Fascism Today: An Interview with Shane Burley
We recently chatted with Shane Burley about his new book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. Given the current political situation, both the book and Shane’s strategic suggestions are important for all of us to consider, debate, and expand upon.
Q: I know that you’ve been at this a while. Could you give us some background, your previous efforts as an antifascist organizer and researcher?
A: This traces back many years for me, though I have to be honest in that my primary organizing work has been in labor and housing justice. Those who have done the hard work of antifascist organizing over the years often go unheard, so I tried to bring those voices into the book and my journalism.
Back when I lived in Eugene, Oregon, the University of Oregon started a forum that was bringing controversial speakers that were supposed to have “challenging” views. Most of these at the start were communist party organizers from decades past, deep green ecological types, and alternative science proponents, and many around the area were supportive of this project, and I and others would help to promote their events. They were especially active in Palestinian solidarity, despite being widely unpopular with certain student and faculty groups.
Then they brought a Holocaust Denier, then another, and another. The organization was the Pacifica Forum.The Southern Poverty Law Center, who tracks hate groups, now lists it as a white nationalist organization. They eventually became more and more public about their anti-Semitism, their allying with Third Positionist fascist projects, and were enthusiastically embraced by neo-Nazis of the area.
What made this transition so horrifying for so many nearby was that they really could not see it coming until it was fully formed, and even then the rhetoric was baffling. The pathway the Pacifica Forum took to full fledged fascist politics was not through the traditional path of far-right conservative Americana. Instead, it really sidestepped through popular areas of the left, including anti-capitalism, international solidarity, anti-war politics, and environmentalism. Our protest actions, small at first and led by local synagogues, did little to shut down the organization, which continued for years until finally petering out.
A couple of years later, in 2011, a community organization I had worked with in Rochester, New York began an organizing plan to confront an incoming appearance of David Irving. Irving is the most famous Holocaust Denier in the world, starting out as a mainstream, yet far-right wing, historian who slowly shifted his public opinion to one that sees the major claims of Holocaust historians as a hoax. Irving, who has served time in places like Austria for hate speech, now has to have private events when promoting his books, which he was having in the neighboring Syracuse, New York. While we were only able to get the final hotel location hours before the event started, our actions to have the hotel intervene were met with little concern. Even though the meeting hall was packed full of open neo-Nazis and KKK members, no one seemed concerned. This was exactly the response organizers often got from much of the left when forming antifascist committees to confront public neo-Nazi shows or organizations on the fringes of the GOP, which were then trying to move into mainstream discourse through the Tea Party phenomenon. The idea was repeated to us over and over, that fascism was no longer the real issue, global capitalism, neoliberalism, American imperialism, environmental destruction, and all the normal oppressions of the status quo were important. Fascism was unstable reactionary mass politics, something a capitalist class would never allow again.
In preparing for those actions, I was focusing in on researching the growth of white nationalist projects like the American Third Position Party (now the American Freedom Party). I stumbled on a podcast named Vanguard Radio with a young and articulate host, Richard Spencer. His website AlternativeRight.com was unfamiliar to many of us, and from first glance it might even look like some type of leftist publication. Criticisms of capitalism. Heavy focus on paganism. Environmental treatises. We have had the “suit and tie Nazi” types for years, but this was a step further away from the American white nationalist political program. They were taking inspiration from the academic fascists in the European New Right and the “identitarian” street movement pushing against Muslims and immigrants in France. They were taking the language of post-colonialism, anti-capitalism, environmentalism and the like for making a philosophically fascist argument, stating that humans were unequal, that democracy was the rule of the weak over the strong, and that we needed to rediscover identity. While it seemed as if this Alternative Right could never have currency in the U.S., I got a feeling that, given the right circumstances, this new brand of fascist politics, which really attempted to create a philosophical foundation and a whole “meta-politics,” could have legs. It was in 2015 when we saw the return of “white identity politics” and Trumpism that the foundation was laid, and we finally saw what a mass fascist movement could look like in the U.S. One that did not try to hide from its politics, but embraced the most horrifying positions openly.
