Feb 17, 2021

Theater to Imagine Futures

Theater to Imagine Futures: A Bright Room Called Day and the 2020 Election

Guest post by Taiga Christie

Tony Kushner’s play A Bright Room Called Day is about a group of five friends—artists and activists navigating Germany’s descent into fascism from 1932-1933. It follows Agnes, the least politically informed of the group, and the conversations among her friends in her apartment over the two years. While Agnes begins as a sympathetic character, her paralysis in the face of the Nazis’ rise to power complicates our feelings about her over the course of the play. During the second act, she watches as her friends and comrades flee Germany one by one to avoid persecution. Eventually she finds herself alone, still prey to the same inertia that bars her from meaningful action throughout the story.

Logo with text: "On the eve of the election Faultline presents a reading of Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day, a story of artists and activists surviving the rise of the Third Reich"
On October 30, 2020, my theater ensemble embarked on our first venture into virtual theater by staging a zoom reading of Bright Room. Faultline is usually about care work, performing in small, found spaces, mixing performers in with audiences, and intentionally sharing physical and emotional space. Our low-tech plays use salvaged materials to address themes of disaster, health justice, and leftist politics. In our work, we strive to help ourselves and our audiences find utopia in dystopia.

We had performed Bright Room once before, just days ahead of the 2016 election. We had used a small rehearsal studio over a converted warehouse in Portland, Oregon. Its brick walls, high windows and small, crowded feel made it fitting for a play that takes place entirely inside a single Berlin apartment. At the time, we were an ensemble of predominantly white artists in a liberal and relatively homogenous city. We saw this play as a cautionary tale. But most of us expected Trump to lose.

Instead, we all experienced the nightmare of the last four years. Kushner’s play—set in Nazi Germany, but written during the early years of the AIDS epidemic—has become a mirror to many aspects of our lives and our work. And so in anticipation of the 2020 election, we decided to revisit the play in order to learn from these brilliantly crafted, flawed characters and the ways they succeed and fail.

Virtual theater is not our normal. But what about 2020 was normal? The covid-19 pandemic forced us apart, made theater impossible. The coming election demanded we come together, made theater necessary. Our imperfect solution was an online performance, each actor alone in their home, imagining an audience, who would in turn imagine a shared stage.

The Reagan era and start of the AIDS crisis revealed one moment where swings to the right in the United States meant that we had lessons to learn from the history of Nazi Germany. The Trump administration combined with the covid-19 pandemic was another. There was something very fitting about performing a play during covid that takes place entirely within the walls of a single apartment. Like these characters, we’ve been living in isolation. Hannah Arendt, who is referenced in the play, argued that totalitarianism is driven in part by enforced loneliness. 

“Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance… Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.”

Theater has a long history as a tool for liberation, but also for suppression. In some eras it’s been an art form of the elite, in others of the revolution. Theater of the Oppressed, queer theater, theater for health and development have all contributed to revolutionary movements. At its best, theater is a tool for showing that whose story is told is an inherently political question. But it doesn’t feel like enough, in this moment, to put on plays. Bertolt Brecht argued that catharsis is the enemy of political performance: when an audience is allowed to feel closure, any momentum to create change outside of the theater is lost. Discomfort—the very lack of closure—is necessary to motivate action.

Even Bright Room flirts with catharsis, giving Agnes some limited redemption at the end, when she shelters a fleeing communist. But I’d argue that the final scene—and its repeated refrain of “Now, before the sky and the ground slam shut, the borders are full of holes” (93)—is an antidote to the closure Brecht critiques. It urges its audiences to act. This is what brings me back to this play again and again over the years. (All pages references are to Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day [Broadway Play Publishing Inc., June 2015].)

Even Tony Kushner, in an updated version of Bright Room performed by The Public Theater in late 2019, transformed the story into one that is about Agnes’s personal survival, rather than the urgency of fighting the rising fascist movement. Watching this version a year ago, just before the pandemic began, I was horrified at how a story that speaks to me about collective responsibility had been twisted into a fixation on whether one relatively selfish character is able to save herself. If even the playwright can read this individualism into the play, how do we use theater as a tool for collective action? When is art able to change not just our emotional sense of responsibility, but our capacity to act?

Silhouette of guard towers, with cracks running across the image

Faultline’s partial answer to this question was to follow each act of Bright Room with a discussion with activists and scholars of contemporary fascist movements. In asking these panelists to discuss the play and the current political moment, we hoped to tie the emotions raised by the play to concrete thought and action. Our panelists—Robert Evans, Laura Jedeed, Kristian Williams, Shane Burley and others, facilitated by Katrina Enyeart—were chosen for their study of historical and contemporary fascist movements, their knowledge of white supremacy in the United States, and their ability to point out lessons from the play that are relevant today. They provided brilliant insight into the way characters in the play mirror our experiences today. Central to the discussion was the question of how these movements create appeal and recruit supporters. As Laura Jedeed said in discussion, “Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

If the play’s uneasy juggling of the audience’s sympathy and disgust has anything to teach us, I think it is that fascist movements grow in moments when basic human needs—from health to housing to community to social support—are broadly unmet. There are no Nazi characters in this play, not because they don’t exist, but because they aren’t the ones who need our attention. The people worth focusing on are the ones like Agnes, who react to their terror and the vast gaps of their unmet needs by waffling between feeble activism and silence. How do we reach each other when we fall into these patterns? How do we build counter-recruitment movements that prevent these characters from being pulled in by the right?

“Fascism is a terrible solution to very real problems.”

Another point of discussion, made by Robert Evans and echoed by others, was that fascism is a movement fixated on tearing down the current order to recover a mythologized past. It possesses no actual vision for the future, but instead relies, as Evans put it, on an “aesthetic of collapse.” We see this in fascist politics, but also in their art. The Futurist plays created during Mussolini’s regime display a fascination with machines, destruction of the current order, and a collapse of time to a state where the future is irrelevant.

Bright Room is also full of collapse—it is a brutally painted portrait of a movement, country, and generation collapsing under the weight of the Nazi regime. But in spite of this context, it manages to map a road to the future in the character of Annabella Gotchling. Gotchling is a working-class painter and activist who steadfastly refuses to give up her dedication to the antifascist movement. Her dialogue vacillates between jaded comments that “people are pigs” (27) and frustration with her friends’ wallowing in “this elegant despair” (39). But it is Gotchling, in the nightmare of 1933, who shows us the strongest vision of a possible future:

Pick any era in history, Agnes.
What is really beautiful about that era?
The way the rich lived?
No.
The way the poor lived?
No.
The dreams of the Left
are always beautiful.
The imagining of a better world,
the damnation of the present one.
This faith,
this luminescent anger,
these alone
are worthy of being called human.
These are the Beautiful
that an age produces.
As an artist I am struck to the heart
by these dreams. These visions.
We progress. But at great cost.
How can anyone stand to live
without understanding that much? (65-66)

Gotchling shows us the major difference that, at our best moments, separates the left from fascism. Even at a time when fascists and leftists are bent on tearing down the same state systems, the left must be motivated by visions of the future, in order to combat fascists’ fascination with the past. Like many characters in the play, today’s left often loses sight of the need to build towards a vision. But articulating a future is vital in building viable alternatives to fascism.

Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed movement, writes that theater is useless if you know the answer to a problem: if you know the answer, go enact it. Theater, he writes, is a tool for exploring problems you don’t yet know how to face. At its best, theater is a “rehearsal for life,” a chance to imagine the possible futures we could bring about, and what it takes to get there.

In a theater, or whatever donated space we find, Faultline can stage any vision of reality we choose—from post-earthquake Portland to 1930s Berlin. In doing so, we ask our audiences to try on this vision for themselves. Who would you be in this story? How would you respond? What would these circumstances bring out in you, and what does that show us about the systemic oppression at play? What future do we want, and what would it take to build it?

