Roberto Sirvent and Dylan Rodriguez discuss the challenges of sustaining radical liberation movements.
Roberto Sirvent: You recently shared on Twitter that you’ve been thinking a lot “about the spread of liberal/progressive counterinsurgency and its effectiveness in demobilizing, domesticating, and pacifying abolitionist / liberation / anticolonial / Black radical movements.” What recent examples of this counterinsurgency do you have in mind?
Dylan Rodriguez: First, i want to explain that by “counterinsurgency,” i mean the full spectrum of pacification, isolation, and domestication strategies that extend beyond violent state repression. What i’m calling the contemporary liberal/progressive counterinsurgency is a loosely coordinated bloc that consists of large philanthropic foundations, liberal think tanks, academics, elected officials, media pundits, nonprofit organizations, celebrity activists, and social media influencers, among others. This bloc is responding to the intensified and overlapping Black liberationist, abolitionist and anti-colonial mobilizations in and beyond North America, during and prior to the summer of 2020: as police cars were once again set on fire by people refusing to tolerate normalized antiblack state terror, there were increased calls for the abolition of police, abolition of jails/detention centers/prisons, reparations, redistribution of social and privatized wealth, and repatriation of land, water, and other sacred things.
All that shit has been absolutely terrifying to the administrators, organic intellectuals, and ordinary constituents of the liberal/progressive bloc. I think there is a quiet, bottom-line coalescence between this bloc, the centrist-right and elements of the far right: they are united in the fact that they will not tolerate—much less endorse or materially support—revolutionary, Black liberationist, abolitionist, and anti-colonial mobilizations and movements that will destroy or fundamentally change the infrastructures of power and radically alter the distribution of life-sustaining resources in the United States, Canada, Brazil, the Philippines, or anywhere else.
I am not arguing that liberals, progressives, so-called centrists, conservatives, and far right protofascists are somehow “the same.” What i am saying, however, is that they recognize each other by sharing a common premise: they argue and fight with each other over the path to futurity of a resilient global Civilization fantasy that abolitionists, Black liberationists, Indigenous anti-colonialists, and others are interested in disrupting, if not completely dismantling for the sake of collective survival.
This brings us to the liberal/progressive bloc’s accelerating mobilizations of counterinsurgency in the current moment.
This bloc—alongside others—sees glimpses of its own demise in immolated police stations, revolts against police and state authority, and a generalized growth of global solidarity around the necessity to unapologetically attack the prestige that lubricates all forms of antiblack and colonial power. While liberals and progressives often identify themselves as primary agents of “social justice,” this bloc also rejects the idea that existing institutions and systems of cultural, political, economic, and military power must be fundamentally—and irreparably—disrupted or destroyed. This point is worth emphasizing because, as Black Agenda Report readers already know, it is a generally shared, long standing principle of diasporic Black radicalisms and global Indigenous liberation struggles that “futurity” itself is a revolutionary project for the people, ways of life, and geographies that are targeted for destruction by the Civilization fantasy.
This is also why the twisted logic of the contemporary liberal/progressive counterinsurgency can come off as fucked up and muddled: many of its subjects believe they are working in righteous “solidarity” with radical and militant resistance movements when their actions actually work to undermine, distort, and even criminalize people within those very same movements. The liberal/progressive bloc often loudly claims to be supportive of certain compartmentalized versions of abolition, Black liberation, and decolonization, but any such support only ever happens on their terms, according to their sensibilities.
To identify some choice examples, consider some of the recent initiatives of the Mellon and Ford Foundations, which have created entire academic funding streams branded as “social justice” and/or “abolition” grants. Some of these grants have advanced the careers of academics and professional researchers who have no substantial connection to existing or emerging abolitionist movements, collectives, scholarly projects, organizations, or community-based initiatives—the grant recipients are accountable to their funders, and nothing else. These foundation initiatives magnify the alienation between academic entrepreneurs and the state-targeted social movements that create the conditions of opportunity for their academic research agendas.
Even worse, these foundations have recently been attempting to assimilate abolitionist terms, ideas, and strategies into management strategies that demobilize, defuse, and domesticate the concept of abolition by dismembering it and funneling decontextualized pieces into piecemeal policy reform projects and campaigns for whatever they define as social justice and “equity.”