Q: Related to that, what do you see as the relationship between research and organizing, and more specifically, the relationship you intend/hope for between Fascism Today and the struggle against fascism.
A: One of the real key issues that has kept many mass movement from being able to see and confront fascists when they are still a minority is the inability to see them as they are. First, they look for old signifiers and behaviors, ones that are usually of generations past. There are still certainly more traditional neo-Nazis and KKK organizations in the U.S., all of which are growing, but if you are looking for that iconography you are going to miss the movements that are actually taking the lead and have the potential for mass recruitment and political action. Fascism is a shifting political force, one that keeps its focus on inequality, identity, violence, and mass action across times and cultures, but how it manifests is markedly different. What we can do with research is to set a clearer understanding of how these movements work, how they manifest, and what their strategies are.
Second, it is important to see antifascism in the same way, to see the struggles of today in continuity to the battle against fascism starting in interwar Europe. Antifascists today do not need to reinvent the wheel in every case, and there is a long history of organizing that draws from the entire network of revolutionary organizing. It is critical to dig up that history and make it ready and accessible so that organizing today can keep those lessons fresh in tactical decisions.
The focus of Trump and the Alt Right on painting the media as “fake news” has created a reflexive move on the left to uniformly defend journalism as the counter-balance to the far-right’s mobilization. While the media should be defended openly, there is no reason to believe that great journalism and well researched books will end fascism. The only thing that actually has the capacity to end fascism as a genocidal wave is organizing, the ability of people to come together in solidarity and to enact practical plans to confront it. This is why the notion that symbolic action at a complete distance from mobilizing white nationalists is so stale, it is us together that is able to defeat their attempts as growth. Education and agitation mean nothing without organizing, and so it is important for the work of research and media creation to be tied back into practical organizing work because without that it remains mere academic exercise.
Q: One thing your book makes very clear is that today’s fascism takes many forms. As you just noted, this makes it hard for people to get their heads around it conceptually. Given the broad range your book covers, could you describe the boundaries as you see them? What should and shouldn’t be referred to as fascism? What unites the disparate forces? And how does all this differ from our grandparents’ fascism?
A: I choose a kind of sparse definition for fascism, one that attempts to bring together a range of movements that are incredibly different. The axis here is the belief in human inequality, the defense of some type of immobile hierarchy, and the belief in essentialized identity, identities that are fixed and define who you are. Violence, mass politics, mythology, and romanticism are all a part of this as well, and are manifested in a range of ways. What draws the seemingly disparate movements together is those core ideas about hierarchy, identity, and the mythologized resurrection of the past. For interwar European fascism, it played out through authoritarian political parties infected with reckless imperial visions and genocidal rage. Italy, Germany, Romania, Austria, Spain, and others all had their own particulars, ones that linked up their own history of domination and nationalism, but each came back to those core attributes. You could also see it in the non-white world in Imperial Japan, where the principles of national identity, “eternal” hierarchy through the Emperor’s decree, and the violent rebirth at play in the Pacific Theater.
After World War II, how fascists saw themselves and how they behaved changed dramatically. Fascist political projects coded their language and went after broader themes, choosing to instead stoke nativist feelings rather than the kind of vicious and explicit kind of racial victimization that institutions like the NSDAP [ National Socialist German Workers’ Party,] did in the 1930s. More than this, they turned towards meta-politics, the attempt to shift culture as the basis and precursor for political change.
This idea arises from a whole history of “Idealist” philosophy, where ideas themselves change history rather than material circumstances, as well as by interpreting Gramscian Marxism, emphasizing the importance of “cultural struggle.” For most of the West, open white nationalism is still considered frightening and disgusting. While entrenched white supremacy is a constant feature of these countries, it is implicit to the systems of power. If open, explicit white supremacy, meaning open proclamations of white superiority and preference, become popularized, there would be a common revulsion. This is what we are seeing today with the Alt Right where, though it has seen dramatic growth, the vast majority of the public is horrified. Therefore, if they want to actually bring about a world in which white nationalist politics become the standard, then they have to change the underlying values that motivate those politics. This means creating a romantic reimagining of Europe’s history and value, calling into question the idea that “all men are created equal,” challenging the democratic notion that “every cook can govern,” and to reframe history as the struggle between essential identities, usually races and ethnicities. Once those values replace the values of the left, the politics shift with dramatic swiftness, and so that is largely the frame they have taken on.
