And when he came to himself, he said, how many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.— Luke 15:17–20, KJV
Right from the start, many were quick to cloak the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, in the imagery of historical proletarian uprisings such as the Paris Commune. But the truth is that CHAZ did not exist in the historical tradition of the Paris Commune but rather in that of New Left campus radicalism, which fundamentally reoriented the ideology of the left and the class position of its purveyors away from traditional Marxism, the proletarian class, and laborism and toward the class interests and pathological narcissism of the managerial elite.
The stereotypical representation of leftists as wealthy, college-educated, and out of touch with the working-class is a right-wing trope, but that does not make it a complete fantasy. A left-wing that was once most closely associated with radical, working-class trade unionists—the Old Left—was replaced by a left-wing of the college-educated middle class—The New Left. The New Left is difficult to define, given the complex and still-ongoing history of its development, which has settled into a syncretic amalgamation of liberal, anarchist, and (often bastardized) Marxist ideas, with different strains becoming more dominant throughout various eras. The term itself arises from the controversy surrounding the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Opponents began calling themselves the “new left” and invented the term “tankie” as a pejorative for those who supported the invasion. However, we can trace the development to what we now understand as “the new left,” to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its founding document, the Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, which stated:
“A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.”
The Port Huron Statement explicitly demonstrates that the old left’s success would be its demise. The New Deal, high unionization rates, and post-war era record-breaking levels of public spending turned the United States into a functioning social democratic state, creating the largest middle class in US history and a public university system to educate its children, who preferred to see themselves (rather than workers) as the true revolutionary class and the lecture hall (rather than the shop floor) as the site of revolutionary action. Bourgeois institutions of power didn’t seem to feel very threatened. Eager to sow discord among the left, the CIA gladly sponsored this reorientation by funneling money into student organizations and recruiting activists such as New Left feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Of course, things backfired when members of this “new revolutionary class” were radicalized by the Vietnam war in 1964 owing to Johnson’s acceleration of the conflict after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The New Left’s revisionist lie is that campus radicals opposed the Vietnam War out of principled anti-imperialism and the disproportionate drafting of the black, brown, and poor people. In reality, the United States had taken over military responsibility from the French in 1954, sending advisors and equipment to the region, and hundreds of thousands of working-class men had already been drafted in the intervening decade. This class correctly understood that the troop surge meant that it was only a matter of time before college enrollment would no longer ensure an automatic deferment. Sure enough, automatic deferments for college students were ended just a year later in 1965. The truth that left-wing intellectuals refuse to acknowledge—but which working-class Americans have always understood and have never forgotten—is that these people did not oppose the war until the possibility arose that they might have to participate in it. The opposition of campus radicals and their middle-class parents were not rooted in ideas, principles, or empathy but rather in class interest and self-preservation, pure and simple.
Still, the New Left was rightly sympathetic to and involved in the Civil Rights movement. But it would be ahistorical to suggest that the Old Left was indifferent to African Americans’ plight. The Communist Party (CPUSA) was organizing black sharecroppers in rural Alabama in the 1930s. As the African-American historian Touré F. Reed points out, black workers had participated in the labor movement. They benefited greatly (if still disproportionately less) from New Deal-era social democracy, with economic disparities between blacks and whites decreasing in the post-war era, despite Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement preceded the New Left, and there is no real reason to believe that the movement would have been unsuccessful in the absence of campus activism. While later African-American movements such as the Black Panther Party are sometimes considered the “New Left,” unlike various other New Left movements such as the SDS, or the Yippies, the Black Panthers were genuine Marxists. They came from the working class and organized deeply and effectively throughout working-class communities; at their best, they were forming alliances with other working-class groups such as the Young Lords and Young Patriots. Although these three groups operated in an explicitly more intersectional (though never exclusionary or class-free) framework than the old left and emphasized direct action, the same could be said of old left organizations such as the (considerably less Marxist) Catholic Workers Movement. If one were to consider ideology and praxis at all, one could easily position these groups as either a “third left” unto themselves, or perhaps simply as a final extension of the old left. Either way, they bear no resemblance to the current left, which is a direct descendant of campus radicalism, class-free identitarian ideologies, and radical individualism, with one notable exception being the thought of Stokely Carmichael, who distanced himself from the Black Panthers over white participation, and whose ideas over the congenital nature of white racism have, unfortunately—and ironically—been adapted for a corporate audience by liberal theorists like Robin D’Angelo, author of the professional class’s favorite guilt-laundering manual, White Fragility.
