Speech, Ideas or Appetites in Words? Explaining Antifa

This morning my girlfriend sent me this message on Facebook. It was written by someone else, but she solicited my help in coining a response:

“I know nothing about 4chan and would learn more, but Antifa sure appear like fascists to me. I haven’t heard about any right wing groups shutting down free speech, but I’ve heard and seen alot of left wing groups shutting down free speech through violence. Shutting down free speech is one of the defining characteristics of fascism, and defining speech as hate speech doesn’t really matter. It’s still speech.”

I know some pretty talented antifascist authors and researchers. Not personally, but through small networks of likeminded people; anarchists and others of “leftist” milieus who primarily comprise the makeup of staunch antifascists. Their work is much deeper than what you’re going to get here, so check out Against the Fascist Creep by a guy who knows much more about it all than I do. Other good resources are literary analysis pieces by Black Rose / Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, the IWW, It’s Going Down, Anti-Fascist News, things on libcom.org — etc. There are extensive resources of works out there which explain the conditions of fascism and the means to combat it. A lot of them are free. Because anarchists. This will not be academic, and can hopefully serve as a brief introduction to others who may also not be fully aware of what all these things mean.

Anyway, enough with the pitches, let’s unpack this:

“I know nothing about 4chan and would learn more”

This is the first misstep here. While 4chan isn’t exclusively an incubator of fascism, it nonetheless has its niches where right-wing elements merge to culture an irreverent, right-wing sentiment most popularly affiliated with this thing called the “alt-right”. Uncapitalized, in quotes. The reason being that I personally think that the breadth of it is too wide for the dogmatism given to something with capital letters, like “Liberals” and “liberals”: On one hand, ugh. On the other, a generally open-minded person.

4chan is interesting because it is no holds barred. Posts are anonymous. If you’ve ever heard of the Internet described as a bathroom wall, 4chan would be what you use as the example to prove your point. It exists and anything goes — especially on /pol/, which is the message board for current events and politics. It has a reputation for users with “fringe” beliefs and it, along with 4chan on the whole, has popularized a litany of memes over the years.

That being said, I’m not sure what the context was for the reference of 4chan in the comment above, so we’ll have to leave this as basic as that.

“…but Antifa sure appear like fascists to me.”

Sounds like antifa are unknowingly preventing this individual from using the Internet for themselves. I can understand why people are afraid of other people in masks. They hide their identities. Who could they be? People. They’re just people. I’m going to assume that this person doesn’t know much about the repression of leftists in US history. A lot of people don’t. Did you know MLK was a socialist? That the Black Panthers weren’t racist, but Marxist? That you have many civil and worker rights because socialists, anarchists, and commies were willing to die to give them to you?

Still, if media depictions of antifa are what you’re basing this idea that they’re the real fascists on, there are some notable stereotypes that we know to be aware of already when it comes to popular media: Black people are not all drug dealers, for instance. Women do not shoot period blood into the eyes of mansplainers. Dinosaurs were covered in feathers. Anarchism is a political philosophy rooted in the abolition of hierarchy dating back to the early 19th century; not kids throwing bricks through the Starbucks window. Sharia doesn’t always mean you have to cut someone’s head off when they make you mad. And you never actually touch anything… ever; you simply feel atoms repelling each other.

But, still. Masks! The unknown. The dark cave. The pull from the familiar and into the ambiguous. Typically, masks are utilized to avoid identification by the state, because that identification can very well lead to repression by the state. We’re seeing this right now with the case of the J20 protesters in which over 200 were arrested, including two journalists, on Trump’s inauguration day and face up to 75 years in prison on exaggerated charges. A lot of the other stuff is conflation with the black bloc tactics often employed by groups of antifa and anarchist activists, like setting structure fires, torching police cruisers, and fighting with fascists and police. This tactic was birthed for the exact purpose of luring cops away from other protesters during demonstrations in 1980s West Germany when the police began applying more and more force to break them up.

Still, we’re left with, “I don’t understand it, so I will label it pejoratively”. There’s also the concern with a concept and practice called doxxing, which involves digging up personal information on individuals and posting it widely to encourage harassment and violence. Doxxing can be a traumatic experience because it can go well beyond people saying mean things about you on the Internet. When people begin leaving voicemails about killing or raping you, or posting pictures of your home and or family, or gaining access to email and other accounts, it’s a rough time. Elements of the left and right do this. Though, the rape stuff is usually a tactic of the right. As a leftist, if other ilk whom I consort with found out that I was sending people rape threats, I’d be ostracized and likely disassociated with. Anyone can rape, but the concepts of power and domination associated with it don’t jive with leftist political theories or praxis as leftist thought is rife with criticism advocating mitigation, or complete abolition, of domination.

