Why We Fight: An Interview with Shane Burley
We’re very excited to have just released Shane Burley’s Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse, an essential book for mapping the past, present, and future of resistance in this country. We asked Shane a few questions about the book (and beyond). See what he has to say, and then get a copy for yourself here.
1) You’re a voracious reader. What are five books we should be reading alongside Why We Fight to help us understand the current moment?
That’s a really good question. I would start with a great recent book from AK Press called There’s Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart, an anthology of Jewish anarchism edited by Cindy Milstein which I feel like shares a spiritual bond with my book. Then I would add Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin, which was the best book on the subject out last year and one of the best ever written on the far-right. I would also add Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting, which is a groundbreaking look at the ecstatic piece of protest movements, which is a critical part not just of them achieving gains but of opening up a space of freedom. William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi’s As Black as Resistance is basically always on my mind these past few years, it had a huge influence on the way I think about all forms of resistance. And of a completely different world, I’ve been really enjoying Judaism for the World by Rabbi Arthur Green, who is this sort of seminal figure in neo-hasidism and whose work I just devoured while writing this book. I also have piles of fiction that are, again, a completely different universe, so I’ll save those for another list.
2) You have a fascinating essay in Why We Fight called “How Racists Dream: Metapolitics and Fascist Publishing.” Metapolitics seeks to change the way people think on a cultural level engaging, as you say, “paths of identity, morality, values, nostalgia, [and] relationships” as a means to prime the pump, so to speak, for eventual political change. In recent years people have mainly come in contact with fascist metapolitics through online culture and social media. What are the best ways to counter fascist metapolitics and in what ways can antifascists, those supporting trans rights and free gender expression, antiracists, and feminists make better use of the concept?
Part of this is to first actually engage in metapolitics, to bring our whole selves into artistic, cultural, and spiritual spaces, and to see them as a terrain of struggle. These often get sidelined from what is “properly political” in that they really aren’t forward facing, they aren’t necessarily a piece of a mass movement, and it is difficult to see material “gains” as you would in a traditional organizing campaign. Instead, it helps to address these issues as they intersect holistically, how they define our sense of self and the way we explore meaning. To do this I think we should encourage radical art, music, and spiritual formations for what they are: incredible pathways to human creativity and subjectivity but also aiders and abettors of revolution. Material conditions only go so far, we also have to pair on-the-ground organizing with shifts in ideological frameworks. Those have to work in tandem. And we can’t always just see our lives as part of an instrumentalist struggle, we have to see our future world as pieced together with other types of work—cultural and spiritual work—because those are the things that can give us the wholeness necessary to have a life worth living.
Second, those are contested spaces as well. Inside of subcultures, whether music or religious or otherwise, you will often find people fighting for a type of ideological hegemony. Many ostensibly left or anarchist subcultures found themselves beset by actual Nazis in the 1970s–80s as there was a clash of the far-right and the far-left inside punk rock. The choice was whether or not to leave that space and cede it to the far-right or to fight inside of it, to make it antiracist hegemonic, and to boot out the fascists. This is happening in musical, artistic, spiritual, and other subcultures all around the world right now, such as in black metal, neofolk, or pagan groups. People are fighting to push out the presence of the far-right, which is building a metapolitic of its own, and replace their ideas with a more liberatory vision. This is a critically important piece to antifascism and prefiguration, and it should not be ignored in favor of just one particular style of organizing.
So we need to push them out, and we need to build our own. If we don’t have a world we are building then antifascism is simply an incomplete process, we have to fill the void with ourselves.
3) The internet, airwaves, and TV are bringing white nationalist talking points into people’s homes. There’s a mainstreaming of fascist and fascist-adjacent ideas at a time of increasing adherence to unhinged conspiracy theories. To what degree do you see distinctions or growing similarities between contemporary fascists, conservatives of the MAGA ilk, and those falling into the conspiracy theory trap?
There is crossover for sure, but what is happening is not really in line with what a lot of antifascists have dealt with. Antifascism, like most social movements, is best when it’s focused on what it does well. While those in the group are likely ideologically opposed to everyone on the political Right, they specifically are going after open fascists and those on the far-right who present a unique threat beyond the beltway, more establishment Right. They may go after the GOP in other ways and other issues but antifascists are confronting a particular type of dissident Rightist politic.
Those divisions have broken down as the fringes have entered the center, and white nationalism has seen major buy-in from the GOP. The notion that “antifa attacks conservatives” comes merely from the fact that fascist and allied people are welcome inside of Republican spaces now, so naturally the antifascists are engaging with people who traditionally would not have interfaced with them. White nationalist ideas are now common in sectors of the Right, particularly around immigration, and antisemitic and other conspiracy theories are a defining feature of the GOP.
The GOP is still not synonymous with something like the National Socialist Movement, but there is heavy crossover. There always has been this crossover, more or less, at different points, but we are living at a particularly egregious point in this and GOP gatekeepers are unwilling, or unable, to close the gates. So now the differences are largely in how self-aware and honest these people are: are they going to be clear that they are fighting for a white ethnostate, or are they hiding behind talking points and civic nationalism? We will continue to see this America First contingent in the Republican Party fighting for some type of hegemony. It has yet to take any kind of majority but with the rest of the party totally willing to placate them because they know that these conspiracy radicals are the source of their base’s energy, they have undue influence.
