Convergence / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

For An Anger That Moves

Mario Moore, American Windows

Image Credit: Mario Moore, American Windows, (2021), 40 x 64, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist.

In his Biography of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell’s entry for Tuesday, September 23, 1777 (little over a year subsequent to the issuance of the Declaration of Independence of the 13 colonies, 41 of whose 56 signers, it is said, were slaveowners) reports the following: “He [Dr. Johnson] had always been very zealous against slavery in every form, in which I, with all deference, thought that he discovered a ‘zeal without knowledge.’ Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.’ His violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity. Towards the conclusion of his Taxation no Tyranny, he says, ‘how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom among the drivers of negroes?’…” The good liberal-minded Boswell, discomfited by his close friend’s uncompromising stance on this defining issue of the European times, devotes several pages to an attempted demurral, best encapsulated by his assertion that the “wild and dangerous attempt” to abolish the slave trade, “so very important and necessary a branch of commercial interest,” would ultimately be an act not only of robbery of “an innumerable class of our fellow subjects,” but of “extreme cruelty to the African Savages,” for whom being enslaved marked entry “into a much happier state” than they could expect in their homelands (Boswell, 876, 878).

Modern-day yelping drivers at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (the Day of the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, and the events of that day certainly were an unholy epiphany of sorts), wrapping themselves in the American Revolution and thus confirming not only the truth of Johnson’s barb, but also the main thesis of a recent work by historian Gerald Horne that characterizes the American War of Independence as the “counter-revolution of 1776.” Horne argues – and is echoed on this by Nikole Hannah-Jones in her editorial introduction to the 1619 Project (which also cites Dr. Johnson’s pointed rhetorical question) — that one of the “Revolution’s” aims was to preserve slavery against what the patriots (prematurely, as it turned out) feared as an imminent move towards the abolition of the institution in Britain, and by extension in the 13 colonies. The “freedom” so often insisted upon turned out to be a Herrenvolk freedom that a bloody civil war nearly a century later was only partially, though significantly, to mitigate; the ideal-typical yeoman on whose behalf the War of Independence was waged has morphed over nearly two hundred and fifty years into the grotesque 21st-century rabble of accountants, vengeful ex-military and ex-cops, IT technicians, salon and store owners, real-estate salespeople, quack doctors, bootlicking Nazis and (Confederate, Stars-and-Stripes, Don’t Tread on Me) flag-worshipers – in short, the classic petty-bourgeois social base of fascism. It would be tempting to invoke Marx’s statement about history repeating itself as farce, and the sheer loutishness of the attempted coup, with its posturing, bellowing, and screamed insults and threats, certainly seems to bear this out. In a way, for all the frenzied mobocrats’ professed hatred of a communism whose specter they hallucinate in even the most moderately neoliberal defender of the existing system, they unconsciously reenacted, not the long-postponed vindicatory triumph of Jefferson Davis as reincarnated in the previous Presidential incumbent, but the Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace, insofar as they anachronistically assumed that the real seat of power in the United States was to be found in the halls of the Capitol, not in the corporate and military-industrial boardrooms of those on whom their supposed champion was showering largesse in the form of tax cuts.

