Has Trump dragged the U.S. beyond the bounds of democracy? Kelly Hayes talks with Shane Burley, a Truthout contributor and author of the book Fascism Today: What it is and How to End It, about the need to organize and fight back against ascendant fascism.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host Kelly Hayes. Today’s guest is Shane Burley. Shane is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He’s also a Truthout contributor and the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. Shane Burley, welcome to the show.
Shane Burley: Thanks for having me on.
KH: You’re one of those people I’ve communicated with in writing many times, but I think this might be the first time I’m hearing your voice.
SB: Yeah, it’s the transition from our IM relationship .
KH: Well, this is my first time doing an evening recording of Movement Memos, and I am enacting a policy that allows me to drink when I record in the evening or on weekends.
SB: Anything after three o’clock seems like that’s, that’s perfectly in line.
KH: I think so. I mean, if I were a pilot or a surgeon, this policy would probably be dubious, but I think I’m in the clear safety-wise.
SB: We should get it in your union contract.
KH: You know, that’s not the worst idea. How have you been doing?
SB: I have been doing good. I’ve been busy. Taking on way too many writing projects I can’t possibly do in a reasonable amount of time.
KH: Isn’t that the struggle?
KH: But, fascism. Let’s drink about it.
SB: I think we could drink about it all the time about it.
KH: You know, I might. So, that might be happening already. I’m not saying that, for sure. It just, it’s possible. Allegedly, I drink a lot about it.
Before we dive into recent events, I want to try to establish a shared vocabulary with our audience here, because fascism is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot in pretty haphazard ways. So can you take a shot at breaking down for our listeners what the hell fascism even is?
SB: Sure, sure. I try and be really specific when I’m talking about it, because it does end up being a proxy for sort of, all bad things. And, trying to avoid that, because this is a very distinct thing that operates in a really distinct way. So the way I do it is, I kind of use two tent poles. So I say that fascism is sort of the unity of the belief in human inequality, that human beings are fundamentally unequal, whether it’s racially or individually or by gender, orientation, whatever it may be. And the second being a centralized identity. So identity is very fixed and immobile. Identity sort of chooses who you are. You don’t choose your identity.
And so those two things are kind of wrapped up with a few of the secondary things, the focus on immediatism and violence, on populism, mass participation. It’s not just something that happens to us, it’s something that people will actually take on and participate in. It exists by mass cooperation with it. And I think when we’re thinking about how fascism kind of exists today, in a lot of ways it’s separated from its interwar ancestors because it’s adapting to a new world that’s bringing these ideas and motivations and ways of adapting to social systems into, like, a modern, more fragmented sense. And so I think that a lot of the ways that we have to understand fascism is having to think about how people manifest those ideas of inequality and identity and mass cooperation and mass violence, into a real 21st century world of social media and broken down political parties and people trying to create something that’s almost like post-political that’s going to exist after the current political system sort of breaks down.
KH: One of the things I really loved about Fascism Today was the glossary in the front of the book. I think it offers a great jumping off point for a potentially overwhelming subject. We also have real problems in the U.S., wanting to sort of flatten our enemies. If you’re on social media or you know, wherever, but specifically on social media, if you refer to any of these hate groups by their own names or as subgroups, some well-intentioned person always seems to pop up and demand that we call them all white supremacists. Can you say a bit about why you arranged your book this way and the importance of specificity when discussing fascist politics?
SB: Yeah. I can’t disagree more with the inclination to not use the term alt-right. I think that it’s important to understand how your enemies see themselves. Because, and there’s a lot of anti-fascist groups that talk a lot about this, you know, all Nazis may be fascists, but all fascists are not Nazis. Nazis operate a very particular way. And by understanding how they operate, you can actually counter strategize them very, very easily.
But if you flatten them out, if you refuse to participate in understanding what they say and what they think, then you cannot win. And I think what has happened is that sectors of society that are responding to fascists, who are not organizers, have started to dominate that conversation. And their belief in how you handle this problem is basically reduced down to things like rhetoric and journalism. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a journalist. I appreciate the value in that, but it’s not organizing and it doesn’t stop fascism. There is no way that choosing our rhetoric and properly covering fascism will end it. And so, it’s more important that we unveil what they say, what they do, what they think, how they operate, and doing it as clearly as possible. It’s much more important than, quote-unquote, “not playing their rhetorical game.”
I’ve gotten in this argument with some people, for example, even the term white nationalist — now, the term white nationalist has an interesting history because it was just a term invented by white supremacists to kind of code their politics a little bit. And what they were doing was trying to take on the politics of Black nationalism and say like, “Oh, we’re like the flip side of it.” And so, people were like, “You shouldn’t even use that. You should just call them white supremacists.” And I’m like, I understand that, but actually, the term white nationalism has specific strategies to it. Certain organizations work a certain way, and the people know what you mean when you’re saying that. And so, actually, there is a real advantage to understanding how these people identify themselves, how they build relationships and do that kind of thing. And if we flatten them out, it takes that away from us.
It also, it’s just flat incorrect sometimes. So, for example, like when groups are actually multiracial, and people are referring to them as white supremacists, it’s really easy for them to just come back at you and say like, “Well, look at our multiracial membership.” But when you actually talk about their fascist politics, or you say more clearly what they are, it’s a lot harder for them to kind of duck for cover on that. And so, I think it’s really important that we actually do that work.
I think it’s also a certain resistance to saying the word fascism. It has been kind of poisoned in our culture, but it means something. And if we define that meaning, and we stick to that, then we can start to identify who these people are, what they think, and what they’re going to do. And that’s actually the most important thing because counter organizing is what actually has to happen.
KH: Absolutely, for me, it really resonates what you said about how a lot of these folks who have very strong opinions about this are not actually out there counter organizing. I think there’s a lot of spectatorship that people kind of attach authority to, in terms of their commentary. You know, we have a lot of movement critics out there. We have far more movement critics than we have organizers.
But, yes, this failure of analysis that happens when we’re making moral judgments and we’re trying to kind of summarize complex political issues according to how they make us feel or the quality of their morality – I’m reminded of folks who say that, you know, the Democrats and the Republicans are the same. And it’s like, well, even if you embrace very valid critiques of both parties and you think that none of these people are our friends, which I would agree with, you know, they’re not the same. You know, they engage differently. They have different immediate priorities.
