[4] It was in this period that some of the most famous as well as infamous names of American business history tread the scene. This was the era when the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Fisk, Gould, Vanderbilt, and later Ford, dominated the business world, and constructed their corporate empires. As American capitalism continued to mature, this process of maturation quickly became characterized by the large-scale consolidation of firms in many of the nations’ largest, and most important, industries; e.g. railroads, steel, banking, and oil. By the turn of the twentieth century this process was far along in its work, and yet still not finished. The consolidation of individual wealth at the apex of the income scale, and of the ownership of firms via ownership of stock, in the hands of the so-called “captains of industry” gave these men near total control of the American economy from top to bottom. These new large-scale monopolistic firms were able to determine, almost at will, workers’ wage hours, and benefits; they determined the prices consumers -especially urban ones- paid for almost everything they bought; they set the rates the farmers had to pay to ship their produce to market, thus determining in large part the earnings of farmers.

Theodore Roosevelt was without a doubt America’s most popular President since Abraham Lincoln. Not only did the development of mass media, and a national market for such media, make whomever was going to be a President in this era more accessible to journalists, and thus to the American people, but Teddy in particular connected with the American people in deeper way. Perhaps it was his blend of east and west, or his combination of patrician background and working-class energy, that endeared him so much to the populace. His legacy in the American imagination testifies to the lasting impact he made on the American social and political psyche. The sheer volume of his personal correspondence over his life also testifies to the interest, and indeed fascination, he inspired in many. His landslide victory in the 1904 election also shows how taken Americans, from all across the nation, were with Roosevelt.

And yet, Roosevelt was an avowed patrician. He was a seventh generation New Yorker whose family originally immigrated to New Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century and prospered. Over generations Theodore’s forebears made a fortune, which they successfully passed on to their descendants. This money was made by practices, or in industries, which would be dis-tasteful to modern sensibilities, to say the least. In particular, the trade in sugar was the source of much profit for the early Roosevelts. The almost unfathomable human suffering entailed in the production of sugar on European sugar plantations in the Caribbean is well-documented.[5] Teddy was educated at Harvard, where he had a servant to attend to him, and was elected to one of its most prestigious clubs. He was quite conscious of his elite status, refusing to allow journalists to photograph him playing tennis as he thought it a rich man’s pastime, or at least, thought voters would see it that way.

And, just like Tiberius Gracchus, this deeply patrician individual took up a popular political orientation, and challenged the political and economic power of established elites. Now, Roosevelt did not have to legally renounce his social status as Tiberius did, but he nonetheless faced vigorous resistance from elites whose power he was threatening. In the New York State Assembly, as Governor of New York, and as President of the United States, T.R. fought often for reforms which would benefit working-class people, often in the face of opposition from bosses in his own party. During his time in the New York State Assembly, that Roosevelt could be so aloof from the bosses that controlled the party political machines testifies again to his patrician status, as he did not need the pecuniary favors and inducements party bosses used to maintain discipline and loyalty. After his tenure in the Assembly, Teddy served as a civil service commissioner appointed by Benjamin Harrison, where he fought the spoils systems. So scrupulously did he do his work that Grover Cleveland asked him to stay on at his post, despite Roosevelt being a Republican. In 1895 he was appointed one of three commissioners charged with reforming the NYPD. In 1897 party bosses facilitated his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy so as to prevent him from returning to politics in Albany.

As President, Roosevelt continued to champion progressive causes, and win important victories for those not of elite backgrounds, and with elite means. This was the essence of the “Square Deal” he campaigned on in 1904, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, neither capital nor labor. He thought that the government should certainly not redistribute wealth or property, but it also should not align itself with the elite and aid them in preying on the poor. It is in this spirit one can see his efforts towards legislation like the expansion of the national parks system and the creation of the United States Forrest Service, the Pure Food & Drug Act, the Antiquities Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the Hepburn Act. Also in this spirit one must see T.R.’s trust-busting actions. During his term in office the old Rough Rider initiated at least forty anti-trust actions, the most notable of which being his break-up of J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Trust, which effectively controlled the nation’s railroads, and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust, which effectively controlled the refining of oil. Lastly, and very importantly, Roosevelt was the first President to formally recognize organized labor, by including the voice of organized labor in labor disputes; something which appalled the more patrician elements in American society.

Of course, Roosevelt’s progressivism had limits. He was not anti-business, he was not in principle against the large corporations. Roosevelt thought that large-scale firms, like the trusts, might be useful, but needed to be regulated so that they did not take advantage of consumers. He was a friend to business, and to transnational capital insofar as he successfully completed the Panama Canal, the importance of which to modern capitalist globalized world-economy cannot be overstated. Roosevelt’s actions in the case of the Brownsville riots demonstrate the limits of his racial progressivism. He may have invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House, but he discharged all the black soldiers accused despite a Texas grand jury not returning indictments against any for lack of evidence. T.R. was also an unabashed imperialist; fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, supporting the subsequent U.S. occupation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, as well as supporting the annexation of Hawaii, and announcing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

Also, similarly to the elder Gracchi brother, Theodore Roosevelt would resort to the threat of constitutional crisis to achieve his ends. One must note that unlike Tiberius, Teddy only threatened constitutional crisis, never quite pushing beyond the bounds of constitutional legality and forcing a full-blown political crisis. And, like Tiberius, Teddy was accused of expanding executive authority at the expense of more constitutionally appropriate bodies. The title of Edmund Morris’ biography, Theodore Rex, testifies in part to this perception of Teddy as a usurper of Congress’ powers, as someone acting more like a classical Greek Tyrannos, as opposed to a Basileus. One salient example is found in the Coal Strike of 1902. Heading into the winter coal miners’ went out on strike for better wages and hours, and recognition of their union. The mine owners refused to meet with the miners, or even listen to their demands. A national crisis of immense proportion was clearly in the offing if no resolution could be found.

Expanding the role of government, Teddy decided to intervene in the dispute. Intervening at all in a labor dispute in this era meant doing so in support of the workers, as the lassiez-faire policy which had dominated was an implicit, if not sometimes very explicit, choice to side with owners. Thus, intervention at all in this case meant the de facto recognition of organized labor’s political legitimacy. In the face of the owners’ continued recalcitrance T.R. threatened to turn an economic and political crisis, into a full-blown constitutional crisis. If the mine owners would not accede to Teddy’s request to submit the dispute to federal mediation, Teddy claimed he would take over the mines and use the army to run them. Roosevelt did not have the explicit constitutional power to do this, even if he could have in practice carried out this threat, which he probably could have. The issue with this move was the appropriation of private property for public purposes without due process, or without just compensation, as required by the constitution. Whether or not Roosevelt could have gotten away with this move if it had made it to the Supreme court, which it almost certainly would have had Teddy followed through on his threat, is unclear and beside the point.

In the face of Roosevelt’s threat, the mine-owners caved in and accepted federal mediation. The resulting settlement averted a national crisis, and saw the workers win a 10% pay increase and a nine-hour day. In the end, the threat of a constitutional crisis was enough for Teddy to achieve what he wanted despite the organized resistance of an economically, and thus also politically, powerful clique. Two years later, after Roosevelt’s re-election, he once again threatened a constitutional crisis, but not intentionally. His resounding victory in 1904, and his continuing national popularity, gave many observers a good reason to think he could handily win another election in 1908. The issue in this case being that of the political precedent of Presidential term limits, which was an informal constitutional practice until codified into law after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. T.R. could have argued that since he merely finished out the term of the assassinated William McKinley, his first term was not really his, and thus he could run for President in 1908 perfectly legally. Whether this argument would have stood up with the Supreme Court, or with American voters, we will never know. Rather than force such a constitutional crisis, Roosevelt committed political suicide by announcing on election-night that he would not seek another term as President.

