Dec 31, 2020

Lockdowns, the Insurgent Far Right & the Future of Antifascism: Three Way Fight talks with It’s Going Down

Three Way Fight contributors Xtn and Matthew Lyons were recently interviewed for the It’s Going Down podcast. From the IGD description:

“We discuss the recent events in Salem, Oregon, where members of far-Right and neo-fascist groups attempted to storm the state capitol in opposition to lockdown measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We then discuss Proud Boy violence in DC, Trump’s recent comments that upcoming demonstrations on January 6th will be ‘wild,’ the push by some of his advisors to declare ‘partial martial law,’ and finally the challenges faced by revolutionary antifascists in the current period: both in terms of confronting the far-Right, but more broadly the need to address the conditions and realities that are bringing so many angry working people into ongoing far-Right formations and protests.”

Some of the themes touched on in the interview:

  • the post-election shift by large sections of the right from a system-loyal to a system-oppositional stance
  • Trump as a “weak authoritarian” and what that says about his administration’s relationship with the ruling class
  • the far right’s capacity to tap into real grievances and the need to delineate liberatory responses from fascist ones
  • the dangers of antifascism being used to bolster the state’s repressive apparatus
  • the outlook for the far right after Trump leaves office
  • the rise of a dynamic, diverse antifascist movement in recent years and the successes born of radical, community self-defense approaches.

It’s Going Down is “a digital community center for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements across so-called North America.”

Dec 30, 2020

On Toscano’s Critique of “Racial Fascism”

By Devin Zane Shaw

Editor's introduction: Does racist state repression equal fascism? Did white supremacist capitalism create fascism in the United States long before it arose in Europe? In this post, Devin Zane Shaw applies a three way fight approach to explore Black radical thinking about fascism and antifascism from W.E.B. Du Bois to George Jackson and Angela Davis. Shaw argues that it’s important to address both the deep connections AND the conflicts between the U.S. liberal political order and fascism, and that we need related but different strategies to combat far-right street movements and the racist capitalist system.

Alberto Toscano’s “The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism,” published last October in Boston Review, is part of a broader reconsideration of fascism in light of colonialism, settler-colonialism, and the Prison Industrial Complex (hereafter PIC). His work is part of an antifascist current which is rightly critical of the mainstream discussion among liberal intellectuals, whose analyses of the far right and the Trump administration tend to rely on analogies between the present conjuncture and German and Italian fascism, eliciting—at least on social media—poor comparisons between current events and prospective Reichstag fires or the collapse of the Weimar Republic. While Toscano highlights the importance of including the Black Radical critique of PIC in antifascist thought, his account does not situate his concepts of “racial fascism” or “late fascism” (analogically modeled on the concepts of “racial capitalism” and “late capitalism”) within a three-way fight framework.

In their analogies, the mainstream liberal view often presents the recent rise of the far right and so-called “Trumpism” as a marked departure from prior American politics. Toscano, drawing on the Black Radical tradition, argues that recent events are deeply rooted in colonialism, settler-colonialism, and antiblack racism. He shows that a number of Black intellectuals in the 1930s, such as George Padmore and Langston Hughes, had demonstrated the family resemblances—though, importantly, not outright identity—between settler-colonialism and European fascism.

Black and white photo of Du Bois in profile
W.E.B Du Bois, circa 1911
We will focus here on Toscano’s reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, a “monumental reckoning with the history of U.S. racial capitalism.” His interpretation of Du Bois uncritically accepts an understanding of fascism that blocks an appreciation of the three-way fight. Toscano argues that

the overthrow of Reconstruction enacted a “racial fascism” that long predated Hitlerism in its use of racial terror, conscription of poor whites, and manipulation of (to quote the famous definition of fascism by Georgi Dimitrov) “the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist sector of finance capital.”

Toscano’s interpretation of Black Reconstruction results in a reductive view of Du Bois’s concept of the public and psychological wages of whiteness. Though Black Reconstruction and Dimitrov’s speeches on fascism both date from 1935, they present starkly different directions in antiracist and antifascist praxis. Dimitrov posited a narrow view of fascism as the most reactionary faction of capital to legitimate a popular front policy, which allowed communists to organize with social democrats and factions of the bourgeoisie which opposed their most reactionary peers.

In the United States, the popular front also led to a shift in the Communist Party USA position on Black liberation from self-determination to civil rights. And even though Dimitrov’s speeches called for the mass antifascist party in the US to fight for the equal status of Black Americans, their interests were, as Robin D.G. Kelley observes in Hammer and Hoe, his study of communist organizing in interwar Alabama, effectively sidelined in Communist Party work during the popular front.* While the Black Panther Party later adopted the popular front line under their leadership as a Black vanguard party (hence, I believe, Toscano’s invocation of it), the claim that fascism is rooted in the most reactionary faction of capitalism came to be paired, via George Jackson, with focoist underground armed resistance severed from mass organizing. We should keep these historical pitfalls in mind when developing our own antifascist praxis.

For Du Bois, the wages of whiteness functioned to establish a broad recomposition of settler-state hegemony across class lines for the white bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, and working class (I will explain settler-state hegemony below). But the wages of whiteness did more than merely align racial interests against class interests. Here, we step from Black Reconstruction to Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa’s Black Resistance to the Ku Klux Klan in the Wake of Civil War (2006). We should also note that white racists formed clandestine system-oppositional groups (such as the first Ku Klux Klan), which carried out terror in the Reconstruction South. In response, Black Southerners engaged in self-defense to fight back. On this basis, we may also conclude that the recomposition of settler-colonial hegemony around the wages of whiteness also pulled system-oppositional white racists within a system-loyal paradigm while effectively disarming Black opposition to racism and Jim Crow.

A three-way fight perspective must examine how settler-state hegemony coalesces between the interests of capital and white settlerism, so that militant antifascism can successfully fight both.

For Du Bois, the hegemony which coalesces around the wages of whiteness marked the defeat of what he called “abolition democracy” by Northern industrialists and Southern whites. In terms of the three-way fight, his account differentiates between abolition democracy, system-loyal Northerners and system-oppositional Southerners. What Toscano calls “racial fascism” would be part of a broad hegemony and not merely the most reactionary faction of capital. But Toscano doesn’t necessarily evoke Dimitrov to the letter. More accurately, Toscano adapts Dimitrov’s line to treat racial fascism as a form of “extreme” capitalism (or “late fascism,” which is as problematic a term as “post-fascism” used by others)—that is, as an extreme form of the capitalist system rather than as a reactionary or extremist faction of the bourgeoisie.

Given that contemporary forms of the system-oppositional far right emerged conditioned by, and in response to, the ascendency of the neoliberalism and the PIC, Toscano is correct to return to criticisms of PIC developed by George Jackson and Angela Y. Davis (among others). More specifically, modern forms of the far right and fascism are a reaction to liberation struggles, “preventive counterreform” even. However, it becomes especially important to untangle counterrevolutionary forces without conflating them. Thus it would be necessary to disentangle state power—embodied here in the development of PIC within generally liberal legal parameters—and its relationship to white supremacy: both how neoliberal hegemony coalesces around “law and order” and how, despite this recomposition of whiteness and hegemony, far-right groups on the ground shift toward system-oppositional currents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The latter facets escape the horizon of Toscano’s account. 

Instead, Toscano returns to his initial challenge to liberal antifascists. On the basis of Jackson and Davis, he contends that the growth of PIC is not a departure from liberal governance but part and parcel of its modern forms. But his schematic assertions remain problematic. For example, he argues:

This [a view that takes George Jackson's and Angela Davis's concept of fascism] both echoes and departs from the Black radical theories of fascism, such as Padmore’s or Césaire’s, which emerged from the experience of the colonized. The new, U.S. fascism that Jackson and Davis strive to delineate is not an unwanted return from the “other scene” of colonial violence, but originates from liberal democracy itself.

On the one hand, in the last few years there has been a well-warranted revival of interest in Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, but his observation that fascism was imperialist violence turned back upon Europe does not accurately describe how fascism is conditioned by a settler-colonial society. On the other hand, Toscano’s account also incorrectly draws a false dilemma between the “other scene” of colonial violence and liberal democracy in order to assert the continuity between liberal democracy and fascism. The distinction is a false dilemma because settler-colonialism—the dispossession and oppression of Indigenous peoples—is not beyond the borders of and historically prior to liberal democracy but within it and ongoing.