“I haven’t heard about any right wing groups shutting down free speech, but I’ve heard and seen alot of left wing groups shutting down free speech through violence.”

If you haven’t heard, you’re not looking. It’s that simple. And we need to change the language here to challenging platform, not “shutting down free speech”. Your First amendment rights guarantee that the government cannot censor you. Antifa are not the government. Left wing groups are not the government. And government attacks on free speech reach back to the founding of the United States; Sedition acts, the Red Scare, suing newspapers, refusals to carry abolitionist newsletters, intimidation of civil rights activists, arresting labor organizers. Yet this all escapes the right’s argument about free speech. Even our current surveillance state conjures ubiquitous worries that we can’t exactly say what we want for fear of government reprisal.

Given that this person has no idea what 4chan is and had probably never heard of antifa until 2017, I don’t find this surprising, but it is concerning. The reason for the latter is that there’s so much of this lack of background information being taken advantage of with the current political climate. Not to go on a Trump rant, but taking a podium to scream that nobody knows what’s causing a problem or how to solve it was a crucial part of his modus operandi during his presidential campaign. It was in that moment of what was sold as an outing of the inefficacy of the administration at the time, that Trump could, and did, re-write facts. And in this lies the reason why I’m not adding hyperlinks, hoping that it encourages people to look things up on their own and not simply link to pinpoint references in a vast and growing history of antifascism.

To produce a list of examples of right wing suppression of platform would be exhausting. I don’t know this person, but because this view of antifa is trendy, what they’re saying isn’t exactly original. It’s been said thousands of times since the election, and many times well before that. It stems from the effort to disprove or rebuke an idea based on the lack of the most egregious example one could conceive. For some, if they haven’t witnessed first hand, a man with a Nazi armband attempt to police someone’s language, then it hasn’t happened. There’s a burden of proof applied to these examples which is inconsistent; all of a sudden, documentation and evidence are paramount when at other times, suspicion and stereotypes suffice.

We could point to the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black men in order to prevent them from voting; mobs of men descending on women marching for suffrage, to beat them and prevent them from gaining more rights; Professor Watch, which attempts to document and “expose” left-leaning academics; doxxing antifa; the recent March Against Sharia. When Alexander Reid Ross, the author of Against the Fascist Creep, was promoting his book, right wingers did show up to readings and were kept in check by people in the crowd associated with antifa and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union. The IWW itself has been a target of right wing groups, especially the KKK, for several decades. There’s recent, organized disruption of Shakespeare in the Park by pro-Trump individuals, the condemnation of Kathy Griffin for posing in a couple of pictures. Even things as minute as t-shirts which suggest a physical response if one burns the American flag. I was at the RNC in Cleveland when the Revolutionary Communist Party held their afternoon flag-burning in the middle of a crowd of jeering Trump-supporters. Just like Milo Yiannopolous and Ann Coulter made headlines over controversial appearances at UC Berkeley, Bill Ayers was not allowed to speak at Boston College in 2009. And while Coulter canceled her own event, Yiannopolous wasn’t showing up to to engage people in discussion, as the organization sponsoring his tour had been engaged in outing undocumented students. College campuses across the US suppress activism related to Palestinian rights under right wing pressure under the guise of antisemitism. Bosses who find out that an employee or two are planning to unionize and fire them.

If there’s error in asking for proof of right wing examples it lies, as alluded to before, in that lack of an egregious example among them; like the events at UC Berkeley which shut down Milo Yiannopolous. Repression of the left by the government, and challenge to their platform by the right, spans well over a century. That it may not satisfy the present definition, based on recent imagery, is a matter of evidence versus sensationalism.

While violence is often attributed to antifa tactics, and there’s a wide debate on this facet of antifascist resistance, it should be noted that we never apply that rubric to the government which is easily the most violent institution on the planet. So if we’re okay with regime change that spawns terrorism, or sanctions which kill hundreds of thousands, drone warfare, prisons, and poverty, but we’re incensed that a CVS gets set on fire then we’re not having a fair discussion about violence. Any discussion on violence which dismisses the former examples is based on what Noam Chomsky argues is the single standard: only the enemies of the state commit crime and purvey violence because the crimes and violence of the state is not recognized as such, and thus does not exist, or it is seen as justified. Again, why does the right, whose rallies are usually permitted and afforded police protection, not care about government repression of the left?

