“Extremists on both sides”: On despair

It has been observed in the last couple days that while many are quick to claim that there are “extremists on both sides,” it appears that recently the overwhelming majority of violent incidents are perpetrated by right-wing extremists. Naturally most of these people seem to be unhinged, given that they’re seeking to murder someone they’ve never met, but somehow craziness keeps finding right-wing ideology to be more hospitable.

What relatively few people are asking is why this imbalance exists. Is it because right-wing ideology is inherently more violent than left-wing? I don’t think that the history of international communism bears that conclusion out. Indeed, it seems to me that the reason leftists are so non-violent right now isn’t that leftists have no one they want dead — rather, they are relatively non-violent because they are so radically hopeless as to have moved past the phase where you do crazy, desperate things like assassinating opponents. For despite its obvious intuitive appeal, assassination has always struck me (other than in a unique case like that of Hitler) as an “underpants gnome” type of strategy:

  1. Kill this one person
  2. (something something)
  3. Profit!

So radical is the despair of the left that arguably the most prominent leftist in the world, Noam Chomsky, devotes all of his energy to stating, in the clearest and most unemotional way possible, all the reasons that we are well and truly fucked.

Now from a common-sense perspective, it does seem that the appeal of right-wing ideology for crazy people indicates that there is something questionable about right-wing ideology. Yet I wonder if on a deeper level, the fact that there don’t seem to be left-wing crazy people nowadays stands as a kind of testament to the hopelessness of the left: not even crazy people believe left-wing goals to be achievable.

22 thoughts on ““Extremists on both sides”: On despair

  1. I think it is also the case that the radical left is so marginal in US politics (currently) as to not even really have the numbers necessary to make the emergence of this sort of violent outlier statistically likely. In other words, there may be extremists on both sides, in principle, but the “left” in the US right now seems to fall off, in terms of numbers, well before reaching the extremist end of the spectrum, while that isn’t true of the right.

  2. they are relatively non-violent because they are so radically hopeless as to have moved past the phase where you do crazy, desperate things like assassinating opponents.

    I feel like this would fit perfectly somewhere within a 12-step program, or a stages of grief model. Maybe both.

  3. I’m not actually willing to concede that Leftists are more violent in practice, at least if we limit it to its American context. Even looking through the history of Left-wing struggles that used violence the body count is lower than Right-wing terrorism (yes, I am using different words and yes, I think they are distinct phenomena). Bombings in the 60s and 70s by Weathermen-esque groups always aimed at zero deaths (following the “Damascus” experience of a cell blowing themselves up). Compare that with the militia movement of the 90’s, culminating in the murder of nearly 200 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. Maybe it comes down to despair, I don’t know, but I tend to think activists and those who actually live in communes and the like are a good deal less despairing than the theorists they read. Melancholy, I think, is perhaps the more accurate affective condition of the unified Left (theorists and activists).

  4. Sorry, my first sentence should have read: “I’m not actually willing to concede that Leftists are as violent right-wingers in practice, at least if we limit it to its American context.” I didn’t read you as saying they were more violent and I agree that they are not non-violent.

  5. No, by your argument it’s only people on the left that believe left goals are hopeless: the crazy people on the right, however, experience them as being so powerful and threatening that they provoke a violent response, and are stoppable only by violence.

  6. I wonder how much of this is a personal projection of the despaired and the melancholied (spell check insists that it’s not a real word)? When in the US history did Left actually was in some state of influence as to be encouraged and enthusiastic (not despaired)? Or are you referring to some international Left that is in despair?

  7. In Moltmann’s theology of hope, his first chapter begins with the definition of sin as despair. By your analysis, and using Moltmann’s language, American liberals are living in sin?

    I would also venture to say that right wingers. in discussing issues related to war and capital punishment, believe that non-violence is a nice religious ideal, but it is unrealistic because people are awfully depraved. I always try to question why is non-violence considered “unrealistic”? and on whose terms of reality?

    What makes matters worse is that the liberals who claim to speak in the name of progressivism remain silent on peace issues. Particularly, the strange absence of the anti-war left has been noticeable since March of 2008.

  8. Seriously, Rod and etc., your tendency to speak of “US left vs. US right” as if it was “left vs. right” in general is mildly confusing – who is or isn’t violent or non-violent? There are riots in Tunisia and Algeria, for example, where left youth is violently protesting their conditions – are they included in this subtle analysis of “left despair” or not?

  9. I would say they are excluded since I am unable to speak of their context. My comments are contextual, therefore, it is nuanced to a particular place and time. I try to avoid universals as much as possible. So, yes, the left and right for which i speak is what I know, the U.S.; I think in my comment it was clear that I was referring specifically to a U.S. context, if not, my apologies.