It becomes especially important to untangle counterrevolutionary forces without conflating them: both how neoliberal hegemony coalesces around “law and order” and how far-right groups on the ground shift toward system-oppositional currents in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Thus, I contend that a three-way fight perspective must examine how settler-state hegemony coalesces between liberalism and white supremacy, or between the interests of capital and white settlerism, so that militant antifascism can successfully fight both. In other words, an analysis of the far right and fascism in North America must maintain an analytic distinction between liberalism and white supremacy even though there is a constantly moving dialectic between them. They converge through some common interests and diverge on others.

We have seen how, according to Du Bois, these interests converged through the wages of whiteness (although his account must be modified to incorporate how the white settlement of the western frontier served in the formation of post-Reconstruction hegemony). They have diverged more recently, for example, when liberal factions of settler-state hegemony have extended formal protections for minorities demanded by civil rights movements. In response, far-right groups have turned toward system-oppositional forms of organization.

In general, I assert that far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot. On this basis, we cannot collapse the reactionary dimension of PIC and the reaction of system-oppositional far-right movements. I would suggest that the far-right street movements defending the thin blue line remain in need of interpretation—what actual material benefits accrue to them for rallying on the side of the police, and what symbolic or ideological needs are met here? Why do some far-right groups ally with state power and others reject it?

We will conclude by revisiting Toscano’s claim that fascism is a form of “preventive counterreform.” It is a longstanding view, at least since Clara Zetkin’s essay “The Struggle against Fascism” (1923), that fascism emerges on the basis of the revolutionary failure of the left. Given that the left lacks the strength it had many decades ago it is more accurate to describe the recent far-right reaction as preventive counterreform, attempting to block the formation of a mass militant antifascist, antiracist, and anticapitalist movement from growing out of the antipolice uprising during 2020. And here Toscano’s account fails us; it ends without outlining any conclusions for antifascist practice. In my view, this failure occurs because he has identified fascism as a political or state form of “extreme” capitalism, which collapses antifascism into the struggle against this system. By contrast, militant antifascism has to organize against both far-right street movements and capitalism.

Indeed, the present crisis also runs deeper than terminological choices like “preventive counterreform” imply. There were, this summer and fall, widespread antifascist and antiracist struggles against both policing and insurgent right-wing groups. The police and the far-right sometimes took up tactical alliances (even if it was merely law enforcement looking the other way when far-right groups went on the attack) and in other cases policing turned against these groups (we can see this in the federal law enforcement crackdown against the Boogaloo Boys and others).

As I have argued, during the fall of 2020, it was uncertain whether far-right groups would align as system-loyal or system-oppositional after the US presidential election. It was possible that the election would result in a reorganization of settler-state hegemony with a more prominent public and perhaps institutional role for far-right organizing. Although I thought it unlikely, I also did not want to minimize the danger of this possibility either. The other possibility, that the far-right would be pushed organizationally back toward system-opposition, appears to be the result of Trump’s defeat—though, of course, along the way the Republican party has also been pulled even further toward far-right tendencies.

Toscano helps highlight the counterrevolutionary threat of the still present mechanisms of PIC and other state apparatuses, but the far-right as a system-oppositional movement remains outside his analytic horizon. While liberal antifascists, on his account, cannot naively congratulate themselves for defeating fascism by electing Biden, Toscano’s own position is detached from a practical relationship to ongoing militant antifascist movements.

*          *          *

* Surveying Communist Party USA organizing in Alabama, Robin D.G. Kelley argues that the party “practically ceased to function as an independent, autonomous organization…the failure of the CIO’s Operation Dixie, anticommunism within the AFL-CIO, not to mention the anticommunism of the NAACP, weakened or destroyed the Communist-led unions, leaving an indelible mark on the next wave of civil rights activists and possibly arresting what may have been a broader economic and social justice agenda” (Hammer and Hoe, xx). 

Photo: Addison N. Scurlock, National Portrait Gallery collection, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dec 9, 2020

American Strasser

by Kdog

Tom Metzger is dead. Fuck that muthafucker. 

Photo of Tom and John Metzger with dog

For those of us that came of age in the 1980s antifascist wars against white power boneheads—Tom Metzger was an arch-enemy. The California TV repairman and ex-Klansman was the founder and leader of White Aryan Resistance (WAR), a radical and innovative fascist group that was among the first to embrace the alienated young proles in the white power music scene.

Metzger played a crucial role in 1970s-1990s American fascist movement—one that left him with bloody hands that he never fully paid for. Back in the late 80s I was told by multiple sources that Metzger had put out a hit on me and a couple of Black anti-fascist skinheads—one from Chicago, and one, like me, in Minneapolis. In the early 90s my now partner, traveling from Chicago, was thrown up against the wall with dozens of other anti-racist skinheads by Portland cops while protesting outside Metzger's famous trial. We thought about that fucker—and he was more than aware of us.

Metzger could read the playing field better than any other American fascist of his time - and he was committed to making an impact. This made him incredibly dangerous to people of color, to the Jewish community, to queer folks, to antiracists and leftists. But Metzger was also regarded as dangerous by the System, which while still as structurally racist as ever, was anxious to modernize the face and methods of its rule in the post-Civil Rights era. In fact, in contradiction to widespread leftist assumptions of constant police-fascist collusion, Metzger's organizing was repeatedly infiltrated and spied upon by agents and informants.


When fans of the British white supremacist band Skrewdriver first started catching on at the margins of the North American punk scene, most fascist leaders saw them only as trouble: lumpen, violent, disorganized, drug users, etc. Metzger though, probably grinning and rubbing his hands together, saw only (to borrow a quote) "good trouble, necessary trouble."

Metzger re-oriented his entire operation towards this emerging generation of radical racists. His new organization adopted the militant name "White Aryan Resistance (WAR)," and his newspaper combined crude racist cartoons with revolutionary calls to smash the system. Metzger didn't have time for a right-wing version of "Respectability politics"—he embraced confrontation. WAR's shocking appearances on Oprah Winfrey's and Geraldo Rivera's TV shows spread the word in the pre-internet era that there was a new racist in town—one who wouldn't back down. This was underlined in red, when WAR kicked Geraldo's ass on TV, leaving him with a busted nose.

But propaganda stunts weren't their only game. Metzger was a committed organizer who would take personal phone calls from outcast racist youth from all over the country. (An Anti-Racist Action militant recently recalled calling up the WAR Hotline to leave a nasty antifa message, only to be left speechless when the devil himself answered.) WAR promoted the white power music scene—like the "Aryan Woodstock" music concerts—a decade before the National Alliance was convinced to fund Resistance Records. And crucially, Metzger sought to recruit them into an organization. Alongside WAR, Metzger promoted the White Student Union, WARSkins, and the Aryan Women’s League as different avenues leading to the same place.

It was not just Metzger's nose for opportunity that made him so influential—but also his politics. Metzger was the most serious proponent of "Third Position" politics ("neither capitalism or communism") among American fascists of this era. Metzger saw himself as a revolutionary, not a conservative; an anti-capitalist, not an elitist. For anti-fascists, understanding the politics and approach of Metzger and WAR, will give us a better understanding of the spectrum of nazi politics and the specific threats and potentials posed by the Third Positionist wing of the fascist movement.

When a mass white power gang culture emerged on the streets of Portland OR in the late 80s (law enforcement estimated there were 300 nazi skins in the city of 300,000), Metzger was the only nazi organizer to respond. A young WAR organizer Dave Mazella was sent up to Portland to try and cohere and organize the several white power skinhead gangs, like East Side White Pride (ESWP), into a more political and disciplined force. This was an Aryan version of the Fred Hampton approach. Mazella partied with and agitated the gang members and three weeks into the mission, a crew of ESWP skins attacked and beat to death an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw with baseball bats.

The conflagration that followed included years of organizing and streetfighting by militant anti-fascists for the streets of Portland and the soul of its youth subcultures, a special state-wide gang unit aimed at containing this breach of social peace, and a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to try and take Metzger off the field.

Anti-Racist Action and other anti-nazi skins being searched
by police outside of Metzger's trial in Portland.

The Dragons

Tracing Tom Metzger's path is useful in understanding fascist politics and organization in North America. Metzger had been the California chief of David Duke's revitalized and "nazified" Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He was part of an important generation of state Klan leaders—"Grand Dragons"—including Louis Beam in Texas (went on to author the influential "Leaderless Resistance" strategy), Don Black in Alabama (later founded the "Stormfront" discussion board), and Glenn Miller of the Carolina Knights of the KKK (pioneered adopting camouflage and armed marches and was a participant in the Greensboro Massacre death squad).