During his 1912 run for President under the Bull Moose banner there was an attempt on Teddy’s life;. However, unlike that against Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C., it was not was not organized, lacked elite support, and thus was not successful; indeed, the attempted assassination was carried out by a man, John Flammang Schrank, who claimed to be inspired by the ghost of William McKinley. The potential mental instability of the would-be assassin notwithstanding, he was angered by what he saw as Roosevelt’s tyrannical hunger for power, as evidenced in his bid for an unconstitutional third term. Despite having certainly made enemies among the wealthy and propertied elite of America, however, as much as he stretched the law or the limits of his powers, he didn’t push the existing order into full-blown crisis. Like most other early 20th century ‘progressives’, Teddy was for gradual reform as a way of preventing a larger, potentially disastrous, social revolution. Though he fought against the abuses of the capitalist system, its replacement was nowhere on his agenda. Like Tiberius Gracchus with his land reform, Theodore Roosevelt sought not to radically alter an economic and social system, but to alter it so as to make it generate a more broadly-based prosperity. This was the aim of T.R.’s anti-trust actions, as well as the progressive items on his domestic policy agenda.
Facing the Forum

In 123 B.C., ten years after the assassination of his brother Tiberius, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus embarked on a political career by following closely in his brother’s footsteps. Gaius renounced his Patrician status, by a legal process called transitio ad plebem, in order to be elected Tribune. As Tribune, just like his brother, Gaius was a Popularis, continuing Tiberius’ un-finished programme of land re-distribution. Also like Tiberius, Gaius’ actions as Tribune made for him many enemies among the optimates of the Senate, whose distaste for Tiberius would have ill-disposed them to Gaius from the beginning. And lastly, just like his brother, when Gaius pushed the Senate too far, threatened their power and privilege too much, they accused him of trying to become king, Rex, and they assassinated him.

Picking up the political legacy established by Tiberius, Gaius was a reform-minded politician who advocated for the needs of ‘the Roman people’, the same people referenced in the slogan “SPQR”. Gaius supported increasing the rights of Plebian Roman citizens, as well as granting citizenship rights to more of the Italian allies. He continued to work of the land commission established by his brother. That Gaius could make political hay with the same economic and political issues as Tiberius had, shows that the fundamental problems in Roman society had not be addressed in the decade between the Tribunates of the Gracchi brothers. Indeed,

“The ten years which separate the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus from his brother form a sort of twilight interval, such as sometimes separates two important periods of history, full of half-articulate cries, broken lights, and shadows of great events to come. Much is begun, nothing is ended, and the course of events seems to hang in suspense, as if in waiting for some master-hand to give the decisive impulse”. [6]

Gaius popular political orientation can be seen in his effort to found a colony on or near the site of the former Carthage, a colony he was to call Junonia, after the goddess Juno. While Tiberius mostly confined himself to the issue of the monopolization of land, and his programme of land redistribution, Gaius was far more wide-ranging in his attempts at reform. He introduced significant reform measures into the judiciary, the military, and the economy. He tried to limit the power of the Senatorial class by transferring some of their judicial powers to the Equites, or Knights, trying to drive a wedge between these classes. In the military, Gaius passed laws requiring the state to clothe and equip soldiers, reduce their term of service, and he forbade the conscription of boys under the age of seventeen. He also introduced price-controls for wheat, in effort to limit and regularize the price of bread, the main staple of the diet of the Plebs Urbana. Indeed, as if the Senate would not be hostile to Gaius already on account of their disgust with his brother, as well as the reforms he himself proposed, Gaius introduced what seems to us on its face a minor reform. This was a reform whereby, against long-established custom, speeches would now be delivered while facing leftward instead of rightward. By having speeches delivered while facing the Forum, the meeting place of the Plebian Assembly, instead of the curia, the Senate’s meeting house, Gaius was delivering a none too subtle message to the Senate about where he thought power in the Roman state resided.

That the Senate felt threatened by Gaius after his first term as Tribune can be seen clearly in their recruitment of a political stooge to do their bidding in the Plebian Assembly, one Marcus Livius Drusus. It can also be immediately perceived in their use of propaganda – a new development at this time- against Gaius Gracchus by the optimate class, while he was away supervising his colony at Junonia. In the first case, the Senate used Drusus to out-do, or one-up any legislation proposed by Gaius Gracchus. If, for example, Gaius proposed to get increased rights for the Italian allies, the Drusus would propose a bill with even more generous rights and privileges, e.g. immunity from ‘scourging’, i.e. flogging, by a Roman military commander, or ability to appeal the sentence of a Roman magistrate. If Gaius wanted to settle 1,000 people in colonies, then Drusus would propose settling 3,000 people in colonies, et cetera.[7] Drusus even passes a law cancelling rents.

In the second case, the Senate’s hostility to Gaius can be seen in the malicious rumors playing on Romans’ superstitions that were spread far and wide in effort to cast Gaius’ colony, as well as his person, as cursed. Gaius’ enemies wanted to try to turn the people away from Gaius, to make him less popular, and therefore less powerful, by making him out to be impious, by insinuating that the many ill omens surrounding Junonia were clear signs of the dis-favor of the Gods. One might see this aggressive push against Gaius by the Senate as their having learned something of a lesson in under-estimating Tiberius’ audacity and ambition, and being conscious about not making the same mistake with Gaius. They feared, and perhaps not so unreasonably, that Gaius might be planning to use his new North African colony to stage and then launch an invasion of Rome, in revenge for the Senate’s murder of his brother; for which only a few nominal executions of relatively minor Senators took place.

Gaius, like his brother Tiberius, pushed the Senatorial elite too far, and forced a violent reaction from them. Arch-Patrician Scipio Aemilianus intervened in the early part of Gaius career to undermine the Gracchan land commission by transferring the commissions’ powers to the Consul, effectively ending land re-distribution. Senatorial hostility and use of propaganda rendered the long-term success of the Gracchan colony at Junonia doubtful at best; indeed, the colony only survived for 30 years. Questions about the feasibility of practicability of Drusus’ proposals notwithstanding, for it is unclear where he would or could have acquired the land necessary to settle such a large number of colonists, the people took the bait, and Gaius found that his power had been diminished. Upon his return to Rome, Gaius mis-read the political climate and took the provocative action of moving his residence to the Aventine hill in Rome, the well-known long-time strong-hold of the Populare faction. After he failed to win a third Tribunate, largely through the machination of his political enemies, many of whom held important political posts, the stage was set for a confrontation.

After his return to Rome in 121 B.C., and the deterioration of his political position, Gaius became increasingly wary about his personal safety and hired a bodyguard. The Senate would have seen both Gaius’ moving to the Aventine and his hiring a body-guard as highly provocative actions. To the Senate, they were certainly not the kind of honorable actions befitting an up-standing and law-abiding Patrician Roman citizen. They looked like the action of a dangerous radical, who, like his brother before him, threatened to cause disruption to the pattern of business as usual for the Senatorial aristocracy. For Gaius, cognizant of his brother’s fate, these were reasonable measures of self-protection. Unfortunately for Gaius, his bodyguard got into a drunken fight with a slave, who happened to be a servant of the sitting Consul, as a result of which the slave was killed. The Senatorial elites lost no time in spinning this incident into a conspiracy to kill the Consul which had only barely missed its target. This obviously could only further exacerbate the hysterical paranoia among the Senate directed against Gaius Gracchus, and deepened the elite’s sentiment that this was a dangerous individual.

