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Anti-Fascists Are Adapting to a Strange New World

Anti-fascists face a far right that is ascendant in electoral politics and newly united around Christian nationalism.

Part of the Series

In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes and Shane Burley, editor of No Pasarán! Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, discuss the state of the far right, anti-fascism and how we can build power and sustain empathy in these times.

Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the state of the far right, anti-fascism and how we can preserve human empathy in these times. We are also talking about a new book that I highly recommend called No Pasarán!: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis. No Pasarán! is an anthology of anti-fascist history lessons, tactical analysis and global perspectives on the fight against white supremacy and the far right.

This book offers so much — and I am not just saying that because I’m in it.

No Pasarán! features work from Kim Kelly, Jeanelle K. Hope, David Renton, Tal Lavin, and many others, and is edited by my friend Shane Burley. Shane, who is also the author of Fascism Today and Why We Fight, also has written work featured in the book, including an interview with me — which reversed our usual roles, given that Shane is a regular guest on Movement Memos. Well, Shane is back today to talk about No Pasarán! and what we need to build to defeat the right today.

I became a fan of Shane’s work years ago, when I read Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. It’s a book that’s worth owning for its glossary alone, but it offers so much more. Shane’s writing style has always resonated with me, because I feel like it aims to empower radical organizers and activists by relaying crucial information, and also urges us to think strategically, with a sense of history and an awareness of what’s happening around us, and who the players really are.

In No Pasarán!, Shane has gathered the reflections and ideas of a dynamic group of anti-fascist activists and thinkers to create an expansive resource for organizers. At about 500 pages, it is not a book that most people are going to sit down and read cover to cover. But it is a crucial resource that activists can visit and revisit, as they encounter questions and crises in anti-fascist struggle. As Shane explains, the book attempts to bridge some of the gaps in how anti-fascism has been discussed, studied and understood in the United States.

Shane Burley: So I started working on the book back in 2018, in an effort to sort of open up what we’re talking about when we talk about anti-fascism, the coverage on anti-fascism, including by myself, was very, very narrow. And it only looked at really small subcultural white, very geographically specific pockets and types of social movements. And the problem with that is that it helped to contribute, I think to this very, not just narrow way we talked about it, but a narrow way it was responded to, sort of red herring that was used to sort of discount anti-fascism. And the reality is actually anti-fascist social movements are an inherent part of all social movements because the reaction from the right reactionary movements are endemic to projects for social liberation. They are in a constant kind of responsive force. And so it has always actually required anti-fascist movements. And so I wanted to open up what we’re talking about both looking at the past in the future.

So we have chapters on the Black anti-fascist tradition that is for some reason sort of left out of our conversations about anti-fascism. They talked about as almost like an entirely separate social movement history, even though they’re not. We talked about in other kind of other regions, India, Syria, Brazil, wanting to talk about how those movements look kind of similar to the US but also how they’re different. To zoom in on certain things, identity issues, questions of tactics, particularly like the use of technology and things like that to try and just move past this very, very narrow thing. And then we also talk about some history from folks that sort of come from the traditions that we know, but they’re not the histories we’ve heard.

So Mike Crenshaw, Darrell Lamont, Jenkins, other folks talking about their own histories. And so I wanted as much as possible to open that up and I think we did a little bit. The book is large, the book is over 200,000 words and nearly 30 chapters. And I think that’s just sort of starting to scrape the surface of what we’re really talking about here. And I’m really interested in the ways in which anti-fascism will sort of be this attendant part of movement coalitions, particularly as we enter further states of crisis, which is what we’re expecting. We’re entering even further states of instability, and social movements, hopefully, are going to respond to that and they’re going to need this defensive element as well.

KH: This is a strange time for the far right, with Donald Trump flailing, Ron DeSantis on the rise, and anti-trans hysteria, conspiracy theories, and the bureaucratic equivalent of book burning taking hold in states like Florida. So before we dig into how the book relates to the moment we are living in, I wanted to check in on that moment, and get Shane’s take on what the hell is going on with these people.

SB: Yeah, so the far right is in a weird state at the moment, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. So if we can kind of think back about 10 years, we saw the growth of a really huge white nationalist movement in the form of the alt-right, something we hadn’t seen in decades. And it was like white nationalism passed, but a little bit different too. Different rhetoric, different kind of branding, certainly different organizationally, less organizational, more online, that kind of thing. And that movement grew to the point that it became incredibly threatening and was basically cut back by a few things. Anti-fascists very effectively, their own ineptitude. De-platforming became really a complex part of dealing with the far right, and the left, in general. De-platforming has just been a big issue over the last several years, online social media. So that limited their reach and they really were put into a state of retreat, but not the far right as such.

Around the alt-right was a movement called the alt-light, which is slightly more moderate, civic nationalism, that kind of thing. And then also the kind of normal kind of far right militia and patriot groups. And then even bigger than them, the growth of the MAGA movement. So basically the broad stuff under the Trump big tent. The pseudo-intellectual and the former organizations declined really, really heavily. And the less organized and frankly less kind of intellectually precise versions started to flourish really profoundly. And after the election, they sort of exploded into a ubiquity that you wouldn’t have understood I think before. So we’re talking about really serious conspiracy theories in some cases tipping over into the majority of the right. So great replacement conspiracy theories that’s explicitly white nationalist, antisemitic theory. It now dominates more than half of the Republican Party. I mean that’s the kind of thing we’re seeing, seeing those things filter through the party really, really intensely.