By way of example, a 2021 report from the Ford Foundation, Evaluating the Ford Foundation’s Strategy to End Mass Incarceration: Key Lessons and Insights, uses a conflict resolution approach to create a false dichotomy between reformists and abolitionists. The report depicts these as reconcilable positions, as if they are simply two analogous sides in a generic difference of opinion. Of course, they are not. Each side’s demands and premises actually require the destruction or negation of the other’s. As a result, the Ford Foundation frames itself as a managerial force that can domesticate the irreconcilable antagonism between reformists and abolitionists by “leveraging” their “insights” as “different actors” and funding new projects where they can “coordinate or collaborate across differences.” It’s bullshit.
Committed abolitionists with even modest on-the-ground experience will tell you that coordinating and collaborating with liberal/progressive reformists is almost always a massive fucking waste of time. And that, right there, is an underappreciated technology of counterinsurgency—convincing us to waste our fucking time.
You think the Mellon, Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Soros foundations (etc.) want to support abolitionist activities that would require a redistribution of capital including reparations, repatriations, and large-scale redress for their founders’ and major benefactors’ historical complicities in colonial and chattel violence? No, they want to create grants that will compartmentalize abolition, Black liberation, and other movements to piecemeal—though often high-profile—research projects, arts initiatives, and policy reform campaigns that provide “deliverables” compatible with liberal-progressive philanthropic definitions of social change and social justice.
I am sometimes invited to participate in activities funded by foundation grants and, within these activities, i—alongside any other committed radical intellectuals who happen to be involved—consistently try to intervene on liberal bullshit and advance shared commitments to liberationist and abolitionist practices. But in the end, these are highly limited tactical maneuvers and nothing more. The problem remains the problem.
Of course, there are many more examples: the Democratic Party is successfully coopting and platforming people who depict themselves as organizational heads and thought leaders of various social movements, including Black and Black-led abolitionist, feminist and liberation movements; the internal politics and accountability structures of the multi-million dollar BLM Global Foundation are a fucking shitshow; Asian American nonprofit organizations, influencers and academics are feeding data and other resources to the police and FBI to “stop Asian hate” with real and imagined Black perpetrators as their implicit targets; liberal/progressive respectability politics continue to disrupt or preempt any serious discussions of political education and training in collective practices of self- and community-defense; liberal/progressive media outlets continue to lazily call on a small set of well-funded public intellectuals, celebrities and pundits to shape the public discourse of things like “anti-racism,” social justice, and freedom struggle in ways that reduce the complexities of abolitionist and revolutionary struggle to individualistic ideological therapy, consumer workbooks and manuals you can buy at Walmart and Target, constant advocacy for Democratic candidates in local and national electoral campaigns; i could go on and on.
There have been so many developments in the field of liberal/progressive counterinsurgency that i am hesitant to blast just a few select examples. I’m concerned that doing so might have the unintended effect of fixating our attention on those examples rather than the generalized condition that enables them. So, i hope that readers of this interview will fill in the blanks with other cases that fit the general schema i’m trying to define here.
BAR readers are of course quite skeptical of the U.S. corporate media, the Democratic Party, and the many “celebrity activists” that claim to serve Black communities. What role do these forces play in your thinking about “liberal/progressive counterinsurgency”?
Let me add that we (the loyal readers of BAR) are justifiably skeptical of a shit-ton more than corporate media, the Democratic Party, and the “actor-vist”/social media influencer crowd. I think many of us are at least as skeptical of academics, clout-thirsty “activists,” social justice pundits, and nonprofit organization leaders who are propped up by think tanks, corporations (including corporate media) and philanthropic foundations. It’s not necessarily a new thing, but it seems in recent times that a spectrum of grifters and opportunists are building their “brand” by making righteous statements about their commitments to Black liberation, social justice and even abolition.
Some of these people—academics and professional activists in particular—have a long history of disavowing, opposing, or otherwise distancing themselves from abolitionist movements, ideas, and practices, but have nonetheless recently decided to claim “abolition” as a self-serving public identity because they believe it will afford them access to different forms of professional and social capital. The problem is, they end up gaining that access pretty damn often. It’s crucial to emphasize that most of the time, these people and institutions don’t even claim to “serve Black communities” (to quote part of your question) or Black political and cultural interests in any serious way—they’re usually attempting to triage and pacify what they perceive as Black political and cultural unrest and insurgency.