As a strategic person, it’s baffling to me. It’s like, you don’t get in a bar fight and attack everyone equally at the same time because they’re all bad. We all make strategic decisions every day about how to navigate dangerous people and dangerous situations. And we don’t feel the need to, “Oh, we must respect every situation and every bad guy as being the same.” Anyway, it makes me mad.
SB: Kind of like what’s happened with things like, phrases like “the resistance.” You know, like, I was in a bookstore a couple of days ago buying some books and the most popular tee shirt near the counter was “Read, Write, Resist.” As if reading and resisting are the same thing. As if not participating in a culture that you’re kind of find repulsive is the same thing as resisting. And the problem is that that gives a blanket check to not participating in oppositional organizing that disrupts power. And I feel like we actually have to kind of run counter to that, and start the conversation about what it means to move out of our comfortable spaces and our everyday way of living and engaging with the world, and actually run counter and make things uncomfortable with the goal of disruption.
And without that, we don’t accomplish anything. And instead, we’re focused instead on just kind of building narratives or creating support networks, which are fine, but we actually are going to have to come up against power at some point.
KH: And it seems like we rarely hear about specific groups and what they’re capable of, or even where they are organizing to harm vulnerable communities, until something really terrible happens. Like, there are people like you documenting these things, but most people don’t seem to hear about these groups until they’ve committed well-publicized acts of violence or have come close to doing so. The most recent example being, you know, the Base, who people have been hearing about because of an alleged conspiracy to commit an attack on a second amendment rally in the hopes of instigating a race war.
There was also a pretty huge development in the wake of those events that I think we would be remiss not to talk about. The leader and founder of the Base has been identified by The Guardian as Rinaldo Nazzaro, who actually lives in Russia. The Guardian also reported that some members of law enforcement and even some of Nazzaro’s fellow white supremacists suspect he is either working for the U.S. government or for the Russian government. I feel like some people don’t see this as the major story that you and I both do. So I’m wondering if you can say a bit about the significance of this person being outed.
SB: Yeah, I mean, well, first off it’s the difficulty of it. Because we’re talking about, you know, encryption on top of encryption and a really, very international intentional effort to kind of disperse identities. And it is hard. It’s really hard work. You know, Jason Wilson at The Guardian did months and months of research to try and unveil this.
There’s a couple of things. So one, if it’s a U.S. asset, then it’s part of a really embarrassing, longstanding attempt, most likely to try and infiltrate groups to honeypot them. That’s the most charitable version of this. The worst version goes in the other direction, that it’s openly supportive of that. If it’s Russia, again, it’s a matter of just cultural disruptions and things like that.
I think what’s most important about something like the Base is that it’s echoes of violence are going to expand far outside of it for a very, very, very long time. You know, one of the things about really insurrectionary areas of social movements is that they are inspirational to one another, and they tend to kind of ripple far beyond the direct correlation with the groups. So, when it comes to the Base, there’s a lot of Base members who are growing and popping up in different areas. And all of this exposure may actually start to shrink parts of it. But similar groups will pop up. Other people who are unaffiliated will engage in that kind of activity. And right now, the Base is on the edge of doing very serious, serious crime. So, for example, like you mentioned that we had the recent Virginia second amendment rally responding to the very moderate gun control bills that were in Virginia.
What they were intending to do was to come in there and open fire on the crowd. Not because they disliked the gun protesters, but because they’re accelerationists. They want to bring about social collapse so that they can instigate a race war. And so they want to open fire on the crowds so the crowd will start shooting at each other, and maybe they’ll blame the left, and maybe there’ll be increased racial violence that way.
They also were camping out in front of an antifascist podcaster’s house. Well, what they thought was his house. And that kind of echoes earlier times when people associated with white supremacist crews like the Order assassinated a Jewish radio host who had been giving, you know, the fascists shit on the air. And I think what we’re seeing is the potential for very targeted acts of really clearly terroristic violence. That’s really scary. They can’t control it.
We don’t know who all these people are there. We’re talking about informal networks of people that are dispersed around the country and around the world, getting orders from people they don’t even know. That’s just a recipe for impulsive, really extreme acts of violence.
KH: Oh, absolutely. It never ceases to shock me, the more I dive in. And how little relationship some of these people have to each other, that they take their cues from and they build, you know, not just entire, sort of concepts of reality, but also are willing to take very drastic action based on conversations they’re having with people who could be anyone, you know, with any intention.
And as you said, there’s always that possibility that this gentleman [is] working for the U.S. government, if that’s what’s happening. I have a very hard time believing that the U.S. government is setting up honeypots to capture white supremacists. I’ll say that.
SB: That’s one of the nightmares, I feel like, of where we live in now, where the idea of a Russian government plant is an actual possibility. It’s not just a paranoid fantasy. That’s really frightening because it’s at this point really hard, then, to kind of break apart fact and fiction. We’re participating in an era where rumor’s as good as fact sometimes, and so it’s actually really hard to know what’s coming next.
KH: I think that what you’re saying about facts in this age, I mean we’re, you know, we’re both trying to do journalism in the era of deep fakes.
There is a contempt for facts, obviously, that’s coming from, you know, the Republican side and, obviously, some Democrats too. But you know, this is a way in which authority evades responsibility, by having this contempt for facts. And I think we talk a lot about how Fox and Friends and all of that is BS. And of course it is, but when we kind of demonize in that way and kind of push the whole problem over there, we’re ignoring the fact that we have a rich media, which means we have a poor democracy. All of this is happening in the service of maintaining some kind of status quo, and I think that that gets lost on people sometimes.
SB: Yeah. I always kind of cringe when people talk about the right wing media, not that there’s not right wing media. But it’s actually like a bourgeois media of basically rich, moneyed interests, perpetuating very specific ideological perspectives as they do it. And it’s an incredibly narrow understanding of what politics is and how it can be portrayed. And it’s not one that I think has space for the kind of moment that we’re in and where people are actually at.
KH: Something else I wanted to touch on. When Trump got elected, we saw a lot of debates and think-pieces about whether or not he was a literal fascist. And we heard a lot of very serious people proclaim that Trump couldn’t be a fascist, or bring about fascism, either because there were no paramilitary groups attacking people, or because Trump was supposedly going to withdraw U.S. troops from various military engagements.