At the same time, we saw a new slate of Trumpian candidates that push the party even further to the right. Those are now being thrown into a place of flux because they lost so many elections during the midterm. So it’s really unclear exactly how that plays in the party. It’s both toxic on the one hand, but it’s the only thing that wins on primaries. On the other hand, they have to have… That’s where the energy is. And most specifically, that’s where the working class energy is because they use the language of populism. They sort of are able to channel the same energy the left might have channeled with socialist politics a long time ago, they’re now able to channel with these conspiracy theories. So that’s a place that we’re kind of confusing to be in. The other thing is that Christian nationalism, always an important force, has now become the uniting factor, which it wasn’t for a number of years in the white nationalist movement.

And we’re seeing that because the primary remnant of the alt-right was the Groypers, the Groyper movement led by Nick Fuentes and the American First Political Action Conference has sort of continued. It’s one of the only really last, really truly alt-right institutions to continue forward and to build even bigger. So I think having that influence, it’s bringing Christianity back as a common topic. The other thing is that there’s a response to the certain victories that the right has had, particularly around abortion and attacking Roe v. Wade. Now they’re starting to pivot to a certain degree and trying to get the same level of energy that abortion politics did. And they’re doing it by attacking drag queen story hour, trans healthcare for kids, especially any basically public LGBT event. And they’re doing it by mixing in what is now become ubiquitous, this conspiracy mongering.

So basically it’s claims of grooming and child trafficking. This has created an incredible amount of volatility because what’s happening is desperate sort of mythologies are spreading around the populace that believe that kids are immediately in danger. That crisis is literally happening like apocalyptic theories and that’s leading to impulsive acts of violence. So all of that creates a really unsteady mix. It doesn’t work the same way as it did before, which means we cannot fight it the same way. And there’s also things that are really bizarre. So people were pretty captivated by Ye, formerly Kanye West, working with Nick Fuentes and Trump bound together by conspiracy theories. This is not something that’s kind of conventional. Black musicians don’t usually spend their time with white nationalists. There is some corollaries in the sixties with the Nation of Islam having some collaborations, but this is not… That’s something that’s pretty far outside what people normally expect.

So I think this kind of freneticism is really complicated. It doesn’t lend us a really easy narrative for how these far right groups are working. And when you have to look to what anti-fascists have been talking about, which is that open white nationalist movements have actually found ways of trying to recruit and communities of color along certain kinds of shared bigotries. The other thing that I think is really bizarre that is sort of under discussed is that we’re seeing obviously the increase of antisemitic conspiracy theories, particularly just floating under the entire right right now, whether it’s Soros claims or anti globalists or cultural Marxists or antisemitic conspiracy theories are actually under underlying a lot of the anti-trans legislation, when you read the text, they’re just kind of filled with these dog whistle conspiracy theories.

But they’re also being carried by Jews. So right now Libs Of TikTok is a main kind of purveyor of this line of thinking around LGBT spaces, particularly this groomer stuff. And that’s led by an Orthodox Jew. And we’re seeing really complicated incidents like, at January 6th, where you’re literally having ultra-Orthodox Jews standing next to people with Camp Auschwitz shirts. Again, a very confusing sort of mix of those things. And we’re seeing antisemitic rhetoric from right wing Jewish figures both in and out of Israel. So I think the identity of the people participating is in a way detached a little bit from some of the ideology we’re seeing. And that means we’re sort of in unwritten territory in some ways.

KH: I think a lot of people, particularly people whose political activities are limited to elections, want to believe that we have done all we can do, after major electoral moments. But in reality, Democratic policies are not preventing fascist outcomes, and it’s very important we come to grips with that. In some cases, Democratic policies are actually propelling us toward a fascist horizon, or toward some other brand of authoritarianism.

SB: Yeah, I think it’s useful for me to think about neoliberalism in the modern state as sort of the spearhead of a much longer history of colonialism and imperialism and the levels of disenfranchisement that a colonial project requires to continue itself. So it requires a border, it requires social markers of who’s included in who’s excluded, arbitrary markers in most cases. That requires itself to maintain itself. And as our economic and ecological system becomes more unstable, they are doubling down so as to maintain the systems that are sort of artificially there. So what I think the Democrats are doing are maintaining status quo politics, which themselves are being shooken by the actual kind of crisis, but also social movements and other things. And their only choice is to basically double down into the most horrific elements of them. So for example, you can only maintain a for-profit healthcare system, even while it’s very visible what’s happening, understaffing, a mass unbelievable amount of loss from a pandemic, if you decide that that’s acceptable, that with that is within the range of acceptability.

And so that’s sort of the process of what’s happening. I think what’s really important too about our situation is that it is dialectic, it is creating instability and a lot of that instability comes from people’s natural responses to being dislocated and oppressed. I think a lot about, for example, the 2008 financial crisis, which a lot of people… We looked at the way that financial products were created and how they had the inherent instability and were exploitive of working class people. But there’s also a certain element of there was a mass sort of refusal to have a lowering standard of living amongst working class. People took out huge amounts of credit card debt, they bought houses they couldn’t afford and things because real wages were falling so much and this was literally a collective working class kind of action against it. And that creates an instability as a response to this just kind of overwhelmingly oppressive system that rips us from any kind of progress we’ve had or sense of control we have over our lives. And so that is accelerating more and more and it brings with it that sense of instability.

And so I think what Biden is choosing to do is to create stasis over… And that requires basically suppressing social movements, shutting down the border, trying to cancel migration and things like that, refusing to actually support massive healthcare reforms that are owed right now. I think part of it is because the modern Democrats are basically marketing themselves as the antidote to chaos, not the antidote to racism, oppression, inequality, things like that. So he is going to base the success of his presidency on the ability to show that he can deliver business as usual. And in that way the Democrats are positioning themselves to actually pull from the center-right and move the entire party to the right so they can then be the more kind of beltway party, as the Republican Party moves into a kind of more unhinged place. And so I think this is part of the problem of looking at electoral politics in general as a safeguard against those things because it does very little to alleviate the ultimate kind of crisis that’s at the center that brings fascist movements, that brings the structural inequality itself.

