Photography by Ian Reid
Between spells of January drizzle, in the midst of scattered street protests, on a particularly bad afternoon in Washington D.C., Richard Spencer got punched in the face.
That morning, Donald Trump commenced his term as president with rageful, nationalistic oration. Police penned in and arrested over 200 inauguration counter-protesters. The demonstrators, participants in an “anti-fascist, anti-capitalist bloc”—in which I had also marched—would go on to face a repressive array of bogus felony charges and potential decades in prison. By the afternoon of January 20, protests were dispersed, gloating frat boys in “Make America Great Again” red hats ambled through D.C.’s dreary avenues, and Donald Trump was president.
Any silver lining that day was going to be thin. But there it was, gleaming: a sublime right hook to Richard Spencer’s face.
I didn’t see it in person, but on a YouTube clip, which has now been viewed more than three million times.
Spencer, a neo-Nazi who claims America belongs to white men, was in the middle of telling an Australian TV crew that he was not a neo-Nazi, while pointing to the white nationalist mascot, Pepe the Frog, on his lapel pin. A black-clad figure, face covered (the unofficial uniform of our march that morning) jumps into frame, deus ex machina, with a flying punch to Spencer’s left jaw. The alt-right poster boy stumbles away, and his anonymous attacker bounds out of sight.
Within hours it was a meme, set to backing tracks from Springsteen, New Order, Beyoncé and dozens more. A thing of kinetic beauty, the punch was made for an anthem’s beat. The punch was made for sharing.
I had thought we could all agree. A prominent neo-Nazi was punched in the face. It was a good thing.
I had miscalculated “we.”
In the weeks and months prior to Trump’s inauguration, an outpouring of media commentary was dedicated to determining whether the soon-to-be president was or was not a fascist, and whether we were or were not on the verge of living under a fascist regime. Characteristics like selective populism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, the deployment of Newspeak and a disregard for reasoned debate were noted as fascist tendencies, if not sufficient for some to call the Trump phenomenon a fascist one.
These articles spoke to a genuine panic that the arc of history had bent in the wrong direction, twisting back on itself towards early 20th Century Europe. They were steeped in modernity’s progress myth. They conveniently forgot that fascism has always been continuous with modernity. Whether or not the commentators concluded that Trump was an actual fascist, they all agreed that fascism was to be understood as The Worst. This glut of commentary treated fascism as something that takes shape only in the context of an historically constituted regime—the problem of fascism was real, but located only in the threat of its possible return. Will Donald Trump bring fascism to America?
It was as if decades of theorizing fascism—as an ideology, or a tendency, a practice, something that never quite disappeared—had been erased overnight and all that mattered in the media frenzy was delineating Trump’s similarities and differences to Hitler or Mussolini.
I didn’t consider at the time that most of the commentators weighing in on Trump’s fascism (or lack thereof) presumed their position to be anti-fascist enough. Every argument was premised on the post–World War II a priori that fascism is an evil to which we are opposed. Some departure from or aberration of the socio-political status quo, something outside of ourselves. It’s no accident that a liberal commentariat would focus on the sort of state fascism that reductive histories pretend was conquered by liberal democracy, instead of crumbled in protracted war. But there’s nothing so easy, nor so empty, as opposing fascism when it’s framed as an unparalleled historical horror that could return.
I took in good faith these professed concerns about the Trumpian specter of fascism, and I believed in turn that we would see a broad liberal-to-left acceptance of vigorous anti-fascist action. And so, I advocated, and continue to advocate, for a response to perceived fascism that has enjoyed a history of successes throughout the 20th and early 21st Century. I’m talking about the anti-fascism abbreviated “antifa”—a militant, no-tolerance approach to far-right, racist nationalism, the sort of strategy which is not new but newly empowered and utterable. As such, I am talking about that messy, unstable, ever-oversimplified category: violence. Or, as I see it, counter-violence.
I delighted, publicly, in Richard Spencer getting punched.
