Do you remember when you first saw Richard Spencer get punched in the face? No matter how many RESIST flags flew, no matter how times people chanted not our president, Trump was and would be president. And then suddenly there was something someone could do about it: literally punch an asshole in the face, turning him and his meme-fueled politics into memes. “The punch,” Natasha Lennard writes, “was made for sharing.”
One of the starting points for Lennard’s new book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, is the question: Who could possibly object to punching Nazis? Plenty of people, it turned out. All the punch-sharing, she reminds us, “was met with censure from the same liberal media microcosms that had spent the previous weeks nail-biting about fascism.” As Lennard shows, liberals and anti-fascists disagreed about this because they had different understandings of violence. The liberal media took the commonsense position that violence is a destructive, physical act of aggression against a person or thing—“subjective violence” committed by an individual against another individual or her property.
Another analysis is possible. On this understanding, the “liberal aversion to violence … fails to locate violence in the right places.” The injustice of violence is not its physicality, but its context. “Property damage, minor clashes and a few neo-Nazi black eyes” can be justified, but “a smashed mosque window or a swastika on a Jewish grave … produce legitimate victims of violence.” Once violence is not linked to the physical, we can see the importance of structural, rather than subjective, violence. If I hang nooses on trees in Southeast D.C. and hand out leaflets that “prove” my lily-white supremacy over the area’s black population, I’m not causing physical harm. But I am helping along a social order in which racism is normalized, and that will make the effects of racism harder to avoid. From this perspective, it’s hard to argue that punching Nazis is ever bad. When the liberal media describes that punch as a protest “turning” violent, they are ignoring the ever-present structural violence of our society. That punch was not a violent outbreak in a peaceful social world. It was, like a riot, a disruption of a “background state of constant violence.”
Violence against fascists can be justified, then. But who are the fascists? Aside from the first, theoretical chapter, Lennard’s book answers this question indirectly. Her first, surprising answer comes in an essay about a ghost. Lennard is haunted by a ghost, and has been since her family moved into their home when she was seven. “This ghost is formless—a shadow that seems to peer back,” she writes. It is “a displacer of air in the room. I’ve feared him for as long as I’ve disbelieved in his broader kind.” The ghost lives, or exists, in her childhood bedroom’s en-suite. Although she refers to the ghost as “him,” it “will never show or prove itself male or not, or gendered in any direction, because the ghost won’t prove itself at all.”
Later in her life, Lennard “contracted positivism” and “tried to explain my ghost away.” But she failed—all for the better. Our lives are filled with experiences that are not immediately verifiable, and her essay suggests that we should resist the temptation to reduce them to what we already know. We can say the ghost is really about the fear of taking on adult responsibilities, or is really a flutter of shadow from her neighbors’ cats. But when we do this, we ignore what is most important about the ghost: “He is indicative of inexplicable possibilities, which get ruled out as empirically impossible.” Could we have a just economic system? Could we live in a non-racist world? The realistic, materialistic answer is no. But “it’s a political imperative to believe (impossibly) that another world is possible, while necessarily being unable to explain that world from the confines of this one.” The claim that we should only pay attention to what materially exists is a subtle form of fascism, because it means rejecting the possibility of progress and change. Being attentive to ghosts, then, might also be a subtle form of non-fascist life.
The rest of the book, nonetheless, deals with the material world. Lennard criticizes the American state for its mass arrests of protesters at the inauguration “Disrupt J20” protest in D.C. and at Standing Rock, almost none of which would stand in court. In each case, the state acted without regard for protesters’ civil rights. But while fighting for one’s rights in court is useful as a strategy, Lennard suggests, that fight is too caught up in systems run by the state to be called anti-fascist. “The anti-fascist project,” she writes, “is not one of asking for better statutes or a reconfiguration of rights.” Nor does the history of anti-fascism presume “the good faith of state power.” It is a history, rather, of “direct and confrontational intervention—the sort of which is itself seldom protected by a rights framework.” If everything goes according to rights, Spencer doesn’t get punched but broadcast, and the structural violence lives on.
