White nationalists demonstrate in Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017 | Karla Cote via Flickr.com

Antifascism and the Left’s Fear of Power

History will move with or without us.

White nationalists demonstrate in Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017 | Karla Cote via Flickr.com
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This article has been adapted from a talk delivered at Purdue University on April 18, 2018, hosted by the Purdue chapter of the Campus Antifascist Network.

In the United States today people tend to squirm with profound discomfort, if not sneer with outright revulsion, when they hear talk of “antifascism.” It is, by most accounts, a dirty word. That alone should be proof enough that we desperately need it.

In general, and among other things, I describe myself as an antifascist. In concrete terms, I serve on local and national Steering Committees of an organization called the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN), whose mission involves building broad coalitions in campus communities to prevent the creeping forces of fascism from taking root and counter-mobilizing against those forces when they show up. In that capacity, I regularly collaborate and organize with a diverse range of people who wouldn’t hesitate to describe themselves as antifascists—from socialists in DSA to anarchists to even rank-and-file Democrats. Collectively and individually, our groups do a great deal of work that falls under the umbrella of the broad, multifaceted cause of antifascism—a cause that, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t simply revolve around punching Nazis and white supremacists like Richard Spencer

For the sake of the left’s future, we must work together to reclaim the mantle of antifascism.

And yet I’ve found that perhaps the greatest obstacle to advancing this cause and building greater support for it is the broad popular stigma associated with antifascism in our political day and age. Easing the stubborn grip that this stigma exerts on the thinking of our fellow citizens, helping them see that their everyday struggles are more closely intertwined with the overarching cause of antifascism than they may think—this is a herculean but vital task all its own. It shouldn’t be hard to see that one of the crucial steps in the unconscious national—and international—slide toward more fascist-like politics and sympathies is the widespread vilification of those who are most committed to preventing it.

For the sake of the left’s future, we must work together to reclaim the mantle of antifascism—both at the grassroots level and in the popular mind. We must wrestle it and its reputation from the misconceptions that are heaped upon it, from the radioactive stigma that continues to make it appear more unsavory than ever precisely when we need it most. And perhaps most important, we must also rescue antifascism from the irony-deficient, soul-sucking vacuum behind Madeline Albright’s dumb face.

Sticks and Stones

Where does this stigma come from? To be fair, some of it has genuine roots in the follies and disorganization of antifascist politics today, including antifascists’ failure to counter all the bad press with a “brand” that can connect with and sway more of the public. To be even fairer, though, a great deal of our uphill struggle to dispel the many brands of disinformation targeting antifascist activism has to do with the rise of a veritable cottage industry devoted to smearing antifascism itself—an industry staffed by pundits and politicians running the gamut from the radical right to the far left.

This is not to say, however, that all antifascist-bashing arguments are alike. In fact, trawling through spittle-covered broadside after spittle-covered broadside, one starts to sense that, absurd caricatures and cynical fearmongering aside, the right has a better grasp on the radical core of antifascism than do many on the left. The right recognizes that what we call “antifa” today is simply one arm of a broader movement. This is a movement (or “movement of movements”) comprised of diverse leftist groups whose commitment to antifascism is (or should be) entirely inextricable from their collective drive to upend the existing social forces of inequality, domination, exclusion, and violence that fascists and proto-fascists wish to seize and weaponize for their own ends. At the same time, many on the left are busy distancing themselves from antifascism as such and isolating antifa as an aberrant sect unto itself with little or no connection to the “real” left. (They are, to put it bluntly, throwing antifa—generally taken as shorthand for anarchists—under the bus, leaving comrades like the J20 defendants out to dry.)

