“The women’s strike made us protagonists in history.” On a heatwave evening on a busy street...
Members of Shut Down LD50 were at Fast Forward 2017. Here are some reflections about the workshop they gave.
This year it has become impossible not to speak about fascism, and fascism is something about which everyone is called upon to have an opinion. With this resurgence of interest comes the usual mixture of gains and losses. On the one hand, masses of people have become rapidly informed about historical events of enormous and undiminished significance in twentieth-century world history. The fear that the US President ‘is a Nazi’ has impelled people to a considerably more detailed understanding of Nazism than they possessed in the salad days of the imperial presidency of Barack Obama. It has also led to a more or less hesitant recognition that capital is ‘responsible for this’, so that with every new appointment of a white nationalist to the Trump cabinet, the understanding of the disaster of world working-class defeat increases in depth and political urgency.
These are gains. The losses to which they correspond include a tendency among the mass media (including its youth-culture-oriented spins-out such as Vice) to burnish the aura of fascist ‘personalities’ and to conceal the dynamics of our historical moment behind the stage props and cardboard cuts outs of the ‘Schutzstaffel’ and the ‘squadristi’. This is unhelpful, not only because historical analogies are inevitably ‘partial’, but also because the ‘origins’ of fascism tend to be neglected by a liberal alarmism for which fascism is something we are always ‘heading towards’.
The discussion at FFW focused on one very limited example of an anti-fascist campaign in the Trump period. This was the campaign against the London-based LD50 ‘art gallery’ that was closed in February/March after it was discovered that the space had been hosting talks by a number of prominent figures on the international far-right, several of them prominent brokers of fascism and racist pseudo-science to a larger, more ‘respectable’ right-wing cultural milieu. An overview of what the gallery proprietors were doing can be found ‘here‘ and ‘here‘; some reflection on where the campaign ended up can be found ‘here‘. The following comments address a few of the points that came up in the discussion on the day. They don’t follow the terms of the exchange at all closely and they are not meant as criticisms of anyone who spoke – I didn’t take notes while the event was happening, and struggle to remember who said what and when. They are attempts to clarify my own thinking and are offered in the spirit of solidarity.
1) Can we ‘split’ the fascist movement? One issue that was discussed arose from the argument that we should avoid excessive concern with the ideological differences between fascists, on the grounds that this tends to generate a prurient (or perhaps directly consumerist) ‘interest’ in fascist milieus; and that this interest is at best a waste of time and at worst a stimulus to personal sympathy. Against this it was argued that we should attend to differences between fascist and far-right groups because this may help us to drive a wedge between different elements or tendencies within the movement. In this connection particular mention was made of the ‘Unite the Right’ circus that led to the death or injury of a number of anti-racist protestors in August.
There are plainly several different issues here. One well-established line of thought holds that we ought to know about the position of the far right in order to ‘debate’ (and so convert) its members. On its own the position is unhelpfully vague. ‘An individual’ on the far right may or may not be susceptible to persuasion in the same way that a pain may or may not be susceptible to aspirin. The language is just too complacently general to tell us anything significant. It offers the same sage advice for ‘curing’ individuals, entire armed street patrols, the population of 4Chan forums, and the US Department of Justice.
The argument that knowledge of far-right ideology is politically important took a different slant. It was not a prompt either to ‘persuasion’ or ‘debate’. I think that what was primarily being invoked was the familiar idea that we might yet coax ‘traditional’ Republicans into cutting ties with ogres covered in Swastika tattoos, or twist Trump’s arm into cutting ties with Steve Bannon, or pressure the Conservative Party into expelling the Traditional Britain Group, or compel the Traditional Britain Group to denounce the EDL. In each case the idea would be to keep the right in a state of conflict with itself, and thus incapable of forming a unified political front. Knowledge of the right is vital to this project because without some fundamental recognition of the differences in outlook of (e.g.) a Republican senator with a hostile attitude to in-migration and (e.g.) a white ethno-nationalist with a commitment to large-scale deportation of people of colour, the chances of turning the former against the latter are nil.
For me this position still needs to confront several questions. The first of these is simple. Are the chances of turning the former against the latter ever significantly more than nil? Why did Trump fire Steve Bannon? Was it because of pressure by the (liberal) anti-fascist media? Or was it because of a fit of vanity pure and simple? In some sense it must obviously be true that we can gain from knowing our enemies. But one thing that we learn by studying fascist grouplets is that many of their ‘differences’ are in fact pseudo-differences, ideological refinements produced primarily for display purposes, and so fundamentally unimportant for anti-fascist activists whose role it is to demystify racism and to expose the social injustice at its root. Put differently, an informed anti-fascism needs to know when the things that fascists say about themselves are nothing more than a diversion.