Antifa is not a group or a movement or even an identity. To state one’s political position as anti-fascist after 1945 is close to meaningless and, I will argue, in a certain sense necessarily false for all of us. But as a practice taken up by the far left (socialist and anarchist alike), antifa is an illiberal intervention that does not rely on the state, the justice system, or any liberal institution to resist fascism. It finds organization online, in the streets, on campuses—wherever fascism is to be found.
Having spent much of my writing career arguing against the old canard of violence versus nonviolence, I did not think liberal aversions to the idea of political violence would suddenly vanish. But I thought, with fear of fascism in the air and a clamoring for some unified resistance, we could at least agree that it was okay, if not good, to punch a neo-Nazi. How wrong I was.
The gleeful social media sharing of the Spencer punch video was met with censure from the same liberal media microcosms that had spent the previous weeks nail biting about fascism. Even the most simple antifa act—a silencing, anti-Nazi punch—would not find broad support in the so-called resistance.
A year into the Trump presidency, I feel like I’ve fallen through the looking glass. The apparent panic about the rise of fascism has been overtaken by paranoiac fear and condemnation of the rise of anti-fascism.
I had thought that Charlottesville would take on the valence of historic Event, the sort about which we speak of “before” and “after”; a turning point. A neo-Nazi plowed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many. A young black man was viciously beaten by racists with metal poles in a parking lot by a police station. White supremacists marched Klanlike with burning torches and Nazi salutes around a Confederate statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee while chanting “Jews will not replace us!”—a gruesome pastiche of 19th-century American and 20th-century European race hate, never vanquished but newly Trump-emboldened. The day after the rally, the President blamed “many sides.” He framed the event in terms of leftist violence, while glossing over the white supremacist baseline of the event. “There is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group,” he said, adding, “You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Some days later, like a pantomime villain at another campaignless campaign rally in Phoenix, he let out an ominous roar: “Anteefa!”
In Charlottesville, the already flimsy veil of plausible deniability about the racist fascism of the alt-right had been ripped off. Liberal commentators who had written baseless screeds comparing the threat of far left anti-fascists to that of white nationalism would surely think twice about such a false equivalency once faced with the spectacle of Charlottesville.
Once hearing the “two sides” argument from the puckered, impossible mouth of the president, I was sure the mainstream narrative equating far-left and far-right violence would shift. Instead, it doubled down. In the month that followed the intolerable events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, America’s six top broadsheet newspapers between them ran twenty-eight opinion pieces condemning anti-fascist action, but only twenty-seven condemning neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Trump’s failure to disavow them.
Meanwhile, magazines and news outlets—only a year ago lousy with warnings against the “normalization” of hate—have published a string of profiles platforming white supremacists and neo-Nazis as if they were now an accepted part of the social fabric (thus interpellating them as such). The “polite” Midwestern Hitler fan with a Twin Peaks tattoo whose manners “would please anyone’s mother.” The “dapper” white nationalist.” The description of right extremist rallies drenched in dog whistle and foghorn neo-Nazi symbolism as just “pro-Trump” gatherings. Or worse, free speech rallies.
What changed? In truth, nothing. We are observing a phenomenon that Martin Luther King, Jr. noted well in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. We are dealing with “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” There is no shortage to the irony that the white moderates of today invoke MLK to decry antifa tactics as violent, but I believe (if one can so speculate) they would have been critical of his radical non-violence, predicated as it was in provoking a violent spectacle. It is a great liberal tradition to stand on the wrong side of history until that history is comfortably in the past.
“There is no shortage to the irony that the white moderates of today invoke MLK to decry antifa tactics as violent, but I believe (if one can so speculate) would have been critical of his radical non-violence, predicated as it was in pro”
“There is no shortage to the irony that the white moderates of today invoke MLK to decry antifa tactics as violent, but I believe (if one can so speculate) would have been critical of his radical non-violence, predicated as it was in pro”
We’re seeing a liberal aversion to violence, which fails to locate violence in the right places.
