Odd Future Lone Wolf
by Ray Valentine on July 18, 2016
Of all the horrors that have paraded across the political scene in 2016, few are more disturbing than the seemingly sudden uptick in lone-wolf attacks. With high-profile attacks by individuals in Baton Rouge, Nice, Leeds, Orlando, and Dallas all within the space of a few weeks, the phenomenon is exploding into mainstream public consciousness. It appears we live in the age of the lone wolf, and an examination of the trend is urgent because it reveals disturbing truths about the conditions in which political struggle will occur in the 21st century.
Lone wolf attacks are acts of politically-motivated violence carried out by individuals or small groups who do not receive material support or even direct strategic guidance from a broader organization, even a clandestine one. The term “lone wolf” was originally applied to political violence by prominent American white supremacists in the 1990’s who had seen their organizations destroyed by federal investigations and prosecutions. They argued a strategy of extreme decentralization was the only way that racist “revolutionaries” could endure while continuing to stoke the fires of a race war. The men who hit upon the lone wolf strategy were not great intellectuals or particularly successful activists on their own terms, but the form of extreme asymmetrical conflict they advocated has endured.
The tally of recent attacks is long, familiar, and grim. The strategy has come unmoored from any particular political camp, although in the main it remains a province of the far right. Recent lone wolves have been linked by traditional white supremacism (in Charleston), Christian fundamentalism (in Colorado Springs), the “sovereign citizen” movement (too many to list), the Bundy organization (in Las Vegas) and men’s rights ideology (in Isla Vista, California). Recent media attention to the phenomenon has focused on Salafi Jihadist groups’ embrace of the lone wolf, and the massacres in Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the propaganda of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. But the special attention to Muslim groups is as misplaced as it is predictable, since they have simply recognized the usefulness of a strategy developed by other reactionaries operating on American terrain. Not all lone wolves have an obviously rightward bent. Police officers have been subject to high profile attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge in response to the extrajudicial killing of black men, and before that came Chris Dorner and Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley.
The United States, where it can be easier to acquire military-grade weaponry than to vote, is obviously the poster child of such attacks, but other societies are not immune. The assassination of the popular British MP Jo Cox by a neo-nazi with a homemade pistol, Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks on Oslo and the socialist youth camp at Utøya, and the December 2014 hostage-taking in Sydney are all classics of the lone wolf form. Further, lone wolves don’t necessarily need guns or bombs. The recent Nice attack reveals the lethality of weaponized cars, a tactic lone wolves have already experimented with in several countries. Police and soldiers have been attacked with knives and hatchets on the streets of Europe and Canada. In the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, Beijing attributes knife attacks by small groups of individuals at train stations and coal mines to Uighur separatists. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, uncoordinated attacks on occupying soldiers and settlers have become so common that some speak of a “knife intifada.”
The lone wolf terrorist attack has not attracted much attention from thinkers outside the intellectually impoverished realm of national security policy, despite its rising prominence in the United States and around the world. It is perhaps controversial to try to trace a thread between Charleston, Orlando, Dallas, and East Jerusalem, given the radical differences among the attackers and the conditions in which they operated. Some on the left may even quietly cheer the recent shootings in Baton Rouge or Dallas as a principled act of resistance. However, while lone wolf attacks may benefit certain reactionary movements, they are not a step towards liberation. Isolated acts of extreme violence do not build movements, indeed I believe they are a symptom of the disintegration of structures that have historically enabled mass political mobilization. If they have any impact at all, it will be to accelerate that process, not to arrest the breakdown.
A Lone-Wolf International
Opinion-makers of various ideological stripes have attempted to account for certain attacks by explaining why a particular population would turn up violence: the illegitimacy of the police in black communities or colonial-era oppression of muslims, for instance. But oppression is not really a good explanation of the fairly recent phenomenon of ubiquitous lone wolf violence: resistance is a historical constant, and it takes a multitude of forms, almost all of them more effective than sporadic killings. Meanwhile, these accounts cannot explain why lone wolf attackers are a global epidemic springing from a huge variety of demographic profiles. We need to understand why Micah X Johnson and Mohamed Lahouiej-Bouhlel and Anders Breivik and Robert Lewis Dear all became lone wolves, a course of action that even political extremists were loathe to adopt decades ago.