Two final points on ‘splitting the right’. It is worth remembering that fascist movements also turn on themselves when they are demoralized (this was the experience of the anti-fascist movement in Britain in the period immediately after WW2). And a question follows from this. Why should knowledge of the differences within fascist milieus be regarded as essential to the effort to break them up, when the evidence indicates that far-right movements become most fissile, self-attacking and sectarian precisely at the moment when they encounter a general atmosphere of unflinching hostility?
A final point relates to the idea (which no one at the session brought up) that we should be careful not to ‘overuse’ the word fascism for fear of diluting its significance or emptying it of specific intellectual content. This idea is almost always wrong. It is vital not to flag in our hostility to racism, authoritarianism, or misogyny simply because some intellectual authority decrees that a particular instance of it does not fulfill all of the criteria of fascism ‘proper’, whatever that is, or that it is ‘only’ a form of right-wing populism: only a form of ethno-nationalism or esoteric nativism, or only a new form of white identity politics; and therefore nothing like the ‘real’ fascism that can never be diagnosed with absolutely certainty until the trains are already beginning to arrive at the camps. That game of designation is one that fucking Nazis have been playing themselves ever since Oswald Moseley renamed the British Union of Fascists the British Union Movement, legitimating the practice by recanting the title. It relies on a reactionary concept of fascism whose only purpose is to demonstrate that any kind of violent bigotry can be made to look relatively innocuous.
The more that we know about fascism, the clearer it becomes that it has no accurate non-polemical definition.
2) Fascism and the left.It is obvious that we cannot talk seriously about ‘splitting’ the right unless we know who we are. But in defining ‘the left’ we also return to the problem of the nature of contemporary fascism, which is parasitic on the left and mirrors its organizational forms and habits of cultural expression. Just as in the 1910s ‘movement fascism’ emerged out of the left wing of the socialist party and revolutionary syndicalism, in the 2010s fascism scavenges from the forms and vocabulary of the radical movements against oppression. Alain de Benoist, Identitaere Europa and Richard Spencer are all petty traders in the same species of rhetorical bullshit; each of them is engaged in the same listless refashioning of radical ideas into racist shibboleths. The formation of their ‘movements’ is a consequence of the same historical forces that have reshaped radical political movements in the global North and follows the same pattern of shifting emphasis. One of the ways in which this came up at the event was in the debate over whether the concept of ‘the left’ is useful for us. It was suggested that the term is not only vague but that its real force and pressure in our culture is itself a result of the decline of any social movement that might identify itself using a more direct and less metaphorical political vocabulary. The analytic vagueness and imprecision of the descriptive phrase, which is dominated in practice by the parties of social democracy and its voting blocs, but which is understood to include radical movements against oppression, the trade unions, and the remnants of revolutionary socialist and anarchist groups, also tends to support a non-specific kind of dissatisfaction. The more completely that the term is abstracted from any particular practice, programme, or analysis, the more suitable it becomes as a repository for undefined feelings of psychic dissatisfaction, which express themselves in the form of grandly irrefutable statements of rhetorical disgust: the left ‘has failed’, is the source of ‘the real fascists’, is altogether ‘regressive’ or ‘intolerant’. This language becomes more appealing as the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves become more self- evidently dangerous and cruel: the rise of racist nativism, the threat of nuclear war, the relentlessness of attacks on wages and welfare conditions, the escalating catastrophe of warplane diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa, the uprooting of entire populations and the gradual turn towards economic protectionism all combine to make postures of radical self-distinction newly irresistible. As world history comes to resemble more closely a gigantic car crash, who could resist the desire to draw a line under the radical politics that has failed to change its direction? How else can we anticipate a breakthrough into a new practice of social transformation more adequate to the circumstances in which we find ourselves?
The problem with this line of thought is that it feeds off an indifference to the historical movements that it sneers at. Its ‘clean break’ is wholly negative. It remains so even when it attempts to ground itself in some layperson’s account of the absolute distinctiveness of recent technological or scientific developments, which in practice are treated like the same body of hermetic knowledge to which anti-rationalist visionaries have granted themselves exclusive access since the early middle ages. By wallowing in revulsion for an abstraction (‘the left’) it denatures itself into a kind of boring self-gratification, a melodramatic and exhibitionist discourse in which fascists feel totally at home.