We can see before our eyes the popular, intra-left critiques of antifa specifically, and antifascism generally, beginning to harden into unchallenged consensus. Out of this consensus view, three basic criticisms about antifascism today emerge:

  • Antifascism is, in the most literal sense, misguided. The antifa movement, the argument goes, exclusively focuses its energies on sparring with despicable individuals and extremist hate groups as if they are the most pressing, immediate threat to society, no matter how insignificant and marginalized they are. In so doing, antifascist activists ignore the more widespread political and socioeconomic horrors of the present. With eyes fixed on some fantastical evil on the horizon instead of the material realities of today, they fail to acknowledge that a true fascist resurgence is unlikely given that the objective historical conditions of our moment hardly resemble those that produced real fascism in Italy in the wake of World War I, or in Germany and Spain soon after.
  • Antifascism is juvenile. The charge here is that antifascists have no real guiding doctrine—their actions largely consist of disorganized activists living out “macho” fantasies of fighting literal Nazis in the streets and punching their way to justice and glory. (This image usually goes hand in hand with a perception of antifascists as militantly close-minded, not interested in discussion, and trigger-happy to paint anyone who disagrees with them as a “fascist.”) The obsession with direct, even violent, action, which often invokes comparisons to the alt-right, demonstrates antifascism’s immaturity and inability to organize in the long term and on a mass scale.
  • Antifascism is tactically shortsighted. Critics contend that, while the most recognizable tactics for confronting fascist mobilizations—especially Nazi-punching and “no-platforming”—may reap local, immediate gains (if only in the form of personal gratification), such tactics are, at bottom, purely cathartic and anti-political. For them, the self-dramatizing and confrontational excesses of antifascist politics drives home the movement’s own perilous disregard for the power of popular perception and the larger power structures that determine the shape of American life and politics—power structures that will often use antifascists’ tactics as an excuse to crack down on the left itself.

Put simply, antifascist politics is, in this view, easy. It’s purely reactive, not painstakingly organized. It’s emotional, not well thought out. It’s narrowly focused on combating immediate threats with little concern for the optics or long-term effects, limited to directly confronting individuals or small extremist groups without attending to the broader historical conditions of their emergence.

Occam’s Mirror

But these are not the facts of antifascism. The notion that antifascist politics are so simple and narrow is, ironically enough, grounded in a very narrow and simplistic understanding of what antifascism is. Such an understanding is what happens when negative biases, rumors, and mainstream caricatures get repeated into robust existence. It’s what happens when one bad personal experience with people who call themselves antifascist becomes the template for judging antifascist politics writ large. It’s what happens when one’s myopic view of things as they appear (or don’t appear) on the internet is (mis)taken as full coverage of the world at large. As with a movie projector, a certain vision is cast onto life, beaming straight from the computer, through the eyes, and out the big hole in one’s head.  

The real-life picture is quite different. And it says much more about the left today that increasingly large segments are quick to reject antifascism as some cartoonish antithesis to our central aims. Because antifascism is not a competing ideology. It is, at base, a mode of politics—a resolute political posture—with all the aim and will of a popular movement, one that draws on the longstanding, transnational infrastructure of socialist, communist, and anarchist politics in order to stop fascist mobilizations in their tracks while also, as historian Mark Bray writes, “building popular community power and inoculating society to fascism through promoting [a] leftist political vision.” It is a concerted, coalition-based politics that perceives far-right violence and popular authoritarian impulses as both a historical continuity and repeatable probability at the trembling dialectical extremes of capitalism and nationalism.

Antifascism is not premised on fighting some alarmist, future-fearing fantasy of a totalitarian dystopia at the expense of addressing the open sores of the already-dystopian-enough present.

For this reason, antifascists understand that it is dangerously reductive to presume that antifascism is unnecessary given that our historical conditions are not the same as those that produced fascism in the twentieth century. As Geoff Eley, a renowned historian of Nazism, puts it, “it makes no sense to draw direct equivalences between far Right politics now and the politics calling itself fascist then.” The real question is what sort of material conditions, what (inter)national crises, would make a fascist-like politics attractive to people today for whom faith in the standard operations and institutions of democratic governance is, as it did in the past, quickly eroding?

Contrary to what its critics suggest, then, antifascism is not premised on fighting some alarmist, future-fearing fantasy of a totalitarian dystopia at the expense of addressing the open sores of the already-dystopian-enough present. Antifascism, rather, is all the more urgently attentive to the present because it takes a sober, truly materialist view of the inevitable national turns—in the absence of a robust leftist alternative—toward more fascistic solutions to the global crises of the twenty-first century: climate change, ramped-up international wars over natural resources, growing migrant and refugee crises and a consequent anxiety about open borders and national identity, job automation, increasingly stark degrees of wealth inequality and financial precarity, etc.