With a number of his political enemies elected to prominent political positions, including one Lucius Opimius elected Consul, in addition to Livius Drusus as Tribune, the time had come for the elites to try to un-do the mischief wrought by Gaius Gracchus. On the day set for the repeal of much of his reforms, this Opimius sent an attendant to perform a sacrifice. Let us not forget that religion and politics were far less divorced than they are now. On his way back this servant, Quintus Antyllius, carrying the entrails of the sacrifice tried to push his way through a crowd. Most accounts agree that it was Quintus Antyllius’ efforts to get through the crowd, composed of supporters of both Gaius Gracchus’ faction and Opimius’ faction that sparked a row between the groups resulting in Quintus’ death. On Plutarch’s account, it was Quintus’ rudeness in pushing through the crowd that caused the Gracchan supporters to attack him. According to Appian, Gaius’ supporters mis-understood his dis-approving countenance when approached by Quintus as a sign to act.

The death of Quintus Antyllius gave Opimius and his optimate faction all the pre-text they needed to mobilize against Gaius Gracchus. Here was a man who, like his brother before him, had renounced his Patrician status to obtain a political career pandering to the Plebians and freedmen. He had rocked the boat by continuing his brother’s land reform project, but then moved much beyond that issue to make sweeping changes to the Roman constitution in many areas. He had founded a colony on cursed land and persisted in building it despite many ill omens – a potential staging point for an invasion aiming at an anti-Senatorial coup de etat. Gaius had shown his contempt for the Senate in giving speech facing left, and moving to the Aventine hill. He had acted openly, through his political reforms, to acquire power for himself at the expense of the Senate. He had allegedly plotted to kill the Consul with his bodyguard, was rumored to be involved in the death of Scipio Aemilianus, had appeared to sanction the impious action of his followers in killing Quintus Antyllius. In the eyes of the Senatorial aristocracy, Gaius Gracchus was clearly a very dangerous man, from a now suspect family.

The Senate mobilized the next day behind the Consul Opimius, to pass a declaration of martial law, called a senatus consultum ultimum, and to seize Gaius Gracchus and put him on trial; the eventual outcome of which no one, least of all Gaius, would have been in doubt about. After a few unsuccessful attempts at making peace, unsuccessful largely because the Senatorial faction refused anything but unconditional surrender, Opimius led a well-armed group to confront Gaius and his supporters, who had barricaded themselves on the Aventine hill. After a brief skirmish most of Gaius’ supporters fled or were killed. The encounter was so brief largely because Gaius’ supporters were mostly Plebians, and they were very likely to be less well armed, and especially less well-armored, than their opponents. We are told that Gaius’ supporters were armed mainly with the spoils of the Gallic campaign of the former consul, and Gracchi supporter, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus. Having not taken part in the fighting, and having refused to arm himself with anything but a small dagger, Gaius fled the scene. After being hotly pursued as he tried to make a desperate escape across the Tiber River, and with no options remaining, Gaius instructed his slave to kill him rather than be taken alive by his enemies; suicide being a more honorable death in the eyes of an upper-class Roman like Gaius Gracchus.

A final note about the Gracchi is important. Like many popular politicians there are questions about whether the Gracchi were real reformers, or whether they were simply using the power of the Plebian Assembly to advance their own political careers and objectives. Are the Gracchi simply power-seekers, or were they more akin to social revolutionaries? Most likely, they are somewhere in between. The Gracchi provide another first in this regard. They form one of the earliest links in a long chain of aristocratic elements taking the lead in the fights of slaves, serfs, and proletarians over the ages for a society based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Individuals in this lineage have always faced such charges. For example, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary cohort in Cuba faced such charges in the 20th century.
A New Deal and a Second Bill of Rights

We could easily imagine, and not unreasonably so, that Gaius Gracchus looked up to and was inspired by his elder brother Tiberius and his political career. We know for certain, thanks to documentary evidence, that Franklin Roosevelt looked up to and was inspired by his fifth cousin Theodore and his political career. And, just as the younger Gracchi took up the spirit of his brother’s political ideals, so too did the younger Roosevelt adopt the spirit of his cousin’s progressive political ideals. Where T.R. offered Americans overwhelmed by the size, scope, and pace of modern industrial society and the enormous corporate entities that controlled and profited from it a “Square Deal”, F.D.R. offered Americans crushed under the weight of the most colossal episode of market failure yet recorded, the Great Depression, a “New Deal”. The metaphorical deal had to be new with F.D.R. since the political and economic environment had changed so dramatically in the interval between his cousin’s Presidency and his own. In offering such a deal, Franklin became the most popular President since his cousin; even winning the largest electoral victory in American history up to that point in 1936, taking forty six out of forty eight states.

Like his cousin Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt had a distinguished Patrician pedigree. He was raised on his family’s aristocratic country estate, Springwood, in Hyde Park New York. Franklin received the kind of education one expects for the scion of a Patrician family. He was first educated by private tutors at home, then attended the prestigious Groton School, and after that, Harvard. His ancestors on his mother’s side, the Delano family, were a very wealthy Huguenot family that had been in, and prospered in, America even longer than the Roosevelts. Even his childhood pastimes, much like T.R., bear the marks of upper-class privilege. The young Franklin collected stamps, coins, and books; did photography; hunted and collected bird specimens. And yet, also like his cousin Teddy, Franklin adopted a distinctly popular political orientation, challenging the power of elites, and threatening constitutional crises in order to push through legislation he thought necessary. The many public works and employment programs enacted, and experimented with, during the New Deal era demonstrate this concern for the plight of working Americans. F.D.R.’s lasting political legacy, adored by some and loathed by others, testifies to the significance of his impact on American society. It was under his watch that Congress passed, for example, the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, the Wealth Tax Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. He also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board.

Franklin Roosevelt, idolizing his cousin T.R. as he did, followed closely in his political footsteps, just as the younger Gracchi brother had. Franklin was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1910, where tried to emulate his cousin’s anti-establishment politics, fighting the Tammany Hall machine bosses that still dominated New York politics. He followed Teddy again when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Then in 1920 he was tapped by the Democratic Party to be the nominee for Vice President. As his political career was gathering much momentum, despite the Democrats losing the 1920 election, F.D.R. was to leave the scene, much as T.R. had done after the death of his mother and wife. Where Teddy headed west to be a cattle rancher, Franklin was to be afflicted with polio. In this way, Franklin once again imitated his cousin and hero by enduring a period of, metaphorical, political exile. F.D.R emerged again later to win the Governorship of New York in 1928. It was in part his term as Governor, and part the effects of the Great Depression, that positioned Franklin Roosevelt to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1932.

In 1929, the Great Crash, as it came to be known, changed the political and economic landscape of America in ways no one was prepared for. In the aftermath of the Crash there was however near universal agreement about who had caused it, and who was to blame. Wall-Street, the banks, and speculators were all the target of a raging torrent of public obloquy. The scope of this tsunami of condemnation is in its own way a measure of the scope of the crash itself, and the social an economic dislocation that followed in its wake. In 1929 unemployment in the US was about 3%; by the later part of 1932 it was 25%. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined precipitously. It was $87.4 billion in 1929, but by 1933 it had fallen to $39.7 billion. Workers’ earning fell from $50.8 billion in 1929, to 29.3 billion in 1933. In 1929 there were 25,000 banks in the US, but by 1933 there were less than 15,000. Between 1929 and 1932 farmers lost about 2/3rds of their income. Most strikingly 3/4th of the people eligible for assistance were unable to obtain any. [8] Homelessness, starvation were widespread, suicide rates rose dramatically. These figures provide some idea of the scale of the crisis produced by the Crash of 1929 and its aftermath.

