Mayday, Mayday, May Day!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! With anarchists scheming and protestors screaming, our May Day is here!

May Day is supposed to be a relic of late 19th and early 20th century labor strife, right? A quaint figment of socialism and labor activism in this country, before it was vanquished by the expansion of the middle classes, multiple Red Scares, and the advent of the open shop and right-to-work laws. Or, more recently, an excuse for the Warsaw Pact to polish its warheads for a nice little missile parade.

But that’s still ancient history. Not only did the Reds lose, the Weather Underground blew itself up. The Students for a Democratic Society took the blue pill and woke up as middle management. Most of us born in the 1980s and 1990s are still stuck in our parents’ basements. We’re printing resumes, not leaflets or samizdat.

Well, not all of us. The FBI just nailed three “self-proclaimed anarchists” (and two fellow travelers) for trying to blow up a bridge near Cleveland with fake explosives, helpfully supplied by that same agency. The supposed ringleader, Douglas Wright, is 26. Three of his buddies are in their early 20s, and the fourth guy is 35. Prior to the bridge attempt, the quintet allegedly discussed blowing up Cleveland bank signs, or perhaps attacking a Chicago NATO meeting, or even assaulting the Republican National Convention this summer. The basic idea was to strike a blow against the 1%. See, Dad, our generation has plenty of ambition.

May Day Martyrs

I’m generally pretty skeptical when the FBI stuffs an aspirational plot like this one (or this one, or this one over here) and claims that it’s saved the U.S. from unthinkable devastation. Certainly some fraction of the terrorist plots disrupted by the FBI are real threats, because they are planned by real terrorists with real resources. But some of these other guys (like the Cleveland Five) clearly wouldn’t have gotten past the “big talk” phase without FBI agents and informers making it very, very easy for them.

To me, the case is more interesting as an example of the American Left’s potential for remilitarization. The Occupy movement was born camped out near Wall Street and firmly committed to non-violent resistance. That group’s success has inspired similar protest communities throughout the U.S. and beyond. It hasn’t inspired the formation of a hierarchical organization. In fact, many of the Occupy movements have explicitly rejected that step towards institutionalization as being essentially corporate and anti-Democratic.

I wonder how long this novel style of organization will last. Mancur Olson once argued that consensus-based methods of decision making almost never survive in groups larger than a handful of members. So what? For one thing, the Left’s violent fringe may currently be disguised by the non-violent majority. For another, to the extent that Occupy remains decentralized, it may also prove ineffective, prompting more enthusiastic members to doubt the efficacy of its tactics.

This incident also brings to mind David Rapoport’s Four Waves of Modern Terrorism, which started with the “Anarchist wave” and ran through the “anticolonial wave,” the “New Left” wave, and finally the “religious wave,” which we are currently grappling with. Rapoport makes the point that a wave is much more than any single organization, although it may be represented by one in the popular consciousness (such as Al Qaeda and the religious wave). Waves last for multiple decades and are characterized by unique motivating factors, tactics, and technologies.

What might a “Fifth wave” look like? If we follow Rapoport’s schema, we’re about 10 to 15 years early–the era of religious terrorism is still in full swing. Perhaps our timetable has been bumped up a bit by the global economic crisis, as well as the crisis of economic expectations right here at home.

An Internet-enabled, decentralized, but still essentially hierarchical Al Qaeda is representative of the late Fourth wave. Maybe the Fifth wave will be spearheaded by recombinant masses of smartphone-wielding teens. Or tiny “working groups” of very smart individuals who are very good with computers. Or very smart individuals who turn themselves into one-man extermination squads.

Today’s capture of the Cleveland Five mostly troubles me because it suggests that the motive and the frustration are there.