Like most of this crew, Metzger was a veteran—enlisting in the U.S. Army in the early 60s. After getting out of the military, Metzger moved from Indiana to work in California and it was there his affiliation to the radical Right began. Metzger attended anti-communist luncheons sponsored by the Douglas Aircraft Company (a predecessor to the McDonnell Douglas aerospace giant) and joined the far-right John Birch Society. Metzger worked on the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace and on Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial run—but soon found that framework too tame. Even the virulently anti-communist Minutemen militia, which he was briefly involved in, was not radical enough. He also found himself disagreeing with the Right on a key issue—Metzger opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Metzger was still deeply racist and antisemitic—he preached that people of color were sub-human "mud people" and that Jews were a sinister race of manipulators holding white workers in check. These themes remained continually embedded within his political outlook.

In Duke's Knights of the KKK, Metzger began to hit his stride. He successfully combined provocative action with mainstream media engagement. Metzger and his California Klan ran armed "Border Watch" patrols against Mexican immigrants that received wide attention and created a blueprint used by racist vigilantes today.

Klan rally at Border Field State Park, July 4, 1979. 
Metzger stood on a picnic table, surrounded by Klansmen 
and shouting a racist speech through his bullhorn.

In 1980 Metzger led his California Klan into a militant confrontation against the police and left-wing anti-fascists at Oceanside CA. Metzger's KKK eschewed the white robes for motorcycle helmets, battle shields, and dogs. Anti-fascist protesters that day first assumed that the assembling white supremacists were sheriff's deputies in riot gear. The rally and counter-protest turned into a melee with fists and clubs swinging on all sides. Bruce Kala (who later became a well-known anarchist activist in the East Bay), was taken down by several Klansmen and viciously beaten with baseball bats—leaving him with permanent injuries. Metzger's crew also fought the police that day and a Klan member's Doberman pinscher was shot and killed after attacking a cop.

Metzger's explicitly revolutionary (as opposed to conservative) approach and his consistent attempt to wrap his vile racism and antisemitism in class struggle colors represented a break with much of the U.S. white supremacist scene. Metzger fits more in the tradition of the Strasser brothers than typical nazis or fascists.
San Diego Union reporting on 1980 Oceanside, CA clash
between Klan, anti-fascists and cops.

Metzger's Klan versus the police with 
Klansman's dead doberman.


Gregor and Otto Strasser were German national socialist activists whose careers and activity ran parallel with Adolf Hitler.  After serving in Germany's military in the First World War, both the Strasser brothers joined the proto-nazi street militia "Freikorps." While Gregor became a well-known figure and led the Lower Bavarian "Storm Battalion," Otto actually defected to join the mass German Social Democratic Party for a time. Both brothers reunited in Hitler's NSDAP, after it had gained hegemony over the mass, disparate milieu of right-wing World War I vets. But inside the Nazi Party the Strassers maintained their clear "revolutionary" brand of national socialism that called for the Nazis to liquidate the German ruling-class through mass mobilization of the working-class, and establish a rabidly racist and antisemitic dictatorship. This position found an echo in the ideas of the even more influential Ernst Röhm, leader of the Nazi SA ("Brownshirts")—who advocated a "second revolution" of Aryan workers against the bankers and monopoly capitalists.

Hitler, however, was interested in sealing a deal with the German elite—and was willing to calm their nerves by suppressing the "socialist" aspect of the National Socialists. Gregor Strasser was removed as editor of one of the Nazis' daily newspapers and then kicked out of the Party. Both Gregor Strasser and Ernst Röhm were killed during the "Night of the Long Knives," an organized purge that eliminated a number of Hitler's rivals and served to show the German ruling class that the Brownshirts could be reined in. Otto Strasser had already left the Nazis, forming his own separate fascist party "the Black Front," advocating for the overthrow of Hitler from exile. "Strasserism" has become the label for nazis who seek to emphasize the "socialist" aspect of their politics alongside the national and racial. "Third Position" is another broader name for a similar set of politics.

All this is to point out that Metzger's revolutionary and anti-capitalist rhetoric is not novel. And the historical precedent suggests that there will continue to be a "left-wing" trend within fascism. We can't be caught off-guard by this and must be prepared to combat this trend’s particularities as well as its familiar white supremacist, patriarchal, and antisemitic pillars.

Third Position

It's unclear to me when and how Metzger moved fully into Third Position politics. I haven't built up the stomach to wade through the many episodes of his "Race & Reason" TV talk show or issues of the WAR newspaper to discover if there are clues. We do know that Metzger had a falling-out with David Duke—first over what Duke was doing with the dues paid by state KKK chapters, then over Duke's suit-and-tie strategy of mainstreaming the fascist message and eventually joining the Republican Party. Metzger regarded Duke as becoming just another bourgeois politician, unwilling to be bluntly honest or take needed militant action.

Metzger was also a student of political history and of the Left. Metzger was a big fan of Jack London, the famous author of The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel, who was an ardent socialist AND racist. Metzger bragged of recruiting leftists to WAR—much of this was probably hype, but he did enlist and promote an ex-member of the Socialist Workers Party and a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1985 Metzger attended a Louis Farrakhan speech and made a donation to the Nation of Islam (a path already walked by American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell in 1961). Metzger's daughter organized the Aryan Women's League—promoting the image of women as "brave racial warriors" in contrast they said to the passive image of women that Judeo-Christianity encouraged. And Metzger heaped praise on the soon to be expelled anti-immigration “Deep Ecologists” of Earth First.

Metzger loved to troll the Left. When the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC) started targeting Metzger, he responded with an article in his newspaper praising the Weathermen as "young white street-fighters" (Metzger being well aware that JBAKC traced its political roots to the Weather Underground).

John Brown Anti-Klan Committee flier against Metzger.

But beyond the trolling and PR stunts, there was another aspect of Metzger’s politics that seems influenced by the Left: the question of organization. Metzger aimed to make White Aryan Resistance into a popular, insurrectionary organization of political combat. An organization based in the (white) working class, lumpenproletariat, and petite bourgeoisie and hostile to and contemptuous of the elite and their law & order.

Metzger hoped his media efforts would spark organic racial "resistance" among lower-class whites and wanted WAR to be an organization that straddled the line between legalistic and armed struggle.

Metzger's consistent solidarity with neo-nazi prisoners—or "POWs" as he called them—like the captured terrorists of The Order, was clearly modeled on similar efforts by the Left on behalf of Puerto Rican, Black liberation, and anti-imperialist prisoners. And similar to much of the Left, WAR argued for solidarity with these prisoners despite advocating a different strategic approach than underground armed struggle.

It was only after the SPLC bankrupted Metzger and crippled WAR in their civil lawsuit on behalf of the family of Mulugeta Seraw that Metzger jettisoned his mass public approach in favor of advocating clandestine "lone wolf” tactics. Instead of seeing "lone wolf" tactics as cutting edge, we should understand them as the establishment apparently sees them: a marginalizing and losing strategy - and one they believe can be imposed on formerly dangerous groups.

Third Position vs the threewayfight

We need to sum up the aspects of Metzger's legacy that are distinct and represent a Third-Positionist/Strasserite tendency posing unique problems for anti-fascists—but also understand why Metzger and his brand of fascism are an enemy of all of the alienated, exploited, and oppressed—including, so-called “whites.”

Third Positionism is dangerous even if it remains marginal among organized fascists.  It can serve to sharpen up the overall fascist movement—make it more aware of class grievances within the white working-class and provide cover to accusations of class collaboration with the white elite. 

It can also be used by the State and the media to try and muddy the differences between revolutionary anti-authoritarians and the fascists, to present struggles against capitalism, patriarchy and the State as racist and antisemitic.

Metzger shows that fascists can and will advocate revolution against the system, clash with police and mainstream institutions, embrace a strategy that looks to organic popular militancy and aims to spark (white) working class-based action. Metzger was open to alliances with nationalists of other ethnicities (except Jews) and to allowing independent organizations of white women.

While all of this conflicts with common Left understandings of fascists, none of it is actually liberatory and it just represents a different kind of threat to the multi-racial working-class. Third Positionism does not break with the colonialist conceptions of "race" brought about by emperors, plantation owners, and slave catchers—it positions it as the central struggle of humanity. Capitalism isn't opposed by these fascists for its exploitation of human labor and destruction of the earth—but for its tendency to favor profit over any racial loyalty to white workers. These nazis may want to eliminate the present ruling class, but they want a new, sharper social hierarchy—one they delude themselves into believing is built on the firmer foundation of Nature and/or God.

1985 WAR newspaper headline. At this stage Metzger used
both American Resistance and Aryan Resistance as names.

For all of Metzger's noise about fighting the system, a look at the pages of the WAR newspaper will show that he was most committed to one kind of war—a race war against Black people, the Jewish community, and Mexican immigrants. In Portland it was not a banker, or a CEO, or an elitist politician— and not an antifa enemy combatant—who Metzger's contacts in the field murdered, but an unarmed college student from one of the poorest countries on the planet.