All of this to say that fascist organizations have seen some level of decline because of a mix of antifascist pressure and their own ineptitude (and a steady dose of deplatforming), but they have left a lasting imprint on American politics that will be hard to undo. And it is important to know that even if they are fully pushed back under a rock, they will reappear because fascism is baked into our system of government, economics, and colonialism. Until we take a hard and radical look at the systems our society is built on we will never be able to take on fascism in a serious way.
4) You’ve been researching the far-right for some time and your work has been closely associated with the antifascist movement’s intellectual and strategic development as of late. In hindsight—aside from the many victories—do you see any particular missteps or missed opportunities that have been made in the last five years in building a movement against fascism?
There has been a massive growth in antifascism from all types of people, organizations, and communities, which creates a real ideological and tactical diversity, which is great and necessary. There has been less connection between a lot of these groups and older, more experienced antifascists to provide any kind of direction and mentorship. One thing that marks many older antifascist groups is their commitment to unquestionable accuracy and tactical efficiency. When they publish information, it is ironclad, and that info goes along with a campaign that applies particular types of pressure to see particular types of victories. They do not, for example, just do mass dumps of info on random people out of context because that does not necessarily lead to the results they want. So I think one thing that is missing in some cases is that connection to historical memory, though I am often surprised by how wonderful new people and organizations are and the incredible innovation they bring.
I think all social movements sometimes have missed opportunities. I hope to see even more coalition building and collaboration, and to build alliances between groups doing mutual aid work, fighting police violence, and antifascist organizations. Integration and collaboration is what is most needed because none of the dire features of our current situation are independent from one another, and we need to be aware of these different responses and to collaborate with each other. We cannot reproduce social movements without having our needs met, which is why mutual aid is critical. And we can’t really confront the effects of the far-right without also looking at the epidemic of racist police killings. We also need to stand with unions and workers organizing, against ecological destruction, to block evictions, to work in solidarity with international liberation movements; all of these are pieces of a larger puzzle, and so I think it is important that, while focusing on what we are best at, we find ways of being a part of this larger matrix.
5) Antisemitism is a subject you’ve been researching and writing about quite a bit in recent years and you’ve included an original essay in Why We Fight called “The Continuing Appeal of Antisemitism.” How do we best raise the visibility of antisemitism in left, anarchist, and antiracist circles?
There’s a couple of things here that should change right off the bat. The first is to build a culture of trust so that when someone says they think that they are experiencing antisemitism, we believe them first. This is not the standard response on the left right now, partially because of disingenuous accusations coming from the right and pro-Israel groups, and also because of historic trends of antisemitism that still linger in some left spaces. Another is to recognize the severity of antisemitism, which often gets reduced to singular spectacular incidents of violence (like that at Or L’Simcha) or is downplayed. Antisemitism remains prevalent, including structurally, and so we need to not reduce our understanding of oppression to define it out of its marginalization. We have to see antisemitism. On top of this, we have to have a better understanding of what it actually is, which may be the toughest piece of this since its contours are confusing and complicated, have a lot of historical baggage, and have been intentionally confused by the right.
On the left, we need to have a hard line on conspiracy theories. Even when Jews are not explicitly named, most conspiracy theories have antisemitic foundations and play into antisemitic worldviews that reproduce underlying societal narratives about Jewishness. When confronting class, we need to not reduce important class antagonisms to just caricatured images, which often are constructed on hyperbolic images of “Jewish bankers” or other bigoted portrayals. Instead, we need to focus with more clarity on the systems of capital and the actual class that controls it, which cannot be reduced to Rothschilds or Soros or other types of shadowy cabals. When it comes to confronting Israel, we shouldn’t let anything stop us from the fight to free Palestinians from the violent occupation, yet we should take care to clarify our language, push out any lingering antisemitism, and hold it with complexity so as to not erase historical oppression and genocide against Jews. This is where this process becomes particularly disconcerting since Israeli groups regularly level accusations of antisemitism to deflect from the movement to confront that state’s crimes, so we have to undercut their behavior by taking antisemitism seriously on our own so they have no claim on that argumentation.
6) Resilience is a theme that crops up in your new book. You say that “tragedy … can be the story of our resistance.” As bad as things are we’re seeing a growing, multilayered movement addressing State violence, misinformation, the prison industrial complex, capitalism, gendered violence, and climate chaos. How hopeful can we be while mired in the shit?
Oh I’m very hopeful. I know people will think it’s funny since I just wrote a book about the apocalypse, but I’m filled with hope. My entire adult political life I have only seen a steady increase in organizing and revolutionary activity. I couldn’t have dreamed ten years ago we would have a mass militant movement against police violence, much less to see “antifa” become a household name. Mutual aid networks are growing all across the world, uprisings are happening on almost every continent, and the labor movement is seeing its biggest spike in fifty years. Yeah, things are really tough, from the collapsing economy to the devastated biosphere, but we have the energy to confront it. And we have all the tools to fix it. I used to be unsure if we actually had the ability to change things, but I now have a lot of faith. We won’t be able to just turn the ship around, it’s too late for that, but we can live in this crisis and build something better on the other side. I think by acknowledging that no one will do it for us, that no deus ex machina is coming, we can live in the present where a new society is the culmination of our acts of survival and resistance. That gives me a tremendous amount of hope. We are living in the middle of an inferno. We are living in the future.