The Onion-ring Theory of Subversion

According to this countersubversive theory:

  • Subversive cadre bore into the core of all social change movements both at home and abroad.
  • To uncover the cadre who are engaged in subversive criminal activity, an informant must work step-by-step from the outside onion ring of non-criminal free-speech activity through several rings of hierarchy toward the center core where the criminal activity lurks.
  • Honest though naive activists are often unaware they are being manipulated, and therefore should welcome attempts to expose the core of crafty covert criminal cadre.

The Onion Ring theory is less extreme than the Slippery Slope theory in its concession that some members of radical and liberal political movements are sincere, and not sliding towards totalitarianism. Nonetheless, its advocates also justify surveillance and infiltration to stop the criminal activity at the core of groups exercising their free speech rights.

In fact, in order to insure that at least some agents or informants succeed in penetrating to the criminality at the core, an extraordinary level of invasion becomes not only legitimate, but essential. Onion-ringers advocate infiltrating every group, spying on every member, and keeping track of all persons even tangentially involved in all social change movements. Alas, for the domestic political activist, the end result of both the Slippery Slope and Onion Ring theories is the same: political surveillance and infiltration.

During the Cold War, activism by any left group was attributed generally to an alleged global communist conspiracy. Meanwhile rightwing groups were largely excluded from serious scrutiny because they were not perceived to be part of a subversive global revolutionary movement. Acts of right wing violence were consistently treated as isolated occurrences rather than part of a larger pattern. Far right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were seldom targets of widespread surveillance for political repression-even when violent-but were monitored "primarily for crime prevention purposes," according to Donner.17 In some cases state tolerance of right wing violence spilled over to active support. This double standard objectively made "a special contribution to conservative politics," said Donner, since social change movements of the left could be smeared as agents and fellow travelers of the violent revolutionary global red menace, while activists of the right could escape blame for the criminal excesses of a few reactionary and fascist zealots.

Since evidence of actual wrongdoing is scarce, Donner suggested the intelligence community anticipated threats by relying on "ideology, not behavior, theory not practice. During the Cold War, "The Bureau's primary intelligence targets [were] various Marxist persuasions and their adherents." Now, although the targets are more varied, "the basis for this priority" remains the same. "The selection of targets for surveillance, operations such as informer infiltration and wiretapping, and file storage practices reflect what may be called the politics of deferred reckoning, the need to know all about the enemy in preparation for a life or death showdown" with anti-government forces. "Domestic countersubversive intelligence is," Donner continues, "in theory, future-oriented: `Subversive' activities are, in the language of the FBI, those `aimed at' a future overthrow, destruction, or undermining of the government, regardless of how legitimate these activities might currently be or how tenuous the link between present intentions and ultimate action."18 As targets shifted, the institutionalized procedures remained remarkably constant, merely made more efficient with the advent and advances of computer technology. Most far right activists during this period did not represent a challenge to entrenched systems of power, but in fact defended those systems. This dynamic shifted in the 1990s after the collapse of Soviet communism as large sectors of the conspiracist right targeted alleged subversive traitors in the government and their allies in the UN as the new enemy, helping to justify a new wave of state repression in the form of "anti-terrorist" legislation.

In fact, a transition was taking place. The basic themes of countersubversion theory were developed to fight the red menace, but it was increasingly difficult to argue that a subversive leftist network was undermining the country. Far right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the vigilante Posse Comitatus now openly targeted the government as the enemy. As the Cold War evolved, so did the language used to describe the threat, In the genesis of witch hunts, subversive begat extremist, which begat terrorist. Donner noted the addition of the term "extremist" to the countersubversive arsenal of demonizing language, and he discussed how the Reagan Administration and the New Right used the term terrorist to marginalize dissident groups and justify targeting them.19 While some in the intelligence and law enforcement community clung to the countersubversive model, others adopted a more sophisticated justification, the centrist/extremist model.20

Theory Two: Centrist/Extremist Theory

Many discussions of right-wing and left-wing popular movements routinely portray such movements as bizarre fringe phenomena fundamentally at odds with the political "mainstream." Generally the premise is that the US political system has an essence of democracy and freedom, but that this essence is threatened by "extremists" of one variety or another.