Robert Allen famously wrote about this logic of pacification in his classic book Black Awakening in Capitalist America more than fifty years ago. He was chronicling and analyzing the emergence of a blueprint for liberal/progressive counterinsurgency in real time, from the position of an organizer, intellectual, and journalist working in Black radical organizations and communities. His work illustrates the earliest moments in the construction of a cross-institutional laboratory of liberal/progressive pacification that has defined the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, among other places, for the last few decades. Everything i’m talking about here is an elaboration of my teacher Prof. Allen’s analysis, which he developed at the turn of the 1970s. That’s the contemporary point of genesis for the problem we’re discussing now.
There is no doubt that the liberal/progressive counterinsurgency metastasizes through the grandstanding of celebrities, Democratic Party representatives, and media influencers.
Here, i think immediately of actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, who famously issued a $25,000 bounty on the Black man caught on video assaulting someone whom they believed to be an Asian/American elder walking on a San Francisco street. It was reported soon after they made this widely reported, widely celebrated bounty declaration that the elder was not Asian/American and the Black man on whom they placed the bounty was already in jail. At that point, it was already too late stem a tide of Asian/American vigilante groups—spurred by the debunked information the two Daniels posted on social media—from descending on Oakland Chinatown and other sites in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, and elsewhere under false pretenses. It almost goes without saying that the vigilante mobilization spurred by the bounty was significantly, if not primarily spurred by a narrative of harmless Asian/American elders suffering random life-threatening attacks from unnamed, hateful Black men.
Kim and Wu, for their part, didn’t apologize for starting this ill-informed shit; in fact, they insisted that they would do the same thing again for the sake of raising community awareness, whatever the fuck that means. I raise this example because their gesture of the antiblack “bounty” has come to represent—or perhaps overrepresent—a certain Asian/American political position that is based on a narrative of fragility, marginalization and victimization relative to Black people, communities, and liberation movements. It’s as if “Black-on-Asian violence” is the primary and most significant form of suffering that Asian descended people and communities endure in the US context.
As importantly, this represents a relatively new form of liberal counterinsurgency: the two Daniels exploited their fame and public recognition to weaponize their social media platforms. They instigated a bounty hunt that signified a desire to defend and vindicate Asian Americans from violent Black “hate.” Their grandstand has continued to undermine efforts to build Black-Asian community relationships and solidarity in ways that would address and prevent these forms of interpersonal violence in ways far more effective than increased policing or vigilante pandering. The Daniels fucked up in multiple ways.
Actor-vist bounties aside, the multimillion-dollar, California state-supported efforts of the nonprofit organization Stop AAPI Hate provides another example of how well-meaning liberal/progressive coalitions can undermine already existing abolitionist, Black liberationist, and Black solidarity efforts. This organization, which is a joint effort of the Los Angeles based Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Bay Area based Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, has created a national data collection project for what they term “anti-Asian hate incidents.” They use this concept to move beyond the narrow legal category of hate crimes. To be fair, it’s also worth acknowledging that the organization has recently stated that it “[does] not endorse solutions such as increased policing or incarceration that have a disparate impact on communities of color.”
However, the political and ideological impact of this organization’s focus on “hate” undermines and delegitimizes the work of Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations and movements addressing the under-discussed casualties in their communities caused by racist policing, (im)migrant and refugee criminalization, gentrification, state and state-sanctioned violence against sex workers, and persistent cultures of antiblackness. None of these forms of violence have anything to do with hate, hate crimes, or hate incidents. Hate incidents compose a tiny fraction of the violence that criminalized and economically vulnerable (im)migrant, refugee, poor and working class Asian/American and Pacific Islander communities experience—often in geographic proximity to Black communities. It is worth asking why Stop AAPI Hate’s overfocus on hate incidents gained such extraordinary traction among liberal/progressive Democrats, numerous Republicans, corporate media, clout-thirsty influencers, celebrities, and major philanthropic foundations.
Stop AAPI Hate shows how the rhetoric of “hate” can become a technology of liberal counterinsurgency in-and-of-itself: it works to compartmentalize white supremacist, militarist, colonial, gender, sexual, and racist violence to the realm of isolated individual acts. This individualization of anti-Asian violence permeates the organization’s published reports, which characterize so-called hate incidents as “bullying,” “harassment,” and physical violence motivated by “bias.” (This is all on p. 3 of its 2022 national report.) This approach mis-defines oppressive violence as exceptional, irrational and strictly interpersonal—further, it does nothing to address the broad cultural-political impact of the cherry-picked spectacles circulated on social and corporate media of individual Black perpetrators doing harm to individual Asian/Americans.