Any discussion about violence and antifa must note that since 1990 there have been 450 deaths caused by white supremacist violence, compared to only one believed to be related to far-left activity in the US. While property damage, minor clashes and a few neo-Nazi black eyes drew cries of leftist extremism in the last year, a white supremacist traveled to New York with the aim to murder black men. He succeeded in stabbing and killing a homeless man. Another white supremacist in Portland killed two men who were standing up for two Muslim women on a train. A Milo Yiannopolous fan in a Make America Great Again cap shot and wounded an anti-fascist counter-protester in the stomach outside a MIlo talk in Seattle. To name a few. In the ten days that followed Trump’s election alone, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 900 separate incidents of bias and violence against immigrants, Latinos, African Americans, women, LGBT people, Muslims, and Jews.
Antifa activists are criticized for responding with counter-violence. Centrist liberals urge that we follow Michelle Obama’s gracious direction: “When they go low, we go high.” They urge debate with fascists, and decry violent or confrontational intervention.
There is a view that sees tactical and moral value in allowing the likes of Richard Spencer to publicly speak and rally, believing that the fallacies of their hateful views are best made visible (thus crushing hate speech with debate and reason). The idea, then, is that the best way to defeat hate speech, such as vile arguments for race realism, would be to listen to it and thus allow its internal contradictions and idiocy to thwart itself.
Wishful thinking, proven false by the actual state of things. Tell a patient with a pus-seeping wound that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The alt-right might be a fumbling fractured mess and the white supremacists in the White House make their buffoonery clear. But support for racist ideology and its mainstream normalization are not dwindling by virtue of this—quite the opposite. This is not a fringe group whose unreasoned racism, if articulated and forcefully debated, will lose traction and self-implode.
In a recent video that earned a lot of liberal praise, Guardian journalist Gary Younge interviewed Richard Spencer. “In the course of our exchange he claims that Africans contributed nothing to civilisation (they started it), that Africans benefited from white supremacy (they didn’t) and that, since I’m black I cannot be British (I am).” All of this is true, but that’s irrelevant. In the video, a flustered Younge tells Spencer, “You’re really proud of your racism, aren’t you . . . You’re talking nonsense.” Spencer is unmoved and continues, “You’ll never be an Englishman.” A racist invested in the tenets of white supremacy as foundational will not be moved by Younge’s correctness. This was not interlocution, nor a particularly revelatory exposure of Spencer’s well-publicized views; this was the incommensurability of a white supremacist Weltanschauung with one of tolerance, not to mention facts.
Liberal appeals to truth will not break through to a fascist epistemology of power and domination—these are Spencer and his ilk’s first principles. And it is this aspect of fascism that needs to be grasped to understand the necessity of antifa’s confrontational tactics.
There is no one uniting ideology between those who—across history and geography—see antifa practices as the best means to combat certain fascist iterations. I say “certain” because neo-Nazi, 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.
They are simply a dangerous locus of what I want to call fascistic habit, formed of fascistic desire to dominate, oppress, and obliterate the nameable “other.” (I don’t use the word “habit” lightly; I mean no less than the modes by which we live). Their fascism is not a perversion of our society’s business-as-usual, but an outgrowth. I won’t talk of “neo-fascism” any more than I will talk of “neo-antifa.” Fascism never disappeared to be revived anew. It simply reiterates, sometimes with greater force. Antifa, as I see it, is one aspect of a broader abolitionist project, which would see all racist policing, prisons, and oppressive hierarchies abolished. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1935, “How can anyone tell the truth about Fascism, unless he is willing to speak out against capitalism, which brings it forth?”
Writing in 1933 Germany, Freudian acolyte Wilhelm Reich wrestled with the operations by which a society chooses fascism. He attempted to interrogate why a mass of people would choose their own oppression in an authoritarian system. He rejected narratives in which ignorant masses are duped or led into supporting a system they do not in fact want. Instead, he insisted that if we are to explain the rise of fascism, we must account for the fact that people, en masse, choose and desire fascism and we must understand that desire as genuine. Reich’s diagnosis—that the fascist subject is the product of societally enforced sexual repression, and can be thus treated with psychoanalysis—is biologically essentialist, over-general, and totally out of date. But his reckoning with fascistic desire is something sorely lacking in this moment of Trump-emboldened fascism and the battle against it.
