May 30, 2021

“A demand that radicals tell the truth”: on three way fight politics and why it matters

Abstract painting with triangle composed of multiple shapes in different colors against a blue-green background

Interview with rowan

Editor’s note: This interview with a friend of the Three Way Fight project was conducted during the run up to the November 2020 election. Rowan lives in Portland Oregon where they parent a young daughter. They have participated in left wing politics and social movements since the late 1990s, and have complicated feelings about it.

3WF: Please tell us something about your political background and how you came to be interested in three way fight politics.

Rowan: I got politicized as a teenager through the anarchist punk rock scene in the 1990s. In 2000 I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I was active in the local post Seattle anti-authoritarian radical scene. Following September 11th, 2001, I was involved in trying to build a radical anti-imperialist pole in the anti-war movement. From 2003 until its dissolution in 2012, I was a member of Bring the Ruckus, a national political organization that sought to develop and implement revolutionary politics and that fought white supremacy as central to the fight against capitalism and oppression. From 2004 until 2012 I was a member of a local copwatch organization that engaged in training folks about their rights, cop watching, participating in protests, and developing a police abolitionist politics.

I think I first encountered the three way fight political perspective when Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai’s book Confronting Fascism came out in 2002. Some folks from Chicago Anti-Racist Action actually ended up doing an event out here where they talked to local activists about the book. That was probably how I was introduced to this political framework.

Several of my political mentors were radical men who had participated in driving neo-nazi skinhead gangs out of Portland in the early 1990s. As a result, anti-fascism has been a central part of my political landscape throughout my adult life. I’ve been involved in various mobilizations against the far right throughout the 2000s and early 2010s.

Bring the Ruckus, the national “revolutionary cadre” group I participated in, was one of the proponents of a kind of three way fight politic. We applied this framework to international questions in the context of the “war on terror” and increasingly also to US politics as the Portland local prioritized anti-fascist work. Veterans of the Sojourner Truth Organization were a significant influence on our thinking and debates, and while there were real differences around the priority of anti-fascist organizing, we generally agreed with the perspective that fascism was an autonomous political threat and not merely a strategy of the ruling class. Since that time of my membership in Bring the Ruckus and my high level of political activity, I’ve become a parent and stepped back some from political engagement, but the importance of three way fight politics and the struggle against right-wing violence has only become more urgent.

3WF: What does a three way fight approach mean to you? What do you find most significant or helpful about it?

Rowan: In many ways what feels important about the three way fight perspective is as much about how we do politics as it is about the particular content of those political positions. As much as the three way fight is an intellectual orientation, it feels like in some ways an ethical stance toward political struggle. Amilcar Cabral, in the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea-Bissau, urged his comrades to “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Similarly, the three way fight asks us to forsake triumphalist sloganeering and to instead engage in sober analysis and face difficult and uncomfortable truths about the world.

Too often “radical left” politics in the US consists of platitudes and posturing. Fascism has functioned as a nasty word we call folks we don’t like, and “strategic analysis” is whatever set of slogans makes us feel righteous. Too often in the interests of simplicity we argue that “cops and klan” are always “hand in hand,” that all of our enemies are the same enemy. It is incredibly attractive to believe that the world is neatly divided with bad guys on one side representing oppression and exploitation, racism, patriarchy, bigotry, empire, and fascism, and good guys on the other representing liberation, feminism, decolonization, and a free society.

Perhaps the most important thing to me about the three way fight approach was that it was a demand that radicals tell the truth.

This orientation toward truth and humility also asks us to take our enemies seriously in ways that we often fail to do. We must not only pay attention to our enemies (both state and fascist) strength, but also listen to and learn from what they say about themselves and the world. A lot of the time it feels like radical analyses of the far right just start from the assumption that they’re lying. Thus, when folks on the right oppose economic exploitation of the working class, prioritize ecology and defending the earth, or even oppose white supremacy, leftists often dismiss these as lies or attempts to trick people. The three way fight perspective helps us to listen, to be open to the possibility that they speak the truth about their visions, and to recognize that our enemies are complex, which makes them all the more dangerous as we struggle to defeat them.