The Weather Underground is perhaps the most notorious example of what happens when bourgeois college students become radicalized. Of course, their class position and pie in the sky idealism ensured that they alienated most of the working class in the process. In writing about the Weather Underground’s 1974 bombing of the Gulf Building in Pittsburg, the historian Jeff Bloodworth notes that:
The Weather Underground’s rationale for the bombing, Gulf’s support of “Portuguese imperialism” in Angola, further baffled them. When a Gulf official termed the group’s justification “nonsense,” many Pittsburghers surely agreed.
Indeed. Itself an offshoot of the SDS, the Weather Underground’s founding document, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” demonstrates their continued faith in the young, who “have less of a stake in society,” while also swearing allegiance to the Black Panthers, they took the Panthers’ theory of revolution and black oppression (which was rooted in self-liberation and self-determination of African-Americans as a colonized people) even further than the Panthers did in this era by removing the question of class from the black context, and suggested that black capitalists would ultimately side with the black working class in its struggle against “white monopoly power,” and eventually incorporate themselves fully into the socialist project. This ignores both the history of the black elite—which had, under the leadership of figures like Booker T. Washington accommodated segregationists and defended Jim Crow in exchange for the continued security and prosperity of the black capitalist class and for philanthropic funding to expand the institutions of black bourgeois society—and the teachings of Black Panther leaders like Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter, who explicitly rebutted this notion:
We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism…That’s saying that no matter what color you are, you go into two classes. That’s saying there’s a class over here, and a class over there. And the reason that this class over here has never done anything to get this class off its back, because this is lower, this is upper, this is the oppressed, this is the oppressor, this is the exploited, this is the exploiter, and these people in this class have divided themselves and said ‘I’m Black and I hate white people.’ ‘I’m white and I hate Black people.’ ‘I’m Latin American and I hate hillbillies.’ ‘I’m hillbilly and I hate Indians.’ So, we fighting amongst each other.
A few months after delivering this speech, Fred Hampton was murdered by the FBI on December 4, 1969.
The almost exclusively young (the Weathermen had billed themselves more or less as only a youth movement), white, college-educated, usually came from the upper-middle if not outright upper class. For example, the father of their nominal leader, Bill Ayers, was the CEO of Commonwealth Edison, the largest electric utility in Illinois. To their credit, and in stark contrast to many on the left today, they at least acknowledged their class position. They wanted to incorporate the working class—specifically the “uncorrupted,” i.e., not-yet-employed children of the white working class—into their project (though importantly, to lead and enlighten them, rather than—God forbid—inquire about their needs, or serve them). Unsurprisingly, their confusing—and often contradictory—ideology, mixed with their high-minded accelerationism, indifference to working-class cultural norms of the time, their insistence that the white working class fight for and submit to non-white people (instead of fighting for their own material interests, which has served as a progenitor of the ever-expanding white privilege models and histrionic accusations of class reductionism we see today), and their propensity for blowing up buildings in retaliation for sometimes-obscure geopolitical events—that many in the American working class neither understood, cared about, nor related to—meant that these efforts were unsuccessful. Of course, as first-world Maoists (much more orthodox ones than the Black Panthers ever were), the Weather Underground understood the primary revolutionary class to be the third-world proletariat, a class of people they neither belonged to, communicated with, nor were never seriously held accountable to in any non-theoretical context, so it is doubtful that this fact ever bothered them much. Like most bourgeois new left movements, it suffered quickly from splintering, with one member, Jane Alpert, whose father was the vice president of a glass company, announcing her departure from the Weather Underground and into the world of radical feminism in the pages of Ms. Magazine, which was founded by the aforementioned and, once again, self-admitted, CIA stooge Gloria Steinem.