KH: Winning makes the far right dangerous in some ways, and losing makes them dangerous in others. Many people have characterized Donald Trump’s recent attacks on trans people as “desperate,” and I don’t disagree, but I think we need to be cognizant of how dangerous desperate people can become. Trump’s eliminationist rhetoric about trans people took the usual approach of claiming that trans children are being “mutated” and “mutilated,” but also stated: “I will sign a new executive order instructing every federal agency to cease all programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age … I will then ask Congress to permanently stop federal taxpayer dollars from being used to promote or pay for these procedures.” This is plainly eliminationist rhetoric. Regardless of what you think about Trump’s electoral chances — and I would like to remind everyone that it was a mistake to write him off the first time — his ramping up of hysterical, right-wing rhetoric against trans people provides fuel for a very dangerous fire. I know so many trans people, and parents of trans children, who have been forced to move or make contingency plans, because this country is becoming an evermore dangerous place to be trans.

We are also witnessing the horrifying rise of Ron DeSantis, who does not have the built-in opposition that Trump would bring, as a presidential candidate. In fact, Democrats have voiced concern that, unlike Trump, they are not entirely sure how to wage a campaign against DeSantis. This is not entirely shocking, given that Biden’s victory was not the product of people believing in Biden, so much as people hating and fearing Trump. Whatever misguided approach they ultimately adopt, it’s likely that their fears of losing so-called centrists to DeSantis will cause the Democrats to lurch further to the right, further imperiling fascist targets.

In Florida, where Ron DeSantis currently reigns, public school teachers have been forced to make their classroom libraries inaccessible to students, with the threat of felony charges looming over any teacher who allows a student to access an unvetted book. The policy is part of a broader moral panic around the idea that teachers are grooming students to embrace queer identities or leftist politics. DeSantis has also prohibited AP African American studies courses for high school students, and his so-called “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” has thoroughly restricted discussions of race in grade schools and high schools, as well as public colleges and universities. Fearful of running afoul of the law, many schools have interpreted the restrictions in broad terms, banning any discussion of “social justice.” Meanwhile, the Florida High School Athletic Association is weighing whether to force high school athletes who menstruate to submit information about their periods, in a would-be policy that clearly illustrates the connection between attacks on trans youth and all reproductive autonomy.

Some people have advocated for a resurgence of Freedom Schools in response to these restrictions. For their part, the right is definitely working to create alternative educational structures that convey their worldview. As David Gilbert reported in Vice, an Ohio couple ran a Telegram channel for parents who want help raising and educating their children to be Nazis. A lesson plan about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was accompanied by claims that, “[King] is the face of a movement which ethnically cleansed whites out of urban areas and precipitated the anti-white regime that we are now fighting to free ourselves from.” The group has 2,400 members. Slurs abound in the Telegram channel, but in addition to offering instruction on how to raise their children to be good Nazis, the channel’s leadership also encourages parents to meet up in person and join radical groups.

Meanwhile, legacy publications are doing as much to help aid the ascent of fascism as they did in the era of Hitler and Mussolini, which is to say, a lot. In November,The New York Times characterized the John Brown Gun Club’s provision of armed security for drag brunches in Texas as “chilling.” The group provided security for the event without incident, but even the possibility of community defense for marginalized groups apparently frightens The New York Times editorial board.

When it comes to actual fascists, pushing actual fascists policies and fueling the moral panic about grooming that has left drag performers and many others unsafe, the NYT is far less concerned. For example, the Times recently described the fascistic havoc DeSantis has wreaked in Florida’s schools and universities with the headline, “DeSantis Takes on the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand.” The Atlantic addressed the crisis with the headline, “Florida Has a Right to Destroy Its Universities.” I think it’s important to note that legacy publications were extremely friendly to fascism in the 20’s and 30’s, with journalists writing regular praise songs for Mussolini celebrating his restoration of “normalcy” in Italy. I therefore found it noteworthy when the Washington Post ran the headline, “DeSantis would pave the way for a post-Trump GOP return to normal.”

This idea of normal, what it is, who it belongs to, who gets to experience it, and who has to be removed, in order to maintain it, is really crucial to what’s happening on the far right at present. So we really need to look at how those ideas are manifesting, who is being targeted, and why.

SB: So the far right we understand a lot of the far right in accordance with white nationalism, basically that’s the forefront movement which kind of anti-fascism has been built to respond to. And the reality is that this kind of force has different manifestations and it’s manifesting in different kind of specificities. So for example, the attack on queer rights events and the attack on healthcare, these are fascist movements involved in that. And so the defense against them has to learn from the other forms of anti-fascism and find a way of those collaborating because they’re going to constantly kind of build up around theirs. This is true around this kind of aggressive return of kind of anti-fat rhetoric. It’s really present around the current assault on sex workers. Obviously the just constant barrage against migrants on the border.

There’s these different manifestations of that and it’s different than just the structural inequality of your employer or of your landlord. They work fundamentally different because the folks that are participating in that oppressive apparatus are sometimes working-class people themselves. And so I think learning those tactics from our historic anti-fascism and then applying it to these different contexts is what’s absolutely necessary to keep us safe. The second thing is that anti-fascism tells a story about liberation and so does the far right. And anti-fascism is meant to look at the far right story and explain to you why it’s false and to provide an alternative. And that is incredibly necessary in an era of really mass dislocation when a lot of people are hearing the story of rebellion from right-wing voices first. And so it’s up to us to be able to answer that to understand it. And this is true of even when it appears on the left, there’s a lot of social movements that are ostensibly on the left that have come with that kind of right-wing flavor and it requires anti-fascist to intervene on them.