None of those proclamations have aged well, in my opinion, given that there are armed white supremacists marching in the streets, and because Trump is obviously very pro-war and pro-expansionist in practice. I mean, the man wanted to buy Greenland. But what do you say to people who ask the question, “Is Trump a fascist?”
SB: You know, I think it’s also that people keep looking to the past when it doesn’t actually make sense, you know. Fascist governments of the early 20th century were really primitive states, you know. You could have a paramilitary force because the military itself wasn’t so monolithic that it had, like, a totality in government and in society. I can’t imagine a 21st century U.S. situation where there was a large scale paramilitary force that could rival the government. And so people are looking for stuff that just, physically can’t exist.
In fact, it just runs so much different. Social movements work so much differently. We don’t, like, rely [on] centralized political parties to mobilize.
There’s a, kind of a difference between a fascist ideology and a fascist movement. Trump’s ideology, individually, as far as we can tell, isn’t super coherent. What he’s helping to foster has really serious elements of a fascist movement — the public rallies he has, the racial dog whistles which aren’t even dog whistles anymore, and the racialized policies.
But I think, what I get at with people, what I think is most important is, walk away from the question sometimes, a little bit, for him as an individual. What is he doing and can we tolerate it? And that’s really important. I mean, people got really jumped into the words, in areas, when maybe they shouldn’t.
There was a point at which, when people — we were first seeing about the immigration camps on the border, with kids locked up in cages. And people, rightly and accurately, called them concentration camps. And then a lot of people started having this, a lot of anger, “Are these accurately concentration camps? What is a concentration camp? This example of a concentration camp is this, blah, blah.” And at the same time people, kids, were locked in cages. And so, I think that we need to deal with the fact that we have a racialized authoritarian in the White House. He may meet all the checkmarks of fascist. He may miss them on some things, but a fascist movement has absolutely formed, both on the streets and, in a way, in state power.
And the other thing is that we’re kind of off the map a little bit. You know, everything about fascism in, sort of, the global North, or Western Europe and U.S. that’s been written or understood since the second World War, has understood fascism as, like, a minority movement. It doesn’t have state power. So there’s really no example of what it looks like when it does have state power, in this particular context.
And so I think what we’re doing is looking to see how these things are emerging and growing, and taking on what we do know about fascism, without replicating exactly how things have happened in the past.
KH: You know, what I find interesting, especially about what you just said, is this notion of judging based on functionality versus what we think someone believes.
I was, I honestly found it super obnoxious when people were going on about like, “Well, he can’t be a fascist because he doesn’t believe in anything.” I would agree that he doesn’t believe in anything, but I also think it’s a little ridiculous for us to go back through history and assign, like, intention or level of belief to anyone.
It’s like, how are these people affecting the course of history? How are they affecting the lives of the marginalized people [they] were attacking? And to me, that’s the basis for analysis. And I think it says a lot about the state of politics that we’re in, that people are arguing about what’s in someone’s heart and what’s in someone’s mind when they’re persecuting people, rather than talking about the fact simply that it’s happening, it’s awful, and what do we do.
SB: Yeah. Yeah, and I think it lends too much centrality to the leadership, as if the mass base isn’t participating in this. You know, like, “What does Trump think about it? Are his ideas coherent about it?” Well, the reality is that there is enough commonality in the mass base of Trump and the state infrastructure that is supporting Trump, that kind of plays out those essential qualities of fascism, that I think that’s enough for us to understand that there’s a fascist movement taking place here, and that it’s shaping policy. You know how fast it works, you know, are all parts of the state going to line up? Those are questions we just don’t know. But we do know enough to fight back, and that should, in a lot of ways, be the priority.
KH: Absolutely. And one of the questions, you know, that we’re faced with in this moment is — you know, I was talking to Aly Wane about this recently — why aren’t more of us fighting back? Because you know, we hear every day people talking about the atrocity and how we can’t accept it. But I think there’s a lot of fear and there’s a lot to be afraid of.
And I think one of the reasons that, you know, bingeing television is such a popular pastime, is that we get escapism in whatever dosage we need in the moment, to ignore how messed up things are, until we fall asleep, or whatever. And I’m not saying that to get down on escapism, like, I love TV and I need it in my life, but we’re definitely living in a moment when people do not want to be confronted with the reality of capitalism and what it has offered up to us.
And I think the climate crisis is one of the primary drivers of a larger retreat into private life. People just can’t fathom solutions for some of the problems we’re up against. So they don’t want to think about them. In my experience, there is nothing that makes people run screaming faster than the subject of ecofascism. So at the risk of losing all of our listeners right now, what is ecofascism?
SB: You know, the simple answer is it’s fascists who like the environment. I think,what people want to see, I think, when understanding ecofascism, is where it breaks from environmentalism. And the reality is that it’s essentially imprinting a lot of the anxieties and assumptions that fascists have, just onto environmental things.
You know, a lot of these radical politics are about combining ideas — I mean, radical rights politics — are about combining ideas that shouldn’t normally be associated. So, when it comes to the environment, the assumption is that the modern world, with its technology and mass consumerism, mass production, is environmentally destructive. And so that’s the end of thought one. The second thought is that modern society is multicultural and it’s socially degenerate and it’s multiracial and all these sorts of things that they think are unnatural. So that’s kind of assumption two.
When you combine those things, they sort of tell the story that those are the same things. That, actually, it’s a multiculturalism that’s environmentally destructive. That it’s actually the destruction of the family that’s helping drive consumerism. And so, there ends up being this, kind of, a new, melded ideology. And there’s a really long history for this. In fact, it’s as long as environmentalism has existed. Because there’s a certain kind of far right understanding of the natural world as embodying their ideology — as being sort of cruel and hierarchical and unforgiving and, kind of, a death march against the weak. And so that’s a version of the environment that they want to perpetuate.
I think it should go without saying that that’s, there’s nothing naturally true about that and understanding ecology. And that’s really very much, kind of a modern ideological imprinting on science and nature and things like that.