However "radical" Metzger's strategy, it would only mean massive violence and bloodshed among the multi-national working classes of the United State Empire and the abdication of any moral, human grounding for its white participants. These fascists might fire-up a base on hatred for the rich—but their fire is not directed upward. And ironically, this makes this kind of politics potentially interesting to the rich and their security services. When the chips are down and forces are needed that can speak the language of “socialism,” the Third Position could become useful.

To oppose these horrors, we must take to heart the slogan of the CNT labor union in the Spanish Civil War: "The War [Against Fascism] and the Revolution are Inseparable". We must understand that fascism is capable of a "revolutionary" face—and must never cede our opposition to the system. Left support for the status quo allows the fascists the mantle of righteous opposition. And our opposition is not only to this present arrangement of the pyramid—because unlike the fascists we oppose ALL forms of exploitation, oppression, and rank.

The alternative we champion cannot just live in slogans and theses, but must be perceivable on the ground, in the culture of our campaigns and organizations. The threewayfight is for freedom.

For further reading:

Elinor Langer, A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America (Macmillan, 2003).

James Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990; Haymarket Books, new edition forthcoming 2021).

Erin Yanke, Mic Crenshaw, and Celina Flores, It Did Happen Here podcast (independently produced, 2020).

Don Hamerquist, J. Sakai, et al., Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement (Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2002; 2nd edition 2017).

Hilary Moore and James Tracy, No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements (City Lights/Open Media, 2020).

Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

Photo credits:

1) Tom and John Metzger. Photographed by Brian Smale for Rolling Stone.

2) Anti-racist skins outside Metzger trial. Photographed by Tom Treick for The Oregonian.

3) Metzger and Klansmen at 1970 border rally. Photographed by Robert Lachman for The Los Angeles Times.

4) Front page of The San Diego Union, 1980.

5) Metzger versus police. Photo courtesy of Bettmann Archives, via Getty Images.

6) Stop Klan Terror. Flier produced by the John Brown Anti Klan Committee. Reproduced here courtesy of Wikipedia.

7) Fragment of headline from WAR newspaper, 1985.

Nov 1, 2020

Paranoia as Aesthetic

By Kristian Williams

Antifa had quite a summer: First, jetting around the country, stoking unrest and attacking police in dozens of cities simultaneously; then, moving by tour bus through the countryside to burn and loot small towns, only to be turned back by the armed and vigilant townsfolk; and finally, resorting to a scorched earth policy, setting forests ablaze and burning more than four million acres across three states.

None of those stories are true, but taken together they represent the history of the year 2020 as it is understood among a certain stratum of right-wing media. Probably these conspiracists would also blame Antifa for the coronavirus if only it weren’t a Chinese bioweapon and/or a Democrat hoax.

Demonstrators hold signs invoking conspiracy theories about QAnon, Bill Gates, globalists, etc.
Conspiracist propaganda at anti-lockdown protest
That there are people who believe such things it is impossible to deny. But it is equally impossible to accept. Such views are not merely mistaken. Even the word “lie” does not do them justice. With startling frequency, these accounts cross over from the untrue to the untenable, and yet they persist. What they are is an elaborate fiction, a kind of fantasy interpretation superimposed on reality, but not governed by the same rules as reality.

I sometimes wonder about the authors of such stories. Portland, the city where I live, had endured a hundred nights of protests—sometimes riots—against police brutality and racism. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people showed up ready to fight with cops, night after night, facing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and old-fashioned beatings. Even more remarkable is the fact that the crowds were largely composed of an entirely new crop of pissed-off people learning street-fighting by trial and error, with little real connection to any established organization or existing movement.

How did this happen? That is a real question. Luckily, an amateur YouTube videographer cracked the case. He posted a video of tents in a parking lot, surrounded by chain link. This, he informed us in serious tones, was where the city of Portland was housing the Antifa insurgents responsible for the riots: “This is a war encampment.”

It is not. It is in fact a joint project of social service agencies providing basic shelter and sanitation for homeless people during the pandemic. Several such “outdoor shelters” had been announced in advance and were well reported in the media when they opened, weeks before the unrest even began.

I was amused by this conspiracy theory, but also perplexed. Does the person who shot that video really think he unearthed an Antifa war camp? Or are these sorts of stories just expressions of political commitment, like MAGA hats and over-sized flags?

All of this led me to reconsider Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”[1] More precisely, it made me notice the third word in the title. “Paranoid” of course gets all the glory, and Hofstadter spends much of the essay explaining exactly what he does and does not mean by paranoia. But “style” does most of the work. For paranoia, in the political sense, is an aesthetic practice. It is more about presentation and display than discovery and belief. Even the use of facts, in conspiratorial thinking, serves as a kind of legitimating ornamentation, like a secret handshake. A swarm of detail signals simply that one is in the know; but the cited facts do not build toward a logical conclusion, except incidentally. The proof of this is that they can be invented or suppressed at will. (Hofstadter considers the use the paranoiac makes of facts on pp. 36-38.)

Hofstadter does not quite say that paranoia is an aesthetic category, but there are places where he comes close. He begins his second paragraph by explaining,

“When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself” (p. 4).

He goes on to say that “Style has to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated rather than with the truth or falsity of their content” (p. 5).

The precise character of the style—which Hofstadter describes as “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” (p. 4) —is of course related to the paranoia, but it makes little difference what one is paranoid about. One may feel personally persecuted, in private life or in one’s career; one may fear the tyranny of a government kept in power by unscrupulous means; or one may fear a campaign of subversion that threatens the government’s stability. The object of the paranoia is in a sense secondary to the paranoia itself. This is why all conspiracy theories, regardless of the suspected conspirators or their presumed aims, exhibit a kind of family resemblance.

The paranoia suggests its own style; and the paranoid style implies an entire worldview. Hofstadter writes: “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events” (p. 29). The ideal conspiracy theory should be both over-complicated and over-simple, all-encompassing and yet utterly reductive. It posits a world that is highly ordered, in which nothing is a coincidence or an accident, in which everything occurs for a reason and even according to a plan. It should thus be presented with a tone of absolute certainty; it should treat as obvious conclusions which, nevertheless by the very premises of the argument, are assumed to be occult. The conspiracy is total; the theory must be totalizing. The conspiracy is everywhere, all-powerful; the theory must also be all-consuming, and also hermetically sealed. It must account for every occurrence, pull in every detail; facts that cannot be incorporated into the script can be disregarded as false. The logic is circular, but the circularity is part of the aesthetic.

It is possible I think, for people to adopt the paranoid style before, or even without, adopting the paranoid beliefs. That may take the form of utter cynicism, peddling stories that one knows to be nonsense in order to grasp at some perceived political advantage; or it may take the form of an unthinking mimicry, spouting the approved phrases without considering what they mean or whether they mean anything at all. Once one fully adapts oneself to the paranoid style and acquires the corresponding instincts, the distance between these two versions may narrow to the point of vanishing. Absolute indifference to reality tends, over time, to degrade the facility for discerning it.

If this is correct—if it is even close to correct—it may help us take one small step toward understanding such otherwise baffling phenomena as the mainstreaming of QAnon, Trump’s preternaturally stable approval rating, and the widespread resistance to coronavirus precautions. It may also help explain why such phenomena seem so completely immune to masses of evidence or the force of argument. Irrational views can be overcome by rational argument, but arational views cannot be. It may be less that people support Trump because of their erroneous beliefs, than that they espouse absurdities because they support the president. Symbolic expressions of cultish loyalty cannot be contradicted by the rules of logic or of the laws of evidence, any more than a symphony can be contradicted by a quadratic equation.

Myths must be fought in some respect on their own terms. I do not mean—let me be clear—that we should adopt the paranoid style ourselves, battling their lies with lies of our own, accommodating ourselves to nonsense as a kind of test for political loyalty. In fact, we must guard against any temptation in that direction.

What I mean, instead, is that we have to start by recognizing that it is not enough to prevail in the realm of evidence and reason, just as it is not enough to fight in the streets. To defeat a movement with any sizeable following, we must learn to understand its peculiar attractions. We have to recognize that it fills some real need in the lives of its adherents. And that is the terrain on which we must learn to struggle. We must fight not only at the level of fact, but at the level of meaning. Facing an adversary with a paranoid style, it will never be enough to show that they are wrong; that is almost an irrelevancy. We need to work instead to make the paranoid style, and the politics accompanying it, less attractive than the alternative—and we must provide an alternative that fills equivalent needs. To accomplish this, we have to learn to invoke stronger, competing loyalties and to generate more powerful, more admirable aspirations. We need to offer compelling narratives by which people can make sense of their lives, stories that give them meaning.