As if the economic crisis was not enough, Roosevelt also had to confront the growing threat posed by fascism. This threat posed more than one problem for Roosevelt. Not only did the militarism of Italy, Germany, and Japan threaten peace and security, but their example threatened further political instability in America. At a time when the American economy was in dire straits, as were many of the leading European industrial economies, the economies of fascist Germany and Italy, and of the communist Soviet Union, were performing much better. These examples, combined with the economic and political tumult brought on by the effects of the Depression, made fascism and communism, seem like very real alternatives for America. The idea of dictatorship, or of dictatorial powers, was not universally, or unambiguously negative in the eyes of many Americans. Before the out-break of the war, Italy and Germany were not reviled enemies, but potent competitors with a radical new model of political-economic organization, one that was turning in a better performance than the economies of the leading democracies in a time of globalized economic depression. A reporter is said to have commented to F.D.R. about the New Deal that because of it he’d go down in American history as the best President or the worst President. F.D.R. is said to have replied something to the effect of, “no, if I fail, I’ll be the last President”. This statement provides some insight into how real the threat of fascism and communism felt, even in the highest reaches of American government.

As President, Franklin Roosevelt inherited a chaotic, and indeed dire, social and economic situation. In response, he undertook decisive, and in the eyes of critics radical, action in order to lift the economy out of the depression. In so doing he saw himself as trying to save American capitalism from itself, and thereby save American democracy. Though in the end it was war production that brought the American economy back to life, and to prosperity, Roosevelts’ pre-war efforts to combat the Great Depression are not one bit less heroic. Though he enjoyed unprecedented popular support, he also faced much resistance to his proposals from established elites. Like his cousin, Franklin was accused to over-reaching executive authority, of radically altering the constitutionally ordained relationship between the state and the economy, and between the state and its citizens. Many in the American aristocracy felt that the “New Deal” Franklin Roosevelt was offering the American people was far too generous, and involved far too much government intervention, to the point that he was accused of being a communist, or a dictator. This is especially true in regards to the National Labor Relations Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board, and the Social Security Act. The first provided a federal guarantee of workers’ right to organize and to bargain collectively, the second provided important benefits for the retired and the unemployed. This conviction that Roosevelt was a despotic tyrant was only confirmed when he stood for and won a third, and then later a fourth, term as President, in contravention of one of America’s most revered informal political traditions.

Under the influence of new thinking in economics, especially in macro-economics, in particular the work of John Maynard Keynes, Roosevelt and his advisors designed a myriad of programs and initiatives designed to prime the economic pump by putting money in the hands of workers. Where T.R.’s “Square Deal” aimed only to prevent business from unfairly trampling the consumer, Franklin’s “New Deal” aimed beyond just assuring fairness, and towards more directly improving workers’ level of material welfare. The alphabet soup of New Deal agencies and administrations testifies to the extent of the efforts undertaken by the Roosevelt administration to fight-off the Great Depression. Thus we have, for example, the T.V.A., the P.W.A. the W.P.A., the C.C.C., the F.E.R.A., the C.W.A., the F.S.A., and the R.E.A., among many others. Some programs or policies were more successful than others, and F.D.R. showed a great deal of pragmatism in moving from one to another, and when one failed, he simply tried something else. His radical expansion of government, in terms of its size, the scope of its powers, and the fields of its action, earned Roosevelt and his “New Deal” the undying enmity of many American capitalists. They saw his expansion of the scope and scale of government intervention in society as unconstitutional, as un-American, and even as a communist take-over. His New Deal employment programs were seen as re-distribution of wealth and his push for increased regulation as an abrogation of private property.

In order to enact his reform programme F.D.R. had to threaten a constitutional crisis, his well-known “court-packing” plan, that is, formally, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. The Supreme Court had been working to undermine his attempts to enact the kind of legislation needed to being economic recovery, relying heavily on its decision in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. In response, Roosevelt threatened to add several new justices to the court, one for every current justice over 70 years of age. The implication was very clear. If the court did not stop undermining Roosevelt, he would pack the court with judges who would vote the way he wanted, and thus over-ruling the recalcitrant conservative jurists. If seems very clear that Roosevelt could have followed through on his threat, and had such legislation passed through the Congress if he needed to. The issue in this case is less Roosevelts’ ability to do what he threatened, or even the legality of this tactic. The issue has more to do with the spirit of democracy and of the constitution. The threat Roosevelt made certainly appears inconsistent with the spirit of democratic governance, and respect for its mechanisms. His ends may have justified his means in this case, as the threat of fascism was indeed very real at the time, but his threat certainly would seem to violate the spirit of fair play in a democratic polity. We will never know now what might have happened if Roosevelt had carried out his threat. The Supreme Court would no doubt have weighed in, and thus the stage would have been set for a confrontation between the executive and legislative branches and the judicial branch.

Out of this experience, both his own and the nation’s, with the Depression and then the war, came Roosevelt’s commitment to the idea of a second Bill of Rights. This would have been Roosevelt’s most significant reform to the U.S. constitution, the introduction of social and economic rights into the American constitutional order. Had he lived longer he might have seen more of his idea brought to life. As it is, several aspects of his proposal for a second Bill of Rights have become part of the American constitutional order in the form of what Cass Sunstein calls “constitutive commitments”. For example, social security is not a constitutional right, and yet any politician, from any either current party, would be hard pressed to get elected calling for such a policy, or, if elected, to get such a policy passed through the Congress. Discrimination on the basis of sex, for instance, is not explicitly forbidden in the Constitution. However, the constitution has been so interpreted that such a prohibition is today considered consistent with, necessary for, or even implied by, the rights enumerated in it. Indeed, as Sunstein argues, if not for the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 the American constitutional order would contain social and economic rights. Nixon, as President, was able to appoint several justices to the Supreme Court, and as a result, to stop the Warren Court’s momentum toward recognition of the kind of social and economic rights outlined in Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.

Part of Roosevelt’s vision with the second Bill of Rights was to guarantee the exercise of democratic citizenship. The age-old republican principle that economic dependence make for political subjugation, was clearly at work in F.D.R.’s thinking.[9] “Necessitous men are not free men”, Roosevelt once said, thus, providing for all citizens to have access to the most basic necessaries of life is the essential pre-requisite for the exercise of democratic citizenship.[10] In order for a democracy to truly flourish, citizens must be liberated from what F.D.R. called “fear” and “want”.[11] Persons who do not enjoy the freedom from fear or freedom from want could never fully realize the ideal of democratic citizenship. Such a Bill of Rights, the inclusion of social and economic rights in the constitutional order, would very obviously be anathema to American oligarchs, who would deride such an inclusion as socialist re-distribution of wealth, as the subsidization of the idleness of the lazy by the industriousness of the productive. That many American aristocrats, and optimate politicians, still decry the New Deal as the death of the American republic, shows just how radical were Roosevelt’s actions, and how radical they were perceived as being by contemporaries. We know, for example, how shocked and traumatized the Athenians were during the Second Peloponnesian War, because in the surviving literary sources, it is constantly referred to as the worst thing to have ever happened to anyone. [12] The continuing enmity against Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal from some elite quarters likewise demonstrates the depth of feeling of people at the time. The same could be said about Southern elites in regard to Abraham Lincoln and his actions during the war and for imposing the Reconstruction regime.