Lennard’s examples of non-fascist living become more complicated when her book turns to sex and love. One way of being anti-fascist might be to fight to enjoy your sexual desires as you see fit. Anti-fascists would prefer a world in which queer genders and sexualities are not denigrated or obscured by the cisgender, heterosexual mainstream. But this thought leads to unexpected problems. Lennard describes an ex-partner volunteering her for a ménage-à-trois, based on his thought that she “should want to have sex with this person because they were, as he put, ‘queer and cool.’” This led to an argument, not about him demanding control over Lennard’s desires, but about why her “desires weren’t somehow better. I wasn’t attracted to this person, so my ex called me a body fascist.” It’s easy to be outraged: how can Lennard possibly be a fascist based on one single instance of not wanting to have sex? “But,” Lennard continues, “sometimes our desires are worth questioning and challenging.” Sex could be directly anti-fascist, directly political, if it helped to break down our own unjust desires.
That we might not “just have” desires is obvious if we move from sex to the rest of our lives. I think I just like natural wine—but the taste I’ve developed for it is probably part of me performing my class and education. I might think I just do like working eleven-hour days at the law firm, but perhaps I’ve internalized what someone other than me needs in order to be as profitable as possible. On social media, we take “pleasure in giving over to algorithmically organized experiences, through feeds and curated ads and suggestions, which cater to and deliberate (for us) our desires”—but “such platforms teach users helplessness.” These examples suggest that desires are, at base, socially constructed. But that makes it hard to say which desires we should just be allowed to fulfill, and which we should force ourselves to leave behind. When are our desires fascistic, and when are they not? “When there’s a popular app for organizing your next queer orgy, how rupturous of our political status quo can the mere fact of such an orgy be?” What should I tell my daughter when she wants to put on her handed-down Frozen-brand sandals? Lennard, to her credit, does not tell me.
These examples are meant to help us grasp what Lennard means by the non-fascist life. They share, in Wittgenstein’s terms, a family resemblance. She uses the same concept to describe fascism: “There is no one essential common feature shared by all things we call [fascist]; rather, we see ‘a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing.’” Fascisms can feature “populism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism and disregard for reasoned debate,” but can also lack one or more. Anti-fascism, then, could be internationalist, cosmopolitan, modernist and rational. Lennard’s own examples suggest that non-fascism would be idealistic and disruptive; direct and unmediated, rather than organized and hierarchical; anti-essentialist; and anti-naturalist. But ultimately, she argues, “I cannot give you the boundary of ur-fascism, or the clear path away from fascism; we, in practice, have to draw it as we go … this is where ethics comes in: collective decision making, community inclusion, and careful but forceful deliberation about what (or who) counts as a threat when they attempt to take platforms or to organize in our midst.”
Why is it so hard?
I’ve always thought of myself as anti-fascist. In high school, when one of my best friends became a prefect, I called him a fascist bully-boy until I was told to stop by a teacher (who was sympathetic to me, as it happens). In college, I read Deleuze and Foucault. I helped shut down a day of the WEF meeting in Melbourne, and helped hide asylum seekers who’d escaped from their detention center in the South Australian desert. I was in hardcore punk bands (I said punk: no hyperlinks). I refused to join political parties. And yet, reading Lennard’s book, my overwhelming feeling was that I couldn’t do anything anti-fascist at all.