As these crises continue to develop, it is all-too-probable that the U.S. and other nations will pull harder toward the fascist-like impulses that are increasingly characterizing our century. “Fortress mentalities, idioms of politics organized by anxiety, gatedness as the emergent social paradigm—these increasingly drive the authoritarian and violent tendencies of contemporary governmentality. If we put all of this together,” Eley writes, “then we have the kind of crisis that can enable a politics that looks like fascism to coalesce.” Such sustained crisis conditions have enabled, and will continue to enable, Trumpian-style right-wing politics to thrive. In the face of these conditions, any left politics that isn’t self-consciously antifascist is doomed.

The point, then, isn’t just to give antifascism a fairer shake—the stakes are much higher than that. And there’s no reason for me to rehash a fuller and more sophisticated accounting of the history and practical workings of antifascist politics here when others have been working overtime to do just that (see Natasha Lennard, Mark Bray, Shane Burley, Alexander Reid Ross, etc.). The point is that, in struggling to reclaim antifascism in the name of an ecumenical left that is up to the tasks of our century, we are forced to confront serious ideological and tactical contradictions embedded in the more prominent leftist critiques of antifascist politics today.

Such contradictions—especially when it comes to determining how we should approach the question of power—bear directly on the future of any self-described leftist politics in this country. If left unaddressed, they will not only continue to hinder our collective capacity to fight fascist mobilizations when they appear, but they will also undercut the ultimate task of formulating a leftist politics that addresses the monstrous material conditions out of which fascism emerges and takes hold.

Net Losses

Brace yourselves; references to the erratic and confrontational Freddie DeBoer are coming. At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to bring DeBoer up in leftist discussion without sparking a sweaty ad hominem orgy that leaves everyone frustrated and dissatisfied. Which isn’t all that surprising—DeBoer’s online brand has been largely devoted to provoking, even dividing, fellow leftists.

I want to be clear, though: I have precisely zero interest in wading through the “politics” of (negative or positive) cults of online personality. Truly and simply, it’s a goddamn waste of time. But given how much these things inevitably press upon the conduct of intra-left discourse today, given how much they inflect our own thinking and our receptiveness to competing ideas, I feel it’s necessary to give a disclaimer.

I don’t really know Freddie—we’ve never met in person, but our limited interactions have been cordial. I do know that I have no right or capacity whatsoever to comment on his character or suggest how that should frame others’ interpretation of his work. Even if I could, what would be the point? And, in any case, this is not about him—or any other individual I mention here, for that matter (this is about working through ideas, not outing or condemning individuals). However, insofar as DeBoer’s oft-repeated arguments about antifascist politics and tactics represent an influential and relatively widespread brand of mainstream progressive thought, it would be both difficult and dumb to ignore them. (He has made, at one point or another, almost every single one of the negative characterizations of antifascist politics catalogued above.) So, these arguments—and nothing else—are what I will deal with.

Power Broke

One can’t really begin to talk about antifascist politics—or any politics, for that matter—without first talking about power. How much of it do we currently have? How do we get more? How and where in our respective environments can we effectively leverage it, and to what ends? What constitutes legitimate power in today’s political economy, and how much of what we take for power is really just clutter, commodity, or distraction? What kind of power do our enemies have over us? How does their power shape who we are and how we think? And what means do we have, individually or collectively, to protect ourselves against it? 

These most basic questions form the necessary point of entry for any writing or organizing endeavor that counts as “political.” As a writer and an organizer myself, I’m rarely able to come up with satisfactory answers, but I try at least to keep an unobstructed view of the questions as much as I can. Because if I’m not thinking about power, chances are I’m letting power do the thinking for me. 

It’s quite simple, really: without a serious, strategic reckoning with the question of power, there is no left politics. And for anyone reading, writing, or organizing in the sphere of left politics today, the need for such a reckoning is particularly acute. With reactionary forces so clearly in control, any failure on our part to soberly appraise our strategic options in the existing power arrangement could easily lead to disastrous consequences.

