A Great Fear

In the latter weeks of July 1789, the rural countryside of the (then) kingdom of France descended into barely controlled anarchy. The government’s authority evaporated, and peasants resorted to paranoid vigilante justice. Historians now refer to the period ominously as “The Great Fear.” 

Upon learning that his kingdom was hopelessly broke, King Louis the 16th had been forced to call The Estates General earlier that year. (The three estates were: the church, the nobility and the commoners, in that order.) In April 1789, municipalities across France got together, drew up lists of local grievances and complaints, elected their delegates (mostly bishops and priests for the first estate; noble landowners for the second; and prominent businessmen and lawyers for the third) and sent them to convene at Versailles. Here, the royal ministry expected them to ratify a bunch of new taxes and fiscal policies that would hopefully put the kingdom on a more sound financial footing — and then go home. 

Unfortunately for the royal ministry, the Estates General did pretty much everything except address the fiscal crisis. Instead, they got into a long and protracted political fight over who would wield power within this body, with the delegates of the third estate (the commoners) arguing that representation should be based on the populations they represented — which would give them an overwhelming advantage. The nobility’s second estate, for example, apparently made up less than two percent of France’s population, but under the old rules they still wielded enormous power. 

The Estates General was busy too busy swearing oaths on tennis courts to address their constituents’ complaints in the summer of 1789.

Meanwhile, out in the countryside, France’s poor masses were enduring a particularly harsh summer. The harvests were terrible, food was expensive and everyone had pretty much had enough. After watching their local delegate carry their complaints away to Versailles for the Estates General nothing happened for months. And months. As delegates continued their esoteric discussions and pamphleteering, the peasants back home started to get hungry. 

Pretty much all my knowledge of this period comes from Mike Duncan’s magnificent “Revolutions” podcast — specifically Episode 3.12 — and I’m just going to go ahead and quote him on what happened next:

“…when Paris went into revolt [and stormed the Bastille], everything kinda went a little crazy, and a sudden panic swept across the countryside that has since been dubbed ‘The Great Fear.’ 

“It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where and how the Great Fear started, but the basic ingredients were this: You had hungry people with no food and unemployed people with no work taking to the road to look for food. You had already-organized migrant beggars getting a little too pushy about their begging, the widespread belief that the aristocracy had been purposely hoarding grain to drive up prices and the further widespread belief that the upper echelons of the royal family were in cahoots with foreign powers, be they the British or the Austrians, to crush the people beneath the boot heel of a re-ascendent and tyrannical nobility. 

“So after the fall of the Bastille, rumours started swirling that reactionary members of the aristocracy — working on their own or with the help of foreign agents — were hiring groups of brigands to fan out across the countryside to terrorize the people of France back into their previous state of oppressed submission. With so many poor migrants clogging up the roads from everywhere to everywhere else, it became easy to believe that there was something deeply menacing going on. 

Local peasants started gathering together to form protective patrols who would arm themselves with whatever was lying around and then go out themselves to look for these villainous brigands, who were supposed to be just over the next hill. But, of course, when these protective patrols were spotted by the next town over, they were often mistaken for those alleged brigands. Panic swept across rural France in a matter of days.”

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I started thinking about The Great Fear the other day after I happened upon a Twitter thread by a man who calls himself “AntifaCowRustlr.” Politically, AntifaCowRustlr is a pretty extreme guy. He describes himself as a “rural communist” and “Subcommandante of Antifa Rural Bussing Ops 6th Division” — which seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, but never can be 100 percent sure about such internet resumes. He claims to live in a rural community somewhere in the western United States, probably in rural Oregon, Washington or California.

In the thread, which he has since taken down and replaced with this blog post, he described scrolling through a Facebook group comprised of people living in his local area, and watching several individuals attempting to organize armed posses to man checkpoints guarding the roads in and out of town. 

You see, huge chunks of Northern California, Oregon and Washington state are currently on fire. Huge wildfires are lapping the outer edges of San Francisco, Los Angeles and even traditionally mild and moist Portland and Seattle, and totally destroying entire towns. Here in Seattle, the air has been hazardously smoky for almost a week. Simply put, the North American Pacific Coast is experiencing similar conditions to those endured by east coast Australians in late 2019 and early 2020. 

And just as public discourse surrounding those fires degenerated into general political mudslinging about their causes (lightning versus arsonists, climate change versus forestry management), so too in the United States. From the final analysis in a recently published inquiry by the New South Wales government, it’s fair to say that both climate change and poor forestry management bear some blame. But politicians, shock jocks and opinion writers also spent much of that awful summer spinning dark tales of an “arson epidemic” as the main cause of the fires, a theory that has been thoroughly debunked by the inquiry:

Video will start at the relevant segment.

