Antifa vs. Nazis: Where Has All The Violence Gone?
Despite warnings of precipitating a nascent civil war, antifascist violence has ended with the retreat of the far right
Another weekend has passed with a little noted gathering of fascists away from public view and with minimal confrontation between them and antifa. On a small peninsula in Montgomery Bell Park in Tennessee, two white nationalist organizations: the American Freedom Party and the Council of Conservative Citizens, held a joint conference. Like many neo-fascist gatherings of late, it was small, ill-noticed, and met with minimal confrontation.
Almost a year and a half has passed since Richard Spencer was famously punched in the face. Repeatedly, we were warned of the potential for ever-escalating violence (and ultimately Civil War). Repeatedly, we were told that such a scenario would garner sympathy for Nazis. Despite this, in mid-2018, Nazis remain an object of derision, on the margins, and the basis of comparison for human evil. No such escalation occurred, with both instances of violence and media attention waning in two separate but related ways.
Firstly, the instances of antifa-versus-fascist skirmishes that pocked the post-election period have markedly declined. This was not the result of mere happenstance, but rather a series of material setbacks — legal, financial, and otherwise — that hampered the ability of fascists to organize the sorts of mobilizations galvanized by the Trump moment. Secondly, journalistic attention to antifascist activism has petered out. In the aftermath of the inauguration, any interview with an antifascist — or a fascist for that matter — merited publication. Following the failure of “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley — an abortive lecture series featuring bigoted, far-right speakers — instances of fascist provocation and antifascist response merit barely a mention in mainstream media.
Antifascism has, for all intents and purposes, returned to being a subject of local and alternative press. This is a far cry from the admonitions of the thinkpiecers who assured us that the alternative to fascist ascendance was a totalitarian antifascism. Again, we find ourselves in a historical moment where none of the predictions of those opposed to militant antifascism have materialized.
Rather, we find ourselves in a paradigm predicted by historian Mark Bray in Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook. His book, released in August 2017 after the slaughter in Charlottesville, VA had rendered (anti-)fascist violence the topic du jour, traces the historical development of anti-fascism and a theory of its praxis. His prediction, notably different from the atmosphere in which the book was written, was an not appeal to abstract analytical reasoning but to historic record:
If we take a look at the track record of anti-fascism, however, a consistent pattern emerges that is so familiar to antifascists that it’s annoying: When local fascist organizing declines, so does local antifascist organizing. When the 43 Group had sufficiently pummeled Mosley’s fascist Union Movement into oblivion, they didn’t turn their sights on conservatives, they disbanded. Writing in 2003, ARA organizer Rory McGowan wrote, “where there is no visible or active Nazi presence, ARA groups fall into a state of inactivity.” When SCALP Besançon succeeded in shutting down white-power shows being organized by the Blood and Honour satellite groups, Radical Korps and the Lyon Bunker Korps and the local Nazi movement dissolved as it turned on itself; they didn’t just turn to the next most conservative political group, they dissolved. After Norwegian fascism was largely stamped out in the late nineties, the country’s antifa have spent most of their time monitoring Swedish fascists with their Scandinavian comrades rather than moving on to the next right-wing political faction. (p. 157)
Today, antifascists find themselves in largely the same situation as they had been prior to the post-Charleston church shooting ascent of fascism: a relatively small organizing presence outside of social media with members mostly immersed in other forms of political action. The deontological protection of speech, legal and otherwise, remains intact and largely unaltered.
Although historical patterns ought to provide a guideline for causal relationships, appeal to evidence alone without theory is an appeal to irrationalism. Bray’s book challenges not only hypothetical claims about anti-fascism with appeal to historical record, but also challenges the theory of individualism underpinning it. He does this most forcefully where it pertains to incoherent notions of violence and speech.
Both historically and into the present the concept of “violence” has been asymmetrically applied to grassroots political movements that seek to operate in the public interest where the state fails. “Violence” is the analytical dual to the legitimate use of coercion accorded to the dominant state except in the rare instance where the agents of the state (but not the state itself!) are seen as exercising that power to excess.
Hence, Black Lives Matter blockades to protest racialized killing by police is described as violent by tendentious appeal to ambulance routes and daily commutes. Conversely, police blockades of the Trinidad neighborhood in D.C. in 2008 represents a civil rights violation — a use of physical force that would be justified were it not in technical violation of the letter of the law. It’s not the responsibility of the police to know the law, just the courts.
What the concept of “violence” accomplishes is not a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable action, but rather to render physical coercion on the part of the state invisible and to render any attempt to militate against it as hypervisible. Thus “violence” then exclusively refers to the rhetorical positioning of forms of public coercion as illegitimate.
What we see then in the use of “violence” is really a distinction between who gets to lay a claim to legitimate public coercion. The police are expected to use extraordinary measures to prevent any social disruption — from physical altercations to feeding the homeless in a public park. Doing so as a lay citizen, even through the consent of a larger community body, is seen as an ex ante violation of a higher natural law (even if not a violation of the actual law) of the distribution of legitimate physical coercion.
Transgression of this principle provides the basis for most superhero franchises. These characters, by virtue of centering the rationale for their righteous vigilantism, occupy a liminal space between guardian of the peace and social menace. Such a moral system is only sustainable through the artifice of the story’s narrator who ultimately wants readers to see the hero as good and thus constructs conflict resolution to support that. In reality, this moral system is where we locate fascist ideologies.