Fascists need stimulating generalities to hate or swear loyalty to because their tradition contains no other motivating reason for the insurrectionary politics that they nevertheless espouse. For us the opposite should be true.
3) Fascism and class/EDL vs. LD50.One issue that was raised was the difference between ‘bourgeois’ and intellectualist fascists like those present at the LD50 conference and ‘working-class’ far-right groups like the English Defence League. The difference relates to the different composition of different tendencies and raises urgent questions about different forms of anti-fascist organizing. One attendee argued that a reason for the increase in attendance at EDL demonstrations in post-industrial districts was a feeling among (overwhelmingly though not exclusively white) working- class men that they have been ‘abandoned’ by the left. The practical implication of this argument as I understood it was that anti-fascists should be doing more organizing in areas where there are large numbers of people who might be susceptible to the propaganda of the far right. So far as it goes this is surely correct. But it is worth picking away a little at the phrase itself. The vocabulary of ‘abandonment’ has a paternalistic connotation. It suggests (a) a working class on the model of a defenceless infant and (b) a grown-up left that is shirking its parental responsibilities (e.g. by eloping with a migrant). The patriarchal connotation explains its instinctive appeal to conservative pundits like Slavoj Zizek and the frisson of proscribed sex makes it irresistible to everyone to his right. It also participates once again in the identification of ‘the left’ with socially concerned liberals: an elision that works against the recognition (absolutely implicit in the argument of everyone discussing this issue on the day) that working-class communities in industrial towns were the left and did not ‘abandon’ themselves (it is hard to see how they could have done this) but were defeated, across several decades of intense and unremitting struggle. The idea that they might have been abandoned by metropolitan liberals during this process likewise represents an unearned compliment to that group who in fact were never ‘there’ in the first place, and who in their long history of hand-wringing never gave a fuck about the rights of the working class except when a complex calculus of electoral interests impelled them to grin and bear it. This is something that the history both of the New Deal and the Great Society programmes makes fairly evident.
This is not to say that that white working-class men in post-industrial towns do not feel abandoned. But it is nevertheless a task of those of us who wish to fight for an emancipatory politics against capital and racial and other oppressions to struggle against shorthand histories whose organizing terms are those for which the nationalist right is itself responsible. From the paternalistic idea that the working class has been abandoned by the ‘left’ it is only a short step to the outright fascist idea that they have been ‘betrayed’ by it, that the left are traitors, and that it is the role of the state to inflict punishment.
4) Culture and irony.A couple of people spoke about how they felt that they had a good grasp on ‘traditional’ racists but felt at a loss in the face of the ‘alt-right’. This returns us to the issue of ‘middle-class’ fascists and the usefulness to reactionary political movements of the art gallery. Before it had discovered its own style of mass murder and totalitarian repression, traditional fascism was also a movement with its own culture and styles of expression: Marinetti’s pompous fantasias about car accidents predate Eichmann’s desktop exercises in genocidal slaughter, just as did Ezra Pound’s ‘men who get things done’ and Leni Riefenstahl’s ecstatic crowd scenes. The novelty of contemporary fascists is not that they also have their artists and designers but that these figures are now routinely specialists in euphemism and double-talk, Janus Faces and experts in reassurance, horse whisperers for the centre-right, jackbooted image softeners and authors of tourist manuals – a veritable office of Public Relations Nazis working ceaselessly to obfuscate the politics that earlier generations of fascist artists wanted to make crystal clear. Circumlocution is their demagoguery and Twitter is their soapbox. And yet despite this the common assumption that this means that they have discovered ‘irony’ and thus belong to a ‘counter-culture’ is almost completely barren. They have discovered nothing of the sort. Irony is dependent on a genuine openness to other forms of meaning, a real and deliberated sense of incompletion: its practitioners belong to a dissident tradition and struggle to keep in mind the limitation of their own perspective. Nothing could be more absolutely and unalterably foreign to it than a politics whose merely circumlocutory marketing operations take place in the meme, the authoritarian micro-state and the ‘biological’ race respectively
– three airtight conceptual containers in which (presuming that you belong to an exploited or oppressed group) the joke is always and invariably on you.
The revolutionary movement is presently in a long period of transition. Its forms of organization have been outmoded, its constituencies are dispersed, and its understanding of how to organize an economy based on the collective ownership of social wealth is incomplete. It is also, nevertheless, a tradition whose potentials and victories and whose unlearned lessons are the platform on which we can stand and admit all of those failures unhesitatingly and stare down into the face of a fascism whose own new ‘culture’ amounts only to the ability to talk out of both sides of its mouth.