Towards the end of Bright Room, Gotchling persuades a reluctant Agnes to shelter a fugitive communist. In her desperation, Gotchling offers Agnes a deal:

If you say no to this, Agnes, you’re dead to me. And we both need desperately to keep at least some part of you alive. Say yes, and I promise to carry you with me, the part of you that’s dying now. I can do that, I’m stronger than you. Say yes, and I will take your heart and fold it up in mine, and protect it with my life. And someday I may be able to bring it back to you (87).

This is the left I identify with—the one that acknowledges the humanity, pain, and fear in the struggle for liberation. The one that creates a movement not out of fascination with decay, but out of small visions of connection and care that guide us through horror. Our ensemble of artists and health workers were drawn to Bright Room because, at its core, it is a play about building networks of care in the face of fascism. Choosing a vision of the future over a commitment to collapse. And pointing one another, even as the sky and the ground slam shut, to the places where the borders are full of holes.

Taiga Christie is a political theater director, street medic, rural health worker and founding member of Faultline Ensemble.

Image credits

Both image designs by Katrina Enyeart.

Feb 5, 2021

Review of "The Trouble With National Action" by Mark Hayes

Mark Hayes, The Trouble With National Action
London: Freedom Press, 2019
100 pp., £5.00, ISBN: 978-1-904491-34-7

Reviewer: Matthew N. Lyons

The following review is forthcoming in the journal Anarchist Studies and is posted here with their permission.

Cover of The Trouble WIth National Action by Mark Hayes
In 2016, National Action became the first far right organization to be banned by the British government since World War II. Formed in 2013 after the collapse of the British National Party, National Action (NA) never grew beyond a few hundred members at most, but they became notorious for openly glorifying Nazism and advocating violence, bucking the trend by many fascists to embrace a more respectable populist image and electoral strategy.

The Trouble With National Action, by Solent University senior lecturer and former Anti-Fascist Action member Mark Hayes, covers a lot of ground in a scant 18,000 words. The little book not only analyzes the neonazi group’s politics but also uses it as a vehicle to explore important questions about fascism’s relationship with the established economic and political order, state repression, and anti-fascist strategy. The result has its flaws but offers a lot of good and useful arguments.

As Hayes tells it, NA hewed to a fairly classic version of Nazi ideology, in which the white race must be saved from ruin by imposing authoritarian discipline and a sense of collective duty and ruthless struggle, and by purging all foreign and degenerate elements (immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, disabled people, communists, and above all Jews). NA combined these old school beliefs with a modern, youth-oriented style; an internal culture focused on combat; and a highly aggressive, emotion-driven approach to propaganda. Although rooted in domestic far right traditions of the British Union of Fascists and the National Front, NA also reflected wider fascist influences such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Louis Beam’s concept of leaderless resistance in the United States.

This profile of National Action serves as a useful introduction to neonazi beliefs and culture more generally. Despite a few unfortunate references to fascist activists as “lunatics” or “pathological misfits,” Hayes rightly emphasizes that fascist politics speaks to real needs and grievances, although in perverse ways. It offers a sense of purpose, an explanation for societal decay and deprivation, and a collective identity to counter neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism.

Hayes rejects the false equivalence that many liberals and some leftists have drawn between fascism and militant anti-fascism, arguing that violent confrontation and self-defense against fascists are both justified and necessary. He warns that it is dangerous to rely on the capitalist State to suppress fascist activism, in large part because it validates the growth of the State’s repressive apparatus, which represents a greater authoritarian threat than relatively marginal groups like National Action. Hayes also argues that the official ban on NA is counterproductive because the same fascists continue to organize under other names, and because “the suppression of public-facing activities has exacerbated a turn in the far right towards terrorism” (p. 84). These are all solid and important points.

My main disagreements with Hayes’s book concern fascism’s relationship with the established economic and political order. It’s quite true, as he argues, that fascism is rooted in the contradictions of capitalism, so if we want to truly eliminate the fascist threat we have to replace the capitalist system with one that meets human needs rationally and fairly. But Hayes gives only vague, passing mention to the serious conflicts that have arisen in practice between fascism and capitalist interests—most dramatically the Nazi State’s overriding pursuit of genocide even when it conflicted with the needs of the war economy. And it’s deeply misleading to portray fascism, as Hayes does, as “reactionary conservatism on steroids” (p. 54), because both Italian Fascism and German Nazism brought about profound cultural and political changes, and—in the case of the Nazis—dramatically restructured capitalism without abolishing it. The supremacist and exclusionary vision of contemporary fascist groups like National Action is the opposite of liberatory, but it also clashes with global capitalists’ neoliberal drive to tear down old borders so that they can be free to exploit workers wherever and however they want.

The Trouble With National Action closes with a call for British anti-fascism to “develop new competencies in research and monitoring” (p. 86) to help the movement understand its enemy and develop “a diversity of responses to the diversity of far-right groups it must oppose” (p. 88). I applaud this aim and ask only that it be extended to probe the diversity of contemporary fascists’ complex and contradictory relationships with mainstream politics and established institutions, rather than treat these relationships as one dimensional.

Matthew N. Lyons is the author of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018) and lead contributor to the radical antifascist blog Three Way Fight.

Jan 25, 2021

Why Does the F-Word Matter So Much?

Guest post by Rebecca Hill

[Rebecca Hill explores recent scholarly debates around whether Trumpism is a form of fascism.] 

When I first wrote this, the United States was braced for political violence surrounding the transition of power from President Donald Trump to Joseph Biden. Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that defense officials feared an “inside attack” on the inauguration itself. The U.S. deployed over 20,000 National Guard troops to the U.S. Capitol and had to “vet” its members to ensure loyalty to the country. State Capitols are still surrounded by new fencing, and in some cases, razor wire. In at least one state, the roads near the statehouse were blocked with “complex, heavy equipment” to deter a possible domestic terrorist attack.

Outdoor crowd watching Trump on giant video screen
Donald Trump speaks to Stop the Steal rally on January 6 before the U.S. Capitol takeover

How did we get here? Many predicted that Trump would challenge the presidential election results and declare himself the winner. Commentators argued over whether a coup d’etat was imminent. When Trump did challenge the election results through lawsuits and then a seeming threat of individual legal action against the Georgia secretary of state, commentators debated whether Trump’s actions constituted a genuine threat to democracy. Then, on January 6th, following a rally called by Trump to directly challenge the certification of the votes by the U.S. Congress with a march to the Capitol, Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, breaching police lines and entering the building en masse in search of legislators. The activists had been discussing “the revolution,” “Civil War,” and “1776” coming on January 6th, and in the days immediately following the attack, it has become clear that members of the military, law-enforcement, and elected officials were part of the armed action. The insurrectionists brought zip-tie handcuffs, Molotov cocktails, guns, mace, and knives with them to the Capitol, erected gallows on Capitol grounds, and appeared in discussion forum logs and video discussing executing members of Congress and the vice president. They planted pipe bombs at the DNC and RNC headquarters.

The debate still churns among scholars and political commentators: “is this fascism?” Trump has ignited public interest in the decades-long and unresolved historical debate about the specific characteristics of fascism as compared to other forms of dictatorship. Such academic debates are not necessarily about whether Trump and Trumpism constitute an imminent danger to democracy in the United States. The academic debate about the meaning of fascism hinges on differences between different forms of authoritarian rule or ultranationalist mobilization—for while historians may agree that all fascisms are authoritarian and nationalist, few claim that all forms of authoritarianism and nationalism are fascist.

Robert Paxton, a leading scholar of comparative fascism, who describes fascism as a movement of “mobilizing passions” focused on “community decline, humiliation and victimhood,” that abandons all “ethical or legal restraints” for the goals of “internal cleansing and external expansion,” wrote that Trump’s “open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line.” For Paxton, it is now “necessary” to call Trump and his supporters “fascist,” and to take Trumpism seriously as a threat to the survival of “our republic,” comparing the actions of the Capitol insurrectionists to the French fascists who marched on their parliament in 1934.