The environmental movement’s a really good example and the kind of inherent xenophobia, transphobia and anti-migrant sensibility in some forms of the environmental movement. Anti-fascism tends to be the place in which that’s intervened on. So, both as kind of a defensive measure but also as a way of clearing out that impulse itself, the defense of the impulse to liberate oneself. So that’s an inherent part of it. And then also having a reflexive relationship with social movements. Social movements are under attack by the far right and we also require them as anti-fascists because we need people to participate in events to add numbers to things. They need to participate in social reproduction, caring for people and creating a real social alternative. So those things are reflexive, they have to have a permanent relationship with one another. And so I don’t think that it’s possible for us to actually defend against what anti-fascists are seeking to defend with what we have now. It’s not enough. It has to become much, much bigger.

KH: The violent threats we face raise questions about what tactics we should employ in this moment. We know that the right’s possession and display of firearms is normalized by the media, even at heated political events, while any potential armed defense of marginalized people who are being actively targeted is characterized as “chilling” by the press. We also know that protecting our communities is essential, and that confrontational tactics, like deplatforming, can sometimes prevent fascists from organizing. So what does it mean to think about confrontation, safety and community defense in these times?

SB: Yeah, I mean think that, so first on the point of deplatforming, I think that the real shining spot here was when people were able to organize to pressure the tech companies to deplatform particular people and the mechanism of that deplatforming came from the pressure itself. There’s a number of liberal efforts to sort of weed out “extremism” that historically is used really unevenly. It tends to be used against BIPOC organizations more heavily than it actually is used against the far right. But I think the real sweet spot was when there was really campaigns to target and deplatform certain institutions and I think for example, going after The Daily Stormer and other really peak level white nationalist organizations and websites. I think in terms of community defense, this came up…

I had this kind of memory of a conversation I had with Scott Crow a couple of years ago. I think I’m going to paraphrase them because I don’t think he said it exactly like this, but he said if someone asked me what the hundred most important things to do are to keep my community safe, guns would be the 99th one. And I think what’s really exciting about a lot of community defense organizations is that they don’t think of it in the narrow terms. They think about it in kind of holistic defense and that way it actually bleeds in with mutual aid and care work really heavily. And so what I’m excited to see about obviously I think it’s absolutely essential to have community defense organizations protect communities up to and including with weapons that are necessary. I don’t think at this point I’ve seen, been on the receiving end of enough attacks from the far right.

And I think that that’s a kind of visible and accepted thing now that people have to have a plan to protect communities that are going to be targeted by the far right. But I think also what’s even more encouraging is seeing people have increase of street medics, increase of plans for getting people to healthcare if something happens, increase of mechanisms of follow-up care, long-term mutual aid work, that kind of stuff, which I think in some ways just has not read as sexy to people is an essential part of keeping people safe. So for example, a number of months back, some Proud Boys got my cell phone, texted me my address, said, Hey, we’re going to come to your house basically. And when I talked to other folks about a safety plan, it wasn’t as much about people standing guard, certainly that was discussed, but it was about what do you need to get through the next few days? Do you need to go somewhere? Is it going to be comfortable? Can you work from there? Will you be healthy there?

That’s the kind of conversation people are having and it’s really dictated by people who are survivors of violence and people having that kind of reflexive relationship where they can hear each other. So I am encouraged by the fact by when a social movement doesn’t stop at looking for victories, but it totally displaces the old institution entirely. So we are in a society where we’re atomized and we’re unsafe. So a community defense organization can come in and help keep you safe, but if it does one better, if it helps rebuild the community you’re in entirely. And now you’re part of a vibrant community where safety happens not just in those peak moments, but safety is all the time because of those relationships you have, those friendships, those real networks of support, material support. I think that direction is what I find most encouraging.

And I think part of the reason that that’s happening is that mutual aid as a concept has sort of grown. It’s become more ubiquitous. The state’s failure to provide services, particularly during COVID was so glaring that people literally had to make mutual aid networks. And so people kind of get it a little bit more. I think younger folks get it really big time and they’ve been through enough crises in young lives that have required mutual aid solutions. So I think that’s coming in, but it’s that intermixing of mutual aid care and community defense. That’s not just where I think it’s the most effective. I think it’s literally the future of how we’re going to do this.

KH: In No Pasarán! Shane quotes me as saying, “We cannot win without caring for one another and they cannot win without stripping away our empathy and will to protect and care for one another.” I remember when I said those words early in the pandemic, and I also remember how I felt when I said them. There was a lot of hope in what I was saying, but also, a lot of fear and concern. I was working on commemoration efforts, both because the people we’ve lost deserved to be memorialized, and because I was deeply worried that the erasure of grief from our social experience was going to reduce our collective empathy, and make people more inured to policies that cause mass death and mass suffering. I am a hopeful person, but I am even more worried now about those things than I was then, as I feel the suppression of our collective grief, and the championing of “normalcy” as the most important thing for society, has had disastrous effects.

SB: I am worried, but I also think that methods of survival are sort of the antidote to that in that they force you into a shared vulnerability. You really can’t be in an organizing space without that real shared sense of care, that does just significantly run counter to that alienation. We generally have lived in a culture of the last 50 years where we don’t engage in civic organizations, not members of churches, not members of labor unions, not members of the Elks Club. There’s just not a lot of those things. And I think the effort of people to start to rebuild things like that where they have investment in each other’s lives, really gravity in each other’s lives is what will undo that. And so my hope really is that by literally performing the work of survival, that will literally change people’s empathetic response.