Indeed, contemporary antifascist politics tends to be a whipping boy for critics who single it out as a pragmatic failure to account for the reality of how power operates today. For a growing contingent of the left, that is, it’s become standard practice to sweep antifascist politics aside by referring—or deferring—to power itself. This is especially the case when it comes to campus-based “antifascism.” 

This line runs through many variations of the same argument, which has been made by a number of my fellow left writers, including, for instance, Freddie DeBoer and Angela Nagle. Both DeBoer and Nagle have argued that the left is too focused on things like building personal brands, performing “wokeness,” and preaching to one’s internet choir. They’ve also argued that, along with any discernible form of robust political power, the left is seriously lacking in the ability to grapple with the practical and theoretical foundations of its own convictions about power, instead opting to rely on ill-defined consensus views, which I don’t think is entirely off base. 

But the problem, I’d argue, is that power as such is beginning to overtake any particularly leftist theoretical principle in the dismissal of antifascist politics by the likes of Nagle, DeBoer, etc. I’m going to quote DeBoer at length here, and this quote comes from a discussion last summer on the Katie Halper Show, in which he and Nagle shared their views on activists on college campuses employing the antifascist tactic of “no-platforming”: 

When we talk about these free-speech debates we’re always operating in this bizarre theoretical universe where [leftists] actually have political power, and we don’t. And we know historically that if anyone’s speech is going to be abridged, it’s not the right, who … are currently dominating American electoral politics, it’s the left. It’s McCarthyism. It’s shutting down Palestinian activism on campus. Which has been a concerted effort—it’s been hugely popular among the conservative administrators at these universities and has been much more effective than other efforts to shut down hate speech… Who do we think is actually going to be hurt by a sweeping new set of abilities to come down and regulate what people can do or say?… If anyone is going to be hurt by the attempt to regulate speech, because of the division of power in this country, it’s people of color, it’s gay and lesbian and transgender people, it’s women. That’s what this country is. And … we have to think, not in terms of this ideal theoretical world where we are the ones who are the censors, but think about how power is distributed in this country and how we’re much more likely to be censored

Nagle adds that the kind of left politics being described here is also tactically unsound because, as we so often hear, it makes firebrands like Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer appear victimized and sympathetic in the public eye. At the same time, the no-platforming tactic makes it much easier for people watching the news to believe we on the left are exactly the violent and militantly intolerant bunch that the right says we are. And DeBoer ups the ante again by arguing that “the actual existing power structure in the United States” is such that vengeful conservative legislators have the capacity to retaliate, and will retaliate, against these PC censors on campus, citing their protests as justification to further defund public universities.

The Hidden Coalition

Whether by accident or on purpose, distinct groups and issues are being hastily lumped together here, and something important is getting lost.

As this conversation demonstrates, the tactic of no-platforming today is almost exclusively associated with forums on campus and held to be an excess favored by (at best) misguided student leftists who are way too quick to employ it. What is perhaps most troublesome in students’ approach to no-platforming today is their frequent, and almost inherent, dependence on a paternalistic administrative power structure—a dependence that has been shaped by an increasingly corporatized higher education model that treats students like customers and administrators like HR divisions expected to arbitrate all political demands.

The endgame of most student-led pushes to deny dangerous speakers a platform on campus, that is, involves asking administrators to disinvite them or to implement new policies that will regulate things like “hate speech” (i.e. to equip reactionary administrative machines with even greater powers of censorship). Frankly, this infantilizing, hierarchy-dependent, campus-style approach to no-platforming is fair game for the critiques DeBoer, Nagle, and others offer—I’ve criticized it myself, albeit for different reasons.