In contrast, Richard Evans, a leading English-language historian of Nazi Germany, argues that Trump is not a fascist. He sees fascism’s core as a quest for a fully militarized, regimented society, and describes Trump as an isolationist who publicly disrespected the military and whose appeal is a “warped vision of personal freedom: a society in which people aren’t subject to government regulation or supervision, where anarchy and confusion reign.” But for Evans, the reason for rejecting the term fascism when analyzing Trump isn’t to be “complacent.” He argues that we may mistake the conditions of the present if we imagine that we are experiencing a “rerun” of events in the past. In their analysis, these two highly respected scholars indicate their own particular understandings of the word “fascism” as well as their understandings of Trump and his supporters as genuine threats to existing liberal democracy.

These comparisons center on the impact of fascist movements on the state, but much U.S. commentary on Trumpism as fascism points to the self-proclaimed organized white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who have remained part of Trump’s most vocal supporters from the beginning. Highly visible on January 6th, waving Confederate flags, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) they appear to many observers as the primary evidence that “it can happen here.” This mix of symbols and messages also indicates the extent to which the U.S. far right today blends the legacy of 1776, slavery, the Confederacy, and mythology of the “Lost Cause” with later developments in far-right ideology. In this way, the U.S. version of fascism is no different from other national variants, which also draw from older national mythologies in building their narratives of great national rebirth. Trump’s presidency has brought this American fascism closer to the center of national political power than at any time since the 1960s, whether we see Trump himself as a fascist or not.

Since fascism first appeared under that name in Italy, U.S. observers have drawn parallels between European ultra-nationalists and the United States’ ongoing repression of labor and the left, identifying such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion as America’s own “native-born” fascisti. U.S. activists made analogies between U.S. race riots and lynching and European pogroms, and later, Nazi racial violence. Albert Toscano has helpfully surveyed a history of what Cedric Robinson describes as the “Black construction of fascism” drawing analogies between Nazi Germany and the experiences of both colonialism and “normal” U.S. democracy for Black people. Anti-lynching activism, which combined liberal and radical critiques of U.S racism also provided a central framework through which many in the U.S. first understood European fascism itself. That is, the original analog for understanding the Nazis was U.S. racism. For example, following the infamous “Kristallnacht” the U.S. press commentary included all the language hitherto used as part of progressive anti-lynching discourse of the early twentieth century, in one notable case describing the Nazi Government as showing “the morals of a lynching party.”

Recent arguments about whether we should understand Trumpism as “native” to the U.S. or similar to a particularly “European” fascism erase the historically transnational nature of both fascism and anti-fascism. Fascism itself, despite being ultra-nationalist, has never been bound by national borders. Hitler notoriously modeled the Nuremberg laws on U.S. Jim Crow. The U.S. far right has also been influenced by European fascist ideology since the days when U.S. advocates of law and order praised Mussolini. U.S. intelligence agents supporting “White Russians” after the Russian Revolution helped circulate anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The process of international circulation of fascist ideology has accelerated with, but did not originate from, the internet.

As experts and non-experts alike weigh in on social media and debate each other about whether the Trumpist attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was fascist or not, it is worth considering why determining whether or not “fascism” is the accurate term for what is currently happening has become important to so many people. Opposition to something called “fascism” represents one of the very few points of unity on both sides of the Cold War. Within the United States, liberals, the left, and conservatives—and even some fascists—claim to be anti-fascist. Fascism today is rhetorically “Democracy’s Other”—having replaced the monarchy as the political form against which democracy is defined. Like the monarchy, fascism is also understood to be a threat that can be morally met with force, whether by movements, individuals, or states. However, unlike the monarchy of the Ancien Regime, fascism’s character has varied widely from country to country, and even within fascist movements and parties, ideology has been inconsistent over time, making it hard to identify unifying features of fascism. To complicate matters further, much historical research on fascism has revealed the importance of non-ideological individuals who supported fascism through every day institutional practices or apathy.

Since fascist movements existed for some time before coming to power. It is hard to read about the rise of fascism in Europe without feeling acutely the danger of repeating the mistakes of those many intelligent people who seemed to fail to see what was happening even as it happened. One lesson we are taught about the rise of fascism is that it was able to succeed because it was underestimated and misrecognized when it was weak enough to defeat. Another lesson we have been taught, especially about German fascism is the proclamation “never again”—a moral imperative to fight fascism to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust. This understanding of fascism in moral terms calls on people to remain vigilant and to reject complacency about the stability of liberal democracy in the face of anti-democratic reaction.

These moral imperatives make the application of the word especially loaded, and much argument over the “f-word” is less informed by the history of fascism than by the political implications of its use. A group of left scholars informed by the history of Cold War liberal anti-totalitarianism that lumped fascism and communism together as equal dangers to democracy cautions against the use of the word “fascism” to explain Trump and Trumpism. For this group, including Corey Robin, Daniel Bessner, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Samuel Moyn, the use of the word “fascism” to describe Trump is a hyperbolic or even “melodramatic” representation of the threat posed by a weak president that places “constant pressure” on the socialist left to “deemphasize our own program” and form a coalition with neoliberals. In response, scholars Federico Finchelstein, Jason Stanley, and Richard Steigmann-Gall argue that this analysis repeats the very errors of those contemporary observers of the German Nazi Party. Those observers allowed fascism to grow because they saw fascists as weak and ridiculous, while something else—liberalism, communism, or social democracy—constituted the more immediate and serious threat. What is at stake is not so much defining a word, as taking the temperature of the present.

We should be wary of any approach that seems to bend the truth in the effort to “bend the stick.” While there are many facile equations of Trump and Hitler to criticize, for some, it has been a short step from mocking anti-fascist hyperbole to arguing for the “legitimate concerns” of QAnon. Evans’ caution against confusing the present with a re-run of the past in order to identify the current condition as dangerous is well taken; but we can develop a political strategy based on understanding of a “three-way fight” that doesn’t depend on minimizing the threat of an “anti-system right.” The left can do better than such domestic “campism,” a form of “beyond left and right” populism masquerading as Marxism. As we are living through a global far-right resurgence whose end we cannot know, we are all discovering that knowing history—or the proper definitions of words—provides no guarantee that we will be able to understand the present with the kind of clarity we wish for. We may not be condemned to repeat past mistakes, so much as to make new mistakes based on our incomplete understanding of a much-studied past that still remains beyond our reach.

Photo: Voice of America, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jan 23, 2021

"Insurgent Supremacists" study guide available

Hands holding open a copy of the book Insurgent Supremacists by a box full of copies of the book.
Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, now has a study guide. The section-by-section series of discussion questions is designed for use by study groups or solo readers. The questions are below and a PDF version is available for download here.

Special thanks to Hilary Moore, who came up with the idea for the study guide and wrote most of the questions. Hilary is the author of Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do About It and co-author with James Tracy of No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements

*          *          *

 

Insurgent Supremacists:
The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire

By Matthew N. Lyons

Study Guide

INTRODUCTION

  1. Lyons uses precise terms in defining the U.S. far right—a commitment to human inequality and rejecting the political legitimacy of the established political system, which is followed by a six core premises as well as discussion of the complexity of right-wing populism and fascism. This definition quickly challenges the popular concept of the “extreme doctrine,” where ideas, people, actions are categorized as extreme and outside the core of society. What does Lyons’ approach offer to anti-racist and anti-fascist movements today?

  2. Which of the core premises Lyons articulates stands out to you? What does it shift or change in your thinking about the U.S. far right?

PART ONE: IDEOLOGICAL CURRENTS

  1. Lyons argues that the U.S. far right is best defined not by one specific ideology, but rather by its withdrawal of loyalty to the state. At the same time, the U.S. far right is made up of very different currents with varied commitments to human inequality. Which currents were you familiar with? Which were new?

  2. Race, religion, gender, and elitism are key points that animate different far right currents that are not loyal to the state. This premise expands general ideas of what constitutes the far right. Where do these currents show up in your work and context?