Certain lines from Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism get regurgitated more than others in moments like this—moments in which a media cottage industry seems dedicated to defining fascism in order to prove that we are or are not faced with it. “Fascist mentality is the mentality of the subjugated ‘little man’ who craves authority and rebels against it at the same time”: that’s a popular one, and apt. So is the reflection that it is “not by accident that all fascist dictators stem from the milieu of the little reactionary man.” But I’m more interested in his observation that “there is today not a single individual who does not have the elements of fascist feeling and thinking in his structure.” And that “one cannot make the Fascist harmless if, according to the politics of the day, one looks for him only in the German or Italian, or the American or the Chinese; if one does not look for him in oneself; if one does not know the social institutions which hatch him every day.”
Reich’s insight is not restricted to Germany during Hitler’s rise. The problem of everyday fascisms, micro-fascisms with and by which we live, is real and complicates the fascist/anti-fascist dichotomy. There is a certain impossibility to “anti-fascist” as an identity. Philosophers and thinkers, particularly Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, have built on Reich’s idea of the perverted desire for fascism. They wrote that it is “too easy to be anti-fascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside of you.” In his famed introduction to their text Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault noted “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” For Deleuze and Guattari, fascism manifests in the various repressive and paranoid “assemblages” of society and politics.
So if we are all somehow possessed of fascism in this sense, how can we speak of anti-fascism, and how can we name and delineate the fascists of our political targeting? It is precisely through this recognition. The fascism Deleuze and Guattari are talking about is not some innate disease or pathology that we can’t shake, but rather a perversion of desire produced through forms of life under capitalism and modernity: practices of authoritarianism and domination and exploitation that form us, such that we can’t just “decide” our way out of them. But not everyone becomes a neo-Nazi. This too takes fascist practice, fascist habit; a nurturing and constant reaffirmation of that fascistic desire to oppress and live in an oppressive world. And, to be sure, the world provides that pernicious affirmation. Donald Trump is president after all.
How to break a habit? Sometimes, thought, therapy, reasoning. Sometimes. There are rare, rare stories of neo-Nazis who left the movement that way. But often habits are, if not broken, redirected by the introduction of serious consequences, such that the practices of the habit cannot be continued with the habitude that feeds and maintains them. When “serious consequences” are taken to mean brushes with criminal justice and the carceral system, that simply introduces state-sanctioned fascistic practices into the mix (not to mention the unlikelihood of the U.S. criminal justice system treating white supremacy as an enemy). This is the importance of anti-fascism also as practice and habit: if desiring fascism is not something that happens out of reason, we cannot break it with reason alone. So our interventions instead must make the entertainment and maintenance of fascist living intolerable. The desiring for fascism will not be thus undone: it is by its nature self-destructive. But at least the spaces for it to be nurtured and further normalized will be taken away.
And what of the fascisms in each of us who would be anti-fascist? “Kill the cop inside your head!” goes the anarchist dictum. Theorist John Protevi noted, following Deleuze and Guattari, “a thousand independent and self-appointed policemen do not make a Gestapo, though they may be a necessary condition for one.” How do we remove ourselves from being part of such a condition? We cannot simply be anti-fascist. We must practice and make better habits, better forms of life. “Anti-fascist” as gerund verb, not noun or adjective: a constant effort of anti-fascisting against the fascisms even we uphold. Working to create non-hierarchical ways of living, working to undo our own privileges and desires for power. The individualized and detached self, the over-codings of family unit normativity, the authoritarian tendency of careerism—all among paranoiac sites of micro-fascism in need of anti-fascist care. Again, easier said than done. But better than a faulty approach to anti-fascism that frames it as some pure position, when it is not. We act against ur-fascists in the knowledge that we need to act against ourselves too. The strategy is always to create consequences for living a fascist life and to seek anti-fascist departures.