An ideal—even a stupid, wicked, perverse ideal—can only be overcome by a greater ideal.

1. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965). All parenthetical page references are to this edition.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press). He is presently writing a history of policing in Portland.

COVID-19 Anti-Lockdown Protest in Vancouver, May 3rd 2020. Image has been slightly cropped. Photo by GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oct 25, 2020

Between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence

Guest post by Devin Zane Shaw

Editor's note: Devin Zane Shaw argues here that Donald Trump’s attempt to mobilize far right vigilantism might represent a temporary move to shore up neoliberal hegemony—or it might signal an attempt to revive a settler-state hegemony, where white vigilantism becomes a permanent feature of informal social control.

Logo reads, "PB / STAND BACK / STAND BY"
At the first presidential debate, Donald
Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand
back and stand by" when he was asked
to condemn white supremacists.

System-Loyalty and the Far-Right Reaction to the Anti-Police Uprising
In what follows, I will suggest that, in response to the anti-police uprising which followed the death of George Floyd and spread across the United States after protestors torched the 3rd police precinct building in Minneapolis, the Trump administration has made a move to pull far-right movements within a system-loyal ambit of settler-state hegemony. As with any analysis that attempts to interpret events as they unfold and as they have only recently unfolded, some of these impressions will unfortunately be shaped by an oftentimes uncritical media and conflicting social media accounts, which could distort the situation on the ground and shape our critical reflections. To remedy this in part, I have relied as much as possible on antifascist research which has a stronger critical methodology, a clear and explicit ideological orientation, and a shared political commitment toward fighting fascism. Nonetheless, I expect that some of following claims will need to be criticized and revised as the tendencies I describe play out.

In my recent book Philosophy of Antifascism (p. 178), I propose the following thesis (to which I’ve made a minor adjustment in order to bring it into line with the present discussion) to explain the relationship between far-right movements and settler-state hegemony:

“Far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot.”

In my view, settler-state hegemony is stabilized when it can balance—or is perceived to balance—the interests of the bourgeoisie and white petty bourgeois settlers, whose system-loyalty rests on their access to, as W.E.B. Du Bois puts it, the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois provides a paradigmatic example of this process of building hegemony and white settlerism. On his view, during the era of Reconstruction, it was an open question of how American hegemony was to be realigned after being torn asunder in the Civil War. Though some of his phrasing—such as his evocations of the dictatorship of the proletariat during Reconstruction—is hyperbolic, Du Bois describes a series of shifting alliances between the northern bourgeoisie, the southern planter class, the white proletariat and the black proletariat.

In the midst of the crisis, factions of white southerners, such as the Ku Klu Klan, revolted against Reconstruction-era governance and carried out campaigns of terror predominantly against black communities. (Though, as Kwando Mbiassi Kinshasa shows, these black communities also fought back.) These class conflicts were resolved, and system-oppositional white supremacist groups were pulled back toward system-loyalty, as hegemony coalesced around the public and psychological wages of whiteness: forms of deference, institutional access (to education, for example), the institutionalization of racial social control (“the police were from their ranks, and courts, dependent upon their voices, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness”), and social mobility (drawing poor whites into the petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy). (See Du Bois, pp. 573-574.) Part of this hegemony was brokered through labor organizing, as Du Bois notes, and, as later critics have noted, part was through the westward expansion of the United States, facilitated by laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 or the Southern Homestead Act of 1866.

The present conjecture of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-police uprising in the United States has created an unprecedented economic and political crisis. If Ruth Wilson Gilmore is correct that hegemony of neoliberal policy coalesced in part around “the prison fix,” then it is fitting that the greatest challenge to this form of hegemony arrives in the form of a broad social movement against policing (Golden Gulag, pp. 87-127). On its face, the American election appears to be a choice between two forms of stabilizing the neoliberal order through so-called “law and order”: one where police violence will beat social unrest down with the baton of so-called objective right or one that more explicitly relishes brutality and cruelty. However, I believe that if we apply the concept of the three-way fight to the present hegemonic crisis, we can discern another possibility: Trump’s validation of far-right vigilantism could also point toward a recomposition of settler-state hegemony through, in part, pulling far-right system-oppositional currents toward system-loyalty.

In my Philosophy of Antifascism, I apply the concept of the three-way fight to situate militant antifascism against forms of setter-state hegemony in Canada and the United States, which, in my view, are constituted through the state mediation of the interests of capital and white supremacy. These interests tend to manifest in a dialectic that mediates between bourgeois liberalism and popular and/or paramilitary white settler mobilizations. By differentiating between bourgeois liberalism and white supremacy, I do not mean that liberalism excludes racism or that white supremacy refuses the terms of bourgeois liberalism. I differentiate between the two in order to highlight their self-ascribed ideological forms, which represent (at least) two tendencies within setter-state governance and hegemony.

In schematic terms, liberalism manages hegemony through appeals to popular legitimacy (realized through institutions of representative government), formal protections for individual rights and private property (objective right), and repressive force (typically cast as rule of law). It manages challenges from the left by meeting demands for social justice in terms of formal equality, legal protection, and managing patterns of redistribution. It pulls right-wing white settlerism within the system-loyal parameters, at least since the 1960s if not before, by formalizing or ratifying forms of oppression if these can be codified in color-blind terms. I am proposing that Trump’s attempt to pull system-oppositional currents within the far right toward system-loyalty opens the possibility that settler-state hegemony could be recomposed through a more explicit nationalist white settlerism—though this is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, his open appeals to vigilantism were not necessarily his first strategy. Trump’s early messaging, which called on law enforcement to “dominate the streets,” suggested that he initially thought anti-police demonstrations could be quickly contained.

Nonetheless, Trump paved the way for a far-right reaction when he suggested that his administration would designate antifa as a “terrorist organization.” Open street-level conflict between far-right and antifascist groups has been a persistent feature of the last four years, but this policy direction signaled that the balance of forces on the ground would be more sharply tilted against militant leftwing organizing. The reaction was almost immediate, as various far right groups—parts of the Patriot movement (such as Oath Keepers), Proud Boys, boogaloo bois, and America First/Groyper factions turned up at demonstrations.

Media attention has typically focused on the violent character of the far-right reaction. It also tends to simplify the tensions and contradictions between state power and the far right. By contrast, through a comparison of how some of these far-right groups have fared over the course of the reaction, I will argue that we must distinguish between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence. This requires, at the outset, defining our terms. In Insurgent Supremacists, Matthew N. Lyons defines the far right as “political forces that a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system” (p. ii). He opts for the category of the far right rather than fascism because the former is broader than the latter. This broader scope allows Lyons to investigate a wider range of rightwing social movements that would not typically be grouped under fascism, and thus he is able to establish points of contact, influence, and conflict between these groups. But more importantly, in Lyons’ view, is that it captures rightwing groups that reject the legitimacy of the American political system. He concludes: “the resulting division between oppositional and system-loyal rightists is more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, economics, or other factors” (p. ii). In my view, on the basis of the discussion of settler-state hegemony, far-right movements are oppositional insofar as they are anti-bourgeois or anti-liberal but they accept or advocate for the “white settlerist” pillar of settler-state hegemony.

For our present purposes, I will define “system-oppositional” as an organizational capacity for armed conflict with state power. Some groups—such as the Patriot movement—pursue a dual strategy, sometimes working within institutional structures of the American political system and sometimes opting for system-oppositional conflict (for example, in 2016 the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, led by Ammon Bundy, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for almost six weeks). Such groups can be pulled toward system-loyal avenues. As Matthew N. Lyons has recently written:

“If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump's claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.”

I would currently classify the actions of the Proud Boys and some factions of the Patriot movement as examples of system-loyal vigilantism. We can expect, with system-loyal vigilantism, relatively close affinities between police and, as one officer put it, “heavily armed friendlies.” The close affinity between policing and system-loyal vigilance is evident in many forms across the United States, from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where officers validated the presence of armed individuals, before Kyle Rittenhouse (a youth police cadet) shot three protesters, killing two, to Portland, Oregon, where cops “stood by while Proud Boys and militiamen, some brandishing guns, attacked anti-fascist protesters; when the Proud Boys retreated, the cops fired tear gas.”