  3. Lyons discusses key points—ideological as well as events in history—where disparate far right movements come together. What are they? What are key points of difference or conflict?

PART TWO: NEGLECTED THEMES

  1. Lyons prioritizes three themes he believes are most often neglected in understanding the far right—gender and sexual identity, imperialism, and “decentralism,” meaning opposition to centralized political power. Why do you think he chose these three? Who neglects them?

  2. What are different kinds of attacks on feminism and how do you see them show up in your work?

  3. Right-wing anti-imperialism is a recurrent theme in U.S. history. What arguments animate differ anti-imperialism rooted in a far right ideology? What are some of the dangers for leftists in relating to this set of politics?

  4. Lyons argues that a shift from strong state ideology to decentralism has been one of the biggest themes of the U.S. far right’s development over the past half century, and that this shift cuts across multiple ideological currents. Why do you think that is?

PART THREE: PARTNERS, RIVALS, OPPONENTS

  1. Is the following quote important; why or why not? If so, what are the implications for social justice movements today?
    “To the extent that leftists have addressed security forces’ relations with armed right-wing groups, they have mainly focused on the lenient treatment such groups have often received—as well as instances when the government has collaborated with them directly. These are important realities, but they are not the whole story. Federal agencies have sometimes tolerated or even supported rightists vigilantes when doing so has aligned with their goals, but at other times they have regarded them as a threat—or a useful scapegoat.”
  2. How can antifascism, at times, serve as a rationale for increasing repression?

  3. Lyons discusses three different ways leftists have dealt with the topic of fascism—from deploying a dramatic effect, to highlighting the dangers of a new political turn. Within this, he warns that “it’s equally important to be able to make distinctions between different kinds of right-wing threats.” What are the costs of not making these distinctions? What kinds of distinctions of different right-wing threats happening now feel useful to articulate?

  4. Lyons writes, “President Trump, while building on the work of his predecessors, has intensified the U.S. government’s white supremacist and authoritarian tendencies beyond what any conventional conservative would have done. But Trump’s ability to effect change has been limited by his lack of organizational and political skills coupled with conventional conservatism’s entrenched power. The early result, as I described it in August 2017, has been ‘a harsher, more repressive, more chaotic version of neoliberalism with some America First elements.’” This assessment was written a few months after Trump took office. Looking back from today, how well does it describe his presidency after that?

CONCLUSION: DISLOYALTY IN MOTION

  1. Lyons points to key themes in understanding the far right. Which themes feel useful to investigate further in your social justice work?

    1. The far right is constantly in motion, and its political fortunes and activities may look very different from one moment to the next.

    2. The far right encompasses multiple currents, which sometimes but not always share common positions.

    3. Centrist pro-establishment forces are threatened by autonomous, militant antifascism at least as much as they are by fascists killing people in the streets.

APPENDIX: TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT FASCISM

  1. Lyons defines fascism as a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy. What does this definition of fascism point to that is distinct from capitalist authoritarianism?

  2. Does fascism always include white supremacy and colonialism?

  3. Lyons poses the idea of a “three way fight” between fascism, conventional global capitalism, and (at least potentially) leftist revolution. Do you agree? Why or why not? What does this shift or change, if anything, in your political work?

Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, can be ordered directly from the publishers: PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.

More information about Insurgent Supremacists, including excerpts, interviews, and reviews, can be found here.

Jan 21, 2021

“Insurgent Supremacists” and the evolution of Trumpism

Introduction—An analysis for this moment

I finished the manuscript of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire in September 2017, a few weeks following the murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, as Donald Trump leaves the White House two weeks after his followers’ assault on the U.S. Capitol and failed bid to overturn the 2020 election by force, the approach and analysis I presented over two years ago are more relevant than ever. In this essay I want to use Insurgent Supremacists as a framework to help make sense of how we got to this moment in U.S. politics and the threats and possibilities that lie ahead. I’ll summarize some of the main elements of the book’s analysis, then offer skeletal comments on the shifting character of Donald Trump’s political project and its relationship with far right politics.

Both the beginning and end of Donald Trump’s presidency marked unprecedented moments in U.S. history. In the run-up to his upset 2016 victory, Trump received significant help from alt-rightists who advocated a white ethnostate, and he boosted and validated parts of their message in return, making his campaign more closely intertwined with far right politics than that of any previous major party candidate for president. Since his 2020 re-election defeat, Trump has led millions of his followers and a major section of the Republican Party in militantly rejecting the results of the vote—something that no other defeated U.S. president has ever done or even hinted at doing. The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the houses of Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”

The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”

I - Key themes for understanding the far right

The book Insurgent Supremacists tells the story of how the major far right currents have taken shape in the United States over the past half century, and their relationships with the Trump campaign and early presidential administration. But more than that, the book offers an approach and a set of tools for analyzing far right politics and its role in U.S. society. Many of these themes can be summarized as follows:

The far right includes multiple supremacist ideologies. White supremacist ideology has always been a core element and driving engine of the U.S. far right. But social oppression and inequality are structured in many different ways, and not all far rightists put race at the center of their politics. There’s a branch of the Christian right that wants to create a full-blown theocracy, and that vision centers not only on religion but also on patriarchy, heterosexism, and enforced gender roles. Many Patriot movement activists, meanwhile, champion an absolutist doctrine of individual property rights, a kind of hyper-capitalism. In addition, explicit calls for all people of color (and usually all Jews) to be subordinated, excluded, or killed are less common among U.S. far rightists than various forms of cultural racism, in which limited numbers of people of color are accepted as long as they conform to Eurocentric rules and don’t challenge underlying disparities of power. Leading Patriot groups such as the Oath Keepers, for example, promote the ideology of color-blindness (which bolsters racial oppression by denying that it exists) coupled with demonization of Muslims and immigrants.

Disloyalty to the United States is a key element of far right politics. Instead of focusing on just one specific doctrine, I define the U.S. far right to mean political forces that (1) promote human inequality as natural, desirable, or inevitable, and (2) reject the legitimacy of the established U.S. political system. Rightists have traditionally defended the established order. But the U.S. far right of today emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when a significant minority of rightists withdrew their loyalty from the U.S. government, because they believed they could no longer achieve their supremacist goals within the existing political framework. Far rightists (or oppositional rightists) are distinct from but interconnected with system-loyal rightists. They may clash with each other or work together, and people can move from system-loyalty to oppositional politics or vice versa, the same way that leftists can move between reformism and a revolutionary stance.

The far right grows out of an oppressive social system. Many liberals and conservatives describe the far right as an extremist threat to democracy, but the U.S. is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a shifting mix of pluralism and repression. Popular struggles have won real political space that you wouldn’t find under a dictatorship, but still a tiny capitalist elite holds most political and economic power, and multiple lines of oppression shape most social relations. This system encourages both far right and mainstream political forces to demonize and scapegoat oppressed and marginalized people. But when people in privileged social groups believe that their privilege is under threat and that the existing political system does not protect their privilege effectively, some of them will find far right politics appealing.

The far right hates the ruling class. If it’s a mistake to gloss over the deep connections between far right politics and mainstream institutions, some leftists make the opposite mistake, which is to treat far rightists simply as tools of the ruling class. It’s certainly true that white supremacists and right-wing vigilantes have traditionally helped economic and political elites by attacking the left and organized labor and communities of color. But the U.S. far right as it is constituted today believes that economic and political elites have betrayed them. It believes these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration, and globalization to weaken and destroy white Christian America. This belief feeds on fear of losing privilege, but it also feeds on people’s sense of disempowerment, people’s sense of being beaten down. The far right draws on rebellious anger and transmutes it into poison. That’s why the far right sometimes sounds like a twisted version of the left, denouncing global elites or U.S. military interventions—not in the name of justice or human liberation, but in the name of racial purity or patriarchal religion. Hatred of elites has sometimes led some far rightists to take up arms against the federal government, in hopes of inspiring a right-wing revolution.