Just as Horne speaks of the War of Independence as a counter-revolution, it is possible to term the January 6 assault as a preventive counter-revolution (aided and abetted, as is increasingly evident, by the tacit complicity of the State). Its forces extend well beyond the events of 1/6; in fact, those in power make use of the general revulsion against these events to define such words as “insurrection,” “revolt,” “subversion,” and “sedition” as pertaining exclusively to the ultra-right. A false equivalency is thereby introduced where a large-scale mass movement against police and other forms of State violence mobilizing over ten million people in pandemic conditions can, merely because of a few acts of property destruction and retaliatory self-defense against heavily armed repressive forces, be deemed a threat on par with neo-fascist bullyboys-and-girls. But it is the latter which in fact expresses a certain deep-seated truth of the system, not an aberration — yesterday’s “drivers of negroes” have become today’s suppressors of voting rights and crusaders against “critical race theory,” read: anything having to do with the truth of US history — and serves as a reminder that modern capitalism, when it experiences panic at an unfolding collapse of its legitimacy, can always draw upon even seemingly archaic forms of control as fascism to shore itself up. Many of the yelping drivers of 1/6 have their supporters and enablers in high levels of corporate and political power, who work with less spectacular but (at times only slightly) more (technologically and rhetorically) sophisticated methods to forestall any collective demands for the supplanting of a class society destructive to human life by a redistributive social order founded on justice and equity (a goal implicit in the multifarious movements of contestation that persist regardless of changes in political administration – changes which tend to conceal the real continuities of the structures of power and authority in a given society). A helicopter flying low over demonstrators for Black lives in Washington, D.C. under the previous administration is just as terrorizing as a helicopter flying low over demonstrators against a tar-sands pipeline in Minnesota under the current one. A lethal policy of “border security” – aka refoulement — and the incarceration of unaccompanied children combined with menacing warnings to the poor in Central America and elsewhere “not to come” to the US is noxious regardless of which political party is carrying it out.

Calls for “healing” and “unity” and an “end to division” are vain attempts to paper over the deep fissures in United States society – fissures that exist in various forms throughout the world but that can ultimately be defined in terms of class struggle, which encompasses a wide range of combats against the ruling order, and of a democracy of content, not paltry figleaf form. Given the challenges extending as far and as deep as the very future of the planet, it would seem more fruitful to eschew a bad-faith unity pleaded for from the commanding heights and broaden (rather than minimize or disguise) the divisions to the point where the classic question posed by both labor and civil-rights movements: “Which side are you on?” becomes inescapable. In keeping with Karl Marx’s injunction to practice the ruthless criticism of existing conditions, all instances of fascism and authoritarianism need to be denounced, but just as important, if not more so, is the assertion of the ethical superiority and force of lived freedom rather than its free-market, white-supremacist simulacrum.

As Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the concept of “freedom,” so often parroted by today’s ultra-patriots, could not have been articulated or developed without its roots in enslavement. Parsing the value of “freedom” into what he calls a “chordal triad” unique to so-called “Western” consciousness – personal, civic, and sovereignal – Patterson describes each of these elements as existing in continual tension with the others, a tension which goes back to the slave society of the ancient Greeks, and which “existing within an unbroken though often fragile unity, had its roots in the paradoxical source of the value itself: the social death that was human slavery” (Patterson, 5). So – to answer Johnson’s query at two hundred years’ distance – the “freedom” advocated by today’s yelping drivers extends no further than the boundaries of their own skin and their own narcissistic fantasies of unlimited Herrenvolk potency and the desire to repress anything that challenges or escapes the illusions of “greatness” and white supremacy on which they have been nourished. In their perspective, freedom is not the complex, dynamic and mutable interaction among the elements of Patterson’s chordal schema, but a flat, immobile given which only they are worthy of defining and practicing. But what balance of the elements in the chord might be played and harmonized (and it should be remembered that dissonance is also a form of harmony) by today’s variegated movements of contestation against the racial capitalism now regnant? The increasingly common phrase “getting free” is emblematic insofar as it stresses process and praxis and begins with a desire: the urge to live full lives in common liberated from the linked coercions of State and market, the creation of directly democratic futures, the experimentation with innovative, human-centered solutions to problems presented by the rulers as intractable.

In this ongoing movement towards a society where individual and collective freedom dance together, where the shadow of enslavement that presided over the word’s birth can be finally dispelled, it is necessary to insist upon the creative force of anger as a motive force for change. As distinct from rage, which tends to be scattershot and inchoate when it is not ignorant, delusory or suicidal, anger is an emotion, felt on an almost elemental level when the world’s injustice becomes inescapable, that can be strategically honed toward purposeful and constructive ends. The voices of poets articulate the transformative possibilities to which such a deep feeling can lead; in that regard, they stake out a terrain that strictly political thought and a narrow presentism can only incompletely occupy.

Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s poem beginning “The anger that breaks the man into children” centers on the underlying “anger of the poor” at the heart of the world that extends even into its elemental natural processes. Such anger simmers in a social order where the barriers to its expression seem permanently fixed: it is successively “one oil against two vinegars,” “two rivers against many seas,” and “one steel against two daggers.” But in the final stanza, where “the anger…breaks the soul into bodies” on which the drama of oppression is pitilessly exercised to the point of breaking in turn the “body into dissimilar organs / and the organ, into octave thoughts,” the anger of the poor becomes “one central fire against two craters,” ready to unleash a potentially freeing conflagration against the spent craters of a dying capitalist order. (Could these “octave thoughts” be instantiations of Patterson’s chordal freedom?) As a poet of Quechua descent who had known prison in his native country, Vallejo went to the traditional literary haven of Paris only to find there more hunger, poverty, and waste of human potential. But his spiritual children are now to be found fighting courageously against police and military death squads in the streets of Colombian cities.

Guyanese poet Martin Carter, himself a great admirer of Vallejo’s work who combated the depredations of colonialism and the afterlives of slavery and indenture in his South American country, writes in his poem “Death of a Slave”: “in the dark earth / the cold dark earth / time plants the seed of anger” fertilized by the blood spilled by the master class’s repression of rebellions of the enslaved, in a plantation world where the burning sun is likened to a whip and the night to a death shroud. Over the centuries of oppression, anger will grow from the earth and redeem, through revolt, not only the dead of slavery, but the “river, Forest, and Field” that now witness the lonely death of the slave (Carter, 26). Another Caribbean poet, Audre Lorde, reclaims and extols the necessity of anger in a public address at a National Women’s Studies Conference: “Focused with precision, [anger[ can be a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. […] [A]nger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification” (Lorde, 127). Precisely this laser-beam anger has characterized the numerous militant women’s movements in Mexico and other Latin American countries against what the Chilean group Las Tesis’s anthem has called “the rapist in your path,” the chief violator being the repressive State itself, be it reactionary or self-proclaimedly “progressive.” And – of especial relevance today following Israel’s latest assault on Gaza and the resultant general strike of Palestinians throughout the occupied territories, Gaza, and the “mixed [apartheid] towns” in Israel – there is Mahmoud Darwish’s most famous poem (one he eventually tired of constantly being asked by his audience to recite), the unfortunately still-timely “Identity Card,” written in the voice of a Palestinian Arab being confronted by an Israeli official: “I’m nameless / And patient despite my anger,” he declares, “You’ve left nothing for my children / Except the rocks. But I’ve heard / You’ll take away / Even the rocks,” concluding with a warning that resonates with Vallejo (whom Darwish, like Carter greatly admired): “Beware of my hunger and anger!” (Darwish, 14).

In a moment captured on camera probably around 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. exploded in mingled anger and anguish about the condition of the world, and his words remain as vivid and inescapable today as they were at that particular fraught moment in history: “I’m sick and tired of violence. I’m tired of war and conflict in the world. I’m tired of shootings. I’m tired of hate. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of evil. I’m not going to use violence no matter who says.” These words, and the words of the poets quoted earlier, exemplify what Jamaican poet Kei Miller has called “an anger that moves” and that does not founder in the rageful sloughs of hatred, resentment, and lashing-out against hallucinated Others, but puts the princes and powers of a rapidly self-destructing world on notice that there is a central fire against its two craters, a seed of anger that has blossomed into a flower of liberatory visions, and a hunger that refuses hatred and theft but can potentially devour the enemy and the violence, war, shootings, selfishness, and evil through which it sustains itself. And perhaps through this anger, new changes can be played on the chordal triad of freedom.


Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. London / New York / Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Carter, Martin. Poems. Ed. Stewart Brown and Ian Macdonald. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2006.

Darwish, Mahmoud. Splinters of Bone. Trans; B.M. Bennani. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1974.

Horne, Gerald. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “I’m sick and tired of violence…”

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Miller, Kei. There Is an Anger That Moves. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007.

Patterson, Orlando. Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Vallejo, César. The Complete Posthumous Poetry. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcía. Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1980.

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