The lack of empathy is itself a survival response, but it is not a good one. It’s one that’s destined to make us lose. And so I think people are starting to see that really big time. And when they’re engaging for better or for worse in collective moments of trauma, being out in a protest attacked by the police or attacked by the Patriot Prayer or Proud Boys, that’s collective trauma that has created these mass bonding episodes of people in shared circumstances. And so I think that those shared realities, those shared experiences have become the foundation for the shared project of healing because people are having to walk similar paths to become healthy again, become feeling safe, and they’re doing it together, hopefully.

Now there are real serious attacks on that ability to build those new institutions of care, like not being in the same room with people because we’re very seriously scared about a pandemic that does create barriers that we have to figure out how to overcome. But I think people are actually pretty innovative in that. I always come on here and I talk about why I’m more hopeful in these crisis situations. And I think part of it’s that we have collectively started to given up, have given up on old solutions, and instead are building solutions basically on that fulcrum of care between people. So instead, we’re not just petitioning the government, we’re not just pressuring for reforms, we’re just kind of making it ourselves. And I think in that way we are reclaiming that therapeutic process of being human with each other.

KH: One of my favorite essays in No Pasaran! is called “Nazis Don’t Get Nice Things” by Margaret Killjoy. In it, she writes:

When I think about how to reach the world I want to live in, I’d prefer one with no government or capitalism. But honestly I’d probably settle for one that just isn’t being destroyed by fire and flood and Nazis. The only way that seems realistic is to see a movement of movements, a federation of equals with our own needs and tactics and strategies and ideas and aesthetics, learning to work together, not in unity, but in diversity. I want that. The only way I can have it is if I refuse to let the fascists have anything.

SB: Yeah, I think one of the things that Margaret talks about a lot in her work and in her fiction too is the sense of what a community would be like that allows us to be functionally different. And I think the right’s narrative about the left is that the left is basically different phobic, that it wants to erase differences, that it disavows them or something. And I think that’s only because the right’s vision of difference is stratified. It’s based on essentialism, it’s incorrect, it’s literally incorrect. But instead, what would an actual liberated life look like? And it would look profoundly different. It would have people who are different that’ll live different ways, but figure out how to do it in the cosmopolitan together kind of way. When Margaret was talking about… When I was talking with her about it, I was writing about Jewish peoplehood, which is sort of an interesting concept because while it’s an identifiable thing, some people are Jews and some people aren’t, it has permeable boundaries.

So someone could be born a Jew, someone can also become a Jew, and they’re equally Jewish. And I think about this actually in a lot of ways that people have multiple ways that they identify in their lives. And the only truly liberated world is where they’re allowed to remain constant. The demand for Jews to assimilate was ultimately the antisemitic demand for them to cease to be. And I think what a liberated life does, it allows people to be different together in shared community, absolutely horizontal, for them to have shifting identities, if so they choose, and for them be interlocking, and for us to find a way to allow that to take place. And the fascist story is that that can’t take place, that the only way that your identifiable selfhood is going to be valid is with borders and nations and walls. And so I think Margaret has been telling a story in there that there is actually another way to get at the impulse that a lot of people have to live differently than those around them.

KH: One of the problems we face now is that most people have no idea how to wage a war of ideas. People who are trying to be persuasive often present others with facts, and if people are not moved by those facts, the would-be persuader makes a moral assessment about the person whose beliefs or actions were unaltered, and moves on. This is a flawed approach in any event, but when the ideas being challenged are fascistic, it’s a hopeless errand. As Emmi Bevensee and Frank Miroslav write in No Pasaran!:

Alternative media is especially important given how poorly the mainstream media is doing at navigating the current informational landscape. A major reason is because of how transmission typically works. Prior to the internet, authoritarian governments relied on the centralized nature of information technology to retain control over the information people received. The decentralized nature of the internet has changed how this is done. Because communication is difficult to block, repressive governments, and others, have adopted the “Firehose of Falsehood” model, wherein they flood multiple channels with constant messages without regard for consistency or accuracy. The aim of such an approach is not to get the targets to believe anything, but rather to induce chaos and uncertainty that makes them unable to react effectively to anyone who’d look to take advantage of them.

So how does one combat a firehose of falsehoods?

SB: Yeah, I think people believe lies because they feel true. If the standard bearers of wisdom around you, companies, the state, people in leadership positions have sort of failed to deliver anything tangibly different for you, then it’s really easy to go for iconoclasms that have no basis in fact. Flat earth theory, COVID isn’t real, various conspiracy theories. They do have an impulsive sensibility to them. They say that what you’re being told is wrong, that you are being wronged and that radical solutions are necessary. David Renton, who wrote the afterword for the book… we had a conversation about a book he had written last year or I guess in 2021 on the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis, and what he talked about in the book was that the Labour Party at the same time as basically most political parties started to have a populist turn and really opened the doors.

A lot of folks came in that hadn’t been involved in Labour’s past. And with that came some conspiracy theories and a small portion which has been way overblown by the Tories and by the media. But a very small portion had brought in some antisemitic conspiracy theories with them. And his antidote to that was actually class war. And he is like, when you look at Corbyn speeches where he just said this kind of the truth about class wealth inequality and what to do about it, it was much more straightforward than the populist conspiracy theories in the end, it actually was Marxism that was actually more appealing to the working class. I think in a way, having a coherent story about what we think and figuring out how to explain to someone, I think that’s the most important thing. I think that giving people a real pathway because what we provide is infinitely more powerful. We actually provide a way out of this.