The far right’s growth reflects structural and cultural changes in society. Broadly speaking, the modern U.S. far right emerged after the 1960s as part of a backlash among many middle- and working-class whites to defend traditional social hierarchies against challenges from below, coupled with a rightward shift within the business community. In a more complicated way, far right politics have also developed in reaction against neoliberalism—the version of capitalist politics that has dominated both major political parties since the 1980s. Neoliberalism pushes deregulation of business, free trade, relatively unrestricted immigration, reduction or privatization of social services, and expansion of police, prisons, and mass surveillance.

Far right politics don’t stand still. Contrary to stereotypes about being stuck in the past, far rightists have repeatedly worked to develop new doctrines, arguments, strategies, and forms of organization. As an example, many opponents assume that far rightists are still oriented to classical fascism’s vision of a strong state and a disciplined, top-down political organization. In reality, huge swaths of the far right have embraced various forms of political decentralism, such as the neonazi-based “leaderless resistance” strategy, Patriot movement distrust of law enforcement above the county level, and some Christian rightists’ vision of a locally based theocracy enforced through small-scale institutions of church and family. The past forty years have seen a series of far right upsurges, in which different currents have converged and redefined themselves in response to changing circumstances.

Militant rightists have had a complicated and shifting relationship with the repressive state apparatus. The U.S. has a long history of right-wing vigilantes serving as major enforcers of social hierarchy and political obedience. Even oppositional rightists have usually been spared the kind of state violence meted out to people of color and leftists, but they have often been subjected to covert operations and sometimes to physical repression. In the 1980s, for example, security forces systematically imprisoned or killed members of the neonazi underground that had declared war on the U.S. government. And while people sometimes treat any kind of political repression as a step towards fascism, antifascism itself has repeatedly served as a rationale for repression. During World War II, antifascism was used to justify the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, along with strike-breaking and expanded FBI surveillance. In more recent decades, “defending democracy” against the far right has repeatedly been used to justify expansion of the state security apparatus, which ends up primarily hurting oppressed people and activists on the left.

II - The trajectory of Trump’s presidency

The last chapter of Insurgent Supremacists examines “Trump’s Presidency and the Far Right.” Written less than one year after Trump took office, its assessment of the new administration is tentative, yet much of its analysis has been born out by later events.

“Trump ran for president in 2015–2016 as a right-wing populist with authoritarian tendencies. He advocated the harshest anti-immigrant measures of any major party presidential candidate in generations, such as barring all Muslim newcomers and rounding up and deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants. He endorsed the use of torture, encouraged his supporters to use violence against political opponents, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and promoted a cult of personality around himself” (196).

At the same time, Trump ridiculed and vilified the conservative establishment in the Republican Party, and took “liberal” positions on issues such as protecting Social Security and calling for universal access to health care. Echoing Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s, Trump rejected Washington’s two-party consensus behind free trade policies and interventionist military alliances, in the name of an “America First” nationalism.

“Yet because he lacked an organizational base of his own, Trump was immediately forced not only to work with establishment figures in the Republican Party but also to bring them into his own administration. As a result, from the beginning Trump’s presidency rested on an unstable coalition of right-wing factions both opposed to and aligned with conventional conservatism. The neoliberal consensus was starting to break down, but populist nationalism was not strong enough or developed enough to supplant it clearly” (p. 200).

* * *

“From early on, America Firsters clashed with neoliberals and establishment figures in the administration and in Congress on issues such as trade policy, which [together with Trump’s own personality] contributed to an unusual degree of chaos and lack of clear direction. The issues on which the different factions agreed, and on which the Trump administration moved forward most effectively, basically represented a hard-line version of neoliberalism’s domestic agenda: dismantle environmental regulations and consumer protection rules, open up public lands to corporate exploitation, reform’ the tax system to further redistribute wealth from low- and middle-income people to the rich, make the judicial system more punitive, and speed up militarization of the police. To a large extent, the result seemed to be policies that benefited narrow capitalist interests, such as military contractors, private prison operators, and energy companies, as well as the Trump family’s own businesses, more than a coherent unified program” (204).

Over time, however, the administration also took significant steps representing America First nationalism, including aggressive protectionist measures not only against China but also targeting traditional allies Europe and Canada. Above all, President Trump implemented an extraordinarily repressive, cruel, and largely illegal set of policies toward undocumented immigrants and refugees.

After Insurgent Supremacists was completed, new documentation emerged showing that Trump’s support within the big business community was—for any president and especially a Republican one—unusually limited, fragmented, and unstable. Trump certainly had staunch capitalist supporters such as Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer. Yet his capitalist opponents included not just liberals and centrists such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg but also the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who were notorious backers of right-wing causes but also vocal critics of Trump’s positions on immigration and trade. These conflicts belied claims by some liberals and leftists that the administration represented a ruling class consensus-based drive to implement “neoliberal fascism.”

Organized far rightists, too, were conflicted about Trump. In Insurgent Supremacists I detail debates about Trump’s campaign and early presidency among alt-rightists and other white nationalists, Patriot activists, and the theocratic wing of the Christian right. I summarized these debates as reflecting

“a political dilemma that will be familiar to many people on the radical left: To what extent and under what circumstances should you support a system-loyal politician who shares many of your politics? How do you balance the importance of holding fast to political principles against the value of expanded visibility, legitimacy, and influence?” (215)

In broad terms, among President Trump’s initial far right supporters, most Patriot groups and Christian theocrats (notably the massive New Apostolic Reformation movement) continued to back him, while alt-rightists became increasingly disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s capitulation to the conservative establishment. This growing rift hinged largely on disagreements over foreign policy, with most alt-rightists bitterly opposing Trump’s 2017 missile attacks against Syria, for example. Trump’s 2019 assassination of Iranian General Soleimani exposed broader conflicts among his supporters between aggressive militarists and right-wing anti-interventionists.

Two big crises in 2020 affected Trump’s political relationships in complex ways. The COVID-19 pandemic widened the divide between Trump and establishment forces by highlighting his administration’s corruption, mendacity, and managerial incompetence. By contrast, the Black-led multiracial protests and uprisings that followed George Floyd’s murder accentuated Trump’s unity with conventional conservatives around defense of racial oppression and police violence. But both crises sharpened the militant character of Trump’s mass support and fed into conspiracist narratives of an embattled leader championing the people against sinister elites, dangerous subversives, and malevolent foreigners.

In this context, Trump’s symbiotic relationship with far right forces continued, but the focus and character of the relationship changed significantly, as I detailed in a September 2020 post on Three Way Fight. In 2016, Trump’s relationship with the far right centered on the alt-right, which skillfully used social media to attack Trump’s opponents both in the primaries and the general election. After the election, even as they became increasingly frustrated with Trump, alt-rightists tried to forge a broader coalition of right-wing street-fighters, but that effort fell apart after Charlottesville. In late 2017 the alt-right suffered a political collapse, brought on by antifascist countermobilizations, media deplatforming, and internal conflicts. So far it has not recovered.

Over the following years, initiative within the far right shifted to other forces, notably the Patriot movement, which was much more solidly pro-Trump than the alt-right. In 2020, Patriot activists played a major role in the wave of right-wing attacks on and killings of Black Lives Matter protesters—a campaign of vigilante repression that gave physical expression to Trump’s call for extraordinary measures to combat lawlessness.

“If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016 [I wrote in September 2020], physical violence and harassment play that role today.... Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power.”

Although the Patriot movement has been largely based on delegitimizing state authority, and some Patriot activists had killed police in the past, I argued that Trump had co-opted them “into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” Yet this system-loyalty was unstable and conditional, and it “could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump or he leaves office.”

The November 2020 election defeated Trump in the polls, but it also demonstrated his continued ability to attract mass support. Despite his administration’s disastrous responses to the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, despite opposition from many Republicans and a majority of capitalists, despite his blatant use of public office for personal gain and self-promotion, Trump came within about a hundred thousand votes of winning. Not only did he receive more votes than in 2016; his support increased among every major demographic except white men—including white women, Black and Latino voters, LGBTQ voters, and Muslims. Although racism and misogyny remained central to his appeal, his appeal could not be reduced to them.

