The Tyrant Virus: Reconceiving the Right to Assembly

Woody Woodruff
Editor and Contributor


“Democracy is in the Streets,” as the title of Jim Miller’s classic book declared about the organizing strategies that slowed and then stopped the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Miller and his SDS comrade Todd Gitlin (“The Whole World is Watching”) memorialized the ’60s era and updated for the e-media age a modality of political action outside official power structures that has repeatedly brought working people and their allies a share of power since the Peasant Revolt of Thomas Munzer in the early 16th century German proto-states – historicized by none other than Karl Kautsky.

From Peterloo to Occupy Wall Street, activism in the streets has continued to be the radical playbook in subsequent primers like Hegemony How-To, evolved from the Occupy Movement. A criterion for a well-done demo was the size of the crowd.

Among the many very new things about this parlous time of COVID-19 is what the highly articulated dance of social distancing does to the street-action paradigm. The First Amendment’s “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” gets inverted by self-preservation into voluntary, unilateral disarmament. The scientific evidence is unassailable: for the near future, mass street action of the traditional sort is not in the cards; even less are mass meetings of even modest, working-group size.

The Constitution guarantees the right of assembly – including the right to fill the streets with protest, as in the storied days of the Vietnam Mobe or the more recent People’s Climate March. But not only were those already losing their attraction in the pre- COVID-19 social media era, they are now precluded, perhaps more than just short-term, for reasons of survival.

The discussion on “how do we organize in this period of self-isolation” is on, and it is difficult. Mass protest has always been numbered high among the “weapons of the weak,” and though the Democratic Socialists of America has not always been a leading street organization, it has gained in that regard in tandem with its staggering growth since 2016.

In some respects the tyrant virus is having a familiar effect, though one mostly seen outside the US up until this episode. Autocrats and worse have suppressed popular activism by large groups throughout history, and would-be tyrants of our time are seizing on the coronavirus pandemic to excuse similar repression, as the WaPo’s Ishaan Tharoor outlined in recent days, frontlining Binyamin Netanyahu’s latest moves aimed at protecting himself against prosecution by setting aside democratic process.

But Donatella Della Porta in OpenDemocracy argues that deep, life-inverting crises like this one can also naturally bring out visionary thinking among ordinary people and set the stage for social movements: “… crises show the value of fundamental public goods and their complex management through institutional networks but also through the participation of the citizens, the workers, the users. They demonstrate that the management of the commons needs regulation and participation from below.”

Folk imperatives of crowd management in plague time are nothing new. Thomas Cromwell, in Hilary Mantel’s final volume on Henry VIII’s chief fixer, strategizes about organizing a coronation ceremony in 1536 for Henry’s most recent queen, Jane Seymour. “The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces,” Cromwell muses.

Despite the uncanny echo from the 16th century, the state is inarguably (as The Economist says) much more advanced today in coping with these catastrophic events. At least in theory. Two factors temper that. Mobility and connectivity among and between globalized nation-states has quietly metastatized in recent decades in parallel with the growing dominance of cross-border flows of many denominations in the world economy. As Paul Street notes in Counterpunch, “capitalism has a knack of both stirring [recurring epidemics] up and of spreading them beyond their origin sites and around the world in accord with what Marx and Engels rightly identified as its relentless tendency towards globalization.” And second, capitalism must permit the state to assemble resources in reserve to manage the inevitable crises, including pandemics. Instead, late-stage financialist capitalism in the 21st century manifestly has failed to relax its profits-first grip on the means of social provision, particularly in the US. The resources to resist this viral blitzkrieg have been steadily low-balled. (See Andy Feeney’s article, this issue.)

The result is the collapse of the mobility economy in an enforced cultural inversion called self-quarantine by “social distancing.” In an economy where core exchange relations were still largely grounded in mobility – go to the teeming workplace, go to the teeming grocery store, ad infinitum– All is upended.

If the near-lockdown across most of the populated states in the US continues to tighten, the state may intervene to free up a clogged supply chain – but only if pressured. Among the last bricks-and-mortar commercial sectors not upended by e-commerce, the shelf-borne essentials in grocery and drug stores stand out – and they are also lingering landscapes for consumer-borne contagion, ensuring that the most essential everyday goods are also the source of the greatest and most persistent anxiety as the mobility economy sputters. Reducing consumer exposure in those venues – a struggle so far for the individual chain enterprises – is ripe for community organizing and presents a singular self-interest component to spur the collective.

The Economist also suggested the stark echo chamber of the human-evacuated economic landscape “may force firms to embrace new technologies in order to operate while warehouses and offices are empty, with lasting effects on growth and productivity.” And the connective tissue of economic and social globalization that spread the virus so very, very quickly may also be vulnerable to breakdown because of this close complicity, “one of several consequences of globalization that eventually precipitates a new era in global trade.” (March 14, 62)

The consequence for cultural and political activity is high-risk, high gain. Opportunities abound for both capitalist “shock doctrine” exploitation and for sure-footed left activism. But where are the tools of that activism in the time of social distancing and self-quarantine?