And so working out how to message that to people, working out the coherency of our own ideas, I think that’s actually where you create the antidote because people do want clear answers and they want to mobilize them to change something. So delivering that to people is the most effective way of doing that. I think we have a long way to go before we’re actually effectively doing that. I think that there’s a lot of conflicting ideas. It is tough to figure out the situation we’re in, but I think kind of creating these sort of bonds on certain shared principles about what we’re opposing and what we’re trying to rebuild, I think that presents the alternative to that thinking because it answers the same thing that the conspiracy theory is picking at, which is this emotional need to have the situation validated and to give them, if even a false pathway, but a pathway out of it. Hopefully what we provide though is one that’s marked with reality and actual evidence and stepping stones that are really visible to people.

KH: One of the failings of U.S. social movements in general is a lack of internationalism. While there are very encouraging connections being made, our focus is often internal, and most of us are not learning enough about how fascistic policies are impacting people in other countries, or what we can learn from anti-fascists on some of those fronts of struggle.

SB: Yeah, so we only have… I think it’s a corner of the book and I think we could do several volumes on this because it’s so kind of under-considered. We talk about Hindu nationalism in South Asia. We talk about Assad’s relationship to the far right in the US. We talk about Brazil to a degree and a few other regions. And I think what’s happening in our discourse and anti-fascism is that it’s discussing it in a way that politics no longer works on a national basis. Instead, these movements are themselves international, they have international collaboration. In a lot of other countries, they have a more advanced presence in the electorate through the form of parliamentary-like systems. And so we have to start thinking about how to organize across borders and where the peaks of those movements are. And we’re seeing really, really important developments in places like Europe and Israel that we have to watch because those will have basically not just collaboration with the American far right or across Western Europe, but they’re going to have financial connections.

They’re going to have ideological influence. So for example, we have just seen really, really far right governments enter power in Italy and Israel. Those are going to have profound impacts on global politics. Not just the people who are directly touching those governments, but everyone’s going to echo across the world and figuring out how to have not just solidarity with the people most immediately affected, but how to create international collaboration to confront that. That’s really, really important. It’s also important to not assume that these are the exact same situation. The politics, for example, of the occupation in the West Bank are very distinct to that region.

And so building up an anti-fascist movement has to take Palestinian leadership in that case. And that means having a lot more collaboration there and learning from what they’re actually experiencing rather than just imprinting kind of American anti-fascist politics onto it. But we can do that work. We have those organizations of solidarity already. We have things in the BDS movement that we can use and kind of build those alliances where we need them. So I think we need to think about, what do we have already? How is it going to build those connections? And then how can we make that an anti-fascist connection that can build tactics, those defensive tactics, support other people having defensive tactics and bringing them back home?

KH: As I mentioned, I worry a lot about the erosion of empathy, and I think the fight to maintain our sense of connection is at the heart of our fight for survival. Shane and I talk about these ideas a lot, and you will see quotes from some of those discussions in my upcoming book with Mariame Kaba, Let This Radicalize You. One of the central ideas of the book is the role of care in our movements, and the importance of anchoring ourselves, in order to hold difficult realities together. A lot of people are hurting over the deterioration of collective empathy we are experiencing right now. This is particularly true of people who still want some basic COVID protections in place, like masking on public transit or in grocery stores, so that people who are immunocompromised, or otherwise vulnerable, can more safely participate in society. The idea that disabled people need to disappear or die, much in the same way unhoused people are often expected to simply disappear or die, has been embraced by many people on a practical level, even if it’s not something that they would espouse ideologically. Given that Democrats are pushing “normalcy,” a lot of people won’t see the rollback of COVID mitigations and government-sponsored testing or treatments as being connected to fascism. But that’s a huge mistake, because Democrats can and have steered us in the direction of fascism. So how do we maintain empathy in these times?

SB: So, I think this question of how to maintain empathy is a complicated one, and I think it’s one that’s actually answered a lot more by how we’ve addressed grieving in the past. About 10 years ago, I lost both of my parents in a really close succession. My father had a stroke and he was caring for my mom who was very sick with late-stage cancer. So, then I moved in to care for her. So, they both died very, very close together, just a few months apart.

And people were supportive, but two things happened in this process. One is that the process that leads up to the death of a loved one is often really alienating. You have to spend more time with them. You’re less available to do things. That’s part of it. And then the second is that you have the grieving process afterwards, both of which tend to alienate you from people.

So, I changed really radically. I used to be a lot more of an outgoing person. I need a lot more quiet time, a lot more alone time than I did before. It really did shift who I was. But what ends up happening is that people are there, they’re supportive, and then they become a little less supportive because they have to move on with their lives. And then they eventually move past this event, or non-event for them. And there’s a certain wondering why it’s continued for you, the person that’s affected.

And I think in the pandemic we have uneven levels of affectedness. We have chronic illness, autoimmune conditions, particularly vulnerable jobs, different experiences that make that uneven, on the one hand. And so, I think there’s a sort of breakdown of the empathy for people who don’t feel as though they’re as affected by this, whether or not that’s an accurate assessment by them, it’s different. So, I think that creates a problem. And in a lot of the world about grief, there’s a lot of approaches for having long-term support systems. We talk about this pretty often. It’s not perfect, but people are developing tools. They understand those community bonds.

And so, I think we need to create permanent networks of that kind of support, that allow the sorts of crisis, not just the pandemic, but grieving itself, to have a constant connection to the community, to community support networks. I think that has to take the form of an organized, resilient force, not just depending on friendships, because again, people’s friendships oftentimes wax and wane on their availability, and crisis, pandemic, illness, death, really can tax that and it can make people feel really, really alone.