In the weeks leading up to November 3rd, I and many others warned of the danger that Trump might try to sabotage the election to stay in office. Our worst fears were not realized, as Trump did not successfully disrupt mail-in voting, deploy federal agents to seize control of polling places or vote-counting centers, or discredit the electoral process for any but his own committed supporters. However, he refused to accept that he had lost, doubling down on his false claims of widespread voter fraud and galvanizing a movement to “Stop the Steal.” This culminated in the January 6th Capitol takeover.

In persuading millions of his followers to reject the validity of the voting process, Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics.

Insurgent Supremacists helps us measure the significance of these developments. Up until the 2020 election, despite a blatantly authoritarian approach and repeated abuses of power, Trump worked within the established political system and did not significantly challenge its legitimacy. That began to change during the campaign and broke dramatically after his defeat became clear. In persuading millions of his followers and a large section of the Republican Party to reject the validity of the voting process—a foundation stone of the entire U.S. system of government—Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction one-and-a-half centuries ago. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics. The size of the U.S. far right—as defined in Insurgent Supremacists—has increased by an order of magnitude.

This sudden shift, which will likely fuel an upsurge of far right violence, raises lots of questions about how the newly expanded oppositional right will develop in the months and years ahead. Some of the issues I’m interested in are:

  • Leadership – Will Trump (who can galvanize a rally and use social media skillfully but is a wretched organizer) remain the movement’s central figure? Will someone else with a different skill set emerge to take his place?
  • Ideology – Given the Stop the Steal movement’s eclectic mix of ideologies (America First, white nationalism, QAnon conspiracism, theocratic Christianity, etc.), will Trump’s style of “deniable” supremacism remain central within the movement? Will something more explicitly racial, or more explicitly religious, gain ground? Will we see more “leftist” themes, such as more substantive welfare state proposals or more emphasis on anti-war politics?
  • Organization – Will the movement remain organizationally fragmented? Will it achieve greater unity, and if so, what forms will that take?
  • Relationship with forces within the state – Trump became popular with sections of the federal security apparatus (notably Homeland Security) and local police from many cities joined or supported the Capitol takeover and related actions. How will connections between state forces and oppositional politics play out in future?
  • Relationship with sections of the ruling class – This includes questions of political funding, but much more. Given pro-Trump capitalists’ lack of clearly defined and shared interests, I want to see whether a significant anti-neoliberal faction of capital emerges, and whether it can join up with a mass base (for example around hatred of China, perhaps).

Trump’s shift also calls for revisiting the question of his relationship with fascism. I have argued since 2015 that, although Trump has promoted fascistic politics and policies in various ways, key elements of fascism as an overall project were missing. These included (a) a rejection of the existing political system, (b) an organized mass mobilization outside and against the established order, and (c) a totalizing effort to transform society according to an ideological vision. Now, however, Trump has embraced the first two of these elements. And although it’s doubtful he is able to put any goal before his own self-advancement, there are many people ready and eager to give overall ideological direction to the movement he has helped unleash. Trumpism might not represent full-blown fascism yet, but it is rushing in that direction.

Closing thoughts

These comments on Trumpism’s evolving political character point to something else I tried to do in writing Insurgent Supremacists. I wanted to avoid lumping all right-wing or anti-liberatory forces together, but I also wanted to avoid a sterile taxonomy of ideological differences and organizational divisions. In analyzing the U.S. far right, or any political movement, we need an approach that is dynamic, that explores both divisions and interactions, that applies political categories thoughtfully while recognizing that the scope and content of those categories will change over time. Not just so we can understand our enemies, but so we can fight them more effectively.

Even as we monitor and respond to the growing and increasingly militant forces of the far right, it’s critically important that we combat efforts by conservatives, liberals, and the security apparatus to expand repression. Fear of political “extremism” coupled with faith in the capitalist state is a poisonous mix. As in the past, we are seeing reactions to far right violence being channeled into measures that would put new restrictions on political expression and activism, such as Joe Biden’s call for a new law against domestic terrorism. As in the past, we should expect that state repression against the right will rebound more heavily against the left and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Embracing centrist repression over far right insurgency is a false choice—and ultimately a self-defeating one, because it’s the violence and dehumanization of the established order that fuels supremacist rebellion in the first place. What’s needed instead is to build a liberatory, antifascist challenge to both. We need broad coalitions to defeat the far right, but we also need radical initiatives and movements that target established systems of power and the two major political parties that protect them.

Portions of this essay are adapted from my 2018 address to the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, can be ordered directly from the publishers: PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.

More information about Insurgent Supremacists, including excerpts, interviews, reviews, and a study guide, can be found here.

Jan 16, 2021

Le fascisme de la fenêtre brisée

Gallows in front of U.S. Capitol
This is a translation of our January 6 post, "Broken windows fascism," courtesy of the French antifascist website La Horde.

1. Lorsque Donald Trump s’est présenté pour la première fois à la présidence en 2015-2016, de nombreux membres de l’alt-right l’ont soutenu, non pas parce qu’ils pensaient qu’il pourrait gagner, mais parce qu’ils espéraient qu’il aiderait à détruire le Parti républicain. Si ce n’est pas ce qui s’est passé, Trump a quand même créé une grave crise au sein du parti, désormais profondément divisé entre d’une part ceux qui acceptent la légitimité du système électoral actuel, et d’autre par ceux qui le rejettent. Un Parti républicain en morceaux peut sembler une bonne nouvelle, mais il est susceptible de profiter avant tout à l’extrême droite. L’attaque d’aujourd’hui contre les bâtiments du Congrès est le fait de l’aile militante d’un mouvement beaucoup plus vaste, et bien qu’elle exclue ou effraie certains sympathisant·e·s, elle galvanisera et enhardira d’autres.

2. De façon plus générale, le refus appuyé de Trump de reconnaitre les résultats des élections de novembre a provoqué un changement politique massif au sein de la droite américaine, car des millions de personnes sont passées – au moins temporairement – de la loyauté envers le système à une opposition au système, comme le symbolisent les Proud Boys piétinant le Thin Bue Line Flag. Nous devrions nous attendre à ce que cette opposition de droite reste active et violente longtemps après la disparition de la lutte actuelle pour la présidence, comme l’a fait valoir Natasha Lennard hier. Et comme le montre Robert Evans, cette opposition de droite est un lieu de rencontre où différents courants et idéologies d’extrême droite – comme le néonazisme et QAnon – convergent et interagissent. Il reste à voir à quel point l’opposition de droite sera unifiée ou organisée, quel type de stratégies et de tactiques elle utilisera, et si Trump lui-même continuera ou non à y jouer un rôle important.

3. L’attaque contre le Capitole est, comme beaucoup l’ont décrit, une tentative de coup d’État. Elle met en scène l’autoritarisme, la démagogie de Donald Trump et sa répudiation du système électoral qui l’ont placé à la Maison Blanche, mais il met également en évidence l’une des principales limites qui ont distingué l’administration Trump du fascisme. Le fascisme a besoin d’une organisation de masse indépendante pour mener à bien son offensive contre l’ordre politique établi. Or Trump n’a jamais essayé de construire une telle organisation ; il a habilement utilisé les réseaux sociaux et les rassemblements pour mobiliser ses partisans, mais sur le plan organisationnel, il s’est appuyé sur les institutions existantes, en particulier le Parti républicain, ce qui explique pourquoi son administration était une coalition entre America Firsters et des conservateurs conventionnels d’horizons divers. Désormais, cette coalition est en train de s’effondrer, et le contrôle de Trump sur l’appareil de sécurité fédéral s’est également avéré assez limité. Il a pu mobiliser les agents de la sécurité intérieure et la police fédérale pour réprimer les manifestants de Black Lives Matter l’été dernier, mais il n’a déployé aucun agent fédéral pour l’aider à annuler les résultats de l’élection de 2020. La foule de partisans de Trump d’aujourd’hui n’avait aucune chance de prendre le pouvoir, mais ils ont complètement paralysé le Congrès pendant des heures. Mieux organisé et mieux dirigé, le mouvement qu’ils représentent pourrait rapidement se transformer en quelque chose de beaucoup plus dangereux.

