Bernard E. Harcourt | How Our Government Became Maoist: The Paradoxical Legacy of May ‘68

By Bernard E. Harcourt

As we celebrate the gold anniversary of May ’68, there is one lasting legacy, and it may well come as a surprise: Our government has become Maoist. Since 9/11, and even more since Donald Trump’s election, our government has fully embraced a Maoist vision of society and deployed Maoist insurgent practices. We’re now Maoist, surprisingly, through our counterinsurgency mode of governing ourselves and others.

Since the War on Terror, but especially since President Trump’s inauguration, our government has come to see its own citizens of color—Muslims, Mexican-Americans and Latino, Native Americans, African-Americans—as dangerous insurgents who need to be designated and identified, isolated, and excluded. Our government has turned them into internal enemies, and come to see the rest of the population as docile masses that need to be pacified and distracted.

In effect, our government has adopted Mao’s way of imagining society as composed of a small active insurgency, a counterinsurgent minority, and a mass of passive citizens who can be swayed one way or the other. And on the basis of that Maoist vision of society, it has begun to govern domestically, on American soil, deploying Mao’s brilliant warfare tactics: gather all the available intelligence, to weed out the dangerous insurgents, and seduce the passive masses.  Mao’s three-prong military strategy, which first mesmerized French colonial commanders like Roger Trinquier and David Gallula, has now come home to roost.

May ’68 was fueled in large part by the circulation of Maoist ideas within the Western Left. In the United States, it was fueled largely by opposition to our counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam. Paradoxically, though, May ’68 will be remembered not for its radical politics or liberation and anti-war movements, but for paving the way to the counterinsurgency model of governing that dominates American politics today, even in the absence of a real insurgency. It will be remembered for The Counterrevolution—our new way of governing ourselves and others.

Counterinsurgency Warfare at Standing Rock

 “Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.”

— TigerSwan private security at Standing Rock, Report dated March 24, 2017

A perfect illustration is the militarized counterinsurgency assault on Native American protesters trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline—a topic left on the cutting block of our last seminar, Uprising 12/13, on Standing Rock.

Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 energy company responsible for developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, hired a private security firm, TigerSwan, to surveil, monitor, and undermine the #NoDAPL protest movement. A close examination of TigerSwan’s practices reveal that they were grounded on counterinsurgency theory. This is clear from the over one hundred internal TigerSwan communications that were leaked to The Intercept, as well as over one thousand documents obtained by The Intercept under freedom-of-information requests.[1]

In its internal communications, TigerSwan described the Standing Rock protest as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” and drew parallels between the water carriers and jihadist terrorists.

The internal documents reveal extensive aerial surveillance, radio eavesdropping, and covert infiltration of the camps and activist movements. TigerSwan collected information from social media that it then analyzed in what it called “Situation Reports,” an illustration of which is here. There were “Daily Intelligence Updates,” see here. They drew up “persons of interest” lists, collected photographs of protesters, and recorded license plate numbers.

In the tradition of unconventional warfare, TigerSwan also created and disseminated on social media information critical of the Standing Rock protests. It also tried to encourage internal divisions within and among protest movements and activists. An October 3 report describes how TigerSwan used its intelligence in order to promote “Exploitation of ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts between peaceful and violent elements,” noting that this was “critical in our effort to delegitimize the anti-DAPL movement.”

The TigerSwan documents treated protesters as “terrorists,” discussed their direct actions as “attacks,” and described the protest camps as a “battlefield.” The Intercept continues:

In one internal report dated May 4, a TigerSwan operative describes an effort to amass digital and ground intelligence that would allow the company to “find, fix, and eliminate” threats to the pipeline — an eerie echo of “find, fix, finish,” a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets.

TigerSwan also shared all their information with multiple law enforcement agencies at both the federal and state level, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, and state and local police.

According to The Intercept, one of the reports dated February 27, 2017, noted that the protest movements “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model.” TigerSwan anticipated that “the individuals who fought for and supported it [would] follow a post-insurgency model after its collapse.’” The private security company drew other parallels to post-Soviet Afghanistan, The Intercept reports, warning that “While we can expect to see the continued spread of the anti-DAPL diaspora … aggressive intelligence preparation of the battlefield and active coordination between intelligence and security elements are now a proven method of defeating pipeline insurgencies.” AsThe Intercept added, “The leaked materials not only highlight TigerSwan’s militaristic approach to protecting its client’s interests but also the company’s profit-driven imperative to portray the nonviolent water protector movement as unpredictable and menacing enough to justify the continued need for extraordinary security measures.”

All this private security was on top of the militarized police response to the protests. Local, state, out-of-state, and federal law enforcement forces and National Guard troops deployed a heavily militarized police response—including military-grade equipment and weapons, such as LRAD sound devices, water cannons, rubber bullets, and bean bag pellets.[2]

The paramilitary attack on protesters at Standing Rock by militarized police deploying counterinsurgency tactics is a prime example of the domestication of Maoist practices. The timeline of events that The Intercept put together is a damning history of counterinsurgency being used against our own citizens: bringing home the mentality, techniques, and equipment from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan—even the men, women, and technologies from the counterinsurgency. The private security firm, TigerSwan, was originally a contractor to the U.S. military and State Department during the early phases of the global war on terror—basically, a competitor of Blackwater. Drawing on the same heritage as the RAND programs in Vietnam that Malcolm Gladwell revisits in his brilliant revisionist histories—listen here to his episode on Saigon 1965—these private contractors live and breath the dogmas of unconventional war, but now on American soil.

