Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 4

In Praise of Sedition

Grace Y Williams, Trump Metal and Bones

Image Credit: Grace Y. Williams,Trump: Metal and Bones, (2017). Bone, currency, synthetic evergreen, paper, metal, wheel, twine, coir. Courtesy of the artist.

“The police aren’t there to create disorder, they’re there to preserve disorder.” – Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago, 1968

“Anarchy is order; government is civil war.” – Anselme Bellegarrigue, France, 1850

This past summer, reacting to the mass nationwide uprising that erupted following the police murder of George Floyd (ironically, on Memorial Day, a holiday with its origins in an 1865 burial ceremony organized and attended by free Black people to honor Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate military prison), the country’s top enforcer of state repression, a certain William Barr, telephoned his henchmen (otherwise known as “federal prosecutors”) and strongly recommended they consider bringing charges of “sedition” against alleged “rioters.” While the underlings on the call apparently (and likely provisionally) demurred from following their capo’s recommendation, Barr’s invocation of “sedition” should not be allowed to pass into the oblivion fostered by 24-hour news cycles – not only because it is a word that has carried the force of law at certain moments in this country’s history, but because it reflects a genuine fear on the part of the ruling classes that this movement of tens of millions of people might threaten (in tandem with the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic) the foundations of their power. Hence their frenetic encouragement of their rabidly fascist white supremacist supporters and their demand (echoed across the official bipartisan board) for more generous police funding and meaningless reforms of rigidly unreformable structures of carceral law-and-order. Hence also the rush of corporations to drape themselves in pious and purely verbal affirmations of an anodyne “diversity” and rote declarations that “Black Lives Matter” (only to their bottom line as exploitable workers/consumers, if at all). What better course of action, then, can there be than to follow Curtis Mayfield’s immortal injunction and “keep on pushin’” against the whole gang of racist thugs, thieves, CEOs, and bureaucrats? For that, sedition must be incited, embraced, practiced, and deepened, to the point of ultimately clearing the way for new forms of democratic social organization.

The word “sedition” itself has undergone mutations over the centuries of its English-language existence. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “violent party strife…attended with rioting and disorder” as an obsolete definition, and “a concerted movement to overthrow an established government” as a “now rare” one, settling on the current meaning as “conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state.” Traces of all three definitions are present in the fledgling United States republic’s first official deployment of the word in the four Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 (barely fifteen years after the triumph of its own seditious campaigns), which stiffened the restrictions against immigrants becoming citizens, gave the president increased powers to imprison and deport noncitizens considered dangerous or belonging to a hostile nation, and criminalized the utterance of falsehoods against the Federal government. While two of these laws were allowed to expire, all four, with their associations of potentially deportable “aliens” with subversive intentions, continue to haunt the US body politic. A hundred and twenty years later, during World War I, the 1918 Sedition Act banned all forms of negative comment about the government, its flag, and/or its armed forces or anything of the kind that would lead others to hold these institutions in contempt. Again, while the act, designed for implementation during wartime, was repealed, its afterlife persists. Etymologically, “sedition” implies winning people over to a cause and bringing them along in a course of action that divides a previously unified state of affairs. The 1918 Act, focusing as it does on oppositional conduct liable to seduce others into doing likewise, draws a line of demarcation between “good” and “bad” citizens: those who accept and those who defy, those who conform and those who dissent, those who are passively complicit and those who are actively insurgent.

In his 1936 novel The Big Money, the conclusion of his capacious USA trilogy, John Dos Passos, writing in the aftermath of the state murder of the Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, powerfully denounced the pernicious effects of the schism in US life: the rulers’ reliance on brute police repression and mendacity to maintain their hegemony:

          America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
          their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants
          they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
          all right we are two nations
          America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch. (Dos Passos, 371)

Despite all of the scathing force of Dos Passos’s despairing jeremiad, as well as its implications for present ecological disasters and the lasting relevance of his identification of “two nations,” he concentrates his outrage exclusively on the condition of oppressed immigrants from Europe, and keeps significant silence about oppressed nonwhites who had centuries of experience in those two nations to which they were bound. But it is impossible to avoid associations of Dos Passos’s declaration with the stark conclusion of the Kerner Report of 1968, prepared by a governmental commission responding to the Black-led rebellions of the previous several years (which would broaden and deepen the “long, hot summer” following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.): “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white – separate and unequal.” Of course, that acknowledgment of US apartheid, tentative as it was, understated the case; we now know that the “two nations/societies” have long been in existence. And this has been accompanied by a systematic reexamination of the entire trajectory of US history, exploding illusions about the country’s pretensions to exceptionalism and naming its form of domination as racial capitalism. Going beyond those who lament the existential threats posed by the current regime to “our” democracy-which-never-was, the current nationwide insurgency recognizes, as did Langston Hughes, contemporaneously with Dos Passos, that “America never was America to me,” and actively seeks, not a chimerical “inclusion” into what is now a literally burning house, but, potentially, a complete reinvention of the democratic project, with implications for the entire world and the increasingly crushing weight (chillingly personified in the deliberate, homicidal indifference of George Floyd’s murderer) its marginalized, injured denizens are forced to bear day in, day out.