It was very easy to be anti-fascist when fascism was younger. In the 1930s, anti-fascism was such an obvious position that intellectuals and writers, in particular, turned to anyone who was willing to stand for it. Fascism, after all, was an assault on “progressive values and cultural freedom … on the very essence of humanistic beliefs” (as Ian Kershaw wrote in To Hell and Back). In France, the Popular Front government brought together communists loyal to the USSR, socialists and Radicals (centrists). In 1935 the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture attracted all the big names, from the English liberal E. M. Forster to the German communist Bertolt Brecht. There were struggles within these coalitions. Many writers balked at “Socialist Realism”; many politicians cringed at Marxist-Leninism. The Communist International had only recently stopped calling socialist parties “Social-Fascists.” But there was also a distinct enemy to be defeated: those fascists who attacked Léon Blum just before he became prime minister; those newspapers that ran the headline “France Under the Jew” after Blum’s election and argued that “With a Judeo-Socialist tax collector” the state would soon be bankrupt; those politicians who greeted Blum’s election in the Chamber of Deputies by requesting a premier “whose origins, however modest, reach into the entrails of our soil [rather] than … a subtle talmudicist.” After the war, Lennard’s great-grandfather fought street battles against the British Union of Fascists. Her grandfather, when she asks him about punching neo-Nazis, responds, “Who could have a problem with that?” For these men and women, the question was easy. What makes it so much harder for us?
What are the differences between the earlier anti-fascist moments and our own? When Blum was premier, Italy, Germany and Spain were all clearly fascist regimes. In other countries, large numbers of people openly espoused fascism as the solution to the problems of the age; the French intellectual Pierre Drieu la Rochelle praised fascism as “the political movement that charts its course most straightforwardly, most radically toward a great revolution of mores, toward the restoration of the body—health, dignity, plenitude, heroism.” The fascism of the 1930s represented an unparalleled and present threat to almost everything that everyone else valued, from liberal individualism, through the rights of man (as they were still known), to culture in general.
The politics of the Popular Front moment were also reasonably clear. They were based in the conviction that something like the socialist critique of capitalism was probably accurate, and that capitalist states and systems needed to be replaced. The parties disagreed on much else, but all acted on the assumption that a political response to fascism was necessary. The point of the Popular Front was, first and foremost, to defend the state against a fascist invasion or coup. How to do it was debatable—immediate revolution? Piecemeal reform? But that this was the point was clear. The Popular Front anti-fascist moment was characterized by a socialist consensus about the need to respond, politically, to the threat of established fascist regimes.
Lennard’s anti-fascism lacks all of these elements. Socialism is reportedly on the march in the United States, but Lennard’s heroes are not the people building the Democratic Socialists of America. They are black bloc anarchists. Where the Popular Front took socialism as its baseline, she takes anarchism. Consciously or not, I suspect, many of us do the same.
Second, where the Popular Front had fascist nation-states and rampant, openly fascist political movements as its enemies, today almost nobody calls themselves a fascist. By comparison to the earlier anti-fascist moment, the enemy we face seems both larger and more obscure. As Lennard puts it, “neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, public figures, and (in our case) presidents are not the sum total of fascism. Even their total obliteration would not rid us of fascism” (italics added).
With an amorphous enemy, and no theory of large-scale political organization, it is reasonable to shift focus from politics to ethics. Lennard’s essays here take on many of Michel Foucault’s ideas. Foucault was less concerned with “historical fascism” than with “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploit us.” Lennard also quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s thought that “it’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar [interpersonal] level, and not even see the fascist inside you.” But she leaves out the previous line: “leftist organizations will not be the last to secrete microfascisms.” For Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, fighting fascism as a member of an organization is to perpetuate it, since the organization itself will tend to reproduce many of the forms of hierarchy it is supposedly combating. Our anti-fascism cannot stop with the explicit fascists; it must extend to ourselves. We must work to root out what Lennard calls our “everyday fascisms,” the “fascistic desire to dominate, oppress and obliterate the nameable ‘other.’” When we do that, we find that we are all flooded, constantly, with “perversion[s] of desire produced through forms of life under capitalism and modernity: practices of authoritarianism and domination and exploitation.”
The Popular Front brought together socialist impulses, a recognizable, organized fascist opponent and political organization. Our anti-fascism yokes together anarchist impulses, the cops in our own head and the thought that organization is, in itself, fascist. No wonder it’s so hard to be anti-fascist: it demands that we oppose everything, including our own desires and interests. In this form of anti-fascism, we can’t even know what we want—not sexually, not ethically and certainly not politically.