The three way fight perspective also helps radical leftists to critique ourselves and sharpen our political perspectives. I certainly think that any kind of horseshoe theory that equates “extremism” on the left and right should be rejected. That said, I do think that three way fight politics can help us see the potential ways that radicals can betray our own political commitments to liberation.

In recognizing that the right often is critical of the neoliberal global order of inequality and exploitation (for its own reasons), we can see the overlaps that do exist between the politics of the far left and right. This recognition can help us clarify how our own (liberatory anarchist/communist/etc.) critiques of capitalist civilization contrast with those of our rebellious enemies. From anti-Zionism that singles out Israel for its Jewishness, to eco radicalism that is disdainful of the survival of vulnerable people to Stalinist anti-imperialisms that fetishize militarism and nationalism, to populisms that celebrate the forgotten “common people” in opposition to parasitic metropolitan elites, leftist talking points can if we’re not careful echo those of the right. By recognizing and combating this danger we can strengthen our movements and develop perspectives and visions that point more clearly to a free world.

On the other hand, three way fight politics stands in uncompromising opposition to official society and the dominant order. We must reject, and distance ourselves from any kind of official “anti-fascism” that serves to defend this murderous system from its enemies on the right. Anti-fascist politics that fail to break with and oppose capitalist civilization too often serving as the foot soldiers or private investigators on behalf of power. This not only fails to fight against exploitation and for a better world, but actually serves the fascists by proving their narrative that they are the true rebels against this wretched order.

3WF: What do you think three way fight politics offers that the U.S. left needs? Are there particular issues or struggles where you see this approach as particularly important?

Rowan: When the three way fight perspective emerged out of the experiences of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the early 2000s, few on the radical left saw anti-fascism as being at the center of their perspective.

It’s my sense that the current historical moment is a terrifying validation of this perspective. Leaving aside semantic battles over whether Trumpism is fascist, it does seem clear that we are seeing the emergence of right-wing movements that speak to the crisis of capitalist civilization.

What feels important right now is to understand that the escalating conflicts that we are witnessing and participating in are not static or permanent, but instead are evolving aspects of an unfolding historical process. We can debate all day about whether Trump is a fascist or just a particularly unpleasant Republican, whether he’s system loyal, system oppositional, or just self loyal. These attempts to understand the current terrain and array of forces are of course incredibly important. However, it’s also important to recognize that the current terrain and forces are not permanent, but shifting. What if we are in fact in the early stages of a period of instability, polarization, and escalating violence and upheaval. Trump, rather than being our period’s Mussolini, may be one of the conditions that shapes the horrors to come.

It seems likely to me that the right that is today storming capitals, street fighting with anti-fascists, and plotting to kidnap governors, may well look tame and sweet in comparison to the right-wing movements to come. The obvious possibility is that the right (or sections of it) may coalesce around leaders who are master strategists and cunning political thinkers as opposed to Donald Trump’s clownish narcissism. Also of concern is the possibility that participants and leaders of the right to come may be drawn not only from their traditional bases, but also from folks who are currently on the left but become disillusioned, or that even entire sections of the current “left” may be won over to alliances with and participation in right-wing social movements. Thinking through the potential convergences between left and right is for us not a liberal opposition to extremism, but rather an attempt to sharpen the liberatory content of our own extremism in opposition to both official society and its supremacist enemies.

3WF: Have you witnessed or experienced examples of people applying three way fight politics in concrete political situations?

Rowan: I certainly feel like Portland right now is a place where we are absolutely watching a three way fight play out. Portland has a dynamic and inspiring radical left that has been confronting Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in the streets for years. Over the summer radicals took to the streets to engage in mass and militant action in defense of Black lives and in opposition to police violence, gentrification, and heavy handed federal interventions by the Trump regime. While I wasn’t able to be very involved in the uprising in the streets, from where I stand, it definitely looks like radical leftists in Portland have been fighting a three way fight against multiple enemies. On the one hand the movement has targeted, and faced repression from, Mayor Ted Wheeler, a neoliberal who serves the interests of developers and real estate interests, and oversees the brutal and racist Portland Police Bureau. On the other hand, right-wing groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have engaged in street violence against the left, often motivated by loyalty to Trump and opposition to liberal elites like Wheeler. Wheeler’s (and the police’s) hostility toward the left is understood by some as him siding with the far right. Three way fight politics allows us to understand the possibility that instead we face multiple enemies contending for power and influence with competing visions. It may not be a pretty or comforting reality, but only by facing reality can we organize to win.