Centrist/extremist theory was formulated in the 1950s by liberal and moderate intellectuals such as Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter, Nathan Glazer, David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Earl Raab, Peter Viereck, and Alan Westin. They were members of the circle that would later evolve into the neoconservative intellectual movement. Many of them were former Marxists who had rejected the Popular Front and embraced a militant Cold War anticommunism, yet they defended the New Deal and criticized the "excesses" of Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting. In books such as Bell's anthology The New American Right (1955) and its expanded edition The Radical Right (1963) they glorified the political center against "extremists" at both ends of the spectrum.

Centrist/Extremist theory, especially as outlined by Lipset, Raab, Viereck, and Bell, sees dissident movements of the left and right as composed of outsiders-politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Social and economic stress snaps these psychologically fragile people into a mode of political hysteria, and as they embrace an increasingly paranoid style they make militant and unreasonable demands. Because they are unstable they can become dangerous and violent. Their extremism places them far outside the legitimate political process, which is located in the center where pluralists conduct democratic debates. The solution prescribed by centrist/extremist theory is to marginalize the dissidents as radicals and dangerous extremists. Their demands need not be taken seriously. Law enforcement can then be relied upon to break up any criminal conspiracies by subversive radicals that threaten the social order.

Centrist/extremist theorists portrayed the political mainstream as an "open democratic market place"21 where a rich array of interest groups competed freely and fairly, and where "the sources of power" were "difficult to locate."22 The center was a realm of political civility, pragmatism, rationality, and tolerance. The extremes were the opposite of all this: absolutist, moralistic, unrestrained, irrational, and paranoid. "[T]he extreme right," wrote Hofstadter, "stands psychologically outside the frame of normal democratic politics, which is largely an affair of compromise."23 The difference could be expressed as one between "interest politics, the clash of material aims and needs among various groups and blocs; and status politics, the clash of various projective rationalizations arising from status aspirations and other personal motives."24

From this perspective, differences between the "radical right" and the "radical left" blurred or disappeared altogether. To Bell, far right conspiracy thinking was "cut from the same cloth as vulgar Bolshevik explanation..."25 To Alan Westin, the politics of the John Birch Society were "remarkably similar" to those of the Popular Front in 1945-48.26 To Peter Viereck, a centrist conservative, McCarthyism was "actually a leftist instinct behind a self-deceptive rightist veneer."27 A central tenet in the school's conception of McCarthyism, in fact, was that its roots were not really (or not primarily) conservative, but lay rather in the agrarian radicalism of the 19th-century Populists.

Supposedly the Populists and McCarthy represented the same rural and small-town resentments, centered in the Midwest, against the urbane, intellectual and cosmopolitan East-a crude and dangerous egalitarianism steeped in old-time religion and isolationism. In The Age of Reform (1955), Hofstadter depicted Populism as a backward-looking movement obsessed with banker conspiracies-the fount of 20th-century antisemitism in the United States;28 McCarthyism, centrist/extremist theorists argued, turned this same conspiracy thinking against "alien" ideas instead of "alien" people. In McCarthyism, they argued, "the status-insecure old-family American middle class" was joined by "status-striving minority ethnics" (especially Catholics) anxious to prove their loyalty to the United States.29

Popular movements in general were seen as a threat to freedom because the lower orders lacked the civility and "democratic restraint" of the elites.30 Riesman and Glazer asserted that " civil liberties are protected, not by majority vote (which is overwhelmingly unsympathetic), but by traditional institutions, class prerogatives, and judicial life-tenure."31 Viereck saw liberty being defended by "tiny, heroic natural-aristocracies and by the majesty-beyond mob majorities-of moral law."32

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