In the end, this is what justifiably terrorizes the rulers of this country: an uprising of the proportions attained over the last few months that targets palpable architectures of repression and murder, such as patrol cars, jails, and police stations, and temples of capitalist alienation such as trendy, high-end stores. The uprising persists even in the middle of a pandemic whose lethality is largely concentrated on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and while aggrieved “real Americans” verbally and physically assault Asians and Asian Americans who are presumed to be responsible for the migration of the virus. Such brutal behavior, such coruscating politics cannot but call everything about this society into question. The insurgents have served notice that the authorities do not deserve to continue holding their offices with impunity, that their pretensions to legitimacy are hollow, that bad times ain’t always, and that a culture of death, plunder, and rapacious brutalization of bodies, minds, and land is ripe for revolutionary transformation. In countless everyday actions of mutual aid, from communal refrigerators offering the hungry free food, to mothers standing on the front lines to challenge armed police, mercenaries, and neo-Nazis, from first responders and everyday citizens providing on-the-spot medical care to those injured by police assaults, to law students from legal clinics organizing anti-eviction resistance, practical truth rises from the ashes of atomized late-capitalist life. In these many instances the millions in motion have already gone well beyond all the reformist attempts by retail liberal politicians to explain their actions away and steer them permanently into the accepted, tomblike electoral channels. All the while these political charlatans call plaintively for calm and lament divisiveness even as they remain largely silent about the everyday violence routinely meted out by the very institutions and their enforcers. In the final analysis, these miscreants will always defend private property, militarized borders, waged and unwaged exploitation, venal financiers, the criminal injustice system and its unscrupulous prosecutors, and so forth.

Published in the month of his murder, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final written testament, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? noted the revolutionary nature of the times: “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. […] Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism, and militarism.” He spoke of the need for “our loyalties [to become] ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overwhelming loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies” (King, 220-221). Likewise, today’s insurgency in the United States must continue to reach out and strengthen connections of solidarity with those in the world who have responded actively and urgently to the clarion call for Black lives finally to matter. We must say the names of Breonna Taylor and Marielle Franco with the same breath; we must connect the fires in Amazonia to those on the West Coast. These calls for justice must also include the African American George Floyd, the Colombian Javier Ordoñez, the Cuban Hansel Hernández, and the South African Nathaniel Julius as martyrs to what is ultimately the same vicious global system of police power. We must also link the breath that says “Black Lives Matter” to the defiant challenge to rampant femicide and anti-woman, anti-trans violence voiced in the watchword ni una menos – not one woman less. It is through this kind of critical generosity, through an internationalism both broad and deep, that the foundations of what King called the “world house”are solidified. There are, after all, alternatives to the harmful consequences of worldwide US domination: namely, the power of oppositional struggle in this country, and, most important, the long and constant movement toward Black liberation. These inspire others in the world to confront their local power structures, whose state authorities obtain weapons for local control from the West, including the United States–a fact certifying that power and exploitation are also world markets, the blunt instruments of a brisk trade in destruction and death.

As so often in his work and life, King’s summons to a revolution grounded in “worldwide fellowship” entailed an affirmation of “an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. […] Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. […] We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation” (King, 221-222). Such a fierce love may be found In the supportive embraces of grieving insurgents, in the hushed kneeling of thousands in a public space at the news of the non-indictment of Breonna Taylor’s killers, in the active support tendered by those willing to discard their soul-warping whiteness and stand against state violence not only in support for endangered Black male, female, and trans lives, but also in order to express their own fundamental humanity by rejecting the pathologies of white racism and linking arms and hearts with others. In all these manifestations and more, the mostly young people engaged in the uprising are collectively endowing with a first-person plural voice Malcolm X’s hope expressed towards the close of his Autobiography: “Sometimes, I have dared to dream to myself that one day, history may even say that my voice – which disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency – that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even a fatal catastrophe” (Malcolm X, 377). By calling for the abolition of institutionalized patriarchy, the prison-industrial complex, the police, militarism, educational inequities, poverty, and extractive industries poisoning the planet – and the myriad other miseries endemic to racial capitalism – the movement for Black (and Brown, and Indigenous) lives harmonizes with Malcolm’s declaration: “…it is only after the deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come” (Malcolm X, 379).

But the revolutionary journey that makes the crooked straight and the rough places plain is long and arduous, and no illusions should be entertained about the continued capacity of the system to simultaneously crush sedition through violence and neutralize it through recuperation. The movement is faced with the necessity of extending its space of operations and creating counter-institutions based on mutual aid (some of these are flourishing or in an embryonic stage at local levels) within the desiccated shell of the current sick socioeconomic order. There have been, and will be, stumbles and missteps along the way; perhaps what is needed at this uncertain yet promising moment is the confidence expressed by the revolutionary Black worker and theorist James Boggs in a talk to students in 1991: “I don’t believe nobody in this country knows more about running this country than me. I’m not being egotistical, I’m saying you better think that way. […] Everyone is capable of going beyond where they are, and I would hope that everybody in this room thinks that, OK? That’s going to be one of the biggest challenges, to believe that you can do what has not been done yet” (Boggs, 16).

If this be sedition, make the most of it!

Works Cited

Boggs, James. Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader. Ed. Stephen M. Ward. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2011.
Dos Passos, John. The Big Money. 1936. New York: Mariner, 2000.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Bantam, 1968.
Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove, 1966.

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