In thinking about the political legacies of both the Grachhi and the Roosevelts, one, I think, very striking similarity that jumps to mind is that all of them left their political work unfinished. All envisioned, and attempted to enact -with varying success- significant changes in the constitutions of their societies. All reacted strongly against large concentrations of wealth and power -both economic and political- that left the vast majority destitute and all but formally disenfranchised. In the case of the Gracchi since the problem was caused by the latifundia their reforms was focused first on land redistribution, and only later on about issues like extension of citizenship rights.

In the time of the Roosevelts, the problem was the trusts, the large corporations, and the immense concentrations of financial and productive assets they controlled; and also with the social, political, and economic power that control bestowed. Thus, the Roosevelts’ reforms were focused in the first phase on trust-busting and consumer protections, and then in the second phase on unemployment relief, social security, and labor rights. While Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to give organized labor a voice at the bargaining table. Franklin Roosevelt formally codified labor rights into law as President. Yet, despite the success both pairs of politicians undoubtedly did have, they all left – or were forced off- the scene before their work could be completed.

We know Tiberius’ work was left undone, given that he was violently assassinated, and his land commission effectively neutered after his death. Moreover, that his brother Gaius could make a political career, ten years later, on many of the same issues, shows very clearly that the same problems existed, and that Tiberius’ reforms were not sufficient to address the full scale of the problem. Much of the reason for this was that Tiberius’ reforms were systematically undermined by the optimatefaction after his assassination. Though it would have been politically dangerous for the elites to immediately abolish Tiberius’ land commission, they did the next best thing, they defunded the project. The Senate was able to deprive Tiberius of sufficient funds to effectively administer the project while he was alive, and then to tighten the purse strings even further after his murder. Later on, in 129 B.C., most of the powers of the commission were transferred to the Consul. The dithering allowed by this maneuver enabled the Senatorial elites to in-practice halt the work of the land commission.

That Gaius was forced, in the end, to choose between suicide and a violent assassination, shows that he was also forced off the scene while his reforming project was not fully consolidated, let alone finished with its work. Again, moreover, that Gaius Julius Caesar later on also made a political career with many of the same political issues as the younger Gracchi, shows once again that the underlying dynamics causing the problem had not been remedied. Perhaps, if the Gracchi had been successful their reform project, there never would have been a Caesar. Nonetheless, it was not until 118 B.C. that Tiberius’ land commission was formally dissolved. Then in 111 B.C. even the rents that owners of public land were supposed to pay were abolished, effectively completing the privatization of the ager publicus. Thus, the legislation of both the Gracchi was in the main repealed formally, or informally undermined. All Gracchan reforms were ultimately cancelled under the ultra-conservative constitution imposed by Sulla and his proscriptions, and enforced by his client-army.[13]

Teddy Roosevelt himself thought he left his work unfinished, and that he quit the scene too soon. He regretted almost immediately his decision on election-night in 1904 to not seek another term. In exchange, his party did allow him to pick his successor. T.R. had much confidence in William Howard Taft when the latter took office. Taft would however prove a disappointment to Teddy. This was one reason, among others, that Theodore Roosevelt decided to run for President again in 1912, his now famous “Bull Moose” campaign. T.R. may be remembered as a trust-busting President, and indeed he was quite active; at least relative to other Presidential administrations, both before and after. However, T.R. was not an anti-business politician, not even an anti- corporate politician. He was a progressive, and fought business leaders, and the “captains of industry”, but he was not anti-capitalist. He may have busted some trusts, may have slowed the development of some others for a time. But, that the Crash of 1929 happened shows very clearly that the reforming work of T.R. was not finished; even if it was capable of adequately addressing the problems in the American economy that ultimately caused the Crash.

That right-wing politicians today continue to gripe about the New Deal, and the “welfare state” it created, demonstrates without a doubt that F.D.R.’s work was left unfinished. Towards the end of his Presidency he advocated for a second Bill of Rights, which would include social and economic rights. Though this proposal formed one the major bases of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as a result an important part of dozens of national constitutions around the world, only small parts were adopted in the United States. His experience with the Great Depression had convinced Franklin Roosevelt that these social and economic rights were essential. They were needed to alleviate the massive human suffering caused by Depression induced unemployment and deprivation. They were also necessary to guarantee a secure foundation upon which citizens could depend, and thus achieve the kind of liberty needed to exercise democratic citizenship. This, very obviously, has not developed; quite the opposite in fact. But that the legacy of the New Deal and the proposal for a second Bill of Rights are still controversial shows that the transformative work F.D.R. begun had also not yet been fully consolidated, and was not yet fully finished.

The crisis of 1929-1945 was a watershed event, not only in American history, but in world history. It was responsible for unleashing perhaps the largest wave of suffering the human world has ever seen; I am including in this wave the Cold War of the subsequent period, and its attendant proxy wars and “disappeared” dissidents; I am also including in this wave the undeclared war of “underdevelopment” that kills through malnutrition and treatable diseases. This crisis occasioned some of the largest movements and exchanges of populations, both voluntary and involuntary, and their attendant cultural mixing. These were extraordinary times, unprecedented times, to the people living through them.

In 1932 A.D. Franklin Delano Roosevelt began a project of radical constitutional change, expanding the powers of the federal government and the executive branch, in response to an extreme crisis. This is much the same as what Tiberius Gracchus did in 133 B.C. in response to the economic crisis of the Roman republic after the Punic Wars. Both were derided as dictators during their careers. Both had their work attacked by factions of the aristocratic elites of their societies. In the long-run, both had big parts of their work undone by political opponents. Like the Grachhi then, could the Roosevelts’ political careers be the signal of a new phase in the development of the American republic? Are we heading, like the Romans of the Gracchi’s era, towards the destruction of the republic?

If we can venture one broad conclusion, it is that plutocracy and extreme concentrations of wealth foment crisis. And, it is out of moments of crisis that revolutions emerge. Often times, revolutions which are not successful are followed by reaction. Reaction, especially in the ancient world, could be extremely cruel, as the aftermath of the repression of the Gracchan revolution demonstrates. Worries about vast accumulations of wealth undermining democracy also underlay the ‘progressive’ political agendas of both Roosevelts. And, just like the Gracchi, attacking these concentrations brought unceasing scorn upon both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt from the elites, but adoration from the masses.

Ancient historians like Plutarch, Livy, Dio Cassius, Cicero, Appian, Tacitus, and Polybius all have distinct upper-class biases. And all roundly condemn the Gracchi as political ‘adventurers’, as radicals using unconstitutional methods, and as largely responsible for getting themselves murdered. Modern historians, who typically share an upper-class bias, differ more in opinion, but there remain many who decry the Roosevelts as closet-socialists who radically changed the American constitutional order for the worse, in effect undermining the American republic. Conversely, just as the Roman people had erected statutes of the Gracchi brothers throughout Rome, so too during the Depression did people -often with few material possessions and living in ramshackle housing- hang up pictures of F.D.R.. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt’s role as victorious wartime leader – in a war that made his nation a super-power – blunted much of the vitriol some had had toward Roosevelt because of his New Deal policies before the war.

This bring us back to our original question, or questions: Are the Roosevelts the American Grachhi?; If they are, What does this mean for the American republic?; Should we be looking out for an American Marius, or an American Sulla? What would either of these even look like in the 21st century? It was less than a century after the death of Gaius Gracchus that Caesar was himself assassinated, and we are now drawing up closely towards a century since the New Deal era. Perhaps the ancient world and the modern world are too different to draw meaningful parallels? I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. My main goal was simply to pose the first question about the American Gracchi. I leave the rest of the questions be conjectured about by the reader.