But this is also why it’s so important to highlight the distinctly antifascist approach to what we now call no-platforming, which has a long history that stretches back a century and has by no means been limited to university campuses. DeBoer isn’t telling antifascists anything they don’t already know when he alludes to the far more powerful, higher-profile efforts of institutional and governmental authorities to no-platform leftist speakers and activists associated with stigmatized out-groups of protest, like the BDS movement. As Mark Bray notes, “anti-fascists disagree with the pursuit of state bans against ‘extremist’ politics because of their revolutionary, anti-state politics and because such bans are more often used against the Left than the Right.” Instead, antifascists rely on collective, autonomous, grassroots power to disrupt, expose, block, and overwhelm fascist gatherings; hence the far more successful and empowering efforts by independently organized activists at Richard Spencer’s appearance at Michigan State University in March, or by antifascist outfits publicly exposing white nationalists, or by the thousands who showed up to peacefully surround a right-wing extremist gathering in Boston earlier in 2017. 

In fact, one of the most significant developments on university campuses of late is the growing turn away from top-down, hands-out politics, and a turn toward the coalition-based, self-sustaining, bottom-up antifascist model. Moreover, without the administration to depend on, such turns have necessitated the fusion of new political bonds between campus activists and their surrounding communities, thereby opening possibilities for struggles that extend beyond the enclosed, privileged world of standard campus concerns while also challenging the oppressive neoliberal power arrangement of universities themselves.

This exciting groundswell could have major implications for campus politics and for the left in general, but you would hardly know it by listening to many intra-left critics, DeBoer and Nagle included. Antifascist politics are painted, more or less, as a kind of infantile offshoot of campus-style politics, and campus politics figures as little more than an annoying, caricatured foil to “real” (and “realistic”) politics. 

Low-Hanging Truth

As a short but necessary aside, I just want to repeat something I’ve written and talked about many times before: narratives matter. Pre-packaged narratives about campus politics have far more cultural staying power and provide more political firepower than the complex reality of what campus politics actually looks like on the ground.

Everything we are doing to mobilize a broad, diverse, and sustainable front of antifascist resistance on and off campuses is already hampered by the pervasiveness of the right’s narrative about campus politics. And that, indeed, is why the right has devoted so much energy to crafting and broadcasting PC-style caricatures of university activism for so many decades. The organizing narrative here consists of that well-worn saga of “political correctness run amok” at the behest of an insurgent class of woke “social justice warriors” (or “SJWs”) imposing their will by policing the speech and actions of others and refusing to engage views they find “offensive.”

What does this overblown discourse of campus exceptionalism do besides provide further justification for the right’s belief that colleges and universities themselves are the problem?

To be clear: there are plenty of aspects of campus politics that are, frankly, annoying and stupid and exhausting and counterproductive and purely performative. Anyone who wants to make the case for giving up on campus politics can point to an abundance of cases seemingly proving that it has been irreparably transformed into self-dramatizing pseudo-political cosplay oozing with privilege, self-righteous egoism, and rote intolerance. It would be extremely disingenuous to pretend these problems don’t exist. And developing ways to work through or around them is vital (we could start by making more of an effort to highlight movements on campuses that defy this model instead of obsessing over the ones that embrace it).

But leftists are helping absolutely none of us when they lazily and unquestioningly regurgitate the right’s PC narrative, which falsely and destructively presumes that such problems exist only for leftist campus politics. (As if bloated egos, arguments about representation and privilege, conflicting priorities, and “virtue signaling” play no role whatsoever in any other brand of ideological engagement, or popular organizing.)

What does this overblown discourse of campus exceptionalism do besides provide further justification for the right’s belief that colleges and universities themselves are the problem? What practical purpose does the PC mythology serve, apart from weakening the necessary resistance we must mount against reactionaries who are ramping up their vicious campaign to demolish academic freedom and to bring left-leaning faculty and students to heel? What good does it do to berate these hollow, LARPing mannequins of SJW excess as if they alone are the ignorant instigators of a vindictive rightwing crackdown on higher education and campus activism that has roots going all the way back to the 1960s?

Does anyone really think Republican lawmakers would suddenly halt the decades-long public disinvestment and nation-wide corporatization of colleges and universities if students suddenly stopped protesting controversial speakers? They’ve been using campus politics as a scapegoat for at least 40 years, and they’ll continue to do so as long as it works—if they ever needed a different scapegoat, they’d find one. Because it’s not about finding a balance, it’s about taking power, refashioning higher education in the image of the conservative ruling class in its unending pursuit of racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, planet-destroying, capitalist oligarchy. Taking their terms for the war on higher education at face value and curtailing our politics to fully accommodate them is pure foolishness.  