It is also important to consider the lone wolves as a global phenomenon because their attachment to any particular ideology is often loose or highly idiosyncratic. Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, seems a salient example: a classic authoritarian personality, violent, macho, and abusive towards women, and by many accounts a self-hating closeted gay man, he seems to have been drawn to special bodies of armed men, whether the NYPD or the Taliban, without taking serious interest in their ideological orientation. After all, at various points he had identified with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State, all of which are fighting a three-sided war against one another in Syria. In his programmatic confusion, Mateen was typical. Olivier Roy, a French scholar of political Islam has argued that Western recruits to Salafism represent not “the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism,” as alienated, isolated youth without strong spiritual commitments or connections to a religious community adopt the terms of Jihad to articulate and justify a nihilistic rebellion against a society in which they cannot find a comfortable place.
Other prominent lone wolves also blended personal motives, deep alienation, and idiosyncratic politics. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto lovingly enumerated profound personal insecurities, expressed frank pseudoscientific racism, blamed women, other men, and loose sexual morals for his own lack of romantic success, and extrapolated to a terrifying vision of systematic sexual enslavement of women. Chris Dorner convincingly indicted the racism of the LAPD and American society in general, but he also condemned the alleged misandry of his lesbian supervisors, argued for stricter gun control, defended Bill Cosby, and praised Anonymous, while describing an elaborate conspiracy to explain his firing from the police force. Even lone wolves with more conventional ideologies often make highly detailed, personalized programs that no one else subscribes to, making it extremely clear that they represent parties of one.
Since studies of lone wolves tend to originate in the sphere of security policy, most have focused on those that gravitate towards the Jihadi ideology which western governments consider their primary enemy. But the profile they have developed — of isolated, angry, insecure, aimless, unsuccessful young men captivated by the police and military and seeking a path to act out a power fantasies — applies well to Dylan Roof or Elliot Rodger or Micah X Johnson. RAND analyst Brian Michael Jenkins argues that it is more appropriate to refer to “stray dogs” than “lone wolves,” since the profile for the typical attacker (or would-be attacker) tends to be incompetent and half-hearted, usually much more enthusiastic about making extreme posts on social media thank taking action, “sniffing at the edges of violence before making a move.” Journalists describe lone wolves as “loners and losers,” rather than hardened, strategic militants.
To say that the lone wolves do not conform to the typical image of a political actor is not to say they aren’t politically significant; after all, ours is an age of loners and losers.
Bowling with Stray Dogs
The rise of the lone wolf has occurred in an era of increasing economic misery, generalized social isolation, and the wholesale decline of institutions that coordinate collective social action. Contemporary capitalist societies are producing a vast supply of alienated, desperate men with very few avenues to exercise any control over their immediate social conditions. As this population grows, so too does the number of potential lone wolves.
Rising economic insecurity and precarity in the advanced economies is well-documented. Since the post-war era of managed capitalism gave way to the neoliberal epoch, average unemployment has risen and more and more people are forced to accept part-time and contingent work. Periods of unemployment last longer, and workers exiting unemployment find it much more difficult to recover their past incomes. As the gains of the labor movement are rolled back, job security has declined and employer-sponsored benefits have become less generous. Wages have stagnated or fallen. Cuts to the welfare state have made spells of unemployment more painful, and have strengthened the bargaining position of employers. As Alan Greenspan noted, these trends have “traumatized” workers, so even those that avoid falling into the ranks of the un- or underemployed feel the psychic effects of rising insecurity and lower their expectations.
It is significant that conditions have worsened most sharply for prime working-age men, a population that includes almost all lone wolves. Male workers still enjoy a wage premium, but they have seen their advantage gradually erode since the 1970s. During the late crisis, unemployment for men spiked much more dramatically than for women, although the trend eventually evened out. During the recession, the slightly embarrassing term “mancession” appeared to express the gendered nature of economic anxieties. For a fragment of the working class with drastically weakened capacity for collective action against capital, patriarchal privilege appears as a reliable bulwark against eroding conditions that must be defended. These conditions make many lone wolves’ embrace of ideologies promising to restore or defend traditional gender roles more comprehensible.
In addition to declining material circumstances, growing numbers of ordinary people are more and more likely to experience profound social isolation. A landmark study from a decade ago revealed that between 1985 and 2004, the number of close confidants with whom the typical American reported that they could have important conversations with fell by about a third, to an average of roughly 2. Social networks are shrinking across the board, and people are less likely to have contacts through voluntary associations or in their neighborhoods. Even family networks are declining, albeit less dramatically. The urgency of the problems engendered by widespread atomisation is becoming increasingly obvious, in recent years the phenomenon has attracted attention across the political spectrum, from the arch-reactionary Charles Murray to the left communist journal Endnotes. With the fabric of civil society fraying, Marx and Engel’s judgement that capitalist society “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment” is truer today than it has ever been.
