From classicliberal2 at Left Hook:

Setting the Record Straight on “Jack-Booted Thugs”
I’m still not really up to writing much, or well, but an item over at Media Matters caught my eye tonight, and I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on it.

Adam Shah of Media Matters For America offers this as his set-up:

    National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). That’s because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as “jack-booted government thugs” and reportedly called for “lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and ‘jack-booted government thugs.’”

Shah’s framing can be read in such a way as to suggest that anyone who would call government agents “jack-booted government thugs” is inherently nuts. The gripe I have with this is that government agents frequently are jack-booted thugs. That LaPierre said so isn’t why his comments were problematic.

LaPierre is a reactionary who deals in the nuttiest sort of black-helicopter conspiracism. His rhetoric, offered in the 1990s, is indistinguishable from that of the militia movement that grew like a cancer in that same period, and it’s this context that elevated his “jack-booted government thugs” comment from a truism to an eye-raiser.

But it takes some space to explain why….

The full discussion is worth reading, but skipping down a bit, we get to the part where he gets to the LaPierre writing a letter where he refernces the Koresh cult, which the rightwing militas portrayed as a bunch of innocents attacked by the government for no reason:

LaPierre was opportunistically playing to this sentiment when he made his “jack-booted government thugs” comment. In the same letter in which he wrote those words, he even made explicit reference to the action against the Koresh cult, and, further, added

“Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today.”

Of course, such a thing hadn’t been “unthinkable” to left-wing political parties, the civil rights movement, radical groups, labor unions, anti-war groups, and more other non-conservative and anti-conservative groups than can be named–they’d been on the receiving end of government violence for over a century, by that point. It was only “unthinkable” to white Christian conservative good ol’ boys who had never been subjected to it. LaPierre was part of a cadre of reactionaries who, for purposes of political expediency, was trying to make it thinkable to them. The world learned how thinkable some of them found it when a fertilizer bomb went off in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds.

I couldn’t agree more. After all, it wasn’t the ATF necessarily, but when gov’t agents came for Fred Hampton and scores of other Black Panthers, they were indeed jack-booted thugs.

There’s a vitally import point here, wrapped up in who LaPierre and his audience are, that usually seems incredibly abstract & philosophical to many. To wit: all discourse is embedded, embodied, contextual. It is NEVER trascendent and disembodied no matter what it might pretend. It is NEVER simply about objects devoid of context in philosophical Cartesian space. There is always a subject who speaks and a subject spoken to. American rightwing “anti-government” rhetoric ALWAYS comes out of a discourse where the speaking subject and the audience subject are white (even if it gets picked up by minorities and repurposed because of its white-supremacist cultural credibility).

There is nothing whatsoever abstract & philophical about this, of course, and feminism in particular has done a good deal to make awareness of this commonly available to everyone. But this doesn’t just apply to white supremacists. Far from it. It applies to classic liberalism as well, as Mike Konczal pointed out this week at Rortybomb in a piece titled “International Woman’s Day, Wendy Brown, and What Feminist Theory Can Do For You.” In it, he refers to an article by Brown:

Brown also has a critique of liberalism in an article that is sadly not online, Liberalism’s Family Values (collected in States of Injury). Like Okin, she deals with the liberal tradition being predicated on a liberal subject that is the antithesis on the conceptual and practical role women play in society. The eight values of a liberalism positioned next to the values they exclude from the political realm is a particularly sharp explanation of what is going on under the hood of liberalism. From the article:

I want to make a quick argument that this critique is important for those who want to rebuild an economy where prosperity is broadly shared and concentrations of power are held in check….

Why? Academic feminism has thought deeply about two arguments that need to be addressed. The first is that that the project is larger than stagnating wages, something that can’t be addressed by the differential inflationary impacts of the consumption of cheap electronic goods and really cheap food. The issue is about freedom and autonomy. The subject that can lead a life of equality, liberty, autonomy in the public is not a given or a prerequisite to society but instead a political creation, something created only through struggle.

The second is that a contract, like a marriage contract or like a labor contract, can be “freely” entered into but still contain elements of coercion to it. Coercion can still be the central characteristic of it. That the market is a series of voluntary transactions, and any outcome of it just, is an illusion. How to pull away that veil is the project, and feminist thought gives us a start on it.

What Brown is doing here is, in a sense, critiquing the formal structure of liberal political theory, if we think of the formal structure as that which contextualizes and shapes that which is the content of the theory. As soon as I began reading this, I immediately thought of Robert Kegan’s levels of cognitive complexity, particularly the fifth level, about which I’ve written relatively little online. Here, for the sake of completeness, is my crib sheet on the subject:

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan has developed a theoretical framework for integrating the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and later developmental psychologists, such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson. Kegan argues that at each developmental stage, what was the background/context/subject of consciousness in the previous stage now becomes foreground/content/object. The result is the table below:

Feminist theory of the sort that Brown practices belongs to Level 5. It takes liberal political theory (a Level 4 theory concerned with autonomy/self-authorship) as its subject. Level 5 is particularly concerned with opposites, and transforming their seemingly absolutist nature into more tractable forms. In short, it takes them out of the realm of absolutes that define us and turns them into objects that we may manipulate and define for ourselves. This is why, at the deepest and most fundamental level, feminism is a theory of liberation for men as much as it is for women.