[1] For excellent resources on Roman history for this period see; Havell. H.L.. Republican Rome. 1914. Oracle Publishing, 1996. Also see; Scullard, H.H.. From the Gracchi to Nero. 1959. 5th edition. Routledge, 1982. Also see; Parenti, Michael. The Assassination of Julius Caesar. The New Press, 2003. Also see; Titchener, Frances. “To Rule Mankind and Make the World Obey”. Portable Professor Series. Barnes & Noble Audio; 2004.

[2] Quoted in; Parenti (2003), 61.

[3] For excellent resources on the life and political career of Theodore Roosevelt see; Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. Random House, 2002. Also see; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 2014. Also see; Brands, H.W.. T.R.: The Last Romantic. Basic Books, 1998.

[4] For an excellent history of this period, up to 1900, see Brands, H.W.. American Colossus. Anchor Books, 2011.

[5] See; Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. The Overlook Press, 2011.

[6] Havell (1914), 367.

[7] Colonies were a great tool for the Romans to relieve social pressure accumulating among the Plebs Urbana at Rome. Being re-settled in a colony gave the colonist a second chance, which many wanted, even at the cost of re-settlement far from Rome, the idea of which would have abhorred a true Roman. This was thus an easy way for politicians to win acclaim and popularity with the people.

[8] These stats come from Sunstein, Cass. The Second Bill of Rights. Basic Books, (2004): 36-38.

[9] I mean “republican” in the classical political sense here. The republican tradition has a long history in political philosophy. Excellent modern work in this tradition has been done by Philip Petit. See Republicanism. Oxford University Press, 1997.

[10] Sunstein (2004), 90.

[11] These are two of F.D.R.’s “four freedoms”. See Sunstein (2004), 80.

[12] See; Hanson, Victor Davis. The Other Greeks. 1995. University of California Press,1999. Also see; Hanson, V.D.. Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece. University of California Press, 1998.

[13] Proscription is a process whereby Roman citizens were declared ‘outlaws’, ‘traitors’, or ‘criminals’ by the state, i.e. the Senate. Once a citizen was declared a criminal they effectively had a bounty put out on their head. If one was a victim of proscription, one would have twenty hour hours to either flee or face trial; the outcome of this trial would not be much in doubt. In response to proscription many Roman citizens chose suicide. This was because if they either fled or were convicted in court their property would be forfeited to the state. Thus, in order to keep property in the family, many proscribed individuals chose suicide to exile or execution.

America Is Indefensible: Reflections on Donald Trump and American History

Adrienne Cabouet


Some people say Trump is America’s Mussolini. Some other people say Trump is America’s Berlusconi. Silly people say Trump is America’s Hitler.
Here’s a thing that no one says:

The world’s first concentration camps were built in Africa. Thirty years before the Holocaust, Germany murdered over one hundred thousand Africans in three years in Namibia. From 1904 to 1907, Africans were driven into the desert to die or placed into concentration camps where they were worked and starved to death by the thousands.

Today, seventy years after the Holocaust (the capital H one where mostly white people died, not any of the THOUSANDS of lower letter h ones where brown people died), Germany still maintains a colonial presence in Namibia. Indigenous Africans live in poverty and squalor yards away from Nazi war memorials, windmills, and expensive high-rise condos filled with openly racist German investors and ‘entrepreneurs.’ Today the land where the concentration camps stood is a popular tourist destination for visiting Westerners.
Here’s another thing no one says:

Hitler literally came out and said the tactics of extermination the Nazis used during the Holocaust were inspired by American treatment of Natives in the US.

As John Toland writes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Adolf Hitler: “Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity. He was very interested in the way the Indian population had rapidly declined due to epidemics and starvation when the United States government forced them to live on the reservations. He thought the American government’s forced migrations of the Indians over great distances to barren reservation land was a deliberate policy of extermination.”

And yet: when the capital-h Holocaust happened, Americans and Europeans (the white ones) reacted in shock. HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED, they said. WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?

Africans and Native peoples were not shocked. The colonized people of “the third world” were not shocked. We watched the West go to war with itself over who would have control of the darker nations with weariness and caution. We understood then, as we do now, the true nature of Western so-called civilization. No matter who won, we lost.
America Has Never Been Great

American greatness, upheld by Donald Trump in his much derided but now iconic campaign slogan but also by Hillary Clinton in her many unapologetic exhortations of this country’s exceptionalism, has always been fueled by atrocities and by the deaths and dehumanization of hundreds of millions of people all over the world. America’s foreign and domestic policy is, and has always been, genocide, theft, torture, slavery, and organized campaigns of sexual abuse and rape that have spanned the entire globe.

Everyone knows about this country’s birth in blood – few people will argue about the barbarity that characterized the Euro-American settler conquest of this nation: approximately 110 million Natives and over 30 million Africans raped, sold, enslaved, and murdered so the American empire could be born. But how many people know about the 2 million Filipinos who died in the Philippine-American war? Or the 1.5 million Haitians worked to death on sugar plantations during the American occupation of the island? Or the 3 million Arabs and Muslims dead from American sanctions and interventions in the Middle East? Or the tens of millions of Indigenous people murdered and disappeared in Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Cuba, equatorial Guinea, and Mexico by dictators, secret police, and cartels installed, funded, and trained by the US government?

Scratch the surface of any part of American history and you will find atrocities barely hidden beneath the myth. It is these atrocities which have made America the most powerful country in the world. The American Empire is an explicitly white nationalist, settler colonial project whose economic foundation is genocide and theft targeting the darker nations and peoples of this planet. There is no you, America, without the death of us. It is only with this context that one can provide a proper analysis of Donald Trump and what he and his so-called movement represent.

Donald Trump as a candidate and Trumpism as a movement do not represent an aberration or departure for American politics. They are the inevitable consequence of American nationalism and the violent expansion of the American Empire.

Every single horrifying thing that Americans quake in fear of Donald Trump bringing to the US, the US has inflicted in their name – often with their enthusiastic support – on people all over the world and within these borders. The difference is that the victims of these accepted American atrocities were African. Arab. Asian. Native. Poor. Brown. Women, queer folks, and children. Within the expansive cloud of hot bullshit known as Western conscience and Western morality and in particular American exceptionalism, those lives do not matter. Those lives are slaughtered so that the last gasp of the American dream may live. The sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are more or less ok with this reality as long as they don’t get it too. The ones who think they have the moral high ground – the ‘progressives’ – will tsk tsk before ultimately hand waving it all away as a necessary evil.

But the thing about building an entire culture and economic system rooted in the exploitation of huge swaths of life on this planet is that it warps your humanity. It makes monsters. Monsters are real and in this context they are distinctly Euro-American, pink faced, stubby fingered, and they have bad hair.

You CAN NOT separate the brutal reality of American domestic and foreign policy from the conditions that gave birth to Trump. You CAN NOT separate Trump the candidate from the history of this country and what it has done. You CAN NOT hope to stop the ideology and consequence that Trump represents by voting in a person who will in every way continue the legacy of brutality, depravity, and pain that turned America into a superpower except this time wearing a three thousand dollar pantsuit and kitten heels.

Donald Trump is America, and America is Donald Trump. Americans cannot run from him. They also can’t save themselves by voting for the more politically sophisticated lady version of him. By refusing to acknowledge the basic reality of their history, Americans are guaranteeing that another, much worse Trump will come.
So, What Do We Do?

