The following is the second of a four-part series on the current upsurge in antiracist activism in America as well as its intellectual roots, historical context, and implications. The first can be found here.
Ever since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in late May of this year many of America’s urban areas have been roiled by ongoing protests and demonstrations with rioting and looting spinning off from time to time at the periphery.
By the same token, a battle of narratives has arisen over the purpose and significance of these disturbances with conservative spokespersons such as President Trump, Attorney General Barr, and assorted Fox News personalities calling out “violent rioters”, whom they identify routinely as “communist” and “anarchist”, while commentators on the left end of the media spectrum and many big city mayors at the forefront of the conflict claiming the protests are largely “peaceful” without acceding that any deliberate or strategic fomenting of chaos might be in the playbook of the insurrectionists.
As is the case with so much of the news today in what has come to called a “post-truth” world, the facts are deeply configured by the ideological framework within which they are reported. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the anti-policing meme that has dominated the protest marches in many cities is slowly and almost imperceptibly splitting off into two different dockets, which themselves mirror divergent framings and interests on the part of black and white militants.
This discrepancy is particularly evident in Portland, which had already been a staging era for street brawls between left and right activists for several years prior to the Floyd killing. As of this writing, Portland has had protests, many turning violent, for eleven straight weeks since the end of May.
But the Great Divergence is already happening there too. Sarah Midkiff reports that although Portland is not really burning to the ground, as conservative media seems to imply, the goals of white and black demonstrators are beginning to grate severely on each other.
According to Midkiff, the one central but barely obvious theme with respect to Portland “is essentially about a city trying desperately to overcome its racist history to prove that it has earned the liberal status it proudly displays to the world.” But that may come at the expense of scanting the essential antiracist cause of keeping police literally off the necks of African Americans. Midkiff quotes Shirley Jackson, a black studies professor at Portland State University:
When the focus was on the police and demands were being made on the changes that the police department needed to make, that was clear. That was something that other cities could also rally around. They understood that because they were also experiencing the same thing…What we start to see now is some confusion around the meaning of current protest. This movement is now endangering the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s putting in the shadows the work of many of the African Americans who were really pushing that message forward. It is a movement that is no longer clear with respect to its message.
Black demands have never been clearer and they have been singularly focused and consistent for at least the last seven years since the death of young African Americans by police in St. Louis and Baltimore at the onset of the second term of the Obama administration. At the same time, the black push for racial justice, as Jackson implies, has over time succumbed to what French social theorists in the lineage of Foucault would term the “apparatus of capture” that is an often coy, complex, confusing, and concealed project of white, university-educated radicals. I myself warned about such a prospect in an article I published at the beginning of the current wave of protests.
If racial justice, not only in policing but in promoting both social equity and more equal economic outcomes among African American populations who have been also impacted disproportionately by the Covid-19 epidemic, is the uncontestable goal of black activists over the past months, among white radicals it is the rhetoric of antiracism that has often functioned as leverage for a much more comprehensive agenda. This latter agenda is usually subsumed under such vague, historically poignant descriptors as “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” or even “communism,” which have drawn the predictable ire and calumny of the political right.
But for several years now in Portland – and more recently throughout so many of the urban uprisings – the agenda has been consumed by a single piece of terminology that remains even more slippery and is open to a maddening miscellany of possible renderings. The word is “antifascism.”
The most prominent of all self-proclaimed antifascist groups in America, of course, is Antifa, which is simply short for “antifascism” and which Attorney General Barr characterized in a hearing with the House Judiciary Committee as “an umbrella term for loosely organized groups with an anarchic temperament.” Whatever “antifascism” is exactly, both with respect to its historical origins a half century ago in Europe to its current alliance with antiracist activist groups such as Black Lives Matter, it has begun to gain a reputation for hijacking other causes and tarring them with undeserved accusations of violence.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) itself, founded in the early 20th century as a prominent “antifascist” organization to combat both antisemitism and racism, is remarkably critical of Antifa in its profiling on its website of “extremist” groups. “Most people who show up to counter or oppose white supremacist public events are peaceful demonstrators”, according to the website, “but when antifa show up, as they frequently do, they can increase the chances that an event may turn violent.”
The website adds that “the current political climate increases the chances of violent confrontations at protests and rallies. Antifa have expanded their definition of fascist/fascism to include not just white supremacists and other extremists, but also many conservatives and supporters of President Trump.” Finally, it explains that, despite Antifa’s frequent claim that the “violence” of which they are accused is justified by the nature of the enemy they are fighting,
…all forms of antifa violence are problematic. Additionally, violence plays into the “victimhood” narrative of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists and can even be used for recruiting purposes. Images of these “free speech” protesters being beaten by black-clad and bandana-masked antifa provide right wing extremists with a powerful propaganda tool.
One of the biggest problems with the notion of “antifascism” as the guiding thread in antiracist activism is that it subtly attenuates the issue of racism and racial oppression in general, whether it be the obvious forms, as we find in the “replacement” paranoia of militant white supremacists or the “implicit” and “systemic” kind that views white supremacism itself as the hidden fabric of racial exclusion that thrives on the fiction that if white people individually do not act or speak in ostensibly “racist” ways, they are not racist in any meaningful sense of the word. Although historically fascism has been fueled by racist and xenophobic fervor (as during Germany’s Third Reich), it has been nurtured more general in a variety of cultural and political contexts primarily by sentiments that might better be described as “toxic nationalism.”