But it is important to note that not all parts of the reaction pursue system-loyal vigilantism. Rightwing accelerationist groups such as the “boogaloo bois” constitute a small niche of reactionary system-opposition organized explicitly around armed paramilitary capacity. The boogaloo bois are “a loose collection of online insurrectionists, some of whom believe a civil war with a tyrannical government is inevitable and in some sense desirable.” They appeared almost immediately on the scene of anti-police demonstrations following the death of George Floyd. While anti-police organizers correctly identified the presence of boogaloo-style groups as antagonistic, these groups have sometimes claimed that they support anti-police demonstrations. For example, a widely circulated meme in boogaloo circles includes Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and Oscar Grant, and far-right militia martyrs such as Vicki and Samuel Weaver in a list of people killed by the police.

From the perspective of the three-way fight, this is a clear attempt at far-right entryism that failed. Furthermore, not all boogaloo movement actions were merely opportunistic in this sense; several attempted to use anti-police protests to sow armed conflict. In the month of June, two boogaloo movement members were charged with killing two law enforcement officers, and seven others were arrested for weapons charges or plotting violent attacks. In addition, according to data collected by Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, incidents between protesters and boogaloo groups spiked early and then quickly trailed off. These two factors would suggest that law enforcement intervention sidelined the boogaloo movement’s street-level protest capacity; however, as recent arrests show, law enforcement pressure has not yet incapacitated the movement’s clandestine organizational capacities.

Tentative Conclusions
How do we assess the difference between system-loyal vigilantism and system-oppositional violence? And where does this distinction fit in the historical relationships between the militant left, the far right, and the police? Revolutionary and militant leftist movements challenge the social inequalities that law enforcement are tasked to protect, and law enforcement has long attacked leftist movements at both organizational and ideological levels. By contrast, as both David Cunningham and Kristian Williams contend, law enforcement tends to focus on violent actions committed by far-right movements. Cunningham, in his analysis of the FBI’s COINTELPRO–White Hate operation in the 1960s, notes that the FBI focused on Klan groups, such as the United Klans of America, while ignoring Citizens Councils because (1) the latter’s class position ensured system loyalty, and (2) the type of racist activities chosen by the Klan “refused to follow a tightly constrained path of acceptable resistance [which] made it a threat to the good name of the anti-civil rights movement” (p. 122). The FBI and the far-right groups targeted under COINTELPRO-White Hate, Cunningham argues, shared a common cultural ground (manifested in a defense of the segregationist status quo, patriotism, and anti-communism), but the latter became law enforcement targets when they plotted or carried out violent acts that threatened the status quo.

While the Klan in the 1960s was generally system-loyal ideologically, it is a basic premise of the three-way fight that far-right groups are now typically system-oppositional. Despite this shift in far-right organizational characteristics, law enforcement follows general patterns set in the 1960s: Williams notes that in the 1990s, “when the government pursued right-wing terrorists, its efforts tended to focus narrowly on prosecutable crimes, whereas investigations into environmentalists and anarchists during the same period sprawled broadly across the relevant movements and often took on an explicitly ideological tone.” Today, a similar pattern remerges. The Trump administration characterizes antifa as so-called “domestic terrorism.” Though law enforcement curbs far-right movements organized around system-oppositional violence, there is a more general tolerance for system-loyal vigilantism. While Trump’s attempt to pull some far-right groups toward system-loyal tendencies through explicitly validating vigilantism is a marked departure in contemporary American electoral politics, voting him out of office will not necessarily undermine the informal relationships formed through law enforcement and far-right opposition to militant leftist movements forged in the second half of 2020.

To conclude, I will examine a number of possible consequences of this return of vigilantism. Before November, it will remain unclear whether Trump’s attempt to mobilize far-right vigilantism against the anti-police uprising marks the beginning of a recomposition of settler-state hegemony or whether it is an attempt to use vigilantism to shore up the neoliberal hegemony that is currently in crisis. In other words, it is unclear whether what we are witnessing involves the recomposition of hegemony around white settlerism, where white vigilantism remains a permanent feature of informal social control, or whether Trump will attempt to demobilize the far right after the election.

In the event of a Trump victory and demobilization or a Biden victory (where Trump accepts the results), we can expect far-right movements presently mobilized will return to a system-oppositional stance. (For those skeptical of the scenario in which Trump demobilizes his far-right support, it is important to note that Trump did not ascend to political power on the basis of a mass movement, and so a potentially mass movement—with the attendant types of uncertainty and volatility that these movements bring—could play in his favor but could also create the opportunity for a far-right opposition movement beyond his control).

If Trump remains in power through the continued mobilization of far-right vigilantism, these social forces could become de facto features of social control, fortifying repressive state violence while undermining liberal institutions and legal protections for women and minorities. We could also expect administration policies that materially cement such political alliances, e.g, the privatization of federal land holdings in areas where the Patriot movement has local presence. The possibility of constituting settler-state hegemony around a more explicit far-right white settlerism presents a much more dangerous terrain for antifascist and leftist organizing than the previous four years.

Devin Zane Shaw is the author of Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He discusses many of the book's core ideas in a Revolutionary Left Radio podcast titled "A Philosophy of Antifascism: Existentialism, Decolonization, & The Three-Way Fight."

Image credit: Image disseminated by the Proud Boys following the presidential debate on 29 September 2020, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oct 16, 2020

Nationalism: Left, Right, and Black

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 2019)

Review by Kristian Williams

Editor’s note: Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court seems a good occasion to consider the political history of another notorious Supreme Court figure. Clarence Thomas’s story raises larger issues about the roles that members of oppressed groups may play in right-wing politics and how elements of leftist politics can be appropriated by the right.

Two flags decorated Clarence Thomas’s apartment at Yale Law School: The red, black, and green Pan-African flag, and the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag.

Corey Robin mentions this detail in passing in The Enigma of Clarence Thomas—which was just released in a paperback edition—but it almost serves as a microcosm of his argument.

Robin—among the most astute, and certainly the most readable, of the left-liberal scholars of the right—is kind enough to offer us a thesis statement: “The central claim of this book,” he writes, is that “Thomas is a black nationalist whose conservative jurisprudence rotates around an axis of black interests and concerns.” This interpretation will surprise most readers, for good reasons and for bad. The good reason is that, during his almost three decades on the Supreme Court, Thomas has come down repeatedly on the side opposite of anti-racist common sense. He has opposed mandatory racial integration in schools, endorsed racial segregation in prisons, refused to strengthen protections against police bias, and advocated the dismantling of affirmative action. The bad reason is that critics often treat Thomas as a mere puppet who mouths the orthodoxy of the Republican establishment with neither comprehension nor conviction. This latter presumption, Robin demonstrates ably, is so wrong that it can only be understood as a racist refusal to take the justice’s thinking seriously.

Reagan and Thomas standing facing each other in the Oval Office
Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas, 1986
Robin does take it seriously, and he shows that we should as well. We should take it seriously, first, because of the real-world impact of Thomas’s personal philosophy. In his position on the Court, he helps to shape both the law and its interpretation, throughout the entire United States and for generations to come. Second, we should take it seriously because of the real challenge it poses to the liberal orthodoxy. Thomas’s multi-pronged assault on affirmative action in higher education, for example, is radical in its implications and devastating in its effect: Affirmative action, he argues, stigmatizes black people and thus sustains both the institutional and emotional structures of white supremacy: it preserves feelings of superiority (accented by condescension and paternalism) among white students, professors, and administrators, while instilling a sense of inferiority among black students. Its main objective is not the improvement of the conditions among the black community overall, or even the more limited aim of equality of opportunity in education. It does not open elite institutions to black students, but instead grants limited access while preserving the institution’s exclusivity. The appearance of diversity, Thomas insists, is merely a means for the power structure to legitimate itself, and thereby maintain the inequality of the larger society. I have to admit that there just may be something to that argument.

The third reason it is worth taking Thomas’s views seriously—and this is Robin’s main point—is because Thomas’s right-wing black nationalism may sometimes also function as a sort of reductio ad absurdum to some unexamined precepts of left-wing anti-racism. “Thomas’s is a voice that unsettles,” Robin writes in the opening chapter. “His beliefs are disturbing, even ugly; his style is brutal.” But, Robin explains, if we can let ourselves “see the world through his eyes,” we may realize that “his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”

Robin builds his case largely on the basis of Thomas’s own words, drawn from his scholarly articles, legal opinions, and interviews, supported and to some degree explained with reference to his personal biography. The result is fascinating, horrifying, and, I think, persuasive—though I admit I lack the legal background that would qualify me to evaluate some of the more technical arguments, and I somehow doubt that Thomas would describe his views in just the way that Robin does. (Justice Thomas did not reply to my request for comment, submitted through the Supreme Court’s public information office.)