So what do we do? Where do we go? How do we stop the inevitable rise of a new American fascism and how do we survive these times?

Americans must divest from empire. They must refuse to be complicit with atrocities committed in their name. They must reclaim their humanity and understand that their fate is tied to the fate of the rest of life on Earth. Americans must reject the parasitic relationship they have developed with the rest of humanity and they must join the growing revolutionary anti-imperialist movement while organizing to resist the empire’s interventions abroad. Americans must struggle in solidarity with the global south and the colonized people of this land to overthrow this empire, destroy capitalism, and with it racism and white supremacy. They must stand on the side of the coming global revolution.

In practice this looks like rigorous study and political education focused on unlearning the indoctrination of American nationalism and learning the true history of the American empire. This looks like a complete rejection of so-called lesser evil politics. This looks like creating and supporting programs of dual power like the AAPRP breakfast program and the School of African Roots here in Portland and MXGM’s Cooperation Jackson program in Mississippi. This looks like materially supporting the resistance of colonized people who are rising up all over the world and right here in the US: this means getting the fuck to North Dakota to resist DAPL with the Sioux Nation if you can or sending them money and supplies if you can’t. That means moving beyond just saying “Black Lives Matter” to organizing for police and prison abolition, helping your community develop alternatives to keep each other safe, talking to your racist ass relatives, and spreading the word about and supporting the ongoing national prison strike, the largest in American history.

Above all it means understanding that you can’t vote your way to liberation and feeling bad isn’t enough. Realize that capitalism, imperialism, racism, and fascism are a feedback loop. The bigotry that you allow your state and media manufacture at home, provides justification for American barbarism here and abroad.

Divest from empire and reclaim your humanity.
This was originally posted at Adrienne’s blog, The Race Card.
*The title of this essay is inspired by a line in Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism . You should read it.

To Escape Trump’s America, We Need to Bring the Militant Labor Tactics of 1946 Back to the Future

Anonymous IWW member


Back to the Future, Part 1:

The last general strike in the US was in Oakland in 1946. That year there were 6 city-wide general strikes, plus nationwide strikes in steel, coal, and rail transport. More than 5 million workers struck inthe biggest strike wave of US history. So what happened? Why haven’t we ever gone out like that again? Congress amended US labor law in 1947, adding massive penalties for the very tactics that had allowed strikes to spread and be successful – and the business unions accepted the new laws. In fact, they even went beyond them by voluntarily adding “no-strike clauses” to every union contract for the last 70 years, and agreeing that when they do strike in between contracts it will only be for their own wages and working conditions, not to support anybody else or to apply pressure about things happening in the broader society. When we allowed ourselves to lose our most important weapons 70 years ago, we took the first step towards Trump’s America. We’re stuck in the wrong timeline – if we want to get out, we have to bring the militant labor tactics of 1946 back to the future!
Back to the Future, Part 2:

The Oakland General Strike began early in the morning of December 3, 1946, when police were trying to break up a picket line of mostly female department store clerks who had been on strike since October 21 (“Back to the Future Day”). A streetcar driver saw it happening and stopped his car. This stopped all the cars
behind him. All of the passengers who were no longer going to work began immediately picketing at other businesses in Oakland, calling out those workers, and shutting down the businesses. The strike spread from there. Some important points:
1. The heroes of this story are the department store clerks who maintained an effective picket for 6 weeks, shutting down the operations of the business, refusing limitations on their ability to picket, and defending their picket when the cops were trying to break it. We need to re-learn how to organize “hard” pickets which actually disrupt commerce, and how to defend those pickets from our enemies. We also need to reject all of the limitations that courts, and the unions, will tell us we have to impose on our pickets.
2. The streetcar driver who stopped his car when he saw the cops breaking the picket deserves an honorable mention, like Peter Norman (“the white dude” at the Mexico City Olympics). He knew which side he was on, and he didn’t just keep moving. He saw fellow workers under attack and he used his power as a worker to support the right side – despite the fact that the retail workers strike had no immediate tie to his own wages and working conditions. He didn’t ask his union if it was OK. He didn’t wait to go back to his union meeting and ask them to pass a resolution supporting the retail workers. Basically, it doesn’t even matter whether he was a union member. It doesn’t even matter if he abstractly thought that women should be quitting their jobs now that World War 2 was over, or if he abstractly supported Jim Crow – he supported fellow workers against the cops. Since 1947, “secondary strikes” like that have been illegal, and his union could have been attacked by the court – but the union probably would have been training him all along that he can only strike in between contracts, and definitely not for anyone else’s cause. We need to reject any limitation on our ability to strike in support of fellow workers, or to strike about things beyond our own specific workplaces.
3. The passengers on his streetcar and the ones behind it also deserve credit for immediately forming mass pickets, reinforcing the retail workers’ picket and also spreading throughout the city and pulling other workers out on strike. They didn’t come up with this all in the moment, they learned how to do this over years of tough strikes, including the 1934 general strike in San Francisco that also shut down Oakland. Mass pickets have also been illegal since 1947, and we’ve lost those traditions. We urgently need to relearn them.
4. The unions didn’t call the Oakland General Strike – but they sure as hell called it off, and left the retail workers alone in the cold. The general strikes that have happened in the US have almost never been called ahead of time by union. They’ve almost always happened by workers semi-spontaneously going on strike in solidarity with other workers, supporting the demands of the first group and adding their own. (I say “semi”-spontaneously because the working class had years of practice and preparation leading into each strike – something that’s been forcibly removed from our culture over the past 70 years.) Yet by the third day of the Oakland General Strike, the local union leadership was already declaring that the strike was over and everyone except the retail workers should go back to work. As the streetcar drivers were told by their union president, ” The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is bitterly opposed to any general strike for any cause. I am therefore ordering you and all those associated with you who are members of our International Union to return to work as soon as possible … No general strike has ever yet brought success to the labor movement. ” Once the retail workers were left to keep striking alone, it was only a matter of time before they were beaten and had to give up. If we’re serious about reviving strikes, we need to prepare people as much as we can for how quickly the union leadership and the Democratic Party will do everything they can to prevent strikes from the start, and to get workers back to work.
Back to the Future, Part 3:

The 70th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike is coming up in three weeks, on December 3rd. As all of our movements go into overdrive, and we all start networking and holding bigger events than we’re used to, we should consider holding “Spirit of ’46” events across the country on December 3rd to talk about the Oakland General Strike and the relevance of their tactics for today. This is obviously coming up very soon, but it seems do-able, and if it’s presented right, could pull a lot of interest. What else can we start doing to prepare for the kind of labor movement we need – the kind that is ready to stand up to the state and the capitalists? What should we think about the calls that have already started circulating for a general strike to stop Trump’s inauguration?
1. The “Labor for Bernie” initiative showed the potential for a cross-union, bottom-up movement that fought for big goals, overcame the separation that is built into the labor movement, and directly challenged the right of the Democratic party and the labor bureaucracy to speak for union members or the working class . We’ve all just seen that electoral politics are inadequate to stop fascism – it’s time for union members and supporters to build a similar movement that is based on supporting all labor action, rejecting all limits on strikes and pickets whether they come from the government or the unions themselves, making all pickets effective, and spreading strikes when they occur (through so-called “secondary” strikes and pickets) – as well as driving police out of the labor movement. This movement should organize in city-wide groups independently of any union structure, inviting all workers to be involved, and then those groups could network nationally. The groups should be open to any worker, union member or not, but should keep union and non-profit staff and and high officers out. Once they get going, it is important that they consider themselves to have all of the legitimacy they need to organize pickets or call strikes, whether through calling for mass workplace meetings to organize action or through supporting minority action – these groups will need to do this because the existing labor structures will put brakes on all action by citing their no-strike clauses and respect for labor law. It’s important for these groups to have a name that people can identify with, like “Labor United for All”, “Labor Against Fascism”, or “One Big Union.”
2. The IWW is experiencing a sudden growth spike, as most radical left groups probably are right now. In particular, the IWW’s General Defense Commitee, which focuses on defense of the working class and community self-defense, is seeing a lot of interest of people wanting to start new locals. The GDC has a picket training that began with the 2005 Northwest Airlines strike, when the union was trying to tell workers to keep the pickets tame and ineffective. The training focuses on the tactics needed to hold effective, disruptive pickets and to maintain them against scabs. These tactics have ended up being very useful for community self-defense. We should try to make sure that we spread this picket training to as many of these new locals as possible, and prepare as many trainers as possible. If we’re going to have the labor movement we desperately need, we’re going to have to re-learn how to hold effective pickets, and how to engage in community self-defense – very, very quickly.
3. The growth that we’re seeing shows that people think we have something to offer now that electoral anti-fascism is discredited. We should double down on our efforts to recruit and to integrate these new members. We also need to prove that they are right when they think we have something to offer. We need to organize boldly, which will inspire our new members to become active and take leadership, and will also inspire hundreds and thousands of more people to join.
4. We absolutely need to double down on our support for Latino workers. We need to prepare to mobilize boldly against any repression that they face, and to support them when/if they take action. They’ve already proven through the May Day strikes of 2005 and 2006 that they know how to organize mass industrial action better than any other group of workers in this country. We also need to emphasize our Spanish-language materials and infrastructure in an effort to make our organization a useful tool for Latino workers.
5. Millions of union members, and workers, voted for Trump. A lot of factors went into this, including massive undercurrents of hatred and bigotry, but it also seems that there was an economic element – many white workers saw him as the only program offering anything different from decades of factory closures, social cuts, and poverty with no escape. Our best bet to win them away from fascism is if we show that we have a real program to fight for, and win , a better world. If we can’t do that, we won’t. (The business union leadership have already thrown themselves on the mercy of the victor and declared that they’reready to work with Trump – but it’s debatable whether he’ll have any use for them.) We’re on the verge of being in a similar situation for organizing as radicals were during Jim Crow – and we will have to organize in the same way, focusing on the needs and defense of the most oppressed and vulnerable groups of workers and forcing bigots at work to decide whether they’ll side with the boss or with their co-workers. Someone can vote based on abstract bigotry and still choose to side with their flesh-and-blood co-workers against the boss that yells at both of them every day. And if they don’t, they’re scabs, and we’ll have to treat them as such. As CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs put it in 1958, ” if a white worker or group of white workers after reading and contributing to the paper as a whole finds that articles or letters expressing Negro aggressiveness on racial questions make the whole paper offensive to him, that means that it is he who is putting his prejudices on the race question before the interests of the class as a whole. He must be reasoned with, argued with, and if necessary fought to a finish.
6. It’s good that people are already thinking in terms of how we can use our power at work to exert pressure on our lives outside of work. We’re supposed to think that we only have power at the ballot box, every four years. It’s just become much more obvious to a lot of people that we don’t have any power there. We need to encourage workers to think about leveraging their power at work in new ways in every possible respect. As the old slogan goes, the National Guard can’t dig coal with bayonets – if the government legislates against women’s reproductive rights, it can only do so if healthcare workers accept it; if the government sends more police into schools, they will only find students to criminalize if the teachers have not gone on strike. We need to push as hard as we can to break through this limitation of self-confidence, where workers think that workplace action (if they even take it at all) can only be about their own conditions. Even the head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, one of the most confrontational and inspiring unions in the country, accepts copsin schools and does not challenge these limitations. When workers do break through on this – and they’ve got to, sometime, somewhere – we need to be ready to support them with everything we’ve got.
7. The initial discussion of a general strike points to the kind of labor movement that we’ve needed for a long time and we’re going to desperately require now. We are entering a period where the state will bring on all ferocity against any oppositional movement. They’ve also made it clear that the very existence of unions is one of their targets – Reagan focused on crushing militant unions to scare the rest; the current Republican party, including Trump, want to completely abolish unions, as they basically have in Wisconsin since 2011.
8. A general strike will only ever happen over the ruins of labor law and workplace contractualism. As we saw in Wisconsin in 2011, the day after people began talking about general strike, the international unions came down hard saying that nobody in Wisconsin had the authority to call a general strike, since each union’s contracts prohibited striking. Ironically, if the Republicans try to pass nationwide right-to-work laws or outlaw dues checkoff, the only way to stop it would be a general strike – but the union leadership is neither willing nor even capable of calling such a strike. At the end of the day, if we believe that workers can overcome capitalism – then we have to believe that they can overcome US labor law and workplace contractualism.
9. We will also need to be ready for minority strikes or action when and if they happen. Many workers and union members may have voted for Trump and may actually want him to take office. We still need to create a movement that encourages and supports action by any size group of workers, whether it’sindividual fast food workers refusing to serve cops , or groups of workers going on strike, for whatever reason, even if they aren’t the entire workforce. We particularly need to support trends where workers are taking action at work over issues beyond just wages and working conditions, and to emphasize how much potential power we have if we only use it. As we all begin holding mass meetings in cities around the country and building new infrastructures, we should plan out some kind of “flying picket” infrastructure which can mobilize mass pickets in immediate defense of any minority workplace action especially.
10. And what about the ideas which have begun floating around about a general strike on January 20th to stop Trump’s inauguration? I would say that we in the IWW should be cautiously optimistic, but should wait and see whether this catches on more broadly before we consider officially engaging with it – in the meantime, we should emphasize our efforts to build a sustained, pro-strike culture and infrastructure along the lines of what I’ve written above. I want to be clear, that I think it is absolutely correct to promote as much unrest as possible (including industrial unrest) to prevent the inauguration. If there is a lot of excitement around the country for a day, or a week, or a month of “no work, no school” to prevent the inauguration, that would be a fantastic development. There are some who think that the IWW can just ignore Trump because we do not take a stand on politicians – this is missing the point of what is happening in this country and would be a disastrous mistake. The biggest challenge towards any industrial action will be the union bureaucracy. The AFL-CIO is “ready to work with Trump”, and would be incapable of calling for or organizing a general strike even if they wanted to. We need to build the kind of movements which can challenge the hegemony of the business unions and call for strikes over their heads. Maybe a starting point would be agitating hospitality and restaurant workers in DC to shut down all hotels and restaurants leading up to the inauguration, or agitating media workers to refuse to broadcast anything by Trump. The main point is that there won’t be one general strike that saves us and then we all go back to normal – our focus has to be recreating a culture of militant, production-stopping strikes which seek to spread through secondary strikes and mass pickets, and which take aim at all injustice in society, not just workplace issues.

Nothing is a foregone conclusion, as bad as it looks right now. One day we will raise a cooperative commonwealth from the nightmare of capitalism, and one day there won’t be any more presidents to inaugurate. As surprised as we all might be to have waken up on November 9 and found ourselves hurtling towards fascism, we have to remember that sometimes we will be surprised by spontaneous outpourings of solidarity that people will show as they create new movements which leave us struggling to catch up. The protests which began the night after the election are a very encouraging step in that direction, and they still have time to spread from the street to every aspect of society.
This was originally posted at