But it has a lot of resurgence and it has a lot of buy-in, because what it does is it takes the anxiety about climate change, which is very real, and in a lot of ways defining all of culture right now, and it drives it back in to their other anxiety, which is about race. And it validates that racial narrative.
And so, these kind of Neo-Malthusian arguments about population, or about immigration and environmental destruction, that has a lot of buy-in for people who want to have one narrative, one far right narrative that challenges absolutely nothing.
And I think the other thing, to draw where you talked about before that with the, kind of checking out, you know, I think that we’re talking about really, really big, big, big problems. We’re talking about climate change that’s really going to get worse before it gets better. We’re talking about the rise of fascist movements, in a lot of ways, are feeding off the instability of capitalism and chaos and environmental destruction. And the only answer for that is to move so far past people’s general experience.
And so, it’s sort of like telling people to see a color that they don’t know exists. Most people have very few sorts of noncommercial social engagements in their life, you know. In fact, for a lot of people who attend church, that might be it. And so we’re talking about completely restructuring people’s lives that they’re engaging in social practice that runs up against capitalism and authoritarian politics. We’re talking about reordering social life, we’re talking about learning skills we have no concept of now. It requires a lot. And so, there’s really- it feels like, when the answer is that huge, it’s almost like an impossible task to take on. And so, I think right now, it’s very easy to slip into the mode of finishing with baby steps, or backing away, or doing a lot of, kind of like, hope and prayer behavior, when what we need is stepping stones to participation, in a lot of ways.
KH: Systems maintain themselves. You know, one of the primary functions, if not their primary function of authority, is to maintain itself. Government maintains itself, societies, individuals. If we leave all of this intact, the way that it is, I don’t think it’s simply probable, but I think it’s absolutely inevitable that you will have people who, right now, think of themselves as being very liberal and forward thinking, who will say nothing as we slam the doors shut at the border, even under a Democrat. And we say, “You know, we just can’t help these people because scarcity is setting in and we’re afraid.” I think us monstrousizing people, as though they’re not just kind of bringing really bad ideas that exist in our culture full circle, is a huge mistake.
And you know, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and writing about people like Steve Bannon, about folks like Steven Miller, and these things that they say are horrific. And yet, what it all cooks down to is a very feasible thing that we could see folks doing and thinking here, which is freaking out about, like, the brown hordes that are storming the borders. Like, these kind of fantasies of being overrun and attacked by, you know, sort of a criminal force that’s going to steal everything from you — this is not far fetched, that people in this country would embrace that.
And, so I think that people aren’t ready to confront that, sort of the landslide of fascism and fascistic politics, ultimately, includes many of them. You know, I don’t think it includes all of us, cause we’re all not going to benefit from how this hierarchy plays out, obviously, but many, many people who think that they would never be part of such a thing, they would never be complicit, ultimately would be for the same reason so many French people were complicit, you know, when the Germans rolled into Paris. They had someone telling them that, “Hey, if you do what we say, your lives can remain the same. No one’s going to take anything from you.” And I think Americans are very much locked into wanting to find a way for that to be true, whether it’s a Republican, whether it’s a Democrat, they want to believe that our way of life is sustainable. And, you know, obviously it isn’t.
SB: No. And I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not that we have to get someone out of the White House, otherwise they will do that. This will happen from both parties, if there isn’t organized resistance to stop it.
You know, one of the things is that people, when provided with no real alternative, will often just take what’s offered to them, in matters of survival, or what they think are going to be matters of survival. And what, kind of, organizing for a different world requires is a great deal of faith — in yourself, in your community — that by doing this, it will be better. And that’s a really scary thing when you have no experience doing it whatsoever. You have no reason to believe that this kind of action, trusting other people, is going to bring people together through it.
And so, I think, like, we can’t hold off until crisis sets in, and then think we’re going to intervene on people’s behavior. We have to start talking about what those solutions look like now, and also what happens when we don’t — because that’s the inevitability of climate chaos, is having a border imperialism, of having, like, this crushing kind of targeted force on immigrants and certain groups of folks, that whoever, are going to be decided by the apparatus of the state or the parties or the social movements — and we have to have a united force on it.
KH: You and I have talked in the past about what it’s like to have an analysis of fascist politics in a country that generally does not have that analysis. While all these things are happening, if you point out the warning signs as they crop up, people tell you you’re being alarmist. When you try to explain the mechanics of what’s happening, and people do listen, they often default to fatalism. Like, I’ve seen people share my articles and my tweets, simply to backup declarations that we’re all doomed.
SB: Yeah, I’ve definitely seen people share your tweets with one of those like, “I guess we’re fucked,” kind of messages.
KH: And even though people are still repeating the refrain, “This is not normal,” the truth is that all of this is being normalized very effectively, because we can’t walk around in an excited state of rage and grief all the time.
So our heart rates even out and our bodies adapt to what’s happening. And, to me, it feels like we’re living in a horror movie where there’s some kind of supernatural force that keeps siphoning away our pain and outrage. It’s like the wounds scabs over and we become even more desensitized. What do you think it would take to shake us out of this self-reinforcing pattern?
SB: I think that we have to think about it from the opposite end. I think that victory and success shakes people out of apathy and angst that comes from failure. I think showing people that they have power is what gets them to put themselves into it more. And so I think we should have intentionality about having people participate, and making it clear when things work and when they don’t work, and trying to show people that pathway. And I, I don’t say that as though it’s like some easy thing that there’s a clear blueprint for. But I do think it’s returning us to the idea that we have power, in our lives and in our communities, in ways that I don’t think that people have been conditioned to believe in any real fundamental way.
We don’t walk through our lives being taught to have faith in our ability to change things around us. But we do. And there’s an entire history of social movements that prove that, when you do that, when people participate in a mass way, they actually do fundamentally change things, and sometimes very, very rapidly. And so I think we need to work to communicate, one, how to get involved in what that looks like, but [also] what it looks like to win.
KH: I do want to be real with folks about the fact that sometimes we have to do things, and we know it’s probably not going to end well for us. And we can sit on our hands and hope that if we don’t do those things somehow we’ll make it, but that’s not really how anything works.
When I was reading A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, which for our listeners who may not know, is an incredible book about the French resistance in World War II, there was a line that really got under my skin. A woman who was active in the resistance, doing work she didn’t feel she could stop doing, even though she knew she was being surveilled and that she was, in all likelihood, going to be caught and captured smuggling people over the border, relatively soon.