On a larger scale I think that US politics in general right now is taking the form of a three way fight between an emerging radical left (consisting of rebels for Black lives, “antifa,” folks engaged in mutual aid efforts, and some electorally oriented socialists), the defenders of the collapsing neoliberal status quo (Biden and the Democrats), and a diverse far right, which in recent years has often but certainly not been always oriented around loyalty to Trump. The contending visions of these forces are expressed in many ways, including through their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. The right is engaged in straight up denialism whether suggesting the virus is a hoax or conspiracy, and violently opposing public health interventions like masks or shutting down some businesses. Meanwhile, the centrists and liberals have largely settled for some minimal economic shutdowns, but mostly a campaign of public shaming and blaming of individuals who don’t properly engage in social distancing in their personal lives. They demand we go to work and face immense risks in workplaces and prisons), but blame us if we go out after work. Finally, we on the left need to develop a response to this apocalypse (and those to come) rooted in mutual aid, radical solidarity, and a recognition of our interdependence. This response includes mutual aid to help those thrown into crisis, organizing by nurses, teachers, and other “essential workers,” and perhaps even some demands on the state backed by militant action and organizing rooted among the communities most vulnerable to this genocidal pandemic and their allies.

3WF: Do you see problems or limitations with three way fight politics? Issues it could do a better job with?

Rowan: Three way fight politics is essential for developing a revolutionary left that can both fight and think to win. But this framework is, of course, useful as a tool, not as a dogma. There is always a danger of applying any categorization in vulgar and mechanical ways that can actually undermine our critical thinking. In the case of the three way fight politics, this might potentially mean assuming that any political struggle must have only three sides that fit with the predetermined theory. Trumpist right-wing militant patriots, right-wing Islamist guerrillas, and authoritarian anti-imperialist governments may all be both our enemies and the enemies of the neoliberal imperialist order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all part of the same political pole. Our politics is one that seeks to grapple with complexity and nuance in order to tell the truth to understand the world to win liberation. Any theory or framework can end up being an obstacle to that. 

Image credit:

 Wassily Kandinsky, Multi Colored Triangle, 1927, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

May 16, 2021

Antifa Academics (review)

Guest post by Shane Burley 

Originally published at Full Stop. Republished with permission.

Evan Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (London: Routledge, 2020); Stanislav Vysotsky, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism (London: Routledge, 2020); Devin Zane Shaw, Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020).

Book covers of No Platform by Evan Smith, American Antifa by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism by Devin Zane Shaw

Since the term “Antifa” moved from the edges of radical politics to a favorite boogeyman on right-wing talk media, there has been a desperate grab by publications and researchers to define what this means. A new prevailing notion that Antifa simply means “all antifascism” has persisted, showing that the word has actually evolved as antifascism became one of the dominant mass movements of the left in the era of Donald Trump and national populism. Antifascism has been seen as fundamentally a new phenomenon, one that unites people against a growing minority of right-wing ideologues, and within this frame its strategy and tactics have become hopelessly obscured. Antifa is, therefore, framed as ahistorical: it exists as a fumbling movement, angry at conservatives, based solely in the youth generation of today, and divorced from the complex histories of organizing and radical politics.

This picture is, of course, based on politicized hyperbole rather than facts: antifascism has a rich history that traces its opposition to the interwar period when fascist movements arose and throttled the planet with a fantasy of racial and nationalist revenge. This history has been lost to much of the public discourse on what antifascism actually is, as well as the depth of the ideas, critical analysis, and positive vision that belies antifascist movements, which is why there has been a churning need to see actual scholarship that digs into questions that should be so obvious. What is antifascism, where has it arrived before, and what does it want?

