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Anti-Fascism Is Not Simply a Moral Objection — It Is a Practical One

Our survival depends upon a rejection of the inherent pessimism and selfishness of fascism, says author Shane Burley.

Counterprotesters approach Trump supporters, including Proud Boys, during a rally on December 12, 2020, in Olympia, Washington.

Recent years have been scarred by an incipient fascism, plague and pestilence, and the violence that marked the end of the Trump administration. A renewed cycle of autonomous working-class organizing, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous struggles, and multitudinous anti-fascist resistance arose to counter this. In this interview, Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today and Why We Fight, discusses how the various histories and perspectives on anti-fascism can build a new type of moment that can answer the challenges we currently face.

Kevin Van Meter: You open your last book, Fascism Today, with a quote from Antonio Gramsci, which infamously ends with “and now is the time of monsters.” A different translation reads: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” That same sense of morbid transition is covered in your new book, Why We Fight, in the cultural pessimism, civil conflict and collapsing capitalist consensus. What is the interregnum period we are now living through?

Shane Burley: We are living in the acceleration of crisis. Obviously, the crisis is at the heart of the systems that we live in, like a DNA that proves in advance of what an animal will become. But we are seeing that maturation now, in a way that is largely unstoppable. That should not be an excuse for apathy; we fight the crisis because we have no other choice, but the radical changes in social conditions are happening in such an exponential way that we simply are going to have to conform our struggle to ever-changing conditions.

Right now, we are reconfiguring to a post-growth, globalized reality where the basic assumptions of social relationships will no longer be possible by the end of the century. So, within that, our conceptions of utopia and dystopia change, and large and privileged sections of the working class of the Global North are making calculations against liberation and for a very narrow view of their own survival. Class antagonisms and identity are being subsumed by demographic ones, and whiteness, as a construct of privilege, is being doubled down on rather than being seen as an impediment to multiracial working-class unity. This reshapes the multitude by reaffirming nationalism as the point of social relations in the face of globalization rather than seeing the reality of the situation: nationhood is a falsehood that is destroying our ability to organize from the bottom up. So right now, we have a massive question to answer: How are we going to undo the turn towards nationalism and to reframe real class antagonisms back in a useful fashion?

Part of this is by prioritizing safety, anti-racist solidarity, and pressure against both fascist insurgents on the one side and states and borders on the other. This is where having a coherent left vision is critical, and one that both sees how identities intersects and also acknowledges the real precarity we are living in…. The inability of us to bank on actual liberation only helps to realize the absolute worst impulses that have been driven into the mass classes, which is not just from a lack of imagination…. Every part of our experience is told in the dialectic of catastrophe, no longer of enlightenment; we have given up on a better world. But the shifting conditions are that opening when something can be built, and so it is up to us to find a coherent rebellion against pessimism, selfishness, blame and, inevitably, whiteness.

In the introduction to Why We Fight, we see a shift in your thinking from an interregnum to apocalypse. In this latest work you offer, “The last few years have been overwhelmed with a feeling of the apocalypse, some kind of end of the world, but it is unclear exactly what that will be, and the story of that uncertainty has been soaked in a cataclysmic feeling of dread.” Does this mean we are moving from interregnum toward directly challenging the apocalypse of COVID-19, ecological collapse, unfettered capitalism, and a fascism that is no longer incipient but evolving?

I think we need to take time to unpack the apocalypse. There is a cultural feeling of doom, this sense that Cthulhu underlies modern society, and we are waiting for it to collapse, or worse. And we can’t necessarily stop that. The far right is driven fully by this sense of millennialism, this questing after the end, and it only takes a small group of people committed to apocalypse to actually bring it to fruition in the form of mass shootings, bombings and other racist horrors. We have also reached (or passed) a tipping point ecologically and economically, it’s hard to see how the political challenge of the 21st century is anything other than organizing amid a collapse….