When people would ask her if she was afraid, she would say, “I feel like a goat attached to a stake. I’m waiting for the wolf to come.” I really connected with those words because I feel like a lot of us have continued to put ourselves out there politically under Trump, in ways that will be increasingly dangerous if authoritarianism continues to ascend. You and I both have the kind of public profiles, and political relationships, that get people rounded up when the fit hits the shan. So I’m wondering, historically, what can you tell us about how people interact with those threats?
SB: Well, you know, it makes me think. After Trump was elected, my wife got me this pendant of St. Jude, who’s the patron Saint of lost causes. We chose to be here. I couldn’t, we couldn’t get out of it if we wanted to, now. Right?
KH: What have breaking points looked like, when people fled or went underground, or when they should have done those things, like, as fascists took power?
SB: I think it’s when identity moves from being targeted to being openly criminalized. The treatment of the media is a really big canary in the coal mine. And I think, for me, what’s really important is that fascism isn’t just centered on the state, even in places where the state is demonstrably fascist. It really is centered on the people there. Fascism exists through mass complicity. It has to. There’s no existence of fascism that doesn’t depend on the mass participation of the public. If it is, it’s just authoritarian, it’s [clearly not] fascist. And so I think the really big, deciding moment is how we trust one another and if we actually feel like we can anymore.
If, for example, the prison camps on the border are going to have mass acceptance.
Those are the moments, which I actually think, are the biggest marker that we’ve crossed the threshold on this and that we’re actually in a place of, basically, fight or flight in a really open way.
KH: Don’t you… I don’t know. I feel like, I never want to be that person’s like, “Oh, it’s already that way,” because I don’t want to erase the difference between explicit and implicit violence or racism. But, I feel like there’s a thing happening where we’re outraged for, like, the 24 hour news cycle. And is that materially that different than when everyone’s just functionally complicit? There’s this thing where we’ll, we’ll get really angry, we’ll tweet about it, and then a week later we’re tweeting about something else, and the news is talking about something else way faster than that.
Do you think that the way that the media works now and the way that the public conversation jumps so quickly – I mean, is there really a difference between not paying attention and being truly complicit in an active way?
SB: No, I don’t think there is. I think there is, maybe in what’s in people’s hearts, but it certainly doesn’t play out into the material world. I think it comes back to what you said earlier about, the number one function of a system is to replicate itself. And we live in an era of very complicated social systems that discourage opposition. And so, it’s almost as though we’re living in a time when I don’t think that there are going to be shocks to the system that, “Wake people up,” quote unquote, to mass participation. I don’t think that that can happen. I think it’s going to have to happen in a different kind of way. And if I knew exactly what that way was, I feel like I would have the ticket on it. But, it is true that the way the media works now, and with just the constant stream of outrage, I don’t think it’s mobilizing people in any reliable way.
I think it does keep people in this space where outrage has been normalized. It reminds me a lot of this story. My wife once came home and was telling me about being catcalled. And I was like, oh my God, we have to go do something about this. I’m so outraged. I’m going to go out there and take care of this.
If I was, you know, stopping my day and fighting men on the street every time this happened, this would be my life. And I remember, it was just like this moment of, like, I don’t have to deal with that. That’s like a male privilege situation. And I, you know, walk through life not worrying about that. And therefore, I, when it occurs, I’m suddenly outraged.
Well, like, I can’t walk around being outraged all the time, and scared all the time. And so, instead, I think we’re in a place where people really are, like, retreating. And that’s why, I mean, that’s why we’re going to have to have really a clear way of plugging them into some really actionable stuff. I think, like you said, teaching them the lessons of what it means to lose and to fight anyway, but also what it’s going to take to do it.
And I think that that’s something that happens in waves. I do think there’s a lot of things to be encouraged by, though, because we are in the era where people are exploding in the participation, far beyond organizations that mobilize people, you know. So there was a book that came out recently called Riot. Strike. Riot. So, historically, the dominant form of protest was riots. And that’s because people didn’t have mass participation in the political system, and they didn’t have workplace organizations and things like that. So they went directly up against the system to smash it, and that was like, a form of kind of mass political action.
And then, with formations of labor unions, things like that, the mass formation type of political action was the strike. We centered life on workplaces and withholding labor. But as the population has less uniform workplaces and as the economy starts to break down, people are kind of returning to the riot, in a lot of ways, as a dominant type of protest. And what we’re seeing is people becoming mobilized into really mass political action, very quickly. And I think that gives us hope because I think it’s creating a culture that’s actually more willing to walk into the chaos of a mass movement. We just have to figure out how to keep them there and how to keep those mobilizations happening.
KH: As you were mentioning earlier, we don’t have the kind of membership organizations driving organizing that we did in some of the decades past when people were accomplishing really incredible things, taking on systems in a really direct way. And who really has the resources that they throw behind mass mobilization, now. It’s nonprofits and it’s a lot of, you know, sort of Facebook events and I’m not getting down on it. I utilize these things. I work with these people. But also there is definitely something lost in the fact that, as you were saying earlier, there aren’t a lot of places where people in the United States come together, I mean for anything, you know. Put aside politics for a moment, but literally, to commune about anything that we’re not paying for in some way. And usually, even if we’re paying for the moment, we have to bring the people with us that we want to appreciate it with. So I feel like we’re in this moment where it’s great when people march, and also, we’re not really doing relationship work necessarily.
Like, when I organize a protest, one of the things I like to do is, you know, midway through somewhere, just stop and tell everyone to find someone nearby they’ve never talked to before and talk about, for three minutes, like, what are you each committing to do moving forward? And I mean, and that’s such a tiny gesture. These are just the tiniest gestures of trying to create human connectivity. But I really think that’s a missing piece to us having the power to do things as people and not just work within the constraints of – let’s be real, organizations that have to operate within government strictures. I mean, Truthout is one of those, you know, nonprofits. The system is set up such that you can only process so many donations to keep your work afloat. You can only do so many of the things you have to, to sustain, you know, without taking on 501(c)(3) status, or whatever. But it really has pigeonholed us. It really has backed us into a corner of what people think activism looks like, and more importantly, what they think organizing demands of them.