Robert Paxton, who has written what the consensus of scholars considers the definitive history of fascism, points out: “fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” (218)
Note that the terms “race” or “racism” do not occur in this definition. That is not to say racism, as in what proved to be a genocidal outgrowth in Hitler’s Germany of long-entrenched attitudes of antisemitism and the widespread belief in “Aryan superiority”, does not play a major role in fascist movements, but we find in such diverse phenomena as Mussolini’s Italy, Peron’s Argentina, Franco’s Spain, or (nowadays) even Modi’s India, racism is not necessarily the organizing idea for toxic nationalism. For example, in the last two instances it is primarily religion with “race” as a derivative category.
In the American context the threat of “fascism” has proven to be a constant anxiety among liberals since the 1930s with the political rise of Huey Long of Louisiana who lied less on racial prejudice than on populist animosity against “elites.” Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, especially with the “war on terror” and the passage of the Patriot Act, were routinely regarded by their critics as “fascists.” But, as various astute political theorists have emphasized over the years, super-patriotism and cultural conservatism derived from a tenacious tradition of American exceptionalism with its tacit privileging of Christianity and “whiteness” only superficially resembles the various political ideologies and praxes that scholars all recognize as “fascism.”
More recently Yale professor Richard Stanley in his 2018 book How Fascism Works has seized hold of this discrepancy and made a somewhat tendentious distinction between “fascist” and “fascist politics.” Stanley maintains that he is less interested in “fascism” as a political regime or ideology but rather as a set of tactics or as “a mechanism to achieve power.” In short, it is a latent fascism, like a pathogen lurking among wildlife that can always burst into a pandemic, that we should fear most.
He writes: “once those who employ such tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous nonetheless.” (13)
Such a cautionary definition in many ways resembles the long-standing right-wing canard about “communism,” which cannot be easily defined but is always in danger of subverting and taking covert control of American institutions, especially the public schools. The style of “antifascism” that has become the trademark of Antifa has leveraged the rhetorical technique of employing something like what Jacques Lacan dubbed the “sliding signifier,” that is, allowing the meaning of the expression to become exceptionally ambiguous and thus deployable in certain previously unfamiliar contexts that would have fallen out of syntactical bounds.
For example, in his highly influential “handbook” Mark Bray simply stipulates that antifascism is “pan-revolutionary left politics applied to fighting the Far Right”(267). This definition itself, of course, plays into the vague polarizing stereotypes that highly partisan cable news and large segments of social media have perfected in recent years with evident and alarming results. Such a trend, which is by no means an accident, has made it easy for sizable passels of partisan monomaniacs to apply much more easily to each other a loaded political concept that was once reserved for powerful and destructive totalitarian movements.
Both Antifa and Fox News have begun routinely to label each other as “fascists” in the same manner that the more extreme anti-Vietnam cadres during the late 1960s and early 1970s unflinchingly denounced both Democratic and Republican presidencies as well as what Vice President Spiro Agnew termed the “Great Silent Majority” with identical rhetoric. The verdict on whether America has in the past produced something resembling, or could ever give rise to, a genuine fascist regime in the guise of the “rough beast” that raged across Continental Europe during the 1930s and 1940s is still out.
Yet what is altogether new these days is an intense vitriol fueling the charges and countercharges of “fascism” that no longer has the specific, actionable goal in mind (i.e., the ending of the Vietnam War) it had in the last great cycle of political upheaval. Today we see two enormous and relatively heterogeneous blocs of progressive and conservative voters, which can be found in varying proportions in any modern Western democracy, at each other’s threats with the implied threat that the accession of power will lead to a war to subjugate, or even eradicate, the other.
The fact that this hostility has not been metastasized into open civil war probably has to do more with a divided legislature and a milder version of the so-called “balance of terror” that kept equally armed superpowers from blowing each up with nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.
But the larger point here remains that the “racist” legacy of America, toward which many white Americans were until quite recently blasé, has been circumscribed by a different kind of politics that the controversy over “fascism” might insinuate. In spite of the crescendo of demands by urban radicals to “defund” or even abolish the police as a response to ongoing incidents of murdered or severely injured black suspects, the portion of black Americans favoring a continuation of existing levels of police presence in combatting crime retains a solid majority, according to a Gallup Poll, that varies only a fraction from the percentage of all Americans and no more than than 10 percent from white people.
About a fifth of both blacks and white actually want more policing. Various interviews with black leaders have made clear that African-Americans are far more interested in equal justice for those mistreated by cops and the end to the kind of “carceral racism” that their disproportionate prison represents than in reducing police presence.
The short-lived, farcical experiment with an unpoliced urban community in downtown Seattle known as CHAZ and CHOP that led to chaos on the ground, but at the same time occasioning a city council vote to axe much of the police budget while prompting the city’s African American female police chief to resign in protest, has demonstrated many of the deeper dynamics of an “antifascism” that is less about justice for black people and more about a certain ill-defined progressivist utopianism that primarily promotes the interests of the white, urban professional classes and constitutes merely a more extravagant version of what in recently published writings I have termed “progressive neoliberalism.”
In the next installment we will explore both the genealogy of as well as the function in contemporary politics of such a progressivist utopianism.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.