This has meant that their points of struggle have expanded far beyond what Hitler could have imagined. Music, art, philosophy, academics, sports culture, spirituality, have all been touched, and a counter-narrative and counter-culture is being pushed in each different facet of human communality. At the same time they are using wedge issues and the anger of working class disenfranchisement to create a populist wave that can be utilized as a Trojan Horse for more explicit fascism. This is the danger of the Trumpian populism that took over in 2015-16, as well as the rise of populist parties and project in Europe like UKIP in the U.K. and Marine Le Pen and the Front Nationale in France.
In the U.S., the cultural struggle has dominated since our two-party system really disallows the kind of insurgent far-right parties that we have seen for decades in Europe, like the Austrian Freedom Party or the now-defunct British National Party. Instead, these movements don’t look toward dissident politicians for their leadership. They go online and find a culture that has created its own internal jargon and queues on web forums, where the leaders are web-celebrities ranting on social media. This is how someone like Richard Spencer was able to become an iconic figure for their movement having never written a book, taught a class, or held office.
Q: During the many demos and counter-demos in Berkeley recently, the events that antifascists protested and/or shut down never portrayed themselves as fascist, white nationalist, or even racist. The mainstream media often referred to participants as merely “Trump supporters.” There’s a blurriness there that, I think, allows fascists a lot of wiggle room, and allows them to both sow confusion and score some points in the media game: it looks like “antifa” is simply attacking people because of who they voted for, or is meeting mere electoral disagreement with “extreme” physical measures. How are fascists operating in such instances versus, say, a torch-lit blood-and-soil march? How do we understand the two as different aspects of the same thing? What does this mean for us strategically?
A: Those media reports put a lot of antifascists in a difficult position, largely because they were right. In 2016, a trend towards “Free Speech” rallies was started by figures that are often called the “Alt Light.” Like the Alt Right, these people oppose immigration, multiculturalism, and support Trump, yet they do not actually align themselves with white nationalism. Instead, they are more like a culturally extreme version of American conservatism, both nativist and “America First.” They brought with them a coalition that ranged from explicit neo-Nazis and Alt Righters to “Patriot” militia types to more beltway conservative Trump supporters. The movement then created a dynamic that was rarely seen, where the difference among the various components became blurry and much of the violence (physical and rhetorical) against the left was perpetrated by people who knew little of what the people in white polos next to them were there for.
One thing that successful antifascist organizers have done is to be able to differentiate between those who are simply reactionaries and those who are a part of fascist movements. In the case of places like Berkeley, those were large-scale events geared towards fascist organizing and recruitment. Organizations like Patriot Prayer may not meet the litmus test of explicit white nationalism, but they have been active in making themselves an organizing tool for Alt Right groups like Identity Europa. So this is where the opposition has come from. But it is important to make the distinction since the large majority of Trump’s support did not come from explicit fascists, and that is actually what is so scary about it.
Q: What do you see as the biggest current impediments to the antifascist movement, both externally and internally?
A: Right now it has been the tendency for antifascism to become a boogeyman not for actual fascists, but for Midwestern and rural conservatives. Since the creation of institutions like Breitbart, Rebel Media, and Heat Street, there has been a heavy focus on delivering coded white nationalist rhetoric to more mainstream conservative types. This has made a distorted view of “Antifa” frightening to groups who would normally not even know what that word means (and who usually still don’t). The other part of this is that antifascism grew in association with the mass movement that arose in response to Trump’s election, and those Trump supporters often doubled down when they saw their populist icon being repudiated by millions of protesters. Antifascism now has been presented to a huge swathe of the population as an elitist terrorist movement, made up of just about anything that they find confusing or scary.