SB: Yeah, we have to reorient people to the idea of being a member of an organization and the kind of rights and responsibilities that come with that. Like people have been very, kind of, used to being disengaged from that. That’s part of, kind of the de-churchification of the culture, is that people have become kind of fully autonomous from collective life, in some way, where you share a collective identity that’s chosen in some way.
I think it’s also, because we were talking about what it’s like to go through loss and the fact that organizing, when it’s good, does lose because it has stakes. You know, like bad organizing has no stakes. Therefore it doesn’t matter if you lose because you’re just raising consciousness or something. But if you’re really trying to win, you will lose most of the time.
Yeah. I think it’s like, it’s sort of, showing people that there’s a certain joy of being in it because we’re in the fight. We’re kind of becoming alive in the fact that we’re building those connections and community, and that’s like a totally lost function. That, like, being in an organization, doing organizing work and doing oppositional work, doing community mutual aid and solidarity is something that’s rewarding for its own sake. The sort of joy of organizing, and why that participation is meaningful on its own terms, not just as the vessel for victory. I mean, we’re talking about people taking control of communities, of finding themselves and finding relationships and building strong relationships, not ones that are totally alienated and siloed in the rest of their life, just in their work places, or in their home, or in a bar or something, but like, that we’re actually going deeper and stuff, and creating that kind of foundation.
You know, the Black Panthers created survival pending revolution programs. And these were like a necessity, you know, people needed food in the morning, kids did. And so, these were important for basically getting to the point of a revolutionary struggle. But they also were what was necessary to build a strong community that would ever even be capable of something like a revolutionary struggle, which was a total restructure of the way that community functions, the way the economy functions, and so on.
And so, I don’t think that we can ever get to dramatic changes in society without creating really strong community structures and bonds. The structure is just the formalization of real, strong connections between people. And so if we make that, in a lot of ways, the foundation of it, then I think people are actually gonna be able to get to the later things. And they do those because they are going to be fulfilling and sustaining.
KH: And I feel like one of the things we can learn from, as you were saying, is people who’ve done community building based on mutual aid, based on addressing the way in which society isn’t tending to their needs. And I think everyone in every city should be demanding public hearings on climate change, like public safety hearings about what the plan is when one of these horrible catastrophes happen to us. And is there a plan for disabled people? Is there a plan for people like you know, any individual family? Like, is there a plan for you? Because if a city is not being transparent about its climate resiliency plan, it’s probably because there isn’t one, or that there is, but it doesn’t pertain to the safety of most people.
I really think that this horrific moment that has the potential to drive fascism, you know, to the hilt, in the most destructive ways possible, is also presenting us with an opportunity to decide who we really are and to prove that human potential runs in more than one direction. I’m working with some people now, trying to figure out what it could look like this year, in my neighborhood and maybe some adjacent neighborhoods, to start bringing people into space to talk about these things together. And talk about, you know, okay, they’re not going to take care of us, so what is our plan to make sure that disabled people in our community are people we know, and that we know to try to get them to the nearest generator if that’s what needs to happen when there’s a mass blackout or something.
I don’t know. I feel like these moments that are so horrifying to us, you know, anybody can be virtuous when nothing is being asked of us. I think there’s a challenge in front of us right now that it’s either going to go the way of the fascists and we’re going to be living in their, you know, sort of fantasy, or you know, some of these things that people like us are called very idealistic for dreaming of that are actually just very natural ways that human beings survive and that, you know, social animals have always survived. I don’t know. I think we’re, it’s, we’re on a precipice obviously, and all of everyone’s fears are valid. And also, I feel like we’re kind of on the cusp of figuring out who we are and what it means to be human and what we’re going to decide that means, you know, ultimately. If we are up against the end of the world, like, who even are we?
And I don’t think those questions are necessarily being asked in the way that they should, because we’re living with this 24 hour news cycle and all this bullshit. But I really think that “What does the moment demand of us?” is kind of one of the main questions in front of us.
SB: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s confusion and moral posturing and things about what motivates people in organizing, and the reality is self-interest in a lot of ways. And it’s teaching people to trust that, not just thinking myopically, but thinking as a community actually helps you out. And that’s a better way to live and that you’ll come out on top about that, which is not what our experiences or a lot of people’s experiences [are].
You know, when I was doing… We were organizing around fracking in upstate New York and going into rural communities in New York or Pennsylvania. We were walking into spaces, and let’s be clear, these are not, you know, communities where we’re, they’re winning progressive of the year award, you know, like that. There’s no, no illusions about what people think about things. But they walk in and everyone knew each other. They had community bonds and they were able to mobilize around political issues almost immediately, if they wanted to kick out fracking because of water pollution and things like that that were affecting the community, they understood it right away. They believed each other when they said things were happening, which is something that just simply doesn’t occur in a lot of urban landscapes.
And it reminds me in a lot of ways of how the far right recruits, you know. So I live in Oregon, on Eastern Southern Oregon, there’s a largely rural area, there’s a lot of deserts and stuff, east of the Cascade Mountains. And it’s also just areas where social services have been completely gutted. So it’s not uncommon for it to take several hours for an ambulance to arrive if someone’s in trouble, you know. We’re talking about no high speed internet, you know, library’s been closed and everything.
And so what, what’s happening is, is that the militia is coming in and helping create community support bonds. Just normal stuff, help get people to their doctor’s appointments, things like that. And the left is not there doing that. They’re just, they’re simply not. And when the organizations do come in, there’s an organization here called the Rural Organizing Project that’ll come in and help do kind of community mobilizations and progressive stuff in rural areas, the militias suddenly have no recruitment because the community resources are already being built. The bonds being made, you know, they’re helping them create community centers or newsletters, getting the neighbors to know each other, creating support systems, because that’s what people wanted.
And once you’re able to create that, you’re able to go much, much, much further because things start changing because you have that support structure. And if we’re not going to go in and learn the lessons of what it takes to build a strong community, then our ideas are totally meaningless. At that point, we might as well just be more morally posturing, because we’re not actually affecting any of those changes.