4. Une question se pose pour les mois et les années à venir : dans quelle mesure l’appareil répressif d’État sera-t-il utilisé pour réprimer cette opposition de droite ? Certes, les flics ne sont pas susceptibles de poursuivre les partisans du MAGA (Make America Great Again) et les Proud Boys comme ils le font avec Black Lives Matter et les antifascistes, mais il y a une longue histoire des forces de sécurité fédérales ciblant l’extrême droite, en particulier par le biais d’opérations secrètes. Joe Biden aime parler d’unité, mais il n’est pas difficile d’imaginer que son administration relance et étende les capacités du FBI et de la sécurité intérieure pour traquer les suprématistes blancs et d’autres groupes d’extrême droite. Il n’est pas difficile non plus d’imaginer que certains conservateurs conventionnels soutiennent activement cet effort. Rappelons-nous que l’effort le plus sérieux et le plus systématique du gouvernement fédéral pour réprimer l’opposition de droite au cours des 40 dernières années – de The Order au réseau Lyndon LaRouche – a eu lieu sous Ronald Reagan. Et rappelons-nous aussi que dans les mains de l’État capitaliste, l’antifascisme peut être une puissante raison de construire l’appareil répressif – qui finit par s’utiliser principalement contre les groupes opprimés et exploités. Même lorsque les flics et les membres du Klan ne marchent pas main dans la main, ni les uns ni les autres ne sont nos amis.

5. Au lieu de se tourner vers l’État pour lutter contre l’extrême droite, il est urgent d’agir à grande échelle sur deux fronts : combattre à la fois les forces ouvertement suprématistes de l’opposition de droite et les mécanismes moins flagrants mais toujours mortels des privilèges et des pouvoirs établis. Les quatre dernières années ont été cauchemardesques à bien des égards, mais elles ont également été une période d’activisme libérateur et dynamique à grande échelle. Il existe de nombreux exemples efficaces d’organisation militante et créative dont nous pouvons nous inspirer et tirer des leçons.


Photo: Tyler Merbler, 6 January 2021, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Jan 13, 2021

Insurgent Movement, Government Complicity, or Both?

By Xloi and B.Sandor

This article by two Three Way Fight comrades highlights the interplay between insurgent far rightists and forces within the state itself in the Capitol takeover.

We wrote this after discussing last week’s events on January 6 and watching this video (which has since been removed) from a protester who goes by "Insurgence USA." Our sense is that he is right wing but poses as also being pro BLM. His footage captured the front of the line throughout the storming of the Capitol and a close up of the woman being shot by Capitol Police. It was gruesome, but provided an account of the events first hand.

We cannot assume that the movement that stormed the Capitol on January 6th was at large anti-state or solely an insurgent movement from below. While elements of the movement were insurgent, this movement was egged on by Trump and other key people in his administration and in Congress. What this means is that instead of just understanding this as a right-wing assault on “democracy,” it needs to be understood as both internal to our so-called democracy while simultaneously having elements that are insurgent and anti-state. A main contingency of this movement to Stop the Steal would have gone home if the announcement was made that Trump would stay in office. Therefore, the insurgent components and government complicity at play here should be understood and confronted as such.

We saw political violence last Wednesday. We saw Confederate flags and people flaunting Nazi tattoos in the Capitol. We saw armed masses (mostly men) break through lines of police, albeit with blue lives matter flags. We know storming the Capitol was an organized and thought-out action, although they were probably as surprised as we were that it actually worked. In footage from the frontlines, you can hear protesters screaming, "criticism of the government isn’t enough, we need action," while running to storm the Capitol, and another exclaiming, "this is a revolution," once they break through a couple of police lines. Regardless, there was no cohesive strategy for what they would do once they actually entered the Capitol. If there was, you would have heard in the videos at least some discourse on the different thought out plans.

Man holds Confederate battle flag, walks through room with portraits and sculpture
A man carrying a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol
Image by Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

The mixed responses from the protesters to the police were notable, as Jarrod Shanahan discusses in his article, “The Big Takeover.” One protester shouted to a line of police, “Over the summer, we backed you when no one else did." Another screamed, "Now, no one likes you, Black people and white people." In other moments protesters try to win over the police, saying, "We have your back. We get it. We're on your side." There will continue to be major splits within the far right over alignment with the police, with many becoming politicized against the police because of what happened that day. It is also key to address the amount of ex-military and former police within the ranks of far-right militia, paramilitary, and street fighting gangs that were clearly present at the Capitol.

The next logical question is, why were there so few Capitol Police, given that the FBI and right-wing researchers around the country knew for months that protesters were planning on storming the Capitol that day? More details are coming out about the Capitol Police and the Trump administration’s possible complicity and lack of preparation. From Ibram X. Kendi to so many others, people are commenting on how little force was used relative to BLM protests and that if the Capitol was stormed by People of Color, there would have been an entirely different plan in place.

Rows of police in riot gear standing on steps of Lincoln Memorial
Police in military garb protecting the Lincoln Memorial from a
Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2020. Image by @MarthaRaddatz

While the protesters transgressed police lines, some lines were as sparse as only 5-10 officers, leaving even middle school students commenting on the relative lack of protection of a federal building. But, very quickly, many used this argument as a justification and immediate demand for more military and police, forces that will ultimately target innocent people and the Left. Lawmakers are already using the events at the Capitol to introduce legislation to increase police presence at protests and adopt measures to further criminalize all dissent. What is this political amnesia that we have? Within a moment, the momentum and political consciousness gained after years of anti-police struggles that culminated in the mass movements against the murder of George Floyd seemingly went in reverse. We must still recognize our enemies in blue.

Narratives that bill Wednesday’s insurrection as a violent protest or insurrection, while failing to acknowledge the violence from police (against Black lives, but also against the right), reinforce the argument that the Left and State need to come together to defeat the far right, rather than pose a liberatory alternative to both.

We know cops take orders. Maybe they had been given orders to be lenient and use soft policing tactics. Until a Capitol Police officer shot and killed the woman protester, the Capitol Police attitude toward protesters looked mixed. Some looked intent on holding the line, others looked mortified and some seemed to back down seamlessly. More investigations will uncover why, for example, the Pentagon initially refused to back up the Capitol Police after requests from their chief for the military to step in. Previous investigations show that far right militia look to former national security advisers to the Trump administration for intelligence. There’s still a lot we don’t know. We will soon learn more about what was and wasn’t done and why.

We do know there was clear tactical leadership on the part of the movement to enter the Capitol and stop the counting of the votes on Wednesday, but not much beyond that. Some wanted to critique the powers that be, some wanted to stop a so-called stolen election, some wanted to restore the Confederacy, some wanted Pence’s head, and some wanted to smear shit on the walls. This lack of cohesion could tear the movement apart when there is no one person for them to unite behind. They are also already facing sharp repression with arrests as far away as Arizona. Few movements can withstand the kind of repression they are about to face, not to mention the likelihood that the movement is already widely infiltrated by state forces. Many new so-called movement leaders will eventually be exposed as undercover state operatives. Either way, under the banner of “Stop the Steal,” right wing forces will be claiming victory for years.

We are grappling with what the three way fight looks like in action in this moment. We think we should be developing a political pole that opposes insurgent and government-backed far right forces, while also reinforcing movements against the police like those that took off across the country over the summer. We need an antifascism that doesn’t ultimately back up the state on the one hand or ignore the right altogether in hopes that the state will simply smash the right on the other. While we might not yet have the capacity as a movement to really do both, it is imperative to understand that one without the other is fatal.