The collapse of traditional forms of mass political participation has been even more acute. In his landmark 2000 study “Bowling Alone,” the political scientist Robert Putnam found that membership in civic groups, from the League of Women Voters to parent-teacher associations to town meetings had fallen dramatically since the 1960s. The retreat from political involvement is hardly an America-only phenomenon. In Europe, political parties have withdrawn from their members and have largely ceased to provide a pathway for ordinary citizens to actively participate themselves in political life as party loyalty and membership has slipped. Attendance at mainline protestant churches, the cradle of the civil rights movement and historically one of the most important venues for American political life, is cratering, even as shopping mall-like megachurches rise in popularity. The unions, under attack from states and employers, have suffered some of the deepest losses.
Of course, not all forms of social life are declining. If people are less likely to participate in voluntary civil society or have friends in their neighborhoods or volunteer on behalf of a political party they are vastly more likely to be connected to others via the internet. But online communities have peculiar dynamics that differentiate them from traditional organs of civil society. While attending a community meeting or canvassing a block normally requires us to talk people different from ourselves with different experiences and opinion (though this diversity is obviously moderated by spatial segregation), digital forums are notorious for creating a filter bubble, where we have our own prejudices and views are reflected back to us, only louder.
Traditional forms of social and political organization require some measure of negotiation and consensus before collective action is possible, but in the purely discursive realm of the internet, where discussion is usually detached from even the possibility of practical activity, compromise is unnecessary. The attention economy of social media and message boards rewards extreme, uncompromising statements with likes and shares, and eliminationist statements proliferate. Of course, most people taking to Twitter to yell about offing the pigs or rounding up all the immigrants will never act on their statements, but alienated, angry men who are already sliding towards violence are clearly influenced — self-radicalized, in the parlance of security policymakers — by this climate.
More and more people have basically no economic prospects, are locked out of labor markets or trapped in dead end jobs, hopeless, and alone. Traditionally, insurgent social movements have recruited a base of supporters by absorbing existing social networks that become politicized through an encounter with struggle. With old forms of social solidarity and organization crumbling, social movements are trapped in a holding pattern where they are unable to deliver meaningful benefits to their constituents. Thousands, even millions, pour into the streets to express their rage against police violence, austerity, and corruption, but as of yet these mobilizations have proven unable to coordinate the kind of mass non-compliance with the ruling order that are necessary to win concessions or cohere into stable organizations that can form effective parallel institutions to the state and capital.
People have every reason to be resentful, unfortunately they are less and less likely to have a productive channel to express or resolve their grievances. And so a small minority pick up a gun or a bomb or a knife.
A stillborn intifada
The lone wolf, then, is a byproduct of a process of social disintegration that is tightly connected to the present decadent phase of capitalism. But this tells us little about the consequences of this kind of activity. If the lone wolf has adapted to the contemporary social formation, could he teach us valuable lessons about contemporary struggle? An examination of the history of political violence suggests that the lessons are almost entirely negative.
In December of 1987 the villages and refugee camps of the occupied Palestinian territories exploded into an immense popular rebellion. The First Intifada was an unprecedented event: historically, the Palestinian national movement had been dominated by guerilla operations with a command structure based abroad. But now tens of thousands of ordinary people were protesting, rioting, striking, blockading roads, and driving the occupying soldiers and police out of their neighborhoods. The traditional national liberation parties were taken by surprise, and the practical work of the uprising was largely organized by a network of local community councils. Women and young people frequently took the lead despite the frequently patriarchal and gerontocratic bent of Palestinian civil society.
The First Intifada was, and remains to this day, the most credible threat ever mounted to the occupation. But like so many movements, it was contained and defeated not by its adversaries alone, but also by its leaders. In the wake of the uprising, the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords, which granted the Palestinians some measure of self-governance. The national liberation parties did what national liberation parties sometimes do, and set about reconstituting the colonial order with more lucrative administrative positions for themselves.
By the year 2000, Palestine was ready to rebel again in response to continued misery and Israeli provocation. But the secular nationalist and revolutionary universalist leaders had discredited themselves through corruption, collaboration, and misrule. Right-wing fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad were increasingly seen as the most authentic insurgents. While the Second Intifada that was launched that year continued to include mass popular demonstrations and street confrontations, newer, bloodier methods became increasingly prominent, especially suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. This second uprising was a failure by any standard: mass casualties in Israel meant that there was little opposition to a brutal crackdown and to the construction of the “security barrier” that has rendered Palestinian-controlled territory an open-air prison. With independent popular organizations drastically weakened and the civilian population exhausted by bloody waves of tit-for-tat reprisals, the old nationalist leadership were able to raise the banner of law and order to seize control of the administrative apparatus of the Palestinian Authority through force, fraud, and grudging consent. The Palestinian National Authority was effectively reduced a security subcontractor for the IDF.