While a slew of books on the subject have arrived since 2017, the collection is reasonably small given the enormity that antifascism has developed in public consciousness. As academics typically do, a number of books have finally arrived that started to take bite-size looks at pieces of antifascism in an effort to break down lessons about what is happening today. Three books in particular, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech by Evan Smith, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy by Devin Zane Shaw, take on the question of antifascism from radically different directions. Each try to take the disciplines they come from (history, criminology, and philosophy, respectively) and use those strengths to ask pointed questions, treating antifascism seriously as a social movement philosophy far beyond the caricature that has been made of it. All three represent stunning works that are part of a burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Antifascism Studies (whether or not anyone actually uses the term) and are each staking a claim for what antifascism can teach us about larger social questions.

American Antifa may be the most “on brand” of the three, and that comes largely from Vysotsky’s own background. As he explains in the book, he was an antifascist organizer himself when he was younger, and he uses his own organizing relationships to set up his field work. As a critical criminologist, he applies the lens of social boundaries and law enforcement, which leads him to necessarily anonymize the people he is interviewing. He understands the pressure that these activists could be under from law enforcements, home raids and grand juries a real possibility, so he keeps their names out of it. Instead, he uses the names New City and Old City for two distinct antifascist groups he interviews, with each city representing stages in his own political work. It’s here that he goes deep into militant antifascism itself, which is really where the term “Antifa” comes from. Rather than a catch all for all forms of antifascism, from liberal protest movements to church groups, this is specifically for those that use “physical resistance” to confront fascists. Because they share an underlying critique of the state and the police, they take on the role of community self-defense outside of law enforcement, an approach to criminology in its own right. Vysotsky then goes into the tactics and strategy of these movements: how they use cultural spaces, how they think of violence, and how they organize themselves. Out of every book that has been published on the subject, this may be the most in depth on how militant antifascism actually works in the U.S., and he refuses to shy away from the complexities of that. Violence, in particular, is talked about at length, where the question of ethics and efficacy are a central component of the formulation of an antifascist subculture. The implicit violence of the far-right is what creates antifascism as its antithesis, and the repression and threats of attack that antifascists face helps to distill what kind of practical approaches they should have.

In a similar way, Evan Smith looks at a type of antifascist organizing in No Platform, yet he hones in on one particular strand of history. Instead of looking at the history of militant antifascism in the U.S., Smith centers his history on one particular institution as a commentary on the broader social movement: the National Union of Students. The union itself is a well-known institution on the British left in its post-New Left form, organizing a large block of university students into common campaigns that affected them in the university. Smith’s history is not just of the union, but of one particular debate inside the union, the use of “no platforming.” This tactic addresses primarily members of the far-right, people out of the bounds of normal debate, and includes denying them access to any form of public speech. This has become a hotly debated issue as arguments around youth “cancel culture” abounds, particularly with hyperbolic fears about universities, so Smith’s volume captures the fact that this is hardly a new debate. Instead, it goes back to the 1960s and student activists went back and forth on the ethics and efficacy of the tactic, not just in terms of ideology, but in actual struggle against campus recruitment by organizations like the National Front and the British Movement. What is most clear from No Platform is the deja vu that most communities have in regards to antifascism (or just left-wing social movements in general) as the same allegations thrown at young college students have been echoed for the past fifty years.

No platforming itself has become central to discourse on antifascism, so the book’s insights extend far beyond the campus. Instead, they look at the way that “speech,” as an amorphous context, is heavily political, both in who has access to speech and who doesn’t. On campuses, speech is heavily indebted to the costs of attendance: students pay for the campus to function, and that money is then, defacto, funneled into allowing some types of speech and not others. The tactic of no platform is then treated as what it is, a tactic, and the debates over when to use it and when to leave it behind are ongoing without a settled answer. One interesting example the book delves into is the debate over no platforming Zionist speakers, some of whom are coming from Israel. Given that many on the campus were opposed to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, some argued that no platform should be extended to Zionist speakers. But since these were almost solely Jewish speakers, and it would disproportionately affect Jewish organizations and people addressing specifically Jewish issues, this ended up having a consequence on a marginalized minority. What No Platform makes clear is that this debate started decades ago and is happening all the time, right now, as social movements attempt to meet their goals in a changing environment.

Out of the three books, Shaw’s Philosophy of Antifascism makes the biggest thematic change. Unlike American Antifa and No Platform, it is more a theoretical book than a practical history, and it also launches into its ideas from deep within the antifascist tradition. Its introduction centers the ideas behind antifascism by looking at authors and theorists that are not just writing about antifascism, but from within it. The attempt here is to crystalize some key ideas as to what antifascism is, how it adds a critical lens to interpreting the world, and what it means to think about this type of resistance in philosophical terms.

