Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What is an 'outside agitator'?

Richard Seymour, Lenin's Tomb

In Ferguson, Missouri, there are 'outside agitators'.  On this, the reactionaries and liberals agree.  Of course, there are all sorts of racialised rumours flying around in the guise of reporting about what is taking place in Ferguson.  We are well used to this.  We remember Katrina.

There will be time to sift through all that.  For now, I simply want to ask a quick question: what is an 'outside agitator'?  The metaphor of exteriority, of being outside, has two salient connotations.  First, one is transgressing the spatial ordering of the state.  It is states which constitute social spaces like districts, wards, counties, etc - a process that is historically far from racially innocent in the US.  Second, one is 'outside' the polis; one's political being as such is 'outside', one is traitorous and disloyal.  It is not just that one travelled from one city to another - that's fine, provided the political agenda one brings is benign for the system - but that one brought ideas that are not only not native to the destination, but actually foreign to the nation, the free world, civilisation itself.

Understandably, then, this language is very common in racial situations.  The 'outside agitator' mytheme reeks of good old boy vigilantism, the commingling of race-baiting and red-baiting that was typical of Southern countersubversion in the dying days of Jim Crow.  (The enforces of apartheid were also obsessively concerned with 'Edgy Tighters', as cartoonist Steve Bell rendered it with superlative accuracy.)  Because racial situations unfold in heavily structured political spaces in which the definitions and boundaries of the 'local' serve the existing forms of dominance.  And because racial situations are defined within the 'common sense' of white supremacy which, if it is to be seriously challenged, must be challenged from a point of view somewhere far outside that 'common sense', a point of view almost inimical to what the dominant ideology considers the moral and intellectual foundation of civilisation.

Of course, this implies that 'locals' are themselves otherwise not susceptible to radical disturbance.  Indeed, the considered point of view of segregationists during the civil rights era was that 'their' African Americans were either content or too dumb to rebel by themselves, and that therefore if there was unrest it was the fault of the Jewish outsiders and their 'freedom rides' and connections to the global red conspiracy.  The obvious liberal response to this sort of line was that injustice anywhere was a problem everywhere, that all citizens had moral agency and a stake in freedom, that there is nothing sacrosanct about 'the local' (and appeals to it are usually reactionary), and that red-baiting had proved itself to be an attack on all democratic forces.  At least since Massive Resistance, that was the obvious liberal response.  And it took no time at all to think it up, everyone already knew the lines. 

So what does it say that a great many of today's liberals unthinkingly regurgitate the stuff about 'outside agitators' in Missouri?