Well, we all know we want democracy. But democracy, it turns out, is just as hard as anti-fascism. Like Lennard’s Being Numerous, Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone brings together high theory, personal experience and quality journalism. It also follows Lennard’s path of taking something often treated as a political and philosophical abstraction and showing how it becomes “real” (or fails to) in our individual lives. “I don’t believe democracy exists,” she writes. “The ideal of self-rule is exactly that, an ideal,” or perhaps a promise, which “can be kept only by regular people through vigilance, invention, and struggle.” Within these struggles, we constantly run up against paradoxes. Taylor focuses on eight: freedom/equality; conflict/consensus; inclusion/exclusion; coercion/choice; spontaneity/structure; expertise/mass opinion; local/global; present/future. For the most part, these are versions of the conflict between stability (or the importance of the whole) and progress (or the importance of the individual).
Taylor works through each paradox with care and insight, but, in light of Lennard’s book, the most interesting paradox here is spontaneity and structure. Taylor begins in ancient Athens, where a riot allowed Cleisthenes to return from exile with “an original way of combining, counting, and constituting people as citizens.” Together they became the people, “the demos of democracy.” The Athenians’ revolutionary spontaneity broke through the unjust structure of the past. And that spontaneity required a new structure, in turn, in order to survive. “The forward march of democracy resembles a kind of two-step move: rule making trails open revolt,” Taylor writes. “But just as often, the rule of law has a retrograde function. … political structures are devised to guard against further insurrections.” Structures and spontaneity are both necessary; they are also always in conflict.
American politicians, for instance, like to guard against spontaneity by redistricting voters, which often leads to unjust weighting of votes. How can these unjust structures be replaced? Taylor highlights two ways to deal with this problem. The first is to make voting effortless; in Oregon, one need not enroll to vote, just opt out if you don’t want to. In Australia and Argentina, among other nation-states, voting is compulsory, and voting culture is radically different. Taylor believes that “an obligatory franchise” like this “would shift the balance of power [in the U.S.] by creating a more diverse, young, and working-class voter pool.” The second alternative is already here: let voters launch initiatives of their own, and vote on them in referenda. This system became law in Oregon in 1902, and other states followed.
At this point, Taylor brings together the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (a key moment in the countercultural political explosion of the mid-to-late Sixties) and California’s Proposition 13 referendum (which placed restrictions on tax increases, particularly property taxes). Both the Free Speech Movement and Prop 13 are examples of the demos rising in spontaneous revolt against what they perceived to be violations of their rights by governmental structures—UC Berkeley administrators ignoring the First Amendment, and the California government being too tax-happy. Both were also appropriated by future political movements. Under Reagan, the Prop 13 “playbook became standard GOP policy.” And “progressives … tend to see themselves as more akin to the Free Speech Movement,” with its youthful, anti-authoritarian glamor and classic speeches about throwing our bodies on the gears and the levers to keep The Man’s machine from working at all.
In practice, this means that everyone across the American political spectrum identifies themselves as a spontaneous democrat resisting the tyranny of political structure. For all of us, from the black bloc through free market liberals, the Don’t Tread On Me! Republicans, and on to Richard Spencer himself, “democracy is unstructured, emergent, something more likely to be squelched by the state than supported by it.” This feeling has been strengthened by “virtual channels” of communication, which provided “spaces for racist and misogynist subcultures to congregate and flourish,” but coincided with a decline in other methods of progressive organization.
But there is a difference between leftist spontaneity and rightist spontaneity, as Taylor indicates. The right acts as if it were spontaneous but is politically structured in practice. “They have been busy executing organizational strategies over the last forty years … laying the foundation for a permanent tax revolt to starve the welfare state of the revenue it needs to run.” The right has mastered life in the beltway swamp that they genuinely despise, for the purpose of getting shit done. The left, on the other hand, often seems to have ceded organized political life and retreated to ethics. Why?