But this effort, which has no obvious end, is stymied from the jump within a discourse that rejects anti-fascist consequences even be wrought on neo-Nazis.
Fascism is un-bannable. Last summer I was in Berlin when German neo-Nazis planned an authorized march in the western reaches of the city. “Do you know anything about this march in Spandau on Saturday?” an American friend who’d recently moved to Berlin emailed to ask. “I thought neo-Nazi demonstrations weren’t even allowed here?” They aren’t, and they are.
In statutes that made German speech no less free than ours, the display or reproduction of Hitler-era symbols like the swastika or the Nazi salute is banned. The legal concept of Volksverhetzung—literally “incitement of the masses,” actually “incitement of hatred”—criminalizes Holocaust denial and an array of hate speech. But on August 17, over 500 neo-Nazis in their own makeshift uniforms of white t-shirts and khakis attempted to march to mark the anniversary of the death of high-ranking Nazi official Rudolf Hess. Five days after Charlottesville. I went to the counter-protest with my partner—a born-and-raised Berliner—a few friends, and a hope to see the rally disrupted, but no experience with or close connections to Berlin antifa.
Before they could amass, the Nazis—great lunking gobs of pink-white flesh and bile in white cotton—passed through police tents to be checked for weapons and contraband symbols. Some emerged with black tape over verboten tattoos. They stood in phalanx formation, some waving the black, white, and red flag of German Empire, early Weimar, and the Nazi regime until 1935. A particular tranche of the German extremist right: not the Islamophobic thugs of Pegida, or the polished Alternative for Deutschland with newly won seats in parliament, but traditional Third Reich nostalgic neo-Nazis marching in Berlin. (Monsters all.) Rows and rows of cops in robocop riot gear protected them as they prepared to march. Police protect Nazi marches in America with equal vigor. Meanwhile, the last Black Lives Matter march I attended was shut down before it could leave New York’s Union Square.
We few hundred counter-protesters couldn’t get close, so instead sat in the street to block the march route to the site of the prison where Hess was once held. The police moved in, dragging the seated crowds one-by-one out of the street with visible sadism. Fingers pressed on eye sockets, faces pushed against gravel, young, small bodies dragged by the neck. As more and more of us sat, the police gave up. So we remained there, and the Nazis remained there. Eventually they turned around, briefly marched in the wrong direction and dispersed.
I had no Jewish family die in the Holocaust; they left Russia for England in the 1890s. I’m white, endowed with white privilege. I never felt Jewish until I was in Berlin. I never thought about it until I was in Berlin, where the little Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) of brass, bearing the names and life dates of Jewish victims of the Nazis dot the pavement in front of where they had lived or worked. You notice them, and then you don’t. They don’t trip you up. I’ve never felt more Jewish than standing feet away from red-faced Nazis paying homage to Rudolf Hess. I also felt sick. They deserve fiercer consequence than a blocked street and a taped-up swastika tattoo. Last year, Germany saw nearly 22,000 attacks motivated by far-right sentiment, a 42% increase from 2015. This is what a state ban on neo-Nazis looks like.
The anti-fascists of the 43 Group made it their business to identify, surveil, and physically confront, disrupt, and shut down fascist organizing in London and across Britain. They used knives, knuckledusters, and crowbars. “We’re not here to kill. We’re here to maim.”
After I left Berlin, I visited my 82-year-old grandfather in southern Spain. He’s a British expat with a vast repertoire of embellished anecdotes, a purpling tan, and the occasional reactionary bent. One lunchtime, I asked him: “Do you think it’s okay to punch neo-Nazis?”
I asked him in particular because I was seeking a certain response, from a certain generation, at a certain distance. I wanted an incredulous “yes” and a confused expression, as if I’d asked whether fire burns or if he’d like another drink. He’s the sort of man who sees the world as if moral facts were just there, as obvious and immovable as mountains—not the constant ethical navigation of anti-fascisting we need. But I wanted my aging grandfather—whose politics are not my own—to place neo-Nazi-punching in his blunt taxonomy of right and wrong. I wanted to beg my own question.