Despite dozens of bombings, and numerous bank robberies, jailbreaks, and murders, most of the members of the Weather Underground were assimilated back into the professional-managerial class they had called enemies of the people but, in reality, were always destined to become. Most have never apologized for either the lives of innocent bystanders which were taken by their (often amateurish) guerilla actions or for their total failure to bring even a single material benefit to a single member of the proletariat, third-world or otherwise. Some even received presidential pardons. Kathy Boudin is a professor at Columbia University. Bernadine Dohrn teaches law at Northwestern. Jeff Jones founded a political consultant agency. Bill Ayers received tenure at the University of Illinois—Chicago and has recently retired.
Fred Hampton is dead.
When all of the genuine working-class revolutionaries were murdered, jailed, and exiled, the New Left’s campus crusaders seamlessly resumed its class position. It seized control of the bourgeois institutions of academia, business, law, and politics it once claimed to hate. And so the Yippies became Yuppies, having internalized the cult of the individual, they administered the neoliberal project, which reached its logical conclusion in 2008. The Great Recession might have marked the end of neoliberalism and the ever increasingly class-free politics which produced it had the collapsing financial industry not been saved by Barack Obama, who—among other crimes against the working class which should never be forgotten—intentionally accelerated the foreclosure crisis and defied attempts by even his own party to mitigate it. The most brutal economic assault visited on the American working class since the Great Depression was not overseen and exacerbated by a Koch-funded boogeyman, but rather a president whose election was only possible because of his meteoric rise through Illinois politics. A rise which began with a fundraiser for his first State Senate run in the home of none other than Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.
Much like their parents during the draft, the young petty bourgeoisie were awakened to realize that they too lived in a society and that their relatively comfortable class position and a good education would not protect them. They—along with some genuine revolutionaries and proletarians, as before—rallied against the state and capitalism and racial inequity, and occupied Zuccotti park to proclaim: “We Are the 99%!” Of course, a well-heeled lawyer making $200,000 a year and the janitor who cleans his office never shared the same material interests, as the slogan suggested– but the concept seemed populist enough. For a brief moment, it seemed things might change.
Unfortunately, the cult of the individual had permeated too deeply. Vague notions of intersectionality, privilege, self-actualization, and consensus—all chiefly New Left projects—had so infiltrated the Universities and upper-middle-class culture that the New Left supposedly rebelled against but then inherited when they seized the means of cultural production in bourgeois society. The persistent decline of community—which was facilitated in part by the same class of people who had gathered in dark rooms to conspire to set off bombs against Portuguese imperialism in Pittsburg and who started short-lived communes with their trust funds—meant that actual community was replaced with a “sense of community,” and for the New Left’s inheritors—both intellectual and often times literal upon the former’s death—a summer camp in the park with music, stimulating conversation, a profound sense of hope, and confidence that things would turn around. And of course, things would turn around—for them.
The Occupy protestors didn’t have solutions, but they had plenty of demands—too many to count—but no way to force them, and no overarching framework to explain social relations. What they had instead were ideas, slogans, and buzzwords, all of which are very easy things to commodify. Because of the New Left’s commodification of Asian religious practices—which would almost certainly be condemned as cultural appropriation if it weren’t such a profitable industry enjoyed by such wide portions of the professional class who arbitrate such discussions—and the offshoring of the garment industry which they did nothing to stop, the young bourgeois leftist no longer needs to go to the trouble of standing around in some sweaty public park with the riff-raff. Instead, they may choose to consume radicalism with good air conditioning and luxury yoga pants inside Lululemon’s “Resisting Capitalism” workshop. But alas, corporate branding was much less advanced in 2008, and so they Occupied Wall Street.
And then it got cold.
In retrospect, it does not seem that Occupy was ever really committed to working-class politics—having already mystified the stakes so thoroughly by ignoring the class contradictions amongst the 99%. The chaos of the infamous meetings, which never ended, and the typical class character of the protesters was alienating to large portions of the working class, who make up the majority of the electorate, something which the 1% understood well. Looking back, it should come as no surprise that the movement’s largest financial contributor was a retired stock trader who had maxed out donations to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The neo-Maoism of the old-new left was replaced with anarchism—the Pollyanna of political ideologies, which is a much better fit for bourgeois children as it gives everyone the chance to feel special and “included,” allows for endless examination and discussion of whichever hierarchies—material and theoretical—by which one feels personally aggrieved. This also meant that technically speaking, Occupy had no leaders. A 2012 op-ed by Occupy protester Heather Gautney called “What is Occupy Wall Street? The History of Leaderless Movements,” concludes with a final line about those participating in the demonstrations “We are all Leaders.”