In her discussion of rights court cases, Lennard warns us against “the collapse of strategy … into ideology”: in other words, we should never start to think that state-backed rights are the end goal of political life, as opposed to a short-term strategy. But we might do well to also acknowledge the dangers of the contrary: collapsing ideology into strategy. Suppose one’s anti-fascist ideology demands what Taylor calls the refusal “to accept a separation between ruled and rulers.” This ideology would see democracy as (summarizing Jacques Rancière) “the disruptive and unpredictable process through which an existing consensus is challenged.” It would idealize the “spontaneous expression and interruption,” the “affront to established norms that unsettles social hierarchies and obstructs business as usual.” Now, imagine a political strategy based on this ideology—this understanding of democracy. I strongly suspect it would mostly look like waiting around. And, I find, this is what I have done for most of my life. I am waiting for the revolution to spontaneously break out around me, while I try very hard to eliminate my own fascist habits.
To her credit, Taylor praises the long slog of political organizing, and ultimately, her book is about socialism as much as democracy. And yet, her favored examples of democratic action all feature disruptions of already existing structures: community-level health clinics springing up in austerity-ravaged Greece, for example, or the expansion of the franchise, or “treating data as a public good, and making citizens co-owners.” In each case, what already exists (state-run hospitals, democratic voting procedures, massive data capture) is altered to overcome a lack of public participation, as the structures bow to the spontaneous will of the people.
Immensely appealing as these stories are, the emphasis on them can lead us into a trap. We want spontaneity, youth and disruption—what we were promised by French theory. But these same things are also promised by Apple and Uber and the alt-right: What is more disruptive of the status quo than the complete restructuring of our cities and towns around the profits of a ride-sharing service? Than open advocacy of white supremacy? Taylor claims that “capitalism has disguised coercion as choice,” but it often seems to me that capitalists are quite happy with the choices we make based on our deepest, most self-reflexive desires. She writes that “capitalism, it seems, lacks the attention span required for survival,” but its persistence would suggest that it has the attention span it needs—and that the ones who lack it are those of us on the spontaneous left.
Taylor tries to end her book with optimism. She repeats the data that is supposed to make it easier to get to sleep: Millennials prefer socialism to capitalism. People are joining political organizations. People take the climate seriously. I’m more inspired by a hopeful lesson she takes from elsewhere: some cultures, she mentions, have had the ability to formalize the concerns of the distant future. Both “Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee law,” for instance, dictated “that leaders must take the needs of the next seven generations of their respective communities into account.” Taylor thinks this kind of foresight could be useful for the mainstream.
I think it might be even more useful for the left. But engaging in it would mean moving beyond my (our) love of spontaneity, to take account of much more history—both the distant future and our own past. Can we imagine a politics where our immediate desires and interests—even our microfascisms—become secondary (octonary?)? If we want a more popular politics, we may have to. Many people find intensely personal, ethical anti-fascism unappealing, sometimes for perfectly good reasons (anti-fascists must be wealthy enough to deal with the consequences of long-term protest), and sometimes not (it really is super hard). But we need to ally with (and not just “be allies to”) those people if we want to fight something bigger than our own fascistic habits. This may require us to jettison Foucault and the anarchist collapse of ideology into strategy. It may even mean working closely with people who are motivated by old-fashioned morality and value structures—the Poor People’s Campaign, for instance. This is a lesson from the Popular Front: the fight needs ever more alliances, not ever more purity.
This may all mean putting more emphasis on the structure side of the structure/spontaneity paradox, especially when we think about social change. In our romantic imaginations, revolution is almost always a massive disruption of the status quo—the spontaneous outbreak to top them all. But the biggest problems of our time already are massive disruptions: the climate disaster, financialized capitalism, right-wing populism and more. To fight those disruptions, we might need to focus less on doing democracy or anti-fascism, and more on embodying those values in institutions that cannot be so easily disrupted. Of course, building institutions is risky in ways that policing microfascisms is not. But holding too firmly to the spontaneous side of democracy might be even riskier in the long run.
Photo credit: Catie Laffon
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