And yet the sad fact is that, in our contemporary left media ecology, it remains incredibly fashionable to “drag” universities as an easy way to legitimize one’s personal, sectarian brand of leftish thinking. If you want to boost your profile as a down-to-earth political “realist,” you can always score easy points by ripping on campus politics for obsessing over language policing, “identity politics,” and woke virtue-signaling while completely failing to address the broader institutional injustices of the higher ed system itself, let alone the kind of concrete political and socioeconomic issues that “regular-ass people” care about.

Never mind that this stream of finger-wagging clichés drowns out the countless examples of political efforts on and around campuses to address these very issues by doing precisely what a broader left politics should be doing: identifying points of unity, building diverse coalitions, and developing strategies for leveraging power. Never mind that, regardless of what people who haven’t done their research suggest, the Campus Antifascist Network is merely one of many organizations expressly linking an antifascist mode of politics to a systematic critique of the economic, political, racial, etc. injustices of the neoliberalized higher education system and its place in the destructive political economy of neoliberalism writ large.

Politics-phobia

If you repeat something enough times, though, people just start to take it as true. If you just keep saying over and over again that your approach to politics is the most realistic, then that’s enough to convince most people. And anyone remotely familiar with the terrain knows that DeBoer and Nagle are merely two out of a growing cohort of left thinkers pushing their political vision as the “practical” and “realistic” counterweight to the abstract, shortsighted, tail-chasing world of campus politics, its ostensibly related antifascist avatars, and any other left sect that allegedly pays no attention to the Reality of Power.

This fetishized realism masquerades as a dose of hard-won truth, the splash of cold water that so many of us on the left apparently need if we’re ever going to get serious about achieving our goals. In practice, though, it serves as little more than a self-affirming outlook—one that can be perpetually drawn upon to justify what I’d call the false politics of staying put. It’s a self-fulfilling-prophecy approach to politics—one that presumes the left should hold its horses until it has more power and, by proceeding as if we can carve a path through the Actually Existing Power Arrangement without provoking it to show its claws, ensures that it never will.

All this fear translates into a paralyzing caution in the name of “pragmatism” and a white-knuckled grip on the status quo.

The hallmark of this false politics isn’t hard to single out. It’s fear: fear of greater repression; fear of arming our enemies with even more sophisticated weapons to use against us; fear of failure in the court of public opinion; fear of power and the reactionary whims of the powerful. Most of all, perhaps, it’s the coruscating fear of losing the fight and of ending up with even less than what we have right now. It is, in other words, a fear of politics. In practical terms, all this fear translates into a paralyzing caution in the name of “pragmatism” and a white-knuckled grip on the status quo.

In an isolated discussion about campus-based political strategies that culminate in equipping top-down administrative behemoths with greater censorship powers, this fear is probably justified. But this is not an isolated discussion. And it’s clear that this characteristic fear of power is vying to become an organizing principle for left politics writ large. For instance, we can see how this hallmark fear operates as the through line connecting the DeBoerian left argument against no-platforming and the DeBoerian left argument for, of all things, saving the SAT.

In his most recent bout of playing the professional wrestling villain of Leftbook and Left Twitter with a Jacobin article titled “The Progressive Case for the SAT,” DeBoer doesn’t mince words. “[I]f you believe in equality,” he writes, “you should defend the SAT.”

There’s just one tiny, obvious problem with that. As any K-12 teacher can tell you, the SAT is far from an equitable tool for testing and measuring student achievement. Leftists’ disdain for the SAT is not unfounded, and DeBoer acknowledges that. “Black and Hispanic students and poor students do not perform as well on these tests as their white and affluent counterparts,” he writes. “But this reflects a symptom of larger inequality, not a biased test… Racial and class inequalities in the SAT certainly are troubling—but only insofar as they show our persistently unequal society.”