It’s really easy, for example, to mock rural areas where they have strong community bonds, and then try and, kind of, critique how they could do it better, but we don’t have those, in a lot of ways. And so, I think we need to start looking at — what’s it going to take to, block by block and community by community, to build really big support structures that are able to sustain them? ‘Cause like you said, the state is not going to be able to maintain our communities, particularly poor communities that just don’t have a ton of money in the bank to support, you know, outside resources, when the shit really hits the fan. And it’s gonna fucking hit the fan. I mean we’re talking about a year in which, you know, a large percentage of Australia is on fire, where species are going extinct, things are happening, and we are going to have to figure out a way to survive. And I think we need to start communicating with people that their best chance for survival, their best chance of having a good life, is to start rethinking how we’ve done this. And think that maybe solidarity and mutual aid, and maybe the success of your neighbor and the people that maybe you’ve been blaming, maybe their successes are going to be tied to your own in a way that you never considered, and that we absolutely have to now. What I think is actually going to be true is that we’re not talking about best case scenarios anymore; we’re talking about survival or extinction.
KH: Absolutely, and I think that one of the things that people tend to overlook when they emphasize that, you know — the first big scary UN report that I think shocked a lot of people into reality when they quite generously suggested that we had 12 years to turn it all around — they were talking about indigenizing our way of life. They were talking about a radical reorientation, that I don’t think people are really going to understand until more is taken away from them. A friend of mine back in college used to say that, “Well, we could topple capitalism any day now, if everyone didn’t have credit cards.”
There are these ways that make things seem a little more capable of being extended. There are ways of making things seem like, “Okay, this can be possible a little bit longer,” and we grab onto that because acting out, going through the motions of normalcy, is all people really know how to do. And so, yes, I think a big part of organizing is giving people ways right now to plug in to, “How do we care for each other?” because fundamentally we don’t have a culture of care where our wellbeing matters.
And that works against us at every turn, in ways that people don’t understand. And anti-fascist organizing has a really crappy reputation in the U.S., which is truly unfortunate for us, as people living in a country where fascism is ascendant.
SB: Yeah, I think, it’s hard because the position the anti-fascist was put in is not like other social movements. It waits for a bad thing, and then fights back against that bad thing, which is inherently sort of a destructive act. It’s not one always of, you know, the creation of some sustaining institution or something. It’s really one based around fighting – an important thing, but it’s not, um, it’s harder, I think, in a lot of ways to communicate with people, the positive vision that can also be associated with that.
There are people doing it, you know. I think that when organizations go into communities, not just flying in to fight far right stuff, but go in there and stay, and try and make themselves relevant in a lot of ways, you know. So there’s groups that have been doing, like, needle exchange and food drop-offs in Appalachia. It’s part of their work of fighting the far right. They’re fighting the far right when it shows up, and then they’re sticking around to try and create a community foundation and create a counter-narrative. There’s some, some are like nonprofits, like the Montana Human Rights Network has done a lot of that work, trying to undermine the militia by creating, you know, community presence and stuff like that.
But we have to keep that going. I mean, that’s going to have to grow. I mean, the most effective thing people can do to fight fascism is to uproot the things that, kind of, spurn its growth in the first place. And that’s by confronting, obviously, institutional white supremacy and creating, really, community foundations so that a new politic can emerge and that we can make that the foundation of a new community.
KH: Politics of accommodation are incredibly deadly right now. The idea that it’s good to protest children being taken from their families and put in camps and express your feelings about that, but it’s bad to make people behind those policies upset or uncomfortable in their lives. Some of the same people who insist that we ought to be in the streets every day protesting, every day, they’ll go ballistic if protesters show up outside Tucker Carlson’s house or interrupt Sarah Sanders’ dinner. What do you say to people that are that wrong?
SB: Yeah, it reminds me of, I think it was Utah Phillips, that was talking about environmentally destructive extractive industries and said, “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and the people that are killing it have names and addresses.” Institutions are made by people, and if our organizing work does not disrupt their functioning and target who’s responsible, it isn’t organizing work. Symbolic protest is not the same thing as effective organizing because it’s – effective organizing has to disrupt power, because power is fundamentally flawed and [it’s]what’s conducting the things we’re trying to stop. And so, I think this comes back to, if it wasn’t inconvenient, if it wasn’t a problem, if it didn’t make some people upset, it wouldn’t work at all.
KH: I think that all of that is so crucial and I think that we have, kind of, lost the ability to accept that, all of us should have to organize with people not of our own choosing at some point. I think that that really kind of gets lost in our insistence, our rightful insistence on upholding certain values, but I think we’ve kind of lost our way sometimes in terms of figuring out – what is it to bring together, like, a disparate group of people, and we all have to accomplish something together and we have to figure out what solidarity really means and what it means to to function in pursuit of something? I don’t think that that is demanded of us often enough because we are called upon to share experiences versus goals. Like, there’s so many vigils — and I mean, I host vigils too, not trying to get down — but there’s this notion in the United States that shared expression and self-expression is, in and of itself, political action. And that comes from notions of individualism, right? And, like, my feelings are very important to me. So when I express them, that’s politically powerful. But you know, it really isn’t, because they’re diffusing us in this way that we make very easy for them.
And that brings me to something that I want to talk about in terms of the ways in which we’re separated according to strategy, theory, tactics, all of this stuff. A lot of it can be boiled down to a fetishization of nonviolence, in my opinion. Social justice efforts are not competitors in some kind of race where only one crosses the finish line.
Every era of history and change is fueled by a whole lot of stuff happening in concert. And it’s very dicey to say that any one thing would have wound up the way it did, if not for another. And there’s also a stigma people attach to acts of defiance and community self-defense in which rocks are thrown or property is destroyed.
So the question then becomes, should we be demanding that all protests be nonviolent, or should we be, or should we have a greater recognition of the humanity of people who break things, and judge their situation based on the reality they’re living in rather than this formula we’ve been told to believe in.
I mean, the fact that the rules have been built in opposition to us fighting for our survival itself should kind of tell a story, but it’s not one that people really absorb.
SB: I think when people talk about violence in protests, it’s a moving target that kind of lacks a lot of consistency. So, we talk a lot about Antifa violence now, but when you look at the history of antifascist protest movements — anti-racist action [in the] eighties, nineties, John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, Anti-Fascist Action, other groups like that — Antifa, today, is actually quite quaint. We were talking about, almost like, gang style warfare back then. And there was a lot more public acceptance of it because people could kind of see what the Order had done and what Neo-Nazi skinhead groups were doing, and they understood why anti-racist skinheads were putting on boots and fighting them at punk shows. It kind of makes sense to people a little bit, because they understood that these were defensive actions.