Not all antifa actions are violent, either. In Syracuse, New York, a statewide antifa response to the June 10th March Against Sharia put out a statement which clarified their purpose and tactics. It specifically targeted fascist elements in a crowd that was sure to otherwise be mostly Trump supporters. The stated intent of the counterdemonstration was to challenge the platform of fascists who seek extermination rather than people harboring their own spiritual gripes with Islam. The March Against Sharia was permitted, so there was a police presence, but the only action they took was to re-direct two women who tried to cross beyond their permitted protest area to go after someone they assumed to be an immigrant. In another instance, a small group of young men, one wearing an American flag as a cape, did approach the crowd of antifa and were rebuked without incident.

“Shutting down free speech is one of the defining characteristics of fascism…”

Again, antifa does not attack free speech. It can’t. It can, though, challenge and deny platform to fascists.

To pin the label of fascist on antifascists based on this one, misunderstood tenet is lazy. Fascism is broad. It attempts to cover so much ground that it is rife with contradiction. It’s in this breadth that much of its characteristics are hidden. Yes, there are the fourteen defining characteristics of fascism compiled by Dr. Lawrence Britt, and to a degree I’ve found them useful because I think they compile the scope of fascism into very easily digested facets. That catch is that Britt’s examples are only the most common facets attributed to fascist regimes in the 20th century and therefore do not offer insight on the idiosyncrasies of the fascist regimes studied or of fascist movements outside of the examined cases.

The threat of fascism, as I understand it, is the exclusive ideals created through the structure and rhetoric of a fascist movement. The hierarchy is rigid. There is a certain way to live, to look, to speak. Certain things to believe in, to guide thought. State permissions police speech and expression to a degree well beyond what people think liberals are doing with political correctness. What does not or cannot conform is removed. Philosophies, religions, different races. Traditions are enforced, with new ones created and the old ones re-worked to reinforce the principles of the movement. It is complete domination. Antifascists are opposed to this. There’s not an ideological bloc of people who are antifascist, they are drawn from the spectrum.

It has to be understood that these are the things which antifascists are against. In any given crowd of antifa demonstrators, you’ll find an array of races, classes, genders, and creeds which would be repressed under a fascist regime, if not expelled or exterminated. Historically, it hasn’t taken long before platforms turned into violent pogroms vaulted from fascist movements in many countries other than Germany and Italy. If a fascist culture exists, pogroms can be roused by crises and economic hardship. The movement in the United States certainly goes back to the height of fascist regimes in Europe, ebbing and flowing since. Still, there’s no mistaking that recent growth is fed by things like 9/11 and Islamic terrorism as well as the cyclical recessions resulting from more than 30 years of neoliberal economics. Fascists tend to be outwardly critical of capitalism, though regimes have instituted tenets of Keynesian, corporatist, and Chicago school capitalism.

It is because of the violent, exclusionary nature of fascism that many feel the need to physically oppose it at its onset before it takes a foothold in a given society. This where antifa often run into even liberal opponents, citing Voltaire’s maxim about defending free speech to the death. The Bill Mahers and Fareed Zakarias out there jump to defend the free speech of fascists without understanding the methods with which those fascists manipulate dialogue on free speech in order to provide a platform to bring about a society with no place in it for liberals. Again, only the government attacks free speech. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean I have to listen to it, nor does it mean that I cannot disagree.

“…and defining speech as hate speech doesn’t really matter. It’s still speech.”

Technically, yes. It’s still speech. But do we dogmatically listen to everything someone has to say? Are we allowed to disagree? Or is disagreement now stigmatized? We don’t owe anyone our ears or minds. Opinion is not all equal. While we can imagine a town hall fielding opinions on a debate over health care, I don’t think that an argument for the immediate deportation of all Black people back to Africa is going to get through an opening statement. Is that person being denied free speech? I’ve written on free speech and the balance fallacy before, so I won’t repeat much of that here. The point is that you can absolutely challenge platform because not every opinion is equal. To put it better than I can, this is excerpt from Revolt of the Masses, which I recycle constantly, defines the terms on which the fascist clumsily bases their entitlement to platform:

“Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the ‘reason of unreason.’ Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with ‘ideas’ in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.”

So are we talking about speech, ideas, or appetites in words?