Conservatives, for the most part, are either stuck at Level 3, the level of traditional social order, where the self is defined by the social roles and relations of society, or at Level 2, an even more primative level associated with late childhood and early adolesence. (Libertarian “you’re not the boss of me!” temper-tantrums, anyone?) Liberals, OTOH, tend to be fixated at Level 4, based on a mascunilist model of autonomy, which Brown’s article excerpt above provides an embrionic critique of.

Marxism also provided this sort of a crtique, but there were relatvely few people around in the 19th century who capable of grasping the Marxist critique at the level it was offered. That’s because day-to-day consciousness levels tend to be determined by the complexity of the world that people live in, and the sorts of experiential supports they encounter which enable them to comprehend and deal with the complexity around them. Because today’s world is considerably more complex than the 19th century was, Level 5 consciousness is far more common today than it was back then. And so we have a much better chance of making sense of a critique of Level 4 ideology, thus enabling us to overcome the limitations it carries with it.

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About the Author

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is not a dirty hippy. He bathes once a month, whether he needs it or not. An erstwhile programmer, he was a freelance op-ed and book review writer from 1994/96 to 2002, and has been a staff writer & editor at Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly in the Los Angeles harbor area from 2002 to date. His October 2002 story “Iraq Attack-The Aims and Origins of Bush’s Plans” shared the Project Censored #1 Censored Story award for 2004.

4 Responses to Changing the Subject: The World Is Object, Those Who Would Change It Are Subject. For Really Big Change, Change the Subject

  1. Michele says:

    WoW. Thank you. Your post makes me think about the feminist theory I studied and learned from in the late 1980’s.

    We know the social and political world is dominated by a male viewpoint, but dismantling that, much as how do we dismantle the corporatist dominated political world we live in, is still as much a problem since modern feminism debuted in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Indeed, the books and articles of Wendy Brown cited in Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb piece were published in 1988 (Manhood of Politics) and 1995 (States of Injury).

    So, while I agree with your comparison of feminism to Kegan’s Level 5 thought, and agree that this Level 5 thought is more common today than it was in the 19th century, I feel the need to point out that feminism is still not so common today. If it were, we would not be caught up in a battle over abortion and reproductive rights, for instance, or struggling with the legality of same sex marriage or the human right to health care or the rights of workers to unionize.

    As much as I agree with your conclusion that feminism, or Level 5 thinking, provides a basis of overcoming white male dominated liberal thinking, life on the ground is just more complicated than any abstract theory can hope to portray. Besides theory, it takes personal transformation and action – praxis – to achieve change.
    From the Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb piece you quote: The subject that can lead a life of equality, liberty, autonomy in the public is not a given or a prerequisite to society but instead a political creation, something created only through struggle.
    As I recall, the big difference in feminist theory, as opposed to traditional liberal theories of society, was a grounding in lived experience, as opposed to abstract thought. More to the point, a great rallying cry of feminists in the early years of the 1970’s was to be subject, not object – acting out of my lived, authentic experience, rather than living a life of being acted upon. This applies equally to race, gender, homosexuals, or any other class of people the dominant, reigning class decides is “other,” or different, or less than.

    In order to transform my orientation to the world as subject, rather than object, I first have to comprehend myself as an object. It means acknowledging and accepting injustices, or all the ways in which I have been acted upon as a woman, a person of color, homosexual persuasion or any other condition of disability – either mental or physical – that makes me different than the dominant white healthy heterosexual male.

    It requires political action and struggle for a subject – a person – to lead a life of equality, liberty and autonomy in the public realm. Back in the 1970’s it complicated matters to transform ourselves as a class, rather than as individuals, from object to subject. The project of creating a class of individuals who are themselves transforming from object to subject is very messy indeed. Each person undergoes their own process of psychological transformation, which might be successful, stunted, or thwarted along the way.

    Thus, we have poor people, such as urban blacks in the 1970’s who proved unable to overcome their objectification as recipients of government hand outs except by participation in crime gangs and other violent overthrows of societal norms. Thus objectified, we got welfare queens and welfare “reform” in the 1990’s that threw these classes of people to the streets, prisons and homeless shelters.
    You cite the struggle of the Black Panthers to make themselves a subject in society based on their efforts to act on behalf of their brothers and sisters. While there’s not a doubt in my mind that the “jack booted thugs” from the FBI COINTELPRO program ( fatally damaged the organization, the Panthers ultimately disintegrated due to individual struggles with redefining themselves as subject, rather than object, in the face of pushback. For reference, see ( “The end of Revolutionary Suicide outlines some of the debates within the Panthers in 1970, between those like Eldridge Cleaver, who pushed for some kind of underground movement to overthrow the state, and Newton who wanted a return to community based work.”