Here in the U.S., similar fears and anger over arson are currently running rampant on social media. The alleged culprits? Antifa. 

Short for “antifascist,” antifa refers to an extremist-but-barely-organized leftwing political movement. It’s unclear whether you can really be a “member” of antifa, but people associated with the movement have committed sporadic acts of looting and vandalism during protests in reaction to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. They tend to prefer mob action-style democracy over patient debate and electoral campaigning. Also: they tend to dress in black, pick fights with their right-wing political opponents and look kinda scary. Rumours of “antifa arsonists” have been getting so widespread that they’ve started burbling into the handful of right-wing corners of Facebook that I keep tabs on. When you factor in the Trump 2020 reelection campaign’s ads claiming the “antifa mobs” are somehow controlled by Joe Biden, you can see how rural Americans might believe that the fires — which just destroyed their communities — are simply part of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

But according to the authorities who investigate this sort of thing, the rumours are total fiction. No less an organization than the FBI has debunked the idea of antifa arsonists. 

“FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon,” Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon said in a statement last week. “With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue. Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control.”

Which brings us back to AntifaCowRustlr, who watched groups of his neighbours readying themselves to enforce their own brand of vigilante justice on imaginary “antifa arsonists.” And unlike the French peasants of 1789, you can bet that many rural Washingtonians, Oregonians and Californians pack a lot more firepower than “whatever was lying around” a pre-industrial peasant’s shack. 

How, exactly, were they going to separate the arsonists from ordinary folk? Were they going to stop everyone they didn’t recognize? What would they do with a suspect? Had law enforcement asked for this kind of “assistance?” These were all questions that AntifaCowRustlr and some like-minded friends posed to the group. It’s important to note that to have any credibility with this group of neighbours, they had to disguise themselves as right-wingers — because that’s where American discourse is at nowadays.

In his words: “…if you have a leftist-presenting account, your opinion will be ridiculed and written off… You at least need that american flag in your banner image and no pro-BLM messaging on your account. It’s a sad reality, but if you want to be effective in this you need to be taken seriously, and that’s the way to do it in the present moment.

It’s worth reading the entire post for his explanation about how he says he successfully deescalated a potentially dangerous situation. He also offers an astute observation about how our conversations often work in private social media forums like Facebook groups:

All online forums trend towards being echo chambers, which are self-reinforcing entities. Convenient misinformation and violent calls to action fester in these spaces. When more moderate community members see 10 or 20 of their fellow citizens enthusiastically advocating for something which they think might be a bad idea, with no voices speaking up against it, they are unlikely to be the first to do so. Peer pressure is powerful. Even a couple one-sentence interjections can help other folks who have reservations overcome the hurdle of speaking up with a different opinion.

Once AntifaCowRustlr and his buddies intervened, other neighbours started voicing their own concerns. They’d broken the cycle of radicalisation that is a feature (not a bug) of social media platforms. 

Image via the Seattle Times.

So: is the United States in 2020 the same as France in 1789? That is: do armed rural Americans enforcing vigilante justice in a climate of great stress and paranoia signal the beginning of a great revolution, like they did in France?

It’s hard to say. Like the kingdom of France, the United States has some pretty serious ailments: corruption, runaway inequality, environmental collapse, the malignant tumour of institutional racism and the epidemics of opioid addiction, poverty and COVID-19. Just like Louis the 16th and his ministry, Trump and his administration are very obviously not up to the task. It’s unclear whether November’s elections will give someone else a chance. 

For his part, AntifaCowRustlr appears to already be preparing for the possible breakdown of political authority. He writes, “even if you believe a civil war is inevitable, you should always be working to lower the temperature and delay it for as long as possible.” 

Personally, I think (and hope) we’re unlikely to see anything more serious than the sporadic street violence we’ve already witnessed in places like Portland and Kenosha. Unlike the French army in 1789, the U.S. military remains a formidable force. Any widespread armed uprising would cause significant disruption for American businesses and corporations, who hold a lot of sway in the halls of power. And though I don’t get to interact with many of them beyond my social-distancing bubble nowadays, I remain convinced that the vast majority of people remain kind, loving, decent creatures at heart.

The fires currently ravaging the western United States are intensely traumatising for western rural communities. Hell, they’re traumatising for me and my fellow city slickers — and we’re just stuck inside because of all the smoke. Add in a healthy dose of paranoia, the warped reality of social media echo chambers and a few assault rifles from Dick’s Sporting Goods and you’re getting close to armed vigilantes enforcing their own arbitrary justice. And next time, I’m not sure we can rely on the likes of AntifaCowRustlr to covertly de-escalate things before they get out of hand.

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