So, the stakes have been raised by conditions, but that also opens us up to what is possible. In the 21st century, the instability and rapidity of escalating technology and social relationships allows the possibility of cataclysmic shifts at an unprecedented scale. Just think about the mass actions in 2020, the culmination of the last decades of really huge social movements exploding quickly aided by a new multitudinous set of social relationships. Likewise, the failures of capital and states is on full display, and only increasingly so in the age of COVID-19, which also means that mutual aid is something whose necessity bridges the politics and the practical. Now, we don’t just turn to mutual aid projects as a political performance, we do this as mere survival. This dialectic brings about a dual power situation, one whose ability to challenge the legitimacy of dominant institutions probably would not have been similarly possible 10 years ago. So, we don’t have to live in the misery of the end times, we can live in the optimism of what is possible, and we can do it by committing to that process of healing and with the hope that it will really bring human suffering to an end.

In your chapter “Twenty-Five Theses on Fascism” you state, “Today, fascism is largely built on metapolitics rather than explicit politics. Fascist projects attempt to influence culture, perspectives, and morality as precursors to politics. This puts much of their work into the realm of art and music, philosophy and lectures, counter-institutions and counterpower. This is the development of a fascist value and aesthetic set, not simply a fascist political program.” Can you expand upon this notion?

Some of the essays in the book had been printed before in earlier publications; this was one of them. Many of these reprinted essays I chose to update, add some thoughts or change others, but not this one. And that is curious in a way because I might be more cautious in the way I frame that, but it is still true on an essential level. The metapolitics of fascism is one bent on changing people first and foremost under the idea that you have to change the people first rather than just assuming a change in material conditions will reflexively change consciousness. Not that it is a choice against one or the other, or that metapolitics are anti-materialist, but that part of this struggle must be cultural, otherwise the modalities that fascists are offering, which do undermine some of the basic post-enlightenment assumptions, would seem like they’re from another planet to many people. So, the struggle from explicit fascist movements, like the “alt-right,” are to change very basic ideas: white identity, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of unity and belonging, and so on. So open white nationalism does not exist on the political playing field in the same way that, say, the Republican Party does. Instead, their victories are cultural and social rather than policy.

But this neglects another pathway to fascist power: the evolution of that model inside of existing right-wing party structures and their various permutations. The fascist power inside of the Republican Party — meaning the far right influences that are there in varying degrees at varying points — do have the ability to shift actual state power in the direction of fascism. This power is not metapolitical, it is explicitly political. But the role of the radicals within this model is still metapolitical, it’s just that their audience is different. For the alt-right, it was largely shooting at Trump’s base, right-wing millennials, disaffected “men’s rights activist” types, and so on. Inside the party, they are simply trying to influence influential political functionaries, so their metapolitical battle is contained. This is a process that fascist scholar Robert Paxton outlines in his “Five Stages of Fascism,” starting with the ideological groundwork being laid, moving into the development of fascism as a political force, and, at the third stage, power being achieved by a coalition with radicals. This model is specific to the fascism it has studied … but the process has common features. In the first stage, the fascist movement influences the general public, and in the third stage, those radicals are invited into coalition based on the crisis of the second stage, which involved leftist opposition. Crisis, deadlock, polarization [and] forged identities all play a role in allowing a fascist movement to hit the point where society even has the capacity to make a radical turn away from liberal democracy and to something resembling the ideological rumblings of the fascists. They are still marginal in many ways, but that can change remarkably quickly and it can happen through a shifting of the Overton window that allows for those changes to not only be palatable, but to be demanded.

Fascists have adopted both the “culture war” discourse of the right and the “cultural politics” approach from the left. How do we intervene in the cultural realm but also in political-economic space?

I talk about this in a new essay in the book called “Contested Spaces,” about cultural struggle in anti-fascism. Fascists are often in the same cultural spaces that the left are. Iconoclastic and revolutionary artforms, like music, are intended to be ruptures of a type (before recuperation), so it makes sense that they create an opening for radical political offerings. A good example of this is in the history of punk rock, particularly Oi! and skinhead subcultures, where radical left and anarchist politics came right up against attempts at co-optation by the National Front and subsequent neo-Nazi groups. This became contested ground, one where a new type of anti-fascism formed specifically to clear out the Nazis.