    I’ve personally seen this sort of demise by disagreement in women’s political action groups, and we see it today in the Democratic Party. In its efforts to become the majority party, the Dems invited candidates of varying degrees of loyalty to Democratic Party principals. The result has been Blue Dog and Moderate Dems willing to forsake abortion rights and spending for social programs so they can keep their lucrative jobs in Congress. Unable to agree, or stay agreed upon principles of action, the Democratic Party has disintegrated.

    The Democratic Party has forsaken Level 5 thinking.

  2. Paul Rosenberg says:

    Level 5 Thinking–Not Forsaken, Never Achieved

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment comment, Michele. The most important thing I can say in response is to add some clarifications regarding Level 5 thinking. According to Kegan in his 1994 _In Over Our Heads_, only around half the adult population has attained more than Level 3 thinking–and most of that is Level 4, the level at which classical liberal ideology emerges.

    Conservative invocations of “traditional values” resonate with Level 3 consciousness, because the self at that level is socially constructed out of roles, relationships and internalized expectations. [To say "the self is" refers to the subject level, "The self has" refers to the object level.] But, of course, this is only a broad generalization, since one can also be raised in a liberal subculture such that the “traditional values” one grows up with are militant unionism, liberation theology, pacifism, radical feminism, etc.

    In the transition to Level 4, the Level 3 socially-constructed self become object. This is the level at which it is most natural to look at social arrangements such as marriage, and say, “Well, that doesn’t exactly meet my personal needs. Why don’t we tinker with it a bit like this…” or even just throw it out altogether. This is very hard for your average Level 3 thinker to accept–unless, of course, they were raised in subculture that already had a more diverse palette of options as part of the social surround. But it’s quite natural for Level 4 people to think this way–though of course it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will come to the same conclusions. But they will tend to come to similar kinds of conclusions.

    Conceptually, the heavy lifting in this regards for us as a culture/civilization was done during the Enlightenment. And if one looks at 18th Century feminists–male or female–what one sees, primarily is that a male-gendered political self-hood is claimed for women as well. This is, after all, precisely what characterizes the construction of a self that is not “born of society” (as the Level 3 self is), but rather is “self-authored” or “self-created” as the Level 4 self is.

    Level 5 consciousness begins to be expressed almost as soon as Level 4 values and institutions are broadly adopted by the cultural vanguard (including the US as a political entity with a Bill of Rights). And it is precisely in terms of struggle by and for those who are not simply assumed to have an inarguable claim on Level 4 self-hood: most obviously, in America, blacks and women, while in Europe it tends more to be the newly-forming industrial working class. But there is still a considerable distance between leaders who, at their most conscious, fully realize what the struggle is about, and followers whose understanding tends to be more fragmentary.

    One of the central aspects of Level 5 is that absolute static opposites–such as male/female–become dialectical, mutually-constituting polarities. Thus, the very terms used to exclude certain subjects from Level 4 self-hood are themselves de-constructed. But even as this happens, many of those so excluded are still functioning at lower levels in their everyday lives–Level 3, even for those particularly restricted in their life-options, Level 2. And they will only be able to participate in those struggles in terms of the understandings possible at those levels–though, of course, such struggles definitely can help move them to higher levels of cognitive complexity,

    One of the most potent factors in the emergence of second wave feminism was the mass participation of women in the workforce during WWII, followed by the opening of college education in the next generation. These events moved millions of women outside the realm of Level 3 roles prepared for and expected of them, and gave them a pre-political, experiential foundation upon which an explicitly political foundation could be constructed. But the most straight-forward form this could take was simply that of Level 4 self-hood–which is to say liberal, rights-bearing feminism. It was, of course, not quite that simple. The more resistance and opposition was experienced, the more that Level 4 self-hood itself came into question, diverse forms of radical feminism emerged, and Level 5 critiques of liberal theory such as those above, were developed to make sense of the second-order “problem that has no name”.

    This, of course, had its direct parallels in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as well, as can be seen in Martin Luther King’s insistence on something more than merely being integrated into what he saw as a profoundly sick and misguided society.

    Okay. Long story short, all the above is to say that Level 5 thinking never predominated in the Democratic Party. But Level 5 thinking did have a great deal to do with reshaping the party over time–and the party’s turn in a more conservative direction among its elites in the 1980s has been deeply damaging to the health of the party as well as to the well-being of its base, and indeed to America as a whole.

  3. Mark says:

    Great comment and great response.

    You may be curious to know, however, that the comment thread linking to this article over at Merge Left is currently 18 long, if you care to drop by and visit some old friends.

  4. Paul Rosenberg says:

    Interesting comment thread, Mark.

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