Mike Pompeo, Gina Haspel, and the Politics of Terror

President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA and Mike Pompeo to serve as Secretary of State has further escalated our government’s embrace of the counterinsurgency model. The appointments represent another dangerous step toward strategies of torture, terror, and exclusion, both abroad and at home. With Gina Haspel at Langley, Mike Pompeo at State, and Donald Trump in the White House, the counterinsurgency model of governing will have won a trifecta.

Gina Haspel oversaw some of the harshest forms of torture in the earliest days of the “enhanced interrogation” program. In charge of the first overseas secret detention site, what became known as a “black site,” Haspel supervised the interrogation among others of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who was subjected to waterboarding, as the Senate Torture Report documented in gruesome detail. For that, Haspel is now rewarded with oversight of our foreign intelligence operations, hand-in-hand with another counterinsurgency warrior, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

In foreign affairs more broadly, the prize will go to Mike Pompeo, who, for his part, continues to maintain that waterboarding is not torture—despite the fact that waterboarding was the classic form of torture during the Spanish Inquisition—and even told Congresshe was open to bringing back waterboarding. Pompeo has praised the men and women who engaged in torturous interrogations as patriots. For that, Pompeo gets to oversee foreign policy.

And then, of course, to fully domesticate the counterinsurgency model of governing, we have in the White House a Commander-in-Chief who signs executive orders to keep out Muslims, selects winning designs for a wall against our Southern neighbors, and distracts the passive masses—winning their “hearts and minds”—with reality-TV daily episodes of soap operatic “your fired” spectacles.

Since September 11, we had been headed in this direction: our government embraced and gradually domesticated a model of governing that operated through total information awareness, eradicating an internal enemy, and pacifying the masses—the three key prongs of unconventional warfare. These new appointments and policies, however, confirm the historical shift.

In a three-step movement of world historical proportion, our government has brought home the logic of warfare developed by colonial commanders in Algeria, Indochina, and Vietnam.

It started abroad, post 9/11, in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we redeployed the unconventional warfare strategies that the colonial powers had developed in Indochina and Algeria, in Malaya, and in Vietnam. We embraced precisely the forms of torture that French commanders like Roger Trinquier and Paul Aussaresse had refined on the FLN—waterboarding, stress positions, electricity—this time on Muslim suspects at American “black sites” and secret prisons abroad.

We then deployed those unconventional war logics more widely throughout our foreign policy, turning to drone strikes to summarily eliminate even our own citizens abroad, outside the war zone, and to total information awareness on all foreigners around the globe.

Then finally, in what can only be described as a tragedy of poetic justice, we brought it all home, hypermilitarizing our police and turning them into counterinsurgency tactical units equipped with night scopes and military-grade assault weapons, armored vehicles and grenade launchers, to face off with unarmed protesters in T-shirts. The NYPD began surveilling Muslims, infiltrating mosques and college student groups with no reasonable suspicion, collecting total information on every halal store in and around the city. The NSA turned on ordinary Americans, collecting all their telephony data and communications.

But the first steps down this path started abroad, as we became adept at waterboarding and torturing suspects, and at total NSA information awareness. And agents like Gina Haspel oversaw it—in her case, right where it began, in a far away secret prison in Thailand. Under her supervision, al Nashiri, a suspect in the USS Cole attack, was waterboarded at least three times. Haspel later was involved in the destruction of videotapes concerning al Nashiri’s torture. It had all been videotaped, but, purportedly acting on orders, Haspel directed the destruction of those tapes and they were ultimately destroyed.

Now, to be fair, we all bear some responsibility, insofar as we never really held anyone to account—especially not our leaders, the men and women in the White House and Pentagon who knowingly devised and approved techniques like waterboarding a suspect at least 183 times.

To the contrary, Donald J. Trump in fact campaigned and won the Electoral College promising to ramp up the barbarity and send Americans indefinitely to Guantanamo Bay. Trump gleefully embraced waterboarding and worse, even going so far as to propose torturing not just the suspects themselves, but their wives and children, their families. And a sufficient number of Americans voted for him that he is now President, and is now rewarding those who participated in the torture—handing them control of foreign intelligence and foreign affairs.

One result is that, today, it is almost as if we have become inured to the torture. Cruelty has become democratized. The red line of torture has faded, like a line drawn in the sand. The domestic consequences are corrosive and increasingly visible: as a result of years of counterinsurgency indoctrination since 9/11, torture has become normalized in this country. We now prize, rather than revile the brutal excesses of our counterinsurgency form of governing. We reward, rather than penalize, those who engage in them.

And unless and until we begin to see these patterns—unless we begin to understand this new counterrevolutionary form of governing—it will be practically impossible to properly resist it.

Surprisingly, Today’s Counterrevolution Differ Little from Other Forms of Uprising

Counterrevolutions have not always been modeled on counterinsurgency—although, as Peter Paret showed in his early historical analyses of the Vendée counterrevolution, those uprisings often bore a lot in common with unconventional warfare. But the argument here is not intended to be trans-historical.

The argument, instead, is that, today, in this country, the Counterrevolution is in fact modeled precisely on Maoist thought and practices from the 1960s. As a result, it bears many similarities to the modalities of revolt we studied earlier—especially Maoist insurrection. It is, in fact, its mirror image. And this is no coincidence. The French commanders who developed modern warfare did so first in response to the insurgencies in Indochina, and they did so by appropriating Maoist strategy and thought—as did American commanders struggling against the Vietcong in Vietnam. The texture of the Counterrevolution today is Maoist. And that, I believe, is remarkable. The lasting legacy of the insurrections and protest of May ’68.


[1]The Intercept, May 27, 2017, “Leaked Documents Reveal Counterterrorism Tactics Used At Standing Rock To ‘Defeat Pipeline Insurgencies’”



Bernard E. Harcourt is the author most recently ofThe Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens(Basic Books, 2018). He is a professor of law and political science at Columbia University and lives in New York City.