To construct Asian/Americans as exceptional victims of exceptional violence produces a demobilizing effect that privileges academic and bureaucratic expertise—data collection—over solidarity work, mutual aid, and movement building. Unsurprisingly, Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founders have been featured and awarded in Time, Forbes, and various other corporate media venues and the coalition is supported by philanthropic funders that include the Carnegie and Ford foundations, among others.
A signature move of people and organizations working from within the liberal/progressive bloc is to start shit with public statements that signify wokeness—“virtue signaling”—while, at the same time, cultivating no significant reciprocal relationships with collective abolitionist projects or other militant, radical movements, organizations, or mobilized communities that might be able to criticize and correct their sometimes well-intentioned, but usually ill-informed and potentially damaging actions. This gap also allows for nonblack people to magically center their own identities and vulnerabilities while claiming to work under the umbrella of abolition. To the contrary, abolitionist praxis means working in direct relationship with a diasporic Black radical and revolutionary tradition, even and especially as a nonblack person, Indigenous person, or in my case, a Filipino who has been shaped by that tradition.
Here’s the thing: a lot of these liberal/progressive people and organizations are really, really bad at pretending they’re serious about what they’re trying to signify. Not unlike the two Daniels, they’re sloppy, lazy, and ignorant—they are so incompetent and fake that they usually end up telling on themselves, if committed militant people in surrounding movements and communities don’t call them out first. I think one of the best strategies to effectively oppose and defeat this part of the liberal/progressive counterinsurgency is to unapologetically identify, criticize, and, if necessary, make reparative demands of those grifters and opportunists.
How does the university serve as one of these liberal/progressive counterinsurgency forces? Why is it so dangerous to think that one can serve both the academy and Black liberation?
We need to differentiate between “the university” and “the academy.” They are too often conflated as if they are the same thing. They are not. The university, on the one hand, is a material infrastructure produced by chattel coloniality and sustained by the long legacies of the complex of global power relations that emerges through the foundations of conquest. It’s an institutional ensemble that occupies land, displaces and/or criminalizes pre-existing and surrounding populations, administers colonial and militarized neoliberal research and curricular agendas, exploits student/staff/faculty labor, benefits as a direct descendant and inheritor of chattel racial capitalism, and experiments with new technologies of surveillance and policing, among many other things.
The academy, on the other hand, is primarily an operationalized aspiration that creates exclusive societies, organizations, and venues of knowledge circulation that fortify and sustain the ascendancy of colonial and antiblack epistemologies, archives, research paradigms, truth claims, aesthetics, and professionalized scholarship. I emphasize that this ascendancy is aspirational because the notion of the academy is animated by a striving for supremacy—if not effective monopoly—over the fields and meanings of proper “knowledge” itself. The academy is, in this sense, a crystallization of the half-millennial Civilization project’s ongoing attempt to dominate knowledge, which also means it constantly weaponizes knowledge as its own specific form of power and violence. The academy is an arrogant aspiration, in both the narcissistic sense and the massively world-deforming, genocidal sense.
This is also to say that not all “scholarly” or “intellectual” work should be categorized as “academic” work. The university and the academy should be understood as two related regimes, not as the same regime. Together they are, in many ways, the institutional and ideological glue of the liberal/progressive bloc. The university serves as a primary venue for showcasing the bloc’s values and curricula, while the prestige of the academy provides an authorizing signature for some of the bloc’s key ideas and terms, including widely circulating liberal/progressive keywords like “mass incarceration” (which displaces terms like prison industrial complex, fascism, genocide, and domestic war).
The people, organizations and institutions composing the liberal/progressive bloc, especially the university and academy, are Civilizational loyalists. This is the foundation of the liberal/progressive commitment to counterinsurgency. They love Civilization and, in this moment, want Civilization to be more just, diverse and “inclusive.” I can’t lie, there’s a massive part of my own colonized being that participates in this loyalism, even while i know the lie must end. That’s why we have to talk and think about this stuff out loud, with each other—because otherwise we run the risk of normalizing our hypocritical loyalties.
You often cite former political prisoner George Jackson in your work. How can his theorization of fascism help us think more clearly about reform, state violence, and Black liberation struggles today?