Without street action for impact, what are the paths to gaining power in the midst of real chaos? The re-energized social movements that could emerge have the power of numbers even when socially distanced and deracinated as workers. As capitalist exchange practices grind to a halt, the key is what can be withheld. Metaphorically “The way social distancing works requires faith: we must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love. We face such a strange task, here, to come together in spirit and keep a distance in body at the same time,” argues a post on Mirabilary.

In fact, the “weapons of the weak” in pre-industrial times often amounted to using carnival or festival days – the religio-social calendar was replete with them – as a cover for withholding work or feudal obligations. Unwilling to interfere with ostensibly sacred observations, the feudal overlords often gave in to implicit demands.

MDC DSA has begun to revamp its campaigns to focus on how the sudden lack of work can be mobilized in mutual aid, housing activism and altered electoral approaches. Discussion at the most recent General Body Meeting – conducted virtually – resulted in a standing database of mutual aid networks, resources and practices in the DMV. Housing activists see an exponential growth in organized rent strikes where pressure on abusive landlords has already resulted in momentum pre-COVID-19.

Paul Engler writes in Waging Nonviolence that as dangerous as periods like this can be for democratic social and political rights, it also offers opportunities grounded in the generative character of spontaneous, local mutual aid formations. “Beyond mutual aid, a common story, strategy and structure can allow a mass movement to legitimate political demands that might otherwise be deemed impractical or undesirable, and to compel public officials to adopt them (emphasis added). The function of mass movements is not to hash out the instrumental details of proposals currently being debated in the U.S. Congress or at more local levels of government,” Engler argues. “Rather, it is to build momentum for popular, symbolically-resonant demands that would form the backbone of a progressive national response — ideas like emergency universal basic income, free testing and treatment for all, and suspension of rent and mortgage payments for those unable to pay during the crisis.”

Engler proposes that the highly articulated and built-out Bernie Sanders campaign has the scale to forge spontaneous mutual aid activities into that nationwide framework that can effectively coerce the state to get in harness with it. “If Sanders decided to transform his campaign from a political, presidential electoral campaign into a mass movement against the pandemic and its impacts, a drive with massive infrastructure would emerge overnight.” It goes without saying (and Engler doesn’t) that such a strategic pivot would in no way weaken the political quality of the campaign.

There’s a good argument that our task depends even more than before on a solid and sustained information campaign to link the single-issue social movements and mutual-aid networks in a well-framed socialist constellation of activism. It’s a fact of this moment that the physical workplace is no longer a locus for organizing. Given the decades-long poverty of efforts to organize radical action even as the physical workplace has become more distributed and virtual, perhaps this will be the tipping point for big changes in organizing styles going forward.

The local Metro DC chapter has converted both campaign and working group meetings and its outward-facing informational events like the Socialist Night School into virtual formats, ensuring that more members – and more interested members of the public – can engage during the period of social distance and signal-boost the socialist message and analysis. When we eventually have the opportunity to return to face-to-face engagements and activities, will we see them differently?

Absent the workplace, ordinary folks feel pressure to relapse to individuality if the socialist components of ordinary life cannot be preserved, put in their control, and promoted as the socialism we workers have always leaned toward. A socialist information campaign should identify the existing socialist elements of life usually provided by the state, highlight the visible threats to them, and provide a vision of more, in a coherent analysis that meshes apparently unrelated social variables for positive outcomes. Donatella Della Porta in OpenDemocracy observes “Constructing alternative public spheres, social movement organizations help us to imagine future scenarios.” All our work, as socialists, needs that critical component. Mobilizing the social movements further, online petitions targeting powerful individuals continue to be of significant use when deployed across social media platforms.

Della Porta continues “…social movements create and recreate ties: they build upon existing networks but also, in action, they connect and multiply them. Faced by the manifest inadequacies of the state and, even more, of the market, social movement organizations form – as is happening in every country hit by the pandemic – into mutual support groups, promoting direct social action by helping those most in need. So, they produce resilience by responding to the need for solidarity.”

Mutual aid, helping individuals while building networks, usefully looks both ways on the organizing continuum. As Charlie Warzel suggests, “There’s also a selfish component to joining a mutual-aid network: In a moment of deep uncertainty and anxiety, helping those in need is one of the few pure pleasures one can still partake in while social distancing.”

To what extent will the next future be a gradual reconstruction (though inevitably weakened) of the capitalist material structures of the past, and how much a palimpsest, erased and rewritten in a different idiom? How will our styles of organizing meet that challenge? MDC DSA is exploring this new terrain and is ready to engage existing and new members. As socialists we are (or hope we are) uniquely positioned to make our world new.


As is always true of articles in the Washington Socialist, opinions here are of the author only and do not represent official stances of Metro DC DSA.

See other articles in the April 2020 Edition