And so I think, in a lot of ways, the way that we talk about violence is — one, it’s directed by things outside of our control. However it’s framed and presented to people, it’s not really the acts themselves. But I think it also misses just the historical reality of these things.
I hear a lot about these things, about the purity of nonviolence and its effectiveness, but what people often don’t understand is that, like, even movements that are largely considered nonviolent, aren’t purely so, in that way. And if you can show me one social movement that was purely nonviolent and completely legal in every fashion and met its goals, then I might change my mind. If just one social movement example in the history of the world. But the problem is that things aren’t clean like that and they don’t work like that. And so I think people need to start to reframe how they understand what’s effective and also, what’s come before and how success happened.
And the other thing is that we really need to have strong conversations about what it means for people to defend themselves. Because, what [is] happening now is the growth of essentially white supremacists movements, heading onto the streets, hate crimes going through the roof. And then the movements that are essentially constructed as self-defense movements — Antifa, to defend people — are then being reframed as antagonistic, violent actors. And that really misses where the violence is coming from, which is just demonstrably from white supremacist gangs and terrorist groups. It’s demonstrably coming from the police and from the state. It’s demonstrably coming from the U.S. military. And so, I think it’s really important to start to talk about what the role of violence actually is in society and in people’s lives and how they’re actually experiencing it.
And while we’re looking at people’s acts of self defense or things like aggressive protests, you know, where windows were broke or whatever — trying to put that into a real context of what violence actually is, how it actually plays out, and how it actually splits marginalized communities.
KH: Yes. I’m trying not to swear in expressing agreement. I mean, when we as protestors sit down in the streets or lock ourselves together to present authority with a moral choice about whether to beat us, cage us, or just let us be, violence is very much in play. It’s a question of whose ass is being kicked in order to accomplish something. And I just think people should really interrogate this idea that the only moral way to interact with violence is to experience it. I think people should really stop and think about who benefits from that construction.
SB: And you know, it’s interesting the way that things are talked about. Is it, like, the John Brown Gun Club, who kind of stand there with guns or train people on guns, are they the violent ones? Or is it Proud Boys coming to an event, maybe not brandishing weapons, except beating people on the streets? How do we understand what is considered violent? And I think, in a lot of ways, it’s about framing.
You know, this is what happened a lot with kind of far right media provocateurs like Andy Ngo, where they’ve framed certain events as violent, when we can look at that kind of a, you know, a more bird’s-eye view and actually see that things were actually much more complicated, people are defending themselves, people are simply having arguments. And it’s just that it’s, one, about context, about narrative, and how we actually see the way the events play out and who we assign blame to when conflict happens.
KH: Absolutely. I mean, there’s so much more that could be said about the way that folks are vilified. I mean, I can recall a moment when I was locked down with, it was 15 other people, and we’re all locked to each other in these boxes. And we’re literally laying down on the mouth of the expressway in downtown Chicago. Like, you know, at least 400 cars frozen all at once. A number of them trying to drive through us in various ways, and there are people just running around, stopping them, saving our lives. And when the police show up and they create their perimeter and they’re getting up in our face, they were telling us that this thing we were doing was passive violence, and that passive violence is still violence.
Violence, in the way that it’s thrown around, amounts to inconvenience and discomfort, a lot. And I think we’re guilty of that in social justice spaces sometimes, too. Like, violence is a real thing, and in this culture it means almost nothing anymore, because words that mean everything mean nothing. But, you know, when I run direct action trainings and people ask about property destruction, I ask them, like, “What do you think happens to the food that doesn’t get bought at the end of the week at the supermarket?” That’s property and it’s destroyed. It’s life-giving property that could save lives, but it’s destroyed and it doesn’t upset us because it serves the purpose of capitalism that this thing was destroyed. Whereas, if I went to a protest and broke a window, that would be unconscionable because maintaining that piece of property facilitates capitalism.
So, I have so many feelings about it, but I know I’ve been hanging you on here for a long time, and before we wrap, I want to ask you a question that I think is really important to ask after you delve into all this heavy stuff —what gives you hope?
SB: What gives me hope? I think that people are more engaged now than when I was young. I think people are more willing to act now, more willing to take that action further, in terms of commitment and things. I don’t think people are apathetic. I think that that’s actually slipping quite a bit. And I think people are more willing to fight for these things. That doesn’t mean that it’s everyone and it doesn’t mean it’s not a battle, you know.
A lot of times we talk about, for example, like in the labor movement. So you know, we’re constantly having attacks on unions, right now, you know, federal legislation as it is, or court rulings, whatever it is. But people are also, at the same time, much more excited about being in unions. They’re forming unions across different industries. They’re trying to join unions. They’re trying to put precarious workplaces into a union context. And so, we actually have two antagonists of things happening, the people and the state institutions. And I think that the reality is that while the state institutions will do everything in their power to fight back, they cannot win without our complicity. And I think that’s actually starting to slip. It’s not happening uniformly, which is why there are fascist movements that we have to fight back against, as well. But I do think it’s slipping because I think people want something different. They’re not getting what they were promised. They’re not getting a life that matters and people will fight for that when it comes down to it.
KH: This has been such a great conversation. I do want to read a paragraph from your book before we check out for the night, that has really stuck with me. Toward the end of Fascism Today, you wrote, “fascism has shown the world it’s grotesque dreams. Now it’s time for antifascists to be visionaries and increase our ranks. Through mass engagement we can undo rising fascist movements while providing the experiential transformation of consciousness necessary to take bigger steps. Antifascism today has the potential to reach millions who can then build on their own experience and cultivate a collective liberatory vision based on freedom and equality. By refusing to learn from the militants who have defined the struggle for decades, we risk returning to hollow and always temporary reformism. The left that wants to defeat fascism has to offer something. It has to be dangerous again. It has to be willing to win.” Shane Burley, thanks again for being on the show. I really appreciate you.
SB: Thanks for having me.
KH: I hope our paths can cross soon, and I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. 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.