Punk rock wasn’t the only place that Nazis tried to stake their claim; this happens across the playing field, both in physical and digital spaces. What ends up happening is that we often cede the ground to fascists by declaring some subcultural or artistic form theirs, but they have no right to anything. They get nothing. What I look at is groups, artists, collectives and the like, that are fighting within subcultures to kick out fascist co-optation and entryism. So, I talk with heathens, which is the Nordic neopagan revival, about creating a dynamic, multiracial and anti-racist heathenry that likewise makes it their priority to kick out white nationalists who have made heathenry a prime place for building a cultural identity. While this campaign may not have made waves outside of the pagan community, those on the inside have seen groups like Heathens United Against Racism have basically excommunicated “folkish” (which means racialized) heathen groups from the scene. By running campaigns that communicate directly to other heathens, they pushed white nationalist groups like the Asatru Folk Assembly, which used to be considered acceptable in the larger heathen community, out on their own. This has multiple effects: it eliminates a pathway of growth for fascists and it allows anti-racist heathens to have their spiritual tradition untainted by those who use it for racist purposes.

Likewise, I talk with other people, such as anti-fascist neofolk musicians who are staking their claim in a genre that is almost completely associated with the far right, as well as with black metal musicians, anti-racist MMA fighters, left-wing gun clubs, and others. This is a battle for metapolitics, undermining the ability for fascists to build a cultural base by which they can change hearts, and also taking metapolitics on the left seriously again. Our culture is not just one of practical organizing and politics, but of passion, love and expression. We have to struggle on that plane as well because what the far right wants to exploit is our empty spaces, the areas of our humanness that we have abandoned or neglected. So, let’s not neglect them anymore.

In Why We Fight, many of the essays examine fascist cultures and subcultures. Offering in one chapter, “Fascist projects attempt to influence culture, perspectives, and morality as precursors to politics.” How can anti-fascist movements attack these fascistic cultures as well as their politics?

This gets back to the earlier question. We need to be clear about what these fascist movements are trying to do, that their “apolitical” stance is often extremely political and a form of organizing. Anti-fascism is not simply a moral objection; it is a practical one. When a fascist neofolk artist is allowed to perform, even when they are not openly espousing politics or explicit political organizing, they are still taking a political act. They are recruiting, agitating and creating consciousness on the meta-political level, and when they are allowed to that, it is a win for them and a loss for us. So, the standards of anti-fascism would have to be enforced globally, without distinction between artistic speech and political action.

The second piece of this is that we have to go deeper than political arguments; we have to get down to the core appeals of identity, values and vision. The left builds its praxis on a materialist conception of history, which is obviously necessary for practical politics, but sometimes allows us to miss the emotional. The alternative to this is a revolutionary arts culture, the connection with spirituality, the use of music and poetry and performance. This is not just because these things can help in actual organizing work, but because organizing is only the practical realization of our innermost values and experiences. That is what the far right is vying after, and if we only respond to them, we will end up losing. We have to dream again; we have to offer. So, it is important that we support the people who are actually building up these other elements of culture since that has an effect on what kind of modalities are possible in the future.

Beginning in the 1930s, Frankfurt School Marxists including Adorno, Horkheimer and others interrogated the rise of fascism in Germany. How do these ideas assist us in examining fascism emerging out of post-war Germany and in different contexts, such as Italy, the United States and other so-called “Western societies”?

People who think about antisemitism may have only experienced the kind of analysis that comes out of various institutes for the “Study of Antisemitism” or organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which come at the issue from a sort of centrist (or even conservative) perspective. In this way, they see radicalism of any kind, both right and left, as dangerous to Jews and implicitly antisemitic, and also that Israeli nationalism is essential for Jewish safety. This is so ubiquitous that it is actually difficult to see a complete attention to the issue from the left, and of course the left has not done well to take the issue seriously, either.