George Jackson’s theorization of fascism in Blood In My Eye is poetic in its urgency and continues to be instructive in its Black revolutionary analytical rigor. By this i mean he exemplifies a form of study and thinking that’s animated by a commitment to the complete overthrow of a Civilization that imagines, plans, and desires the evisceration if not the cultural and physical annihilation of Black people, occupied First Nations and Indigenous people, and other targeted peoples. Blood In My Eye completely changed my understanding of state power, capitalism, empire, fascism, and counter-warfare. It also pushed me to think deeply and historically about the creative forms of Black liberationist guerilla war that jump off in different contexts across overdeveloped Global North, First World contexts like the United States.
The Dragon is crystal clear about the logic of reform, which is the primary technology of liberal-progressive counterinsurgency. This technology encompasses cultural, legal, economic, and other institutional maneuvers that rest on the presumption that state violence, centrally gendered antiblack state violence and colonial state violence, can in fact be properly reformed into conditions of equity and livability. Therefore, the liberal/progressive bloc will only tolerate or endorse what it deems to be the proper forms of resistance to oppressive and logically genocidal state violence. This point surfaces throughout Blood In My Eye as well as parts of Soledad Brother.
When George Jackson argued—around 1970—that reform is fascism’s primary cultural-political apparatus, he was working from the premise that fascism was already in place: “The fascists already have power. The point is that some way must be found to expose them and combat them. An electoral choice of ten different fascists is like choosing which way one wishes to die.” (Blood In My Eye, p. 72) His thinking was not only urgent, it was prophetic in the most revolutionary sense.
The liberal-progressive bloc—then and now—sanctions respectable forms of “resistance” to fascism: nonviolent (ideally pacificist) demonstrations, reform campaigns (legislative propositions, changes to police protocols, changes to criminal justice policy, etc.), branded academic research (usually featuring hot keywords like “Black-led,” “abolition,” “mass incarceration,” “social justice,” etc.), non-insurrectionist cultural and artistic production (films, art exhibits, documentary projects, performances, etc.), and other innovations that tolerate the existence of an already existing fascist social and state formation while supporting “resistance” to it. Reformism, even and especially in its most militant liberal/progressive articulations, presumes the perpetuity of gendered antiblack and colonial state violence. The foundation of that bloc’s counterinsurgency is its operational assumption that this violence is to be taken for granted, which means that collective mobilizations to refuse this presumption, to reject its legitimacy and persistence, and to abolish its conditions of possibility threaten the very existence and well-being of the liberal/progressive bloc itself. George Jackson’s work is a must-read for anyone who is serious about engaging in some form of radical, revolutionary, abolitionist struggle that flows within the Black liberation tradition.
You were a great admirer of the late Glen Ford, who along with Bruce Dixon and Margaret Kimberley, co-founded the Black Agenda Report. What did you appreciate most about his commitment to critiquing the “liberal/progressive counterinsurgency”?
I become deeply sad every time i think of Glen. I miss him dearly. I appreciated so many things about him. Every time we spoke, he stoked my fire. He encouraged and emboldened me to sharpen my analysis of liberal/progressive counterinsurgency in all its forms, because Glen saw the counterinsurgency happening everywhere.
We bonded over our shared analysis of—and feelings about—the rise of Barack Obama. I’ll always be grateful to him for exemplifying such an unapologetic repudiation of Obama and, more importantly, his real-time demystifications of Obama-ism—he understood better than anyone the dangers that liberal hope, national optimism, and patriotic faith pose to Black freedom struggle, and he correctly identified the Obama movement as a master stroke of antiblack counterinsurgency. And Glen did not give a fuck who hated him for it. He was and continues to be my role model in that way, among others.
Crucially, in our final conversations, Glen shared his sense of distress over the domestication of post-2014 (post-Ferguson) Black mobilizations for freedom and self-defense against police power and antiblack state power more generally. He was militantly committed to tracking how certain Black leaders and Black organizations exploit their relationships with grassroots Black radical movements and revolts to create currency and personal connections with the Democratic Party, philanthropic foundations, and even corporations. To know Glen was to realize that the forces of the sell-out are vast, insidious, and persistent—which means that confrontation with these forces is an ongoing responsibility of any Black radical, abolitionist, or revolutionary community.
Glen was cut from the cloth of the dead-serious truthteller, the one who does not trifle with bullshit and insists that you acknowledge the gravity of your commitment to fight.
Which abolitionist organizers and/or organizations do you encourage BAR readers to support?
I apologize for only mentioning a fraction of them here, but here’s a start:
Dylan Rodriguez is Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.