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Through the Howls: The Sham(e) of Labeling #ADOS ‘Reactionary.’

Type “Reactionary” and “ADOS” into the search feature on Twitter, and it yields something like this…

Leaving aside the sweeping arrogance required by someone to label ADOS as being insufficiently attentive to the logic of capital (the group whose oppression under capitalism is so totally sui generis, and who report after report demonstrates that it is they alone who bear the most vivid and enduring material toll exacted by that system), that opinion is really not that “unpopular” at all.1

In fact, despite the pretense to original thought that @_AngrySocialist’s little golly-here’s-one-that-I’ll-bet-really-goes-against-the-grain disclaimer is meant to communicate, that sentiment (grotesque as it is) is pretty broadly shared, especially among the U.S Left (q.v. this, this, this or this, or just keep reading).

And it’s that word—reactionary—that seems to be the smear of choice for opponents of #ADOS. Functioning much like how ‘radical’ does for the Right when they want to raise the specter of political ideas they all knee-jerkingly agree are totally odious and execrable, the insistent use of ‘reactionary’ by Leftists to describe #ADOS seems, above all else, to be used as a way to really gin up enmity inside the herd by erroneously casting ADOS as a bunch of thoughtless right-wingers whose political project is governed by the most base of instincts. Which is, ya know, I mean, it’s obscene, obviously. But, whatever; every ideological camp needs these kinds of slurs to hurl at the opposition. Though it would seem a basic prerequisite for cogent discussion that these political labels should (if they’re to have any real purchase) refer to a definite set of qualities that everyone inside that camp clearly understands, and who thus, when trying to stigmatize the threat in their midst, deploys appropriately.

Which is why there’s something real sloppy and lazy and just flat-out wrong about the Left’s imputation of ‘reactionary’ to #ADOS. How it seems that in the headlong rush to brand the movement as such, what gets betrayed most is an unwillingness (or an odd inability) by those people to actually consider the politics of reaction as understood on the Left’s own terms, a refusal that would seem to obviously trouble an account of how #ADOS could then possibly be said to embody them.

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I don’t think anyone on the Left would argue that award-winning political theorist Corey Robin doesn’t quite ‘get it’ when it comes to the nature of reaction as a political force. The New Yorker hailed his book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, as “The book that predicted Trump.”2

Here’s the book’s excellent and extremely straightforward definition of conservatism, one that serves to anchor Robin’s entire exploration into the history and present of reactionary demarche in America: “For that is what conservatism is,” Robin writes, “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

In relation to ADOS, of course, that definition ought to prompt a pretty basic and obvious question in the mind of anyone who believes the movement to be animated by conservative principles; namely, when in the hell has that group ever meaningfully known the “felt experience of having power”? During slavery? Immediately following? When their community was being lynched en masse and terrorized? When they were picked up for the most spurious of ‘crimes’ and then extrajudicially tried and sentenced to serve terms of absolutely brutal and inhumane penal labor which allowed the state to recoup those bygone profit margins of the antebellum days?3 Or perhaps it was during the decades-long period in which the government and banks colluded to deny their group the same loans with which it so felicitously furnished white America in the country’s postwar suburban sprawl. Was it when the deed language of those properties prohibited their sale to ADOS and so further ensured they would be excluded from ownership of an asset with which to build wealth? Serious question: is the “felt experience of power” that in which your family is consigned to languish in the blighted and resource-barren urban pockets of the country that your ancestors built while opportunity for mobility abounds elsewhere? Is it being a second-class citizen in a first-world country and living in third-world conditions? Does power feel like eight rounds to the back? Seven rounds to the chest? Sixteen rounds all over? Is it being murdered by the police while babysitting in your own home? Or suffering a “complete and catastrophic” injury to your spinal cord in the back of a police van?

I’m honestly just trying to understand what that experience of power must have felt like for ADOS at whatever point. Or to get my head around how today’s rates of incarceration—which see more male ADOS imprisoned than 1850 saw them enslaved—suggest anything even remotely resembling a trajectory of power? How the group’s median wealth, which is anticipated to completely tank in a mere 33 years, could be understood as anything other than the chef’s kiss of what has been a long, unmitigated campaign—public and private, overt and covert—utterly given over to denying their group’s empowerment. That seems, rather, to better describe the so-called conservative #ADOS movement’s “felt experience” in national life, one which resembles nothing so much as the experience of being made to never have any appreciable amount of power to begin with.

And yet, as Robin writes, “All conservatism begins with loss.” It is a project of “recovery and restoration” through which the conservative “seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it—indeed probably had it for some time—suggests he is capable of possessing it again.” Again, one struggles to locate what, for #ADOS, could possibly be functioning in the group’s imagination as their much longed-for halcyon days? The erstwhile period of supposed influence in the U.S., wielded over others, and on which they today ruminate from a lesser perch and desperately vie to reclaim. When was this?