That lack of public clarity about what antifascism means is a huge hindrance to being able to communicate its importance, and has created a layer of state and social repression against activists that is at a scale unseen in previous years. That state repression, which also has come into vogue in the way many urban areas are responding to mass uprisings in the age of Trump, are also raising the stakes on protest actions by delivering menus of charges for reasonably common protest tactics. Here in Portland, protesters from the November 10th mass action had felony and riot charges leveled against them, while another 193 protesters are facing essentially life sentences for the #J20 inauguration day protests. This will essentially have a chilling effect, just like the Green Scare had against environmental activism.
If in the coming months police departments and federal agencies try to start labeling antifascism as terrorism it will give them the leeway to do roundups on activists in ways that destroy movements and destroy lives. It is hard to give a clear answer to this, but what makes movements survive this kind of repression is open and committed solidarity. Prison support, care projects, and movement coordination is necessary, as well as the need for people to show their support through participation.
Q: That seems like a bit of a vicious circle. Increased participation is precisely what state repression is designed to prevent with its “chilling effect,” both to keep people from joining the struggle and locking up those who do. Is there anything we can do on a political or meta-political or level before the boot comes down, to prevent it, lessen its impact, or put ourselves in a better positions to fight back?
A: One of the things mass movements do is insulate people (to a degree) from state repression, since mass participation is, in and of itself, often times more difficult to target. This does not mean federal law enforcement has not used the singling out of individuals to take down mass organizations; that is an ever-present feature when the state targets organizers. Instead, what mass movements often have to do is realize that they are operating in plain sight.
I grew up in an era of heavy state repression on environmental organizers. I don’t mean radical ELF types, I mean everyday people involved in “green” movements that were be targeted by very heavy surveillance. In this climate, things like “security culture,” the practice of being tight and private with information, was a popular concept. It largely still is. But the reality is that, as we have seen historically, security culture is a concept with little stability when put under pressure. The methods of information and organizational security that many organizers pride themselves on are literally nothing when up against state investigations. Instead, security culture is often a comforting myth, it provides a false sense of security that hides the reality of the world organizers face. There are still legitimate uses for security culture, especially if you are doing antifascist work and do not want neo-Nazis themselves to find out who you are, but if a state agency wants to find out who members of a group are, they have every method to do so.
The counter to this is to organize “in plain sight,” understanding that we are under increased surveillance in the kind of climate we see under Trump. This means using tactics and strategies that we are willing to take ownership of, because the state will assign ownership regardless. This, again, does not mean that organizers should not be thoughtful about how information is shared, but also be realistic. In this sort of methodology, the strategies that organizers employ are given weight by the masses’ participation: they work because of the size and dynamic skills and constituencies that are involved. This can be one way of considering that type of state targeting, as well as how to have longevity in organizing.
The other thing is that where the sense of security leaves off is where solidarity kicks in. That is more than a bumper sticker slogan, it is incredibly strategic. Movements of this size need to create bonds between organizations, individual organizers, and strategic orientations. A mass movement has a lot of different approaches, from the militant antifa organizations directly intervening and community organizations tying issues like federal deportations to the rise of the Alt Right. Coordinated networks of support, mutual aid and respect, and a sense of shared circumstances is what creates dynamic movements that are not easily torn apart. It is easy for the state to try and single out organizers, especially if social marginalization of antifascist organizations spreads, so it requires a certain commitment across ideological and community lines to develop networks of support.
It also requires thoughtful planning, long-term vision, and a methodology for how to really confront fascist organizations. When Volkfront was taken down largely from the efforts of organizations like Rose City Antifa, it was through well choreographed campaigns that used good research with public outreach and social escalation. That is not the violence that right-wing media outlets would love to paint all antifa with, it was community organizing that was committed to doing what it took to create social consequences for violent racists.
The same lessons are going to be true when confronting the state apparatus in the era of Trump as well. Vibrant communities that realize their shared conditions is what takes on fascist infiltration, and it is also what takes on ICE deportations, the persecution of Muslims, the violence against women and gender nonconforming people, and tyrannical bosses and landlords. It is the power of community that organizers ground themselves in, and with a groundswell of participation you confront both the conditions and the consciousness.
You can get Shane’s book here.