So, I think more permanent forms of community orientation are useful. That’s why, for example, churches and synagogues are so useful because they’re both simultaneously institutional and also intimate. People have an actual intimate relationship, where it’s not just the personal relationship, but it’s not without it either. So, I think creating that kind of network is important to survive grieving and to allow people the space to grieve and support them through it and help them reintegrate into the community or reintegrate their new selves into the community.

But I think it begs the question of why we don’t have that as a permanent force. How are we not constantly connecting with people in that mix of institutional and personal? And so, I think the pandemic being something that is ongoing and has not dissipated, will not dissipate anytime soon, and most likely will be replaced by other illnesses, given the climate crisis and other kinds of issues.

So, I think creating this constant system of institutional care and support is really, really important. And I think we have examples of people sort of playing with this. We have community groups, we have mutual aid networks. Those are great. I think we need to expand though, the role of that personal connection.

Now, I think the other part of this question is empathy and people’s access to empathy. And there’s a lot of things that I think zap people’s access to their own empathy or their ability to reproduce empathy. One is the fact that empathy makes you vulnerable. And right now in capitalism, in our society, vulnerability, it’s not necessarily respected and it’s often used as a way of breaking people down. There’s a recent article in the latest print issue of Jewish Currents that talked about bringing your whole self to work. Well, what’s to stop your work then from eating your whole self? Right?

So, if you’re in a workplace that demands your vulnerability, that also gives your workplace access to you. And so, I think people are really uniquely concerned around offering that vulnerability that’s necessary to maintain empathy, because it’s dangerous for them. So, obviously we have to look at what the conditions are that make it dangerous. And that’s a much bigger question, right? That’s a revolutionary question. We’re talking about rebuilding society. Right now, the way that work is structured, the way that the state and law enforcement are structured, do not reward vulnerability. So, if we want a more vulnerable society, we have to remake the world.

I think though in the immediacy, we have to, again, work to validate people’s empathetic response. So for folks, for example, dealing with the pandemic, we are going to have to create intentional spaces where people can participate in community that don’t require them to break the protective bonds that they’ve had. And this is really tough. I’m honest, I don’t like wearing a mask. I don’t like having to be away from people. I want to hug people. That’s what I’m like. And so it is hard, and I think it becomes even harder when people go on without you and they don’t invite you to come in.

And it’s really difficult when only a minority of people are asking for what now feels like extraordinary. “Oh, can you wear a mask around me?” Extraordinary. That kind of thing. So, I think normalizing basic measures is really important. Communicating and being able to hear those sorts of things. And I think there’s a cultural shift in how we talk in friendships and relationships, that’s really productive, where we’re sharing a little bit more about how we feel and the uniqueness. It’s a regular topic of conversation now with friends of, “Look, if I feel unavailable for a while, it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s because I’m having my own difficulties or I might need you to reach out to me.” Those sorts of conversations, I think are starting to happen, but we should start to push it into a more intentional way, because I don’t think that it’s going to happen organically, fast enough that we can maintain the community structures that we need to actually reproduce these relationships.

So, I think we need an intervention on that. And that’s going to require, again, building that mix of the institutional and the personal, because I don’t think one without the other has the ability to have that longevity.

This focus on care is also, I think a challenge to the left, in really key ways. When I was young in organizing, I fought against care work and mutual aid really vigorously because I felt like on its worst day, it was charity. It didn’t have the offensive approach I thought was just totally necessary. And obviously, I’ve done a 180 degree turn on that. I think the literal opposite of that, and part of that was that I had had some experiences in organizing mutual aid spaces that just didn’t go particularly well. I was in Food Not Bombs. And while I think we did good work, it certainly wasn’t up to the scale that I see oftentimes now and probably other Food Not Bombs were. And so, that clouded my judgment on it.

But I think a lot of people have a difficulty on understanding the necessity of the mutual aid piece as a political piece in comparison to the more offensive, pressure-oriented tactics. And so, I think it’s important for one to really embed how mutual aid and care is a political project so that people are able to draw those. I think it’s important to strategize how mutual aid and care are part of a revolutionary project. How are they actually a part of organizing and changing material conditions? That’s important.

I think that’s especially important now that we’re seeing the breakdown of even the oppressive social order that we had. And so, mutual aid and basic counter-institutions in dual power are even more important, I think now, and more viable now than they were before. So, I think that’s a piece of that.

I think the other piece is looking at what we mean when we’re talking about a revolutionary project. What is a new society and what are the foundations of it? What would make a society revolutionary? What are the fundamental core pieces of our current society that we would tear apart and so as to make that new society? And I think that that’s fundamentally about care. Deriving our value specifically from care, the emotional value of people, what allows them to live full lives on their own terms, what allows them to be physically and mentally and spiritually healthy. That is how we would determine the success of a new society. That is direct opposite to a profit motivated society whose laws are governed around property.

Instead, we would measure things much, much differently. We’d measure the value not of just the products we produce, but the decisions we make, differently. And so, when we’re envisioning that project, that prefigurative moment of thinking about what we’re fighting for has to be founded on care. And I think when we look backwards at the strategies that get us there, we suddenly start to see new options. Right? We start seeing that care work and mutual aid work is actually strategically necessary and vital, and in fact, crucial to actually winning a revolutionary project, even in the traditional sense of how we understand revolution of one society overtaking another, or a new society overtaking the old.

So, I think we have to think about the means and ends as happening congruently, basically caring now determines the conditions of a caring society later. So, we need to reproduce that as absolutely as much as possible. The other thing is that people are really hurting. There is a lot of crisis taking place right now, and you cannot expect anyone to participate in organizing work unless they are fully cared for. And so, I think that’s the first requirement of any social movement is to care for the people involved.