Shaw then pivots the book to unpack these ideas in relationship to existentialist philosophy, focusing on figures like Simone de Beauvoir. He doesn’t assume that those he covers are antifascist activists in the way that the book has defined it, involved in movement building or even with commentary that mirrors militant antifascism, but that they have a shared philosophic foundation on some key elements. Beyond its ability to make complicated philosophical treatises accessible by connecting them to a relevant issue, this approach has the effect of creating a shared understanding that allows antifascism to expand beyond the boundaries within which we normally experience it. Antifascism is a responsive movement (it is opposed to fascism, as defined in its antithesis), but its positive vision is rarely articulated. That has a practical functionality: antifascism is best served by opposing fascism, not rebuilding the world. But with Shaw’s approach, he digs out the commonalities inside liberatory existentialism as a way of bridging that gap, finding antifascism in their work. What is particularly unique about Shaw’s book is that he unapologetically starts with the kinds of books that antifascists themselves might read (full disclosure, that includes my own), which reframes how antifascism is seen. It is done without apology, it sees the antifascist canon not just as a primary source but as a valid source of an analysis, commentary, and theory. In this way it is one of the most philosophically deep books, not just on this list, but ever written on antifascism, and takes seriously the attempt to parse out the contradictions in the enemy the movement builds itself around.

There is often a division between the world of political writing that happens within social movements and those from the outside, and this is what has been seen so heavily in the commentary on antifascism of the past five years. What’s remarkable about all three books is that they take antifascism seriously enough to start from the inside. Vysotsky begins with his own antifascist organizing, and explains the methodology of coming from within a social movement and participating as an approach to ethnography. Smith takes the social movements mentioned in the book seriously, which is also seen in his other histories of groups like the Socialist Workers Party, which was influential in British antifascism in its own right. Shaw’s approach is not just to center the book about antifascism, but for it to be an antifascist book, a contribution not just to the field of philosophy, but to the living world of antifascism. All three are academics, so they are bending their disciplines to bring something unique to the world of antifascism rather than just sitting with a professorial detachment and exploiting the research for dispassionate peer review. None of that should minimize the depth of the scholarship itself, which in each case is profound and unmatched.

With the matched rise of the far-right and mass antifascism, there has been a critical need for scholarship that helps create a vital living history. A number of academics, journals, and publishers have started to take this seriously, including Routledge’s cutting-edge Fascism and Far Right Series, which published No Platform and American Antifa. Just like their authors, they come from a place of resistance, where the research and publishing are tied directly to the work of fighting off a fascist insurgency. The scholarship takes antifascism seriously, including research and critical work that comes from within movements, and that sincerity and commitment to their subjects has created a special space in a growing canon of literature.

These three books will not be the only academic treatises on the subject, expect dozens in the coming years. But they do set a new standard for how the subject can be addressed by academic authors, where solid research and scholarship does not have to be paired with disinterest and total neutrality on issues of far-right radicalism. As we enter an era of increased tension from the street level forces of Trump’s former base, these types of interventions provide not just a clear picture of where we are, but even some insights into a way forward.

Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.

May 9, 2021

Network Contagion Research Institute: helping the state fight political infection left and right

A new “anti-hate” think tank says anarcho-socialists are almost as dangerous as genocidal racists.

In the opening scene of Costa-Gavras’s classic film Z, about the lead-up to the 1967 military coup in Greece, the chief of police (referred to as the General) addresses a gathering of senior government officials on the “ideological disease” he sees threatening their nation. “It is caused by harmful germs and various parasites,” such as socialism, anarchism, beatniks, and pacifist tendencies. “Infection from ideological mildew” must be “fought preventively” by “the spraying of humans with appropriate mixtures”—indoctrination via schooling, military service, and leafleting the peasantry. In addition, the General declares, opponents of the left—who represent “the healthy parts of our society” or “antibodies”—must be used to “combat and eradicate all diseases.” As the film unfolds, we learn that the disease eradication he has in mind consists of physically breaking up leftist gatherings, beating up anti-war protesters, and murdering their leaders.