But there is a whole other tradition of looking at antisemitism from the left, which is notably present in the Frankfurt School. This looks at the dialectics of modern society, between rationality and irrationality, and sees antisemitism as a necessary falsehood that facilitates a revulsion to modernity. Starting with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and taken up by generations of Marxists like Werner Bonefeld, Marcel Stoetzler, Moishe Postone, and many others, there is an approach to the question of antisemitism that places it as a reaction to the abstractions in modern political economies, tracing the key in the commodity form. The Frankfurt School is not alone in this, and there are left organizers and writers from various traditions that attempt to look at how antisemitism traces a misstep that manipulates the impulse towards liberation back onto another marginalized group of people.

With the development of early capitalism, particularly the creation of the financial sphere, the precarity of the new social relationships were reframed for many as an attack on “traditional life,” a social construct of its own right. Jews’ historically marginalized role in Europe as intermediaries for money lending was then used as an exposition for the new economic model: the Jews must have reshaped Europe in their own image. This intermediary role historically had a benefit for ruling powers because it diverted populist, bottom-up anger against a particular group of people with distinctly separate cultural practices, thereby confusing where the source of the exploitation was coming from. This moved from the Christian sphere, which sourced the hatred in the supposed role of Jews in the crucifixion of Christ and their alleged occultic practices, and secularized it in the creation of modern antisemitism. Contemporarily, this has continued with the use of conspiracy theories as a popular folk language for the experience of class exploitation during globalization.

What a critical left approach gives us is the ability to see antisemitism as a remnant of capitalism itself, as a way of siphoning off class anger toward a non-agent rather than allowing it to coalesce as a challenge to the ruling class. This is more important than ever as income inequality grows, economies grow even more unstable and class consciousness fails to keep up with the actual conditions. For those of us who are concerned with rising antisemitism, this also means capturing the issue from the right, who is using it as an often-disingenuous weapon against the left. It also means confronting capitulation to antisemitism that does happen on the left, thereby forcing movements that are ostensibly for liberation to live up to their promise. We need a dynamic approach to antisemitism right now, since it is something rarely confronted on the left, and that fact continues to split the Jewish community away from multiracial movements against white supremacy. We also need to break the stranglehold that these narratives about the necessity of centrism and Israeli nationalism have on this discourse: they are both disallowing us from confronting antisemitism from a truly liberatory perspective, one that sees our freedom bound up in one another.

“The Left’s inability to provide a real and viable alternative to the current system, and its capitulation to institutions of power, are what give fascism its strongest rhetorical appeal. An effective anti-fascist movement would do more than simply oppose the fascists in order to then return society to its previous order. Instead, the Left should present a radically different vision that answers the same feelings of alienation and misery to which fascism presents itself as a solution.” Can you expand upon this notion?

Researcher of the far right, Spencer Sunshine, once said something that really stuck with me: “The far right is in and of itself a critique on the left.” He doesn’t mean that the far right is critical of the left, but that its very existence is a critique on the left. When the left promises liberation and then offers up meager coalitional compromises that fail to see real world changes in people’s lives, the basic rhetoric ideation of the left is called into question. If their claims for equality don’t actually make me freer, what good is their equality?

We have a toothless left by any measure, one that has been confused with parliamentary liberalism for decades and whose best-known representatives, such as labor unions or NGOs, are built on the narrowest of victories. In the post-Clinton years, we see a neoliberal consensus that is built on free markets matched with representational politics, all of which send a false message about what left values entail.

The best thing that the left can do about this is to win. And I don’t mean on marginal tax rates, or even on massive government spending. I mean on the streets, in workplace, in blockades, in ground-up organizing. While I think we should really move past organizing models like Saul Alinsky, I think back to one of the key lessons of his early campaigns in Chicago. There was a lack of clinic support in some working-class Catholic neighborhoods, primarily because they were pushed out because of the religious response to reproductive care. Those clinics would gladly return if just asked, but they didn’t just ask. Instead, they built an entire campaign to pressure the clinics to return, because if people could see their power work, and they got material results from that, it would start a wave (I’m not recommending lying to people like that, but point taken). What triggers people to fight back is not just their conditions. People do not just lose their jobs and get evicted from their home and then organize in revolt because the conditions are so dire. They typically do it when they have the notion that their fight matters, that they can win.