He replied without pause: “Who could have a problem with that?”
He told me that his father, my great-grandfather, had joined the 43 Group—the network of Jewish ex-servicemen and their allies who fought bloody battles against Oswald Mosley’s fascist supporters in the streets of postwar England. My great-grandfather’s involvement in the group is an unverified note of family folklore, but one I choose to maintain. It’s feasible: he was a Jewish Londoner who served in the British army, and at its height around 1,000 people were involved in 43 Group activity. But Grandpa gave no further details; we finished lunch and he retired from the veranda sun to sleep. I presume he felt the comment about his father’s involvement bore a self-contained sufficiency, as if the 43 Group were not just an historic point of reference, but a moral fact, such that it was enough to invoke the name to assert that this was a Good.
The 43 Group was an anti-fascist organization, which deployed violence as its primary tactic. Its founding members had returned from the war with the presumption that their work fighting fascism had ended with Hitler’s downfall. It seemed unthinkable that the once-flourishing prewar fascist movement, led by the aristocratic, anti-semitic politician Mosley, could be revived. What does it mean to reckon with the desire for ur-fascism at the moment when the death spectacle of the camps could not be unseen by the world? But the ex-servicemen who founded the 43 Group returned from the war to find Mosley and his fascists regrouping, rallying and organizing in growing numbers. They speechified about the threat of an “alien menace.” Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in East London were vandalized. “They didn’t burn enough of them in Belsen”: so went the chant when the fascists mobilized.
In response, the anti-fascists of the 43 Group made it their business to identify, surveil, and physically confront, disrupt, and shut down fascist organizing in London and across Britain. They used knives, knuckledusters, and crowbars. “We’re not here to kill. We’re here to maim,” they would say. The group disrupted over 2,000 meetings over five active years and is widely credited for neutralizing postwar Britain’s fascist movement. "We defended the community by making it impossible for the fascists to terrorize us," one member, Jules Konopinski, told the Guardian in 2009 when he was 79 years old. The group’s militancy drew some contemporary censure from parts of the British Jewish establishment, but for the most part its place in history is either overlooked or lauded by historians, Holocaust memorial institutions, and anti-racist groups. Famed hairdresser Vidal Sassoon was an active fighter among the group—when he died in 2012, mainstream media obituaries described him as an “anti-fascist-warrior” who was “fighting back against fascist oppression.”
And now, in 2017, I’ve been publicly chastised for celebrating one artful antifa punch delivered to Richard Spencer’s face, caught on meme-ready video. It strikes me as a classic instance of historical NIMBYism—taken up by liberals and conservatives alike—in which only in the past, or in other countries, has militancy against white supremacy been a legitimate resistance.
The parameters, by NIMBY reasoning, of acceptable or justified radical violence expand as the struggles in question grow farther from US soil, and when the event is separated by years and decades. We imprison today’s protesters and canonize yesterday’s insurrectionists. But the ability to do so is premised on the belief (even a tacit one) that our current context is not so bad, but dissent, militancy, and violence are fine there and fine then.
WE need to undo this NIMBY-ism and stress the shape of our contextual violence. No anti-fascists could get close enough for physical confrontation on the day the neo-Nazis marched in Berlin, but it was a violent event, even before the police began assaulting seated protesters. Often, defenders of antifa militancy call the resort to violent tactics a form of self-defense—a preemptive act to protect the community from the violence inherent to fascist organizing. When antifa protesters aggressively shut down Milo’s talk at Berkeley, numerous participants cited the bigot’s tendency to use his platform to out transgender students. After Charlottesville, Dr. Cornel West, who marched that day with local clergy, said of antifa: “They saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed.” He said of the white supremacists, “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”
I don't believe a smashed bank window or a burning trash can on the Berkeley campus outside a Milo speech to be victims of violence or to produce victims. But that is not an absolute distinction related to animate versus inanimate objects—a smashed mosque window and a swastika on a Jewish grave would, by my lights, produce legitimate victims of violence. The latter, not the former, are in service of an ideology, white supremacy, for which violence is an inherence. It matters whether destruction is collateral damage (say, in the goal of disrupting a neo-Nazi gathering) or the central tenet (genocide).
