A Brief History of American Vigilantism

A group of industrialists finance a group of gangsters to break trade unionism, to check the threat of socialism, the menace of socialism or the possibility of democracy.

Orson Welles

People who read the news are probably accustomed to a type of story that keeps making headlines, and it goes like this: someone acting in the name of capital and/or white supremacy engages in an act of violence and is treated with what is relative leniency or understanding, especially compared to people who oppose white supremacy and/or capital. A few examples from the recent past include:

And on and on. The template for liberal reporting on stories of racist impunity then goes something like this:

  1. Observe a double-standard.
  2. Point out the double-standard.
  3. Make no effort to investigate why the double-standard exists or how long the double-standard has actually been in place.
  4. Repeat ad nauseum.

So, for example, there was a story last month about what appears to be collaboration between a police department and fascists. One radically branded writer whose star has been on the rise for a few years noticed that the police “have been really accommodating of fascists,” then threw up her proverbial hands and said, “That’s a practice that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.”

Bad thing: denounced. Causes: inscrutable. Solutions: T.B.D. Thanks for the book deal, Verso.

The reason that coverage of right-wing vigilantism is mostly confined to endless accusations of hypocrisy is that to discuss the why would violate too many injunctions against radical analysis. Just as capitalism is defined by unemployment, boom/bust cycles, and racism, so is it defined by a higher degree of tolerance afforded to extrajudicial reactionary violence. The sanctioning of right-wing vigilantism is inherent to capitalism.

The state in a capitalist society exists to serve moneyed interests, so private groups likewise acting to serve those same moneyed interests will be afforded leeway, help, and a blind eye far more often than groups challenging those moneyed interests. This remains true even if those conservative interests are acting illegally or abhorrently; and even if those progressive challengers are following the law to the letter and behaving as saints. Since this is built into capitalism, it’s been the case since the transition from feudalism, as Gerald Horne explains:

The promiscuous use of mercenaries was a close cousin to the deployment of pirates, buccaneers, and soldiers of fortune, whose bloodthirsty escapades often were the basis of the primitive accumulation of capital itself. One scholar has observed that the concept of “plausible deniability,” which has served imperialism so well in episodes ranging from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal, was actually invented by rulers in the early seventeenth century as a spur to mercenarism and piracy: thus, if these bandits obtained the necessary booty—fine—and if they did not or were apprehended, then responsibility for their activity could be denied.

For the vast majority of capitalist countries, when popular unrest threatens the status quo too much, the military steps in to impose its will. Since World War II, only the wealthiest countries have managed to maintain parliamentary procedures in the face of major progressive threats. For those market economies that have managed to survive without imposing the indignities of dictatorship, the threat of too much democracy is fought back through an extrajudicial struggle lurking behind the bourgeois framework.

This covert war usually involves warrantless mass surveillance, domestic covert actions, deployment of the military, and the formation of secret police units. In the United States, this means relationships with drug gangs and the Mafia, secret anti-subversive police units known as “red squads,” and the infamous COINTELPRO. However, one of the most reliable ways that ruling interests have maintained the status quo has been through tolerating, directing, funding, arming, and otherwise empowering private vigilantes.

This is a brief look at the privileged relationship that right-wing vigilantes have enjoyed throughout American history in the ruling class’s fight to keep us from getting what is ours.

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