Clarence Thomas entered adulthood immersed in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. “I was truly on the left,” Thomas recalled in a 1996 interview. “I was a radical.” He admired Malcolm X, listening to recordings of his speeches and memorizing lengthy passages. He wore Black Panther buttons, volunteered with a Panther-inspired free breakfast program, and signed his letters “Power to the People.”

At Holy Cross, he helped found the Black Student Union, and served as its secretary-treasurer. Even at the time, he stood out among its members as ideologically severe and resistant to compromise. The group’s prohibition against interracial relationships, for example, was mainly observed in the breach; but Thomas saw it as a point of pride and even principle. He was known to harass interracial couples that he encountered on campus, and continued to oppose interracial marriage well into the 1980s.

Traditional gender roles, and especially the figure of the black man, were central to the BSU’s politics. “The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man,” the BSU manifesto claimed. This gendered preoccupation continued to orient Thomas’s worldview, his jurisprudence, and (as Anita Hill clearly testified) his personal behavior throughout his career.

Today, Robin argues, Thomas remains a black nationalist, but he is now a nationalist of a particular right-wing variety. “Like most ideological commitments, Thomas’s black nationalism is selective.” He rejects the notions of revolution, a separate territorial state, and Third World solidarity, for instance. “Still, many elements of the program he embraced in the 1960s and 1970s ... remain vital points of his jurisprudence today.” Among these, Robin lists “the celebration of black self-sufficiency, ... the support for racial separatism and black institutions, ... the reverence for black self-defense ..., a suspicion of white liberalism ..., skepticism of the state, pessimism about integration, a focus on the family, an emphasis on traditional morality, an appreciation of black business, and belief in the saving power of black men.”

Underlying these views is a deep pessimism. As Thomas put it: “There is nothing you can do to get past black skin.”

Thomas believes that racism is a permanent fact of American life. The question, then, is not how to eradicate it, but how black people can maintain their dignity regardless. Thomas’s concern with dignity centers on an anxiety over the character of black men in particular. Dignity in his view consists of virtues like industriousness, self-reliance, self-discipline, a stoical manner, and the personal bearing necessary both to exercise authority over one’s family and to defend it from external threats.

To cultivate those virtues, Thomas believes, one must endure coercive discipline and a certain amount of adversity. For black Americans, the state delivers both. Thomas views policing and punishment as necessary to instill the discipline and moral sense necessary for community thriving; liberal conceptions of rights only serve to make the black man weak. Direct oppression, however, can make him virtuous and strong. Thomas believes that policing can promote the virtues that lead to success in a capitalist economy, which he fetishizes partly from a distrust of government and partly from the feeling that the market is the only institution that white people cannot fully control.

Toward the end of the book, Robin steps back to take in the full picture:

“Clarence Thomas is the most extreme justice on the Supreme Court.... His jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and black nationalism.... It begins with the belief that racism is permanent ... and ends with a dystopia that looks painfully familiar: men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see.... It rehearses and repeats that experience of defeat, with no sign of exit or end. It returns to scenes of ancient injury and present wrong, not to repair the first or right the second but to tell us that neither righting nor repair can be done.”

Thomas’s version of black nationalism began in opposition to white supremacy, and grew to be congruent with it.

Thomas is not merely a reactionary; or rather, he is a very specific type of reactionary. He is one committed to an ethno-separatism, a material and cultural self-reliance, but also to a project by which a history of racial humiliation is overcome not by dismantling the racist structures of society but precisely by enduring racial hostility with a masculine dignity, signaled by certain cardinal virtues and defended with arms. I will leave it to others to place that worldview precisely within the right-wing taxonomy. But the astonishing thing about Thomas’ later ideas is how much they owe to his earlier ideas:

“Thomas [initially] made his disaffection with civil rights activism with a narrative of black nationalism from the left. Beginning in the mid-1970s, that disaffection realigned for him as a story of black nationalism from the right. What’s remarkable about the transformation is how simple and small it proved to be.”

One way of understanding Thomas’s rightward trajectory is to treat it as a cautionary tale about the failures of the left, and about the future careers of disappointed radicals. By this account, Thomas is a black neocon, but nothing more. Robin however suggests something more disturbing. By his reading, Thomas did not convert so much as he simply changed denominations—left or right, the focus has always been on the nationalism. “Thomas has been able to forgo the left for the right without having to give up the black nationalism that can be found on either side of the spectrum.” In that case, his was not so much a metamorphosis as a change in emphasis.

If so, Thomas’s example may give us reason for worry about even the versions of nationalism with which we may feel some sympathy. “If Thomas begins from premises that are shared yet arrives at conclusions from which we recoil...,” Robin advises in the book’s final paragraph, then “the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.” Among the premises to be surrendered, I would propose the fashionable pessimism about racial reconciliation, the deeply Christian view that oppression makes people virtuous, the moralistic emphasis (common to Protestantism, neoliberalism, and the “woke” left) on personal virtue as the tonic for societal problems, and the faith in violence as the surest safeguard for our rights.

There are also, of course, some premises that are not shared. The consistency of Thomas’ nationalism is only matched by that of his sexism—not merely as a matter of personal bias, but as a programmatic commitment to patriarchal gender norms. That has held true from his time in the Black Student Union to his tenure on the United States Supreme Court. Robin, I think, gives too little attention to this fact, and to its potential significance. How important was his sexism in guiding, and maybe even motivating, Thomas’s turn to the right?

It seems that Thomas’ conception of masculinity, while sounding increasingly anachronistic to the left, has become an animating principle across much of the right. Certainly, sexism remains a problem on the left, and the possibilities for a right-wing feminism cannot be discounted. But, broadly speaking, feminism implies egalitarianism, and right-wing politics imply the opposite. And it does seem that, of the various elements of the left’s program, gender equality is the one that the right has the hardest time claiming, co-opting, or corrupting. The reasons for that are undoubtedly complex and far-reaching, and the implications no less so. It may turn out, for example, that while nationalism can float between left and right, feminism will prove to be our most reliable anchor protecting against a rightward drift.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (all from AK Press).

Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sep 27, 2020

Resisting Trump's coup

People across the political spectrum—from anarchists to social democrats to neoconservatives—have been warning that Trump may try to sabotage the election to stay in office. This is a realistic and serious danger. A Trump coup would have disastrous consequences and mass action is needed to stop it. At the same time, there are a number of pitfalls and potential misconceptions in how we interpret and respond to this threat. Without getting into detailed scenarios, I want to highlight a few key points that I think can help us frame the situation more clearly—and help us organize resistance most effectively.

People at demonstration holding up two hand-lettered signs that read "RESIST"
Chaos as a strategy for seizing power

If Trump makes a bid to steal the election, calling it a coup highlights that it’s an undemocratic power grab. At the same time, the term “coup” can be misleading, because it conjures images of soldiers occupying government offices and TV stations, setting up roadblocks, and arresting political opponents. Trump stealing the election would—by design—be a lot muddier than that. As Barton Gellman argues, Trump’s strategy makes use of traditional voter suppression methods—such as purging voter rolls and (probably) intimidating people at the polls—but the crux of it is not controlling the election but discrediting the electoral process itself.

For example, Trump’s efforts to disrupt mail-in voting (such as gutting the postal service) may help shift the results in his favor, but their main effect—coupled with his team’s relentless lies about the supposed danger of widespread voter fraud—is to call the validity of the results into question. Through this and other tactics, in Gellman’s words, Trump “could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold onto power.” At that point, the outcome could depend on Trump’s control over key federal agencies and support from rightist street forces (Patriot groups, Proud Boys, etc.), but only because the election itself has been discredited.

This approach is well calibrated both to the constraints Trump faces and also to his whole approach to politics. On the one hand, as Gellman points out,
“Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance. Trump denounced Special Counsel Robert Mueller but couldn’t fire him. He accused his foes of treason but couldn’t jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints.

“A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix the victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.”
But as a strategy, discrediting the election results also makes sense because sowing confusion and chaos is one of the few things Trump does well. Trump doesn’t have the patience or skill to plan and implement a well-organized military-style operation, but he is very good at spreading disinformation. Some people believe his lies and—just as important—others don’t know what to believe. Trump has contributed to a larger shift in the political culture, in which information itself is increasingly treated as partisan, and this in turn makes it easier to leverage power through chaos.