Jan 12, 2021

Preliminary thoughts on the MAGA riot at the Capitol

by Kdog

Short, sharp points by friend and comrade of 3WF, Kdog, on how to understand the events of Jan 6th in DC and how the radical antifascist movements need to orient.

 

My preliminary thoughts on the MAGA riot at the Capitol:

1. This was a major flex by the far-right. And since a successful coup was not ever really in the cards - this will be felt and claimed as a victory by the far-right and fash. I’ve been comparing it to how the 1999 Seattle WTO protests impacted the anarchist left.

2. It’s clear there was state collaboration with the far-right, in order to pull this off. It’s not yet clear (to me) on what level and to what extent. I think this is worth an in-depth investigation. 

3. The ruling-class has consensus that this is an attack on the system and the state and there is near-unity on rejecting this attack and punishing Trump and the MAGA crowd. 

4. While it was headed there already, this firmly establishes MAGA as an extra-legal oppositional street force - of the kind that’s not been seen in my lifetime. I think they will be a dangerous and constant factor in national and local organizing for the next few years. 

5. I think it’s *possible* some significant state resources under Biden/Harris will go into repressing MAGA - this will damage the fascists but unfortunately also serve to help co-opt people into supporting Biden. The Biden regime will try and balance this effort with similar repression against Black, Native, antifa and other social movements of the so-called left. 

6. For me this underlines the need to build an independent, revolutionary and anti-authoritarian mass direct action movement, oriented to the working-class and oppressed communities.

Jan 9, 2021

On "The Big Takeover" by Jarrod Shanahan

For an excellent analysis of Wednesday’s Trumpist insurrection/putsch/attempted coup and what it signifies for the U.S. far right, check out Jarrod Shanahan’s “The Big Takeover.” This is just the latest of many insightful offerings from our comrades over at Hard Crackers.

Shanahan challenges the tendency by many critics to dismiss the Capitol invaders through ridicule. “For every absurd or risible image we can cite to write off the insurgents, there is another that demonstrates tactical militancy and seriousness of purpose.” We especially appreciate these passages in Shanahan’s article:

While Biden’s victory was ultimately certified amid a barrage of maudlin platitudes, the siege of the US Capitol was nonetheless a massive victory for the insurgent far-right in the US, akin to the siege of the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis that helped catalyze and set the militant anti-cop tone of the George Floyd Rebellion last summer. The militancy of the siege is a bellwether of the changes that the US far-right has undergone in the five years since the Trump movement gave it renewed life. The siege also provides the movement a much needed opportunity for self-clarification, which will unfold in the coming weeks and months among the ragtag movement of US rightists who have hitched their wagon to Trump’s falling star. Above all, at the risk of engaging in the “crystal ball” thinking [Mike] Davis rightly warns us against, when the history of this period is written, the siege of the Capitol is likely to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the US far-right.

*          *          *

[T]he mayhem in D.C. demonstrates that a considerable segment of US rightists are beginning to unambiguously embrace a system-oppositional framework. In doing so they are aided in no small part by Trump himself, who has spent the better part of the last two months crowing that the government is not legitimate and its laws are therefore not to be respected. But this is also due to the working out of contradictions in their own theory and practice through struggle, toward an extra-parliamentary fascism, the same way moving beyond reformism is an essential for a leftists’ coming to political maturity, and is often achieved only through concrete engagement.

Shanahan also emphasizes that these events mark a radical shift in many right-wingers’ relationship with the police. Many people have emphasized the glaring disparity between how cops treated Trumpists breaking into the U.S. Capitol and the brutality they’ve repeatedly brought to bear against Black Lives Matter protesters, but that’s only part of the story. What’s new here is that Trumpists are no longer acting as pro-cop vigilantes—they are now on opposite sides of the barricades, and the two sides are literally killing each other.  As Shanahan writes,

a movement that had built itself in large part as supporters of US police against BLM and antifa began planning for armed encounters with not antifa or the Democrats, but the cops themselves. This profound ambiguity is best captured by the storming of a police line in D.C. by an insurgent waving a Thin Blue Line flag.

Shanahan is rightly critical of the unsupported conspiracy theory that the Capitol police deliberately allowed the building invasion to happen. The new reality—that a major section of the U.S. right has positioned itself in opposition to the forces of law and order, and some of them are willing to die for it—is one that clashes with standard leftist assumptions, but it is not an aberration, and it is not going away.

Jan 6, 2021

Broken windows fascism

Broken pane of security glass
1. When Donald Trump was first running for president in 2015-16, a lot of alt-rightists supported him not because they thought he could win, but because they hoped he would help destroy the Republican Party. He hasn’t quite done that, but he has created a serious crisis within the party, which is now deeply divided between those who accept and those who reject the legitimacy of the existing electoral system. A broken GOP might sound like cause for celebration, but it’s likely to benefit the far right most of all. Today’s physical assault on the houses of Congress was the militant edge of a much larger movement, and while it will alienate or frighten some sympathizers it will galvanize and embolden others.

2. In broader terms, Trump’s insistent denial of the November election results has spurred a massive political shift within the U.S. right, as millions of people have moved—at least temporarily—from system-loyalty into system-opposition, as symbolized by Proud Boys stomping on a Thin Blue Line flag. We should expect this oppositional right to remain active and violent long after the current fight over the presidency has died down, as Natasha Lennard argued yesterday. And as Robert Evans documents, the oppositional right is a meeting place where different rightist currents and ideologies—such as neonazism and QAnon—converge and interact. It remains to be seen how unified or well organized the oppositional right will be, what kind of strategies and tactics they will use, and whether or not Trump himself will continue to play an active role.

3. The attack on the U.S. Capitol is, as many have described it, an attempted coup. It dramatizes Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, demagoguery, and repudiation of the electoral system that put him in the White House, but it also highlights one of the key limitations that separated the Trump administration from fascism. Fascism requires an independent mass organization in order to carry out its attack on the established political order. Trump has never tried to build such an organization. He has skillfully used social media and rallies to mobilize supporters, but organizationally he has relied on existing institutions, above all the Republican Party, which is part of why his administration was a coalition between America Firsters and conventional conservatives of various kinds. Now that coalition is falling apart. And Trump’s control over the federal security apparatus also proved to be quite limited. He could mobilize Homeland Security agents and U.S. Marshals to crack down on Black Lives Matter protesters last summer, but he failed to deploy any federal agents to help him overturn the results of the 2020 election. Today's mob of Trump supporters never had a chance of seizing power, but they did bring Congress to a complete standstill for hours. With better organization and leadership, the movement they represent could quickly turn into something far more dangerous.

4. A question for the coming months and years is: to what extent will the state repressive apparatus be used to crack down on the oppositional right? Certainly, cops aren’t likely to go after MAGA activists and Proud Boys the way they go after Black Lives Matter and antifa, but there’s a long history of federal security forces targeting far rightists, especially through covert operations. Joe Biden likes to talk about unity, but it’s not hard to imagine his administration reviving and expanding FBI and Homeland Security capabilities for tracking white supremacists and other far rightists. It’s also not hard to imagine some conventional conservatives actively supporting this effort. Let’s remember that the federal government’s most serious and systematic effort to crack down on oppositional rightists in the past 40 years—from The Order to the Lyndon LaRouche network—took place under Ronald Reagan. And let’s remember, too, that in the hands of the capitalist state, antifascism can be a powerful rationale for building the repressive apparatus—which ends up getting used mainly against oppressed and exploited groups. Even when the cops and the Klan don’t go hand in hand, neither one is our friend.

5. Instead of looking to the state to bring things under control, there's an urgent need for broad-based militant action on two fronts: to combat both the openly supremacist forces of the oppositional right and the less blatant but still deadly systems of established privilege and power. The past four years have been nightmarish in lots of ways, but they've also been a time of dynamic liberatory activism on a large scale. There are a lot of powerful examples of militant, creative organizing we can look to for lessons and inspiration.


Photo: By WiseWoman. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.