I’m repeatedly reminded of this scene when reading the work of the Network Contagion Research Institute, whose very name depicts harmful politics as ideological disease. The NCRI aims to “track and expose the epidemic of virtual deception, manipulation, and hate, as it spreads between social media communities and into the real world.” One of the institute’s “Contagion and Ideology Reports” characterizes disinformation and distrust as “a virus that knows no race, that consumes the poor and rich, that infects and kills people of any political persuasion.” Another report warns that “viral ideologies infect mainstream communities” and urges the use of “information vaccines” as protection. Costa-Gavras’s slightly fictionalized police chief would have been right at home with this discourse.

To be sure, the NCRI has given Costa-Gavras’s General a 21st century upgrade: The think tank doesn’t endorse non-state violence, and the “unhealthy” ideas it aims to stamp out emanate from the right as well as the left. But in other ways, the two are strikingly similar. Like the General, the NCRI is a mouthpiece for the state security apparatus and its commitment to defend the established order. Like the General, the NCRI uses the language of epidemiology to strip threatening ideas of both political content and historical context, reduce people who embrace these ideas to passive vessels, and give its own political project a false veneer of scientific objectivity.

NCRI maps the dissemination of
slurs and memes with charts similar
to this social network analysis.

Anti-hate politics meets big data

The Network Contagion Research Institute was founded in 2018 and is based at Rutgers University under the directorship of Princeton psychologist and neuroscientist Joel Finkelstein. The institute studies how so-called political extremism spreads and develops via social media. The NCRI hosts webinars, offers a college-level training program in “cyber social network threat detection and strategy,” and has published a series of reports on topics such as COVID-19 disinformation, anti-Asian and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, the Militia and Boogaloo movements, QAnon, and “militant anarcho-socialist networks.”

The NCRI uses a variety of research techniques, but its special sauce is large-scale quantitative analysis of slurs, memes, and code words. With data sets that consist in some cases of tens of millions of social media posts, institute staff and fellows track the frequency with which specific terms appear on various platforms over time. They correlate these patterns with real-world events, measure the spread of hateful ideas from fringe platforms such as 4chan to mainstream ones such as Twitter, and map associations between different frequently used terms to highlight changes in rhetoric and perhaps ideology. For example, the NCRI’s report on COVID disinformation used such data analysis to argue that in early 2021 conspiracist opposition to vaccines and public health restrictions was being subsumed into a larger, overarching conspiracy theory about a tyrannical New World Order government—and also that anti-vaccine protests tended to occur in counties where intimidation was used against Black Lives Matter protesters.

I’m not a data scientist, and I’m not going to comment on the NCRI’s quantitative methodologies. Yet despite the institute’s seeming technical sophistication, its underlying analytic framework is quite crude and weak. The NCRI uses the “hate” framework that has been promoted by the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and others. Kay Whitlock offers an incisive critique:

“In U.S. progressive politics the hate frame has four main assumptions: First, that hate is rooted purely in irrational, personal prejudice and fear and loathing of difference. In fact, it’s also rooted in ideologies and supremacy, in a historical and cultural context. Second, that hate is hate, and the specificities don’t matter. Third, that the politics of hate is about that crazy irrational feeling, which is caused by personal prejudice gone amok. In this view, hate is not about structures, not about power hierarchies, not about institutional practice. Finally, that hate is perpetrated by extremists, misfits, and loners who are violating agreed-upon standards of fairness, and that hate violence is unacceptable and abhorrent to respectable society.

“In fact, what is called ‘hate violence’—violence directed at vulnerable and marginalized groups—is not abhorrent to respectable society. On the contrary, respectable society has provided the models, policies, and practices that marginalize people of color, queers, disabled people, and in many respects, women. The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists, and that’s who we have to go after.”

Hate frame assumptions are integral to the NCRI approach. NCRI draws a neat division between hateful and non-hateful speech, with no concern for the variety of ideologies underlying such speech or the historical context in which it arises. In NCRI reports, for example, you’ll find lots of references to racist expression, but no discussion of the differences and relationships between genocidal white supremacism, Proud Boys-style “western chauvinism,” and Oath Keepers-style color-blind ideology—and certainly no discussion of how all of these are rooted in a system of racial oppression that has always been central to U.S. society.