Because it is that basic dynamic—those with the power and those without—that necessarily conditions the former’s psyche of reaction. And while Robin notes that the (mis)usage of ‘reactionary’ routinely “connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power,” he argues that reaction is more properly understood as “begin[ning] from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others;” a conviction of one’s dominance that is “[f]orged in response to challenges from below.” Indeed, as Robin adds, “There is no better way to exercise power than to defend it against an enemy from below.”

To what “challenge” from below is #ADOS as a ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’ movement responding? Immigrants? The same immigrants whose outcomes in America vastly surpass their group’s, despite having only been here in this country for a fraction of the time? Despite only being here in the first place because of ADOS? Is pointing out that phenomenon “punching down”? How do ADOS even punch down, given the ways in which everything in their history has so intricately bound their hands together? They can’t ‘punch down.’ At the moment, all they can do (all they’ve been left to be able to do) is to turn to one another and work at undoing those binding ropes; to try and prevent still more knots from being made. This is what they are up against. This is the tendency of their country, of every other group who comes here: to further constrict their ropes or to simply look the other way. And to think that it is they—the victims—who, in rejecting this arrangement, are maligned and dismissed as ‘reactionaries’…

In fact what #ADOS seems animated by (and more appropriately known by), rather, are the very same aims that Robin uses to characterize those emancipatory movements against which reaction arises, and which it endeavors to swiftly quash and discipline: “Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates,” he writes. “They protest their conditions…join movements, and make demands.” Robin notes that “[m]ore than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors” (ital mine).

And isn’t it in that point—that last hallmark of reaction—wherein those figures who do in fact embody the qualities of reaction in the context of the #ADOS liberation movement stand out in such sharp relief? How does one read that description of the reactionary—the individual so intensely unsettled by his awareness of what Robin (here quoting another lefty, Karl Mannheim) points out are “those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way”—and not hear the mad, desperate howling of Winbush et al.? Cannot but hear the Greg Carrs groping at their place and relative prestige in the old, receding way of things?4 The musty order of the late-20th century’s moribund ‘push’ for reparations. Can’t you hear the acerbic reprimand from those Pan-Africanists, those Leftists, whom all but explicitly tell ADOS to shut up and keep to their place, to acquiesce to the tacit hierarchy in which they are to be maidservant to a movement and never the authors of their own fate, never the agents of securing their specific justice.

If conservatism begins with the recognition of loss, #ADOS begins with the recognition of wholesale theft. The theft of everything that makes not just the conservative’s but everyone else’s loss of relative advantage in America possible in the first place. The ambition to rule—to have a commanding influence over anyone else’s affairs in national life except their own—is wholly alien to the language of the #ADOS movement. Theirs is a language of justice. It is a discourse of actual concern for each other, for the hurt they all share, and for actual healing. And it has developed because every other domain of political speech has rendered such content at best a matter of indefinite deferment, or, at worst, a thing that is simply utterly prohibited. And to construe that group’s last resort of self-interest as ‘reactionary’ is to completely overlook the ways in which the politics of a greater collective have so abysmally failed and ignored them, and it evinces nothing so much as being an advocate for that repugnant arrangement’s continuation.


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1. And who also—precisely because that supposedly ‘robust’ analysis of structural inequality is one that treats what could possibly happen to everyone else as more important than what is already (and has been now for centuries) happening to them—pretty understandably take a pass on espousing it as a panacea for their oppression.

2. Robin himself pretty famously (mis)opined that Trump would in fact lose in 2016 by a very big margin; and so which is to say that—while Robin is indeed no slouch as a thinker—his books could maybe be said to gesture toward certain possibilities in ways that even he misses.

3. And which is still very much happening today.

4. Here’s another of Robin’s descriptions of conservatism (again by way of Mannheim), and one which—again—would seem to better describe the response to #ADOS by the old guard of the reparations movement rather than the actions of its current torchbearers: “Conservatism ‘becomes conscious and reflective when other ways of life and thought appear on the scene, against which it is compelled to take up arms in be ideological struggle.’ Where the traditionalist can take the objects of desire for granted…the conservative cannot. He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being—or have been—taken away. If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must contest their divestment in the public realm” (ital mine).

Lastly, I would ask in which of the following categories that Robin here juxtaposes would you situate #ADOS: “Unlike the reformer of the revolutionary who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless—that is, of turning people from what they are into what they are not — the conservative merely asks his followers to do more of what they always have done (albeit better and differently.)” The answer seems, to me anyway, extremely clear.


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