Heather Gautney, one of many leaders of the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement, is a sociology professor at Fordham University.
Fred Hampton is dead.
Plenty more could be said about the state of the left between Occupy and now—Bernie Sanders’ almost-successful 2016 campaign—which was rooted in genuine, working-class politics of the old left which had been so thoroughly destroyed— revealed that many people thought that New Deal rhetoric was revolutionary. In some sense, it was. Or Bernie Sanders’ less successful 2020 campaign, after he—or more likely, the over-educated young radicals running his campaign—took the bourgeois media’s obviously cynical accusations of class-reductionism to heart, despite his decades-long near-perfect personal and political record on civil rights. But in the interest of brevity, we return to the beginning, which should be the end, even though we all know it won’t be. We return to CHAZ.
The Seattle Neighborhood of Capitol Hill is known for its vibrant countercultural community. Of course, counterculture isn’t cheap. The hippies of the new left made sure of that when they commodified it. As of this writing, the median cost of a studio apartment in this neighborhood is slightly above $1,700 a month, which would strike most working-class Americans as absurdly expensive, but which is affordable for Capitol Hill residents boasting a median income of over $100,000 per year. The “occupation” followed violent protests against the murder of George Floyd in the upscale neighborhood when police chief Carmen Best ordered the police to board up the station and simply leave for a few days to allow the woke petty bourgeoisie children to perform their ritual radicalism. She said (in what I imagine to be the cadence of an accommodating pre-school teacher in a PTA meeting), “They want the streets open for peaceful marches, and we’re going to facilitate that opportunity for them.” Of course, things went sour, as they often do with the new left, although the speed and intensity with which chaos ensued in CHAZ is perhaps a record in the longstanding tradition of rich kids LARPing as revolutionaries. In the Zone’s 23-day existence, at least five people were shot, two fatally. The first, a nineteen-year-old young man whose shooter remains unknown. The second was a sixteen-year-old boy whom eyewitnesses say was shot and killed by the Zone’s “security forces.”
The first was Horace Lorenzo Anderson Jr.
The second was Antonio Mays Jr.
In a “radical” project that allegedly sprung from genuine concern over the disproportionate number of police shootings against unarmed black men, in less than a month, the Patagonia-clad revolutionaries of Capitol Hill killed two of them, by gun or by consequence, in a neighborhood where only 3.77% of the population is black.
No-one associated with the CHAZ has been charged with any crime relating to either murder despite seemingly credible eyewitness reports to the press alleging that the self-appointed security forces fired 300 rounds into the car Antonio Mays was driving. The city shut down the zone shortly after the second deadly shooting. And everyone just went home.
Fred Hampton is dead.
When working-class people realize their place within the system, they don’t forget it. The capitalist class understands this, and they know that if and when those people that produce their wealth put aside those immaterial constructs which were created to divide them amongst themselves as a class, the system will no longer be able to sustain itself.
Hippie communes and CHAZ be damned, the Amish, who are the only people in this country who ever actually rejected consumerism in favor of self-sufficiency and communal society which largely rejects modern technology, have a tradition they call Rumspringa. A rite of passage, which translates loosely into English as “jumping around,” it offers the youth temporary liberation from the rigidities of Amish life and experience of the contemporary or “English”1This is the term the Amish use to describe the non-Amish world world. Their Anabaptist theology does not allow for the baptism of children, so the young Amish must make a choice: be baptized and return a member of the collective society in which they were born where the comforts of family and community solidarity are simple but real and irreplaceable, or remain an atomized individual in the contemporary, capitalist, “English,” society. It should surprise few—but often does, that 80-90% of young Amish choose to return to the community in which they were brought up. It seems that bourgeois culture has created something similar, and we shouldn’t be surprised that its children also don’t linger for very long as tourists in the culture and politics that are oppositional to that of their birth. Like doting Amish parents, the capitalist class and their functionaries in the state understand that the elite radical is a prodigal son. He will return home someday to inherit his position.
This is why they killed Fred Hampton and gave Bill Ayers tenure.
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