As Whitlock argues elsewhere, the hate frame also treats violence against oppressed groups as a problem to be solved with more policing and longer prison terms—without addressing the ways that police and prisons are themselves active perpetrators of systemic violence against oppressed groups on a massive scale. This too, is reflected in the NCRI approach, which is largely geared toward bolstering law enforcement. The institute’s report on the Boogaloo meme, for example, urges law enforcement agencies to “develop large scale and data-driven approaches and central information-sharing capacity” to track and analyze Boogaloo-type threats—in other words, embrace the NCRI methodology as their own.

The NCRI’s use of the hate framework is particularly egregious because the institute applies it to the radical left as well as the far right. The NCRI’s report on “militant anarcho-socialist networks” repeatedly uses language that links and equates leftists with far rightists. For example, the report refers to anti-police slogans such as ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and FTP (Fuck the Police) as “hateful codewords and memes” —putting them in the same category as calls to gas the Jews. The report claims that leftists—like far rightists—demonize and dehumanize political opponents, promote “classic authoritarian narratives,” and advocate “violent insurgency.” A table summarizing their findings asserts that “Anarcho-Socialist extremists” have displayed all or nearly all the same characteristics as Jihadis and Boogaloo: expressing “apocalyptic beliefs,” “utopian legends/narratives,” and “martyr narratives”; using online propaganda and private or fringe internet forums; organizing armed militias; and carrying out “lone-wolf terror attacks.” The only one they’re unsure about is whether leftists have carried out “cell-like terror attacks.”

The equation of right-wing and left-wing violence is fundamentally dishonest for two reasons, as Kristian Williams has argued. First, rightists in the U.S. have carried out far more terrorist attacks than leftists, as the eminently non-leftist Center for Strategic and International Studies has documented. Second, in Williams’s words, whatever tactical or ethical disagreements we may have with leftist attacks, “there can be no equivalency between the violence of a slave revolt and the violence of a slave master, between the violence of anti-fascists and that of the Atomwaffen Division.” The NCRI report on anarcho-socialists doesn’t acknowledge any of that, but its authors do maintain a figleaf of deniability with a footnote cautioning that “This analysis does not suggest that violence from anarcho-socialist militants has yet become as widespread as an organized Jihadi group nor does it have the death toll or historical reach that right-leaning extremism has in the U.S. However, anarcho-socialist bloodshed has been historically substantial on other continents and Western countries.”

The same report also promotes the bogus claim, which has been made by both conservatives and some liberals, that the mass-based riots and violent anti-police activism that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020 were instigated by a few leftist agitators. The report asserts that small groups of activists such as the Portland Youth Liberation Front were able to “mobilize lawlessness and violence” through sophisticated use of online communication to call up a “network-enabled mob” in numerous cities simultaneously. In other words, a think tank that claims to be combating the spread of harmful conspiracy theories is itself replicating a classic conspiracist myth that has been used to demonize leftists for generations.

Toward a centrist anti-hate coalition

Although the NCRI is a relative newcomer to the extremist-monitoring field, its institutional credentials and impressive-sounding methodology have given it a prominent “expert” status for major media organs such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The NCRI describes itself as “a neutral and independent third party whose mission it is to track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels,” assuring us further that it has “no political agenda, profit motive, or university reporting obligations.” A more honest description—based on its list of staff and advisors—would be that NCRI represents a convergence of academia (mainly psychologists and artificial intelligence experts), big tech (notably Google’s director of research), and security agencies (with current or former people from the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, New York City Police Department, and private firms).

In addition to Rutgers, the NCRI lists “affiliations” with three entities: the Anti-Defamation League, Open Society Foundations, and Charles Koch Foundation. The ADL is one of the most prominent watchdog groups monitoring the U.S. far right, but it’s no friend of the left. The organization has long misused the charge of antisemitism to attack Palestinians, Palestine solidarity activists, anti-racist activists, and others. In the 1990s, it was revealed that the ADL had spied on a wide range of progressive organizations for decades; as recently as 2017 it publicly urged the FBI to spy on antifa groups, a call it later retracted.