On my best days, I can be involved in organizing, but a lot of my days are not my best days, and that pulls me away from it. And it actually makes it an incredibly toxic place for a lot of people. And our organizing models are often based on superheroes, basically people who stretch themselves until they break, and then we move on to the next person who stretches themselves till they break. I see this all the time, and it is one that is determinately not revolutionary in that it has no ability to reproduce itself, because it’s not modeled on care. So, I think we have to fundamentally think of that as the counterculture that we’re replacing our current society with.

KH: Given that my chapter in No Pasaran! is a discussion of the fascistic nature of police, and why I believe tackling police and prisons is ground zero in the anti-fascist struggle, it feels important to name that many of us are still reeling from the murders of Tortuguita and Tyre Nichols. We have heard tired arguments, which have been cosigned by some so-called leftists, about how white supremacy was not the issue, given that the cops who beat Nichols to death were Black. It’s the kind of disingenuous argument one hesitates to even address, but since it will continue to come up, I suppose we must address it, again.

SB: I think in terms of the murder of Tyre Nichols, I think that there’s a couple of things that are really important. I think the first is obviously this is a continuation of the absolute crisis of police violence against marginalized communities, that we have talked about, that your chapter in my book talks about. And we have to think of it as a very trenchant threat, a reminder of why the police themselves are not a purely good answer to the threat of the far right, because frankly, you are more likely to be murdered by the police than you are by a white nationalist. And the police have historically collaborated with them.

Now, I think it’s also important to note that individual police officers can come from marginalized groups themselves, like the folks that engaged in the murder of Tyre Nichols. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still playing out the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that the society is built on, because those are structural, they’re not just based on individuals. And so, when we’re talking about white supremacy, we’re talking about structural violence. We really need to talk about it in these big systemic terms that reproduce themselves not just from individual identities, but imprint themselves all over the place.

And I think this is actually sort of what we talked about earlier, which is that one of the trends in the far right is the invitation of marginalized people to participate in not just a far right movement, but a far right movement that actually targets them. So, I gave the example earlier of Raichik, Libs of TikTok, using antisemitic conspiracy theories to target trans folks. Now, those antisemitic conspiracy theories make her less safe too, but on some levels, she’s making a calculation that harming trans people is more important than her own safety. And she probably has all kinds of reasons she believes that to be true.

And so, I think us thinking about going after both the far right and things like systemic police violence, we have to think about it structurally and decouple that just from the identity of the individuals, because fundamentally, even when there’s an individual person we’re confronting like an individual fascist leader, we are talking about larger systems and we can’t just stop at that one defensive moment. We have to go deeper. That’s why it is fundamentally a revolutionary movement, and that’s why care work is tied to anti-fascism, which is tied to police abolition. They all share this vision of an entirely new world.

KH: We have so much work to do, and we are really up against it, but as usual, Shane and I agree that the best remedy for despair is action, and to build things that we believe need to exist.

SB: I think that what’s happening right now has continued to be very demoralizing. And I think this demoralization is coming from watching the sort of structures of our past lives sort of erode, stable workplaces, a lot of people’s places, stable housing, things like that. And that’s all very real. But I also want to sit with some of the things that we’re really gaining, which is a profound sense of community that I didn’t have as a young person. And the kind of organizing that I didn’t think was possible. Things are changing in that way. It doesn’t alleviate our pain right now. And so I think we need to sit and acknowledge that I am sort of optimistic about what we’re actually able to do now, which I don’t think I would’ve felt 10 or 15 years ago. So as the crisis continues, I actually think people are adapting to fight, not just to fight back against it, but to literally capture space back, to basically capture entire communities back from it.

And so what I want to see people being involved in is picking what kinds of organizations and things that they feel most speak to them and being involved in building that community work. Not overtaxing themselves, not engaging in superhero behavior, but doing the long game work of building connections in their communities so that we can sort of sustain mutual aid networks, networks of care defense when necessary. That we can do those interlocking things that a real community is based out of. Just a real community based out of having real relationships that have meaning and weight to each other and where we can actually depend on each other. And that requires formal organizations that take a long time to establish. And so I think that’s where I want to see people doing as much as possible, reaching out to other folks, not sort of continuing what for a lot of folks, I think feels like the alienating process of watching our political system dissolve, but instead engaging outside of that. Building relationships, building organization.

KH: I want to close today with some excellent words from Shane’s introduction to No Pasaran!:

The threat of fascism is the threat that social change will go fundamentally wrong, putting us in a worse situation than where we began. There is no mistaking the despotic collapse we are witnessing in slow motion, from the fragmenting of the global economy to accelerating ecological devastation. Our society was not an inevitability. It could have been different and so can our future. How it plays out depends on our intervention. Anti-fascism can act as an antibiotic against the worst inclinations and possibilities, which want to further reify social stratification and cruelty as a shortsighted way out for a privileged few. But we can choose something entirely different.

We can choose something entirely different. Remember that, my friends. Every day, in everything we do. This is a good time for values check-ins, and it’s a good time to make sure that our actions are in alignment with our values, because it takes work to resist cynicism and the erosion of empathy, in these times. The parts of ourselves we don’t want to lose have to be fought for. Our decency, and the decency of others, will have to be fought for. We can do that in the ways we learn together, plan together, and care for one another.

I want to thank Shane Burley for joining me today to talk about anti-fascism and No Pasarán!: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis. I hope some of you will check it out. This is a good book to have within reach as we navigate these times.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Shane’s books:

More from Shane:

Referenced:

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