    I cannot say one way or the other whether Adam’s analysis fits in the Tunisia and Algeria situation. I am quite well, aware, however of criticisms of nonviolence, that one person’s nonviolent action can mean violence towards another person. If I may, I see the revolts of Nat turner as a valid form of self-defense against racial and economic violence imposed on the africans by their masters. Self-defense should come as a last resort when all others options fail.

  10. Rod, fair enough, I didn’t mean to be all “up in you face” about it. I just feel that when we talk about “left vs. right” we forget the context. Take violence. The assumption, of course, is that it is bad and that the best way is always non-violent. But who on the Left (take that mythical “international communism” Adam conjures up) ever suggested that the “powers that be” will ever go away non-violently?

  11. Pacifist movements are almost exclusively leftish. Hawkishness is often bilateral, but more stridently rightist.

    Non-violence was perhaps THE greatest socio-political innovation of the 20th Century, and it came from the left: Gandhi’s anti-imperialism and MLK’s civil rights movement leadership. That’s not to say there weren’t violent leftists in either movement. There were. But there is no tradition of non-violence on the right.

    You’ve mixed up cause and effect: left despair is as a result of the slowness/incremental nature of social change wrought by a non-violent movement (vid health care reform). But not only is the left impatient with this method, it must suffer, too, from the brutalities of the institutions it opposes. Ergo despair. Its lack of violence is not due to its despair—Chomsky notwithstanding.

    Obversely, violent movements can effect change more rapidly; thus their bluster and bravado.

    Crazy people, as you call them, are in pain. They need relief from their suffering, and they need it now. An effective movement (violent, rightist) can heal them magically—or, one presumes, so goes the belief. A patient, Gandhi/King-style struggle, however noble and ennobling, simply won’t do in the pinch they’re in. Thus the rightward gravitation.

  12. What about reducing the argument to a relationship with capital. The right knows how to distribute capital. The left hystericises with what to with it. When the right does not get what it wants, it takes it. When the left does not, it despairs. The lunatic right then have a propensity to be more violent in settling accounts. This is an extremely reductive argument I concede. But somehow I think root causes may be swept under the carpet.
    Russell Manning

  13. But, Jim H, there wasn’t really much of a non-violent movement in favor of health reform, more’s the pity (my dream action would be mass coordinated non-payment of medical bills); if there had been, perhaps there would have been a better outcome. If left-wing despair is the natural companion of a non-violent resistance movement, what’s the explanation for our current state of left-wing despair in the absence of such a movement?

  14. Wouldn’t the numerous catastrophes of 20th century radicalism, the collapse of actually existing socialism, the discrediting of all the various communist parties throughout the world, the capitulation of social democracy, destruction of the welfare state, and structural eradication of labor in developed countries–wouldn’t all these be much more obvious causes of “left-wing despair”?

    The situation for the left is world-historically bad, so I think Adam is right: even crazy people can’t get on board anymore.

  15. Voyou, thanks for calling for specificity. My point was that despair was characterological of the left due to its non-violent lineage (which, of course, is not universal on the left but is entirely absent on the right). W/r/t health care: the debate from the Obama left (center) [which was schooled in MLK] was to reach out to the other side, try to understand their position, seek compromise (to the point of letting go some things some of us felt were essential—single payer, e.g.), not villify the opposition as enemies. From the right, it was confrontational: death threats, bullets and rocks through windows at rep’s offices, guns at town hall rallies, shouting and fingerpointing in the face of reps, ‘you lie’, ‘destroying America’, tyranny, blood of martyrs, ‘fascist’, ‘socialist’, ‘Hitler’, ‘Stalin’, evil, death panels, taking over, etc. There was a distinctly violent rhetorical aspect to the right’s opposition. And they’re sore losers to boot.

  16. I find that this quote from Culture Against Man by Jules Henry sums up the situation re those on the left, and why the comprehensive writings of Noam Chomsky make no real difference.

    In Western (USA) culture today one must make a distinction between the culture of life and the culture of death. In the minds of most people science has become synonymous with destructive weapons, i.e. with death….
    Where is the culture of life? The culture of life resides in all those people who, inarticulate, frightened, and confused, are wondering “where it will all end”. Thus the forces of death and confident and organized while the forces of life – the people who long for peace (and a culture of sanity) –
    are, for the most part, scattered, inarticulate, and wooly-minded, overwhelmed by their own impotence (and the sheer horror of it all). Death struts about the house while Life cowers in the corner.”

    That was written in 1963. Nearly 50 years later the situation is far worse by many multiples of orders of magnitude.

    Meanwhile I would say that those on the right side of the USA culture wars are now in a state of collective psychosis.

  17. I think one thing that might be impeding understanding here is that many of us (myself included) understand “the left” to mean something other than “liberal Democrats” or even “progressives.” Obama would not even be remotely on the left in this scheme, for example.

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