Here’s the long and short of the argument: race- and class-based disparities in SAT scores are a real and troubling thing, but these disparities are merely a reflection of racial and class inequalities in society writ large; they are not evidence that the test itself is implicitly biased or unfair. Moreover, mainstream alternatives to evaluating student achievement—like “holistic assessments” that focus on advanced courses and extracurriculars—would actually tip the scales even more in favor of the wealthy and privileged. Absent some larger changes to our grossly unequal society, then, leftists would only be making things worse by getting rid of the SAT, so they should fight to keep it.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this argument. As arguments go, it’s solidly logical. It’s just not a leftist one. It is, more than anything, a Clintonesque plug for maintaining the status quo dressed up in some pro forma egalitarian rhetoric. It is an argument to not lose something—to keep things where they are, to stay put and to call that a viable left politics inside the Actually Existing Power Arrangement. It is an argument to leave well enough alone out of fear that bad things could end up worse.

In this bunker-style reckoning of what’s politically possible, inequality becomes palatable given the threat of greater inequality. But doesn’t the entire justification for calling an argument leftist reside in some fidelity to the core struggle to combat and eradicate such inequality? And if that’s the case, what good does it do to publish a piece in a leftist magazine that claims it’s “progressive” to abide by inequality? What’s the point? It would seem, then, by implication, that DeBoer and those who think like him believe it’s a leftist position worth taking to berate other leftists for being leftists; that is, for pursuing a view of the world that is better, more just, than the ones on offer in the status quo.

Operating by this logic, the left, to borrow a sports maxim, is not playing to win; it’s playing not to lose. Or, given the nigh-overwhelming evidence that we are, in fact, already losing big, the tacit logic here is to play just defensively enough so as to not get wiped off the court entirely. Everything about this view is entirely reasonable. And it is a recipe for disaster.

Looking soberly at the current imbalances of political, economic, and policing power in the United States, as DeBoer encourages us to do, what reason do we have, if any, to think that we’ll get much out of this imbalance from standing still, fighting for the status quo, or just inching along at a protective snail’s pace and quickly retreating whenever power threatens retaliation? If anything, the Actually Existing Power Arrangement today is greater proof that mounting energetic fights for the progressively principled society we want, even at the risk of failure, is better than the assured failure of gradually curtailing our fights and fitting them to the increasingly smaller spaces power leaves for us. It is proof that staying put while the world spins madly on is a death wish. It is proof that, even if we are not, the forces of capitalist pillage, white supremacy, cultural reaction, and militarism are always on the move in an endless war of position—and, rest assured, they’re playing to win. 

The Fire This Time

We treat power like fire. We want it, we dream about it, but more than anything we’re afraid of getting burnt by it, even as it slowly cooks us alive. This is not at all an unjustified position: the left in this country has indeed spent the better part of its miserable life span getting burned. But that is almost, by definition, what makes it left. Our politics is one that’s erected, or should be, out of the coals and ash of history. Left politics emerges out of the collective, scorched plight of those ensnared and consumed by the interlocking engines of capital, white supremacy, patriarchy, empire, and endless war. 

And yet, we pretend that it’s refreshingly and necessarily “realistic” for the left to build a tip-toeing politics out of the over-determined fear of antagonizing the very forces that are working to squash everything we’re about—and us, too, if necessary. We pretend like the left can ever enjoy a moment when it can proceed with little fear that the center won’t throw it to the wolves and the reactionary right won’t ramp up efforts to try to kill it.

We pretend like we can fight for the world that must be without getting burned in the process by what is. But when has that ever been the case? The struggle for power is, by definition, a fire hazard. Where there’s politics, there’s heat. How many of the pivotal leftist achievements in history that brought greater dignity, equality, justice, and good to people’s lives were not delivered by thoroughly charred hands?

This is perhaps the greatest and most necessary contribution an antifascist orientation can offer to the left today: an urgent understanding that history will continue to move with or without us. To recognize that staying put is fatal while violent extremists take bolder action and banal institutional powers conspire more brazenly against us in the shifting terrain of our increasingly extreme moment; to resist surges in far-right extremism while constantly moving to build popular support for a progressive dismantling of the material and cultural conditions that engender it—this is the core of any antifascist politics worthy of the name. And so should it be for any left politics today.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

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