But there’s a narrative I prefer to the (albeit valid) self-defense claim. The media has a tendency, or at least an overused turn of phrase, when protests involve physical fights or property damage to state that events “turned violent.” This applies as much to Black Lives Matter protests, Occupy, Standing Rock or any other movement as it does to antifa action. I take issue with this violent “turn.” The error exists in the tacit suggestion that there was a situation of non-violence, or peace, from which to turn. To be clear: any circumstance in which cops take black life with impunity, any context in which it is still necessary to state that Black Lives Matter, or Trans Lives Matter, any further assault on the lives and lands of indigenous people, and any situation in which fascists can gather to preach hate and chant “blood and soil”—this is a background state of constant violence.
Antifa do not bring violence; the violence was there in the DNA of fascism and our world through which it permeates. Our violence is counter-violence in history’s unbroken dialectic of violence and counter-violence. Why not end the cycle? I repeat here the words of late philosopher Bernard Williams, who noted that "to say peace when there is no peace is to say nothing." The question then is not one of necessary violence, but impossible non-violence.
The question then often asked is about targets. Where does one draw the line about which groups or speakers are deserving of anti-fascist exposure and confrontation? We might agree on the Richard Spencers or Nathan Damigos of the world, but what of someone like racist pseudoscientist Charles Murray, or members of the so-called alt-lite who purport to not be racist, but run in the same circles? There’s no antifa committee or council drawing rules as rails about who counts as fascist enough to fight; each community deciding to take anti-fascist action must decide on appropriate targets and tactics. It’s an ethical practice, not a moral code. It’s worth noting that this is largely a hypothetical concern: it has not been a problem that antifa activists have gone after “regular” Trump supporters. Perhaps some college Republicans had their MAGA hats unceremoniously knocked off at Berkeley, but they were organizing and supporting a Milo talk. And this is the antifa point: to make there be felt consequences to organizing with or alongside white supremacists and hate mongers. Slippery slope arguments are distractions at a time when there are so many outright organizing fascists at which to aim our anti-fascism.
Fascism is not just a type of regime, nor an ideology for a would-be regime. Micro-fascisms that permeate quotidian life, as does a perverted desire for fascism. But the practical question of where to draw the line when it comes to deploying violent counter-protest has not been answered. (We do not, for example, do the work of anti-fascisting ourselves by punching ourselves in the face daily—or at least I don’t—but we are not seeking to organize with pro-active fascist racists as a form of life). Borrowing from Umberto Eco, we might want to use the term “ur-fascist” for those for whom violent intervention could be an ethical possibility.
I can’t give you a definition of ur-fascism that accounts for every instance of something we might want to call “ur-fascism” in the world. That’s not a failure of the concept or my ability to name it. I also can’t give you a definition of the term “game” that covers every instance of something we correctly call a game. This was what Wittgenstein meant by a family resemblance concept. There is no one essential common feature that all things we call “game” share; rather we see “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing.” I’m not the first to apply the idea to fascism. Eco wrote in the New York Review of Books that “fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game,” noting that, “Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist.” So we might name an overlapping network of similarities like populism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, and disregard for reasoned debate—one or more of these could be absent for the “ur-fascism” term to still apply (Eco proposes a possible but extendable list of fourteen features).
But I’d suggest that we can further use Wittgenstein’s family resemblance idea to talk about whether we draw the boundary on what counts as an ur-fascist. Wittgenstein talks about the problem of delineating the boundaries of a term or concept thus:
I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits . . . that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game." For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game.")
So I cannot give you the boundary of ur-fascism or the clear path from fascism. We have to draw it as we go. Understandably, that is more troubling than recognizing that the same is true when we use the word “game.” But that 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 organize in our midst. To anti-fascisting, while we cannot anti-fascist be!