Divided state, divided elites
For years, some liberals and leftists have warned that Trump, the far right, and the ruling class are working hand in hand to establish a dictatorship—or, as Henry Giroux put it, “neoliberal fascism.” This claim not only glosses over the far right’s complicated and sometimes hostile relationship with Trump, it also hides the contradictory nature of the Trump administration as an unstable alliance of pro-corporate neoliberals and America First populists. Trump has won support from some capitalists, but also opposition from many others—including such hardline right-wingers as the Koch brothers. He was definitely not the ruling class’s preferred candidate in 2016, and there’s no reason to think he is now. A centrist neoliberal like Joe Biden is much more in line with what the business community—and much of the Republican Party—wants than an unpredictable demagogue who is more concerned with glorifying and enriching himself than bolstering U.S. capitalism at home or abroad.

Trump also has had limited success in consolidating support within the federal bureaucracy. As It’s Going Down notes, he has used political appointments effectively to control such key agencies as the Justice and Homeland Security departments, but has had much less success extending such control over the military. This has direct implications for a coup scenario. Trump may well be able to deploy U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security agents to “prevent fraud” in Democratic majority areas, but it’s unlikely he could deploy actual troops.

Some leftists conclude, wrongly, that these limitations make a Trump coup implausible. Roger Harris of the Peace and Freedom Party argues that Trump won’t attempt a coup because capitalists don’t want him to:
“In Europe of the 1930s, sections of the ruling class in their respective countries accepted Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships for fear of working-class Communist and Socialist parties coming to political power. There is no such political contention in contemporary US.... If rule by and for the elites is accepted, why should the bourgeoisie squander this gift and opt for a more costly fascist dictatorship?

“Even if Donald Trump personally would aspire to be the first US führer, he does not have sufficient backing from the ruling class, notably finance capital. Many military generals detest him. The foreign policy establishment does not trust him. At least half of the active-duty service members are unhappy with him. And the so-called deep state security agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – are among his harshest critics.

“Trump might be able to mobilize some skinheads with gun show souvenirs. But these marginalized discontents would hardly be a match to the coercive apparatus of the world’s superpower.”
Harris exaggerates the ability of elites to determine political outcomes. Yes, in broad terms U.S. capitalists hold state power, and as a bloc they wield political influence far beyond their share of the population. But if they could simply dictate who was president, Trump would never have made it to the White House in the first place. This point is driven home when we revisit what Harris wrote exactly four years ago:
“We don’t have to worry about [Trump] getting elected in 2016. The ruling elites will take care that he will be lucky to win Alaska. Trump’s already fatally shaky presidential prospects will be enormously even less impressive as the corporate media continues to whittle him and his big hands down.”
The reality is that not every president—and not every shift toward or away from authoritarianism—reflects ruling class preferences. To succeed, a Trump coup attempt doesn’t require active support from the economic, political, or military establishment. Their passive acceptance, disunity, or indecision at a critical moment could be enough. At the same time, the limits on Trump’s support will constrain what he can do both before and after the election, limit his capacity to consolidate control, and leave him vulnerable to determined opposition even after a successful coup.

Not fascism versus democracy
The threat of a Trump coup is not about a struggle between fascism and democracy. As I’ve argued since 2015, while Trump promotes important elements of fascist politics, he is not himself a fascist and does not have the capacity to create a fascist state. Fascism, in my view, involves much more than repression or even full dictatorship. Among other things, it involves a systematic effort to transform society to conform to a unified ideological vision (such as Mussolini’s total state or Hitler’s renewal of the Aryan race), as well as an independent, organized mass mobilization to overthrow the old political order and implement the transformative vision across all social spheres. Trump exploits far right political themes, but he doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he has never tried to build an independent organizational base that would enable him to do so.

This is not to downplay the threat. Any kind of second Trump administration will be even worse than the first, but if Trump steals the election and gets away with it, the erosion of the constitutional, republican system of government will be dramatically greater. The formal political structures probably won’t just disappear, but they’ll become a lot weaker and hollower than they are now. (Think Putin’s Russia, which still has a parliament and even an independent press and political opposition of sorts.) We can expect a sharp increase in repression and brutality by the state and its vigilante allies, which will be disastrous for all of our movements and for the great majority of people in the United States. Yet even this uber-authoritarian version of Trumpism would be less ideologically driven than fascism—more chaotic, more disorganized, more dependent on Trump’s mercurial leadership to hold it together. This too, like the limits on Trump’s support noted above, could create vulnerabilities that we can exploit.

On the flip side, opposing a Trump coup is not about “defending democracy.” As I wrote in 2015,
“The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy.”
Political space in the United States has in many ways been shrinking for decades, as the state’s repressive and surveillance apparatus has been steadily expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Yet President Trump has accelerated the process through his contempt for government accountability, demonization of opponents, and blatant manipulation of state organs for personal ends. A Trump coup would sharply ratchet things up even further.

We can recognize that pluralistic space is most at risk from a Trump coup without romanticizing the political system as a whole. Navigating this double-sided reality is, I believe, a central challenge in developing radical responses to Trump. How do we call out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the present political order, while also being clear that the future Trump offers would be dramatically worse?

Anti-Trumpers versus the left
Another challenge for leftists responding to a prospective Trump coup is the fact that many anti-Trumpers would be happy to throw us under the bus. One of many surreal aspects of the Trump era has been watching neoconservatives—who just a few years ago were the top proponents of U.S. expansionism and mass killing—repackaging themselves as voices of moderation and civility. In 2003, neocon David Brooks was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most brutal and devastating acts of U.S imperialism in decades. Now he calls for mass activism to stop a presidential coup, but his rallying cry is directed almost as much against the left as against Trump.

Brooks declares that “If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy...” This campaign would unite “sober people who are militant about America”—including “a certain sort” of conservatives, moderates, and liberals—against “the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption.” Those foes include “the Trump onslaught” on one side, but also “the fringe of the left” on the other, people who seize “their chance at mayhem...with sometimes violent passion.” It’s classic horseshoe theory, like equating white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous extremists threatening civic order and “sober” discourse.

Neoconservatives aren’t the only anti-Trumpers prone to horseshoe theory centrism. For example, while demonizing antifa might seem like the special province of Trump and his supporters, recent history shows otherwise. In the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist murdered antifascist Heather Heyer, liberals from Nancy Pelosi to Chris Hedges joined a propaganda campaign against militant antifascists that exaggerated and distorted their use of violence. Berkeley’s liberal mayor, Jesse Arreguin, declared that antifa should be classified as a “gang,” while the Anti-Defamation League urged the FBI to infiltrate and spy on antifascist groups. If conflict intensifies around the coming election and its aftermath, we can expect many liberal anti-Trumpers to embrace David Brooks’ “sober” condemnation of leftists.

Mass resistance and non-sectarianism
U.S. presidential elections routinely present leftists with the depressing question of whether to vote for the lesser evil or reject the options presented as a false choice. This year many leftists, but by no means all, are reluctantly supporting Biden, not so much as the lesser evil over the greater, but rather as the abysmal over the catastrophic. Wherever you come down on that question, whether you plan to cast a ballot or not, the threat of a stolen election should make clear as never before that voting in itself will not decide this. Trump needs to be stopped, and organized mass resistance is needed to do it.

Mass resistance can give the lie to propaganda about voter fraud. Mass resistance can denounce and confront poll “watchers,” federal agents, and rightist vigilantes sent to skew the results on Election Day or while mail-in ballots are being counted. Mass resistance can offer a countervailing force to Trump’s supporters and change the context in which lawmakers and judges, police and National Guard members decide how to act. Mass resistance can demand that Trump be brought down.

Mass resistance to a presidential coup has the potential to attract wide and varied support, because Donald Trump is widely hated and despised, and because this is a time of radical mass activism on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. In this context, some anti-Trumpers will present the sectarian demand that any radical impulses be stifled in favor of lowest common denominator moderation. A better and more powerful organizing framework is the antifascist principle of “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we call Trump a fascist, the following passage from my Foreword to Shane Burley’s Fascism Today applies here:
“The fight against fascism has to be broad and allow space for people to act in different ways and with different politics. As Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about opposing our common enemy. Some approaches will involve direct physical confrontations with right-wing forces. Some will involve nonviolent protest, writing and speaking, legal or electoral initiatives, community organizing, or even engaging with people who are attracted to fascism to try to win them away from it. Although people often think of militant and non-militant approaches as mutually exclusive and in conflict, they work best when they complement and reinforce each other.”

However, making the mass resistance movement inclusive and dynamic is about more than tactics. It’s about ensuring that alongside the calls to “defend democracy” against Trump, there is also space to denounce the political, social, and economic order that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Voter suppression is real, but there are also millions of people in this country who don’t vote because they don’t see anyone worth voting for. Ultimately, a mass resistance movement needs to offer not just defensive holding actions, but also radical visions that speak to those for whom “Build Back Better” is a cruel joke. 

Photo credit: By James McNellis, Washington, DC, 20 January 2017. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.