The combination of Open Society and Koch foundations is pivotal to the NCRI brand. Open Society (George Soros’s grant-giving network) figures in countless right-wing conspiracy theories while Koch is one of the most hated capitalist names on the left, so by listing the two together the NCRI declares that it transcends political divisions by bringing together staunch liberals and conservatives. Put slightly differently, the combination of Soros and Koch support evokes an attempt to foster a broad—but anti-Trump—coalition within the ruling class. (Contrary to what some leftists have claimed, the Koch network never supported Trump and rejected his positions on both immigration and trade.)

The NCRI’s approach dovetails with centrist efforts to woo hardline conservatives away from Trumpism, as witness the institute’s recruitment of former Republican Congressmember Denver Riggleman to its advisory team. In Congress Riggleman was a member of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, but he lost his 2020 re-election bid after officiating at a same-sex wedding. Last month the New York Times profiled Riggleman as a courageous opponent of conspiracy-mongering under the title “One Republican’s Lonely Fight Against a Flood of Disinformation.”

Complementing its recruitment of Riggleman, the NCRI has recruited former leftist Alexander Reid-Ross as a senior research fellow. He is the lead author on the NCRI’s COVID disinformation report and a contributing author on at least one other of the institute’s studies. Reid-Ross, who teaches geography at Portland State University and used to moderate the Earth First! Newswire, has had significant influence on many liberal and leftist antifascists with his 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep and numerous articles on related topics. Although he has raised important issues, such as collusion between sections of the left and fascists, his past work is a mixed bag; one 2017 review of Against the Fascist Creep rightly faulted Reid-Ross for using guilt by association, name dropping, and just plain bad writing. In any case, by signing on with NCRI he has repudiated the left, yet his background helps burnish the NCRI’s image as an inclusive home for anti-“hate” scholars of every persuasion.

Larger trends

The Network Contagion Research Institute’s rise reflects larger trends. One of these is the drive to apply big data analysis to the study of political propaganda and social media. There’s a growing body of academic articles based on such studies, most of which have been published in the past five years, and there are other outfits besides NCRI supporting comparable work, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. In principle this approach could yield valuable insights, but its potential is radically compromised when it is based on an analytic framework that shields established systems of power and oppression from critique. Such political bias seems unlikely to change, given the technical and institutional infrastructure required to support big data analysis.

Another trend, in the wake of Trump’s downfall, is the drive by a resurgent centrist establishment to harness anti-bigotry and anti-fascism to its own ends. As Faramarz Farbod recently outlined, the resulting top-down “liberal/centrist anti-fascist discourse” poses a number of dangers: blaming Trump without explaining the conditions that made him popular, reproducing the myth that the United States is a democracy, ignoring the far right’s roots in U.S. society and the establishment’s own complicity in the rise of violent reactionary forces at home and abroad, and expanding the powers of the national security state. The NCRI is rooted firmly in this discourse.

The NCRI’s efforts to lump together far rightist and radical leftist politics into the same “hate” category embodies an important theme of centrist anti-fascism. We see a similar approach in a recent threat assessment report on “domestic violent extremism” by the U.S. director of national intelligence, which President Biden requested shortly after taking office. The DNI’s report divides “domestic violent extremists” into five categories: “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists,” “Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremists,” “Abortion-Related Violent Extremists,” “Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists” and all others. Kristian Williams comments:

“The most striking thing about this classification its perverse refusal to divide between left and right, instead grouping opposing sides together under other categories. Right-wing militias, sovereign citizens and anarchists, for example, are all listed under ‘Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists.’ Racist and anti-racist violence is compressed into ‘Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists.’

“‘Abortion-Related Violent Extremists’ includes both those ‘in support of pro-life and pro-choice beliefs’—despite the fact that the FBI cannot point to any pro-choice violence that escalated above the level of online threats, while anti-abortion fanatics have murdered 11 people and attempted to kill 26 more since 1993.”

These categories don’t reflect intellectual sloppiness, but rather a deliberate distortion of reality to demonize leftists and protect the established order. It’s an analytic approach we need to expose and critique, along with the Network Contagion Research Institute’s pseudo-objective ideology and the state repression agenda it serves. 

Image credit:

A social network visualization, by brewbooks, 10 June 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.