Fascist ideologies are like superheroism in that they take self-righteousness to be equivalent to general righteousness so long as vigilantism proves successful. More successful is the vigilante whose success accords him a loyal following. Unlike most superhero stories, real-life humans are prone to error without a sufficient social basis to check their hypotheses. This is evident in the proliferation of peer-review in academic literature; executive boards in corporate and non-profit enterprises; and of course the deliberative form of government that has become increasingly the norm since the eighteenth century.
It is within this value system of collective governance that we find anti-fascism. Unlike individualist vigilantism (the province of fascists and an alarming number of state agents) or a centrally-mediated version of the same thing (the province of liberals and mainstream conservatives), antifascists embrace directly deliberative forms of governance over physical coercion and its appropriate use.
“Speech” similarly is incoherent as a concept. It can be narrow, encompassing exclusively public speech acts, or broad, encompassing a wide range of public expression. The latter conception derives largely from legal conceptions of speech as related to various state constitutions or other rights-granting documents. Despite often conceptualizing this broad speech as what speech is, the lines of argumentation on speech proceed on the basis of the consequence solely from the narrow definition. In the United States, speech legally includes not only literal spoken acts, but also writing, donation, and flag burning.
The degree to which such “speech” is free, or is considered by the public worthy of such freedom, is highly contoured by the political and social climate of the historical moment. On the one hand, the U.S. court system has deemed that World War I protesters leafletting in advocacy of draft dodging were engaged in an act akin to shouting “fire” in a movie theatre. On the other, it has deemed that a Klan member advocating “revengeance” against the government was not.
Irrespective of platitudes to freedom of speech (narrow or broad) “speech” describes not the action itself, but rather the opposite side of the same coin to a flexible notion of insurrectionary incitement. It should be stressed that, like “violence,” the notion of “speech” is revoked only after the action to entities considered in advance to be agents of social disruption. Unlike “violence,” the notion of “speech” does not exist on one end of a binary continuum. Rather it exists in between public pronouncements of official institutions and existential threats to such institutions. Thus, “speech” is necessarily transgressive — we would call Donald Trump’s extralegal declarations of intent on his Twitter “speech” whereas his official actions, however brutal, would largely fall outside this realm as well as that of “violence.”
It is in this uneasy middle ground that we find the broad conception of “speech” which more closely resembles “expression” more generally. This speech-as-action middle-ground is, oddly enough, where we find the fascist’s kernel of praxis. The fascist sees all activity as pure act which can, to varying degrees shape the world. “Speech,” therefore, becomes not a tool of deliberative debate so much as a mode of cynical manipulation.
This should perhaps be unsurprising for a milieu whose epistemology regards reading as an act of creation. The reasoning goes like this: by virtue of one’s upbringing, any act of reading necessarily fills in unexplained phenomenon with the reader’s preconceptions. Of course the obvious counterclaim is that this is not the act of reading, but the act of reading badly. However for the fascist, even spreading misinformation is seen as a virtuous act when put to fascist ends.
This isn’t to say that the broad legal conception of speech is too broad, but rather that fascists can be comfortable operating in any environment of circumscribed “speech.” This is because their aim with speech is not persuasion, but intimidation and shaping discourse around a new conception of violence itself.
antifascists find themselves locked in this struggle, seeking on the one hand to expand the purview of “speech” to the actions of antifascists while also depriving fascists the luxury of uncontested “speech” however defined. This necessarily requires appeal to institutions with the power to accord the label of “acceptable speech.” While this obviously includes the government, most commonly the courts, this also includes corporations whose platforms provide a space for potential fascist organizing.
Violence and speech are linked by the institutions which determine their application and limits. Besides the use of the literal public square, corporate and non-profit enterprises, most notably social media companies and universities, provide a structured environment in which speech, like in the public square, is shaped by institutional reaction to social context.
Whereas grassroots contravention of others’ institutionally-guaranteed speech rights is considered “violence,” its dual in the institution of authority is considered policy enforcement. When a web server shuts down a Nazi website for violating its policy on hate speech, it is mere enforcement. When grassroots activists do so with a distributed denial of service attack on the page, they are violently imposing their will.
However, like with Nazi-punching, it is likely that any effective and sustained tactic, judiciously applied, will become normalized. Such is the quicksand of Gramsci’s hegemony working through DeBord’s recuperation — hegemony being the power to set the norms of morality and culture and recuperation being the tendency for power to absorb the style of countercultural institutions. The dominant cultural paradigm is quick to absorb radical challenges to its legitimacy when materially threatened.
Of course, antifa drawing approval, however tacit, from the public is not the only source of material consequence of speech for fascists. For publicly-held corporations, there are shareholders. For colleges and universities, there are donors. For music venues, there are customers. The list goes on.
Having failed to win the conscience of the authority, the antifascist turns to the next best form of pressure: the authority’s source of income. Whether by petition or boycott, antifa engages the public to join their call for depriving fascists of any platforms. As stated previously, this is not a matter of the distasteful nature of fascist speech, but rather the cynical and deceptive ends for which fascists use it.
In the end, the fascist speaker presents us with a false choice. Where they present a choice between free and constrained speech, their ultimate aims — often quite explicit — render an ultimate choice between speech for fascists and speech for everyone else.
Thus, it should be noted that antifascists engaging in “violence” rarely do so solely of their own accord. Unlike the hierarchical nature of fascist organizing, antifascists are and must be accountable to the localities in which they operate. They derive, have historically derived, and must continue to derive their legitimacy from the communities they protect from fascism.
Mike Isaacson is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research in economics, studying the breakdown of neo-fascist social networks