The long-term siege of Gaza, the walling-off of the West Bank, and the PLO-Israeli security cooperation have deprived militants of the materials and breathing room to launch organized operations. Over the last year, a wave of hundreds of lone wolf attacks by individual Palestinians, mostly stabbings or car rammings, have been dubbed a “knife intifada,” or more poignantly, an “intifada of individuals.” These attackers have killed and wounded a few random Israelis and mostly succeeded in getting themselves killed. These stabbings are obviously ineffectual, and support for them among Palestinians is declining rapidly.
Most Palestinians tell pollsters that they still support a renewed uprising, but it is not clear that there is any obvious steps forward besides despair. Recently, Israeli soldiers have been surprised to see protests against settlements and home demolitions losing momentum, even as acts by individual militants become more violent. Teachers strive to help young people who live under the gun of the occupation “cope” through “venting sessions” and encourage them to focus on their studies. Even radical leaders express fear that their children will throw their lives away in futile gestures of rebellion.
The “knife intifada” seems to be an expression of weakness and defeat, and it is not unreasonable for many to turn their backs and seek to carve out a meager individual existence, given how the odds are stacked. The turn to lone wolf attacks was not a strategic choice, it was a reaction to a desperate, worsening situation, and the decay of other channels for resistance. Like most social movements in history, the Palestinian movement was never nonviolent: while the First Intifada tried to avoid lethal violence against civilians, militants did not hesitate to resist military and police forces by any means necessary. But the violence of the late 80s had a distinctly different flavor from the lone wolf attacks of recent years.
To understand when and how political violence succeeds, we need to understand it on its own terms. Political violence has essentially political goals, not military ones. A great deal of political violence is simply represents a particular moment in forms of mass civilian mobilization. Strikers and occupiers fight police to defend their ability to close down productive infrastructure or take over public space. Protesters may rationally turn to riots and acts of property destruction to extract an economic toll on a society that ignores or excludes them. Activists may arm themselves to defend peaceful protesters or to ensure they are able to carry out direct actions without police interference.
Even guerilla organizations, when they are successful, understand their inability to overcome the state through force majeure and typically act in concert with popular mobilization. Umkhonto we sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress carried out highly symbolic, frequently bloodless attacks against the Apartheid state and South African infrastructure as a self-conscious form of “armed propaganda.” Guerillas recognized that they could not prevail in an armed confrontation with the state but held that “the armed struggle did have some effect in showing that people could resist oppression. It boosted morale. People have felt that the ANC has fought for them.” In an era when civilian mobilization was brutally suppressed, occasional symbolic acts of violence were a reminder of the persistence of resistance. Meanwhile, clandestine armed organization also served as a vital transmission belt among aboveground community organizations that formed the base of the anti-apartheid movement.
When armed activity does not protect, inspire, or help to organize mass civilian mobilization, it is not serving any radical cause. Lone wolf attacks make vastly more sense for reactionary groups, since they hope to intensify intercommunal suspicion and social polarization. Traditional neo-nazi lone wolves hope to encourage escalating tit-for-tat outbreaks of violence that will spiral into a holy war. The Islamic State hopes that attacks in the West will intensify Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, even inspire new invasions of Muslim countries, leading to more alienation and immiseration among Muslim communities, and hopefully producing more potential recruits. Of course the left also seeks to polarize society, but along entirely different axes. Any left project depends on overcoming competitive instincts and jealous hoarding of privilege naturalized by class society with solidarity and trust. Sporadic indiscriminate violence does not help in any way.
Of course, debating the strategic usefulness of lone wolf attacks is beside the point, since the attacks occur without any coherent social agent deciding to launch them. The phenomenon is an expression of the decomposition of mechanisms that pull people together to make strategic decisions to guide collective action in the first place. As such, there is no simplistic “what is to be done,” to answer the challenge posed by the lone wolf. Of course, it is like that revived oppositional civil society would help, as it would give individuals more productive channels to express their grievances and exercise control over their everyday lives. But of course, this would be a desirable development even without the lone wolf threat. More than anything else, the current epidemic of killings illuminates the consequences of the degradation of social ties by our degenerate form of capitalism and the horrors likely to emerge if we cannot find a way to organize our society in a rational, humane fashion.