So that is part of it, that is how you build a vibrant left. But we have a bigger case here in showing that the left is the solution to revolutionary angst. That equality and solidarity make us infinitely more powerful than hanging on to privileges. It demands people break down their national allegiances, to eradicate whiteness. That means jumping off a cliff, so the left has to prove that this works. And we do that by refashioning the fangs of radical left movements, giving people a way in and showing them that another world is actually possible. Part of what fascism does is try to co-opt the impulse toward liberation and turn it back on itself, and the most marginalized, so we have to fight for the revolutionary impulse.

You have argued that anti-fascism today requires both an insurgent left and community organizing. What does this look like?

Like I was talking about before, we need to fight for a powerful, intersectional and coalitional left that is going to battle on multiple fronts. Anti-fascism does not require everyone to drop their existing struggles and all join the same organization. Instead, we have to create working matrices of coordination whereby tenant unions support environmental groups, who give resources to mutual aid organizations, who create infrastructure for anti-fascist community defense projects. All of these things are necessary, so all of these things must be in place to thrive. What we saw in 2020 is the way that all of these existing projects, and new ones built on skills that have been proliferating in other social movements, can be channeled into coordination while maintaining enough autonomy to be productive. Mutual aid groups shifted between providing protest support to providing wildfire support to giving COVID-19 support. Environmental groups discussed environmental racism in regard to the rising Black Lives Matter uprising, adding a new dimension to the anti-racist struggle and bringing people into the war on climate change. All of these things are connected, so let’s connect them.

We are currently witnessing an emergence of anti-fascist formations out of working-class communities. What else is emerging? What do we need to be attuned to?

I think we have to see this within the larger totality of struggle at the moment. So, the first thing is that many people inside of anti-racist spaces have had to respond to the misuse of the term “antifa” by the right. The use of the term on the right denotes anything vaguely leftist, anti-racist or using direct action protest tactics, and over 2020, it was used interchangeably with Black Lives Matter even when the stated target of the protest was police rather than the far right. But this synthesis of terms actually belies a piece of analysis: the police and the far right are connected, as are the detrimental effects of global capitalism and the rise of far right national populism. The right’s effort to collapse terms actually bridges concepts in the public, bringing forward the kind of analysis that has been historically offered by organizations like the Black Panthers about the role of police in the maintenance of white supremacy.

The second piece of that is simply that we are seeing the emergence of mass action that, because of relationship consolidation from social media and other factors, is actually bringing in a broad consciousness about the interrelated nature of the issues. So, people are being oriented to mass struggle through these anti-police actions or labor strikes or the #MeToo movement or other types of explosive organizing that is catalyzed by spontaneous conditions of struggle, and through that process, they are inheriting other pieces of an intersectional analysis. So this has the effect of mass orientation to anti-fascism as well, all pieces of the same puzzle that everyone is being introduced to at once.

A third piece is the necessity of mutual aid groups, which became abundantly clear as people responded to the state’s absence during the emergent health crisis of COVID-19. These groups are building on existing social networks to fill real needs and acting as their own orientation to mass struggle since they were explicitly politicized because the state’s failure to COVID-19 was always experienced politically.

Fourth is just the insurgent nature of the far right, on display with the emergence of QAnon and the Capitol siege on January 6. The right, and not just the open neo-Nazi segments of it, were increasingly radicalized as well through 2020, leading to a constant stream of violent white vigilante attacks. This is a line in the sand; it forces people to respond just like Charlottesville did in 2017, and, along with the idea of community solidarity present in mutual aid, community safety is now an imperative forcing people into concert with one another.

All of these are a recipe for further anti-fascist growth, even if the Biden administration sends mixed messages to people about the potential growth of fascist movements. The reality is that we are entering just further periods of economic, ecological and social instability, all of which can help to further grow the right. And people know, almost instinctively, that something must be done.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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