‘The Anti-Social Family’

slowly, slowly attempting to push the stone of intellectual engagement back up the hill. in the meantime, here are two related quotes, in regards to certain conversations in the twitterverse on ‘abolishing the family’- one from a socialist-feminist text on the family, one from a highly underrated record of unconscious queer despair. i will here argue this counts as a continuation of pride month. 

“So there is constructed a curious house of cards in which the myth and the reality of the family alternatively provide support for ever more ramshackle and unsatisfactory excrescences, each of which in turn serves to shore up the myth and keep the reality more or less intact. The world around the family is not a pre-existing harsh climate against which the family offers protection and warmth. It is as if the family had drawn comfort and security into itself and left the outside world bereft. As a bastion against a bleak society it has made that society bleak. It is indeed a major agency for caring, but in monopolizing care it has made it harder to undertake other forms of care. It is indeed a unit of sharing, but in demanding sharing within it has made other relations tend to become more mercenary. It is indeed a place of intimacy, but in privileging the intimacy of close kin it has made the outside world cold and friendless, and made it harder to sustain relations of security and trust except with kin. Caring, sharing, and loving would be more widespread if the family did not claim them for its own.”

-michèle barrett and mary mcintosh, ‘the anti-social family’, conclusion to chapter 2

“He had forgotten his sandwiches, and went back to get them.

Gerald and Agnes were locked in each other’s arms.

He only looked for a moment, but the sight burnt into his brain. The man’s grip was the stronger. He had drawn the woman on to his knee, was pressing her, with all his strength, against him. Already her hands slipped off him, and she whispered, “Don’t you hurt-” Her face had no expression. It stared at the intruder and never saw him. Then her lover kissed it, and immediately it shown with mysterious beauty, like some star.

Rickie limped away without the sandwiches, crimson and afraid. He thought, ‘Do such things actually happen?’ and he seemed to be looking down coloured valleys. Brighter they glowed, till gods of pure flame were born in them, and then he was looking at pinnacles of virgin snow. While Mr. Pembroke talked, the riot of fair images increased.

They invaded his being and lit lamps in unsuspected shrines. Their orchestra commenced in that suburban house, where he had to stand aside for the maid to carry in the luncheon. Music flowed past him like a river. He stood at the springs of creation and heard the primeval monotony. Then an obscure instrument gave out a little phrase.

The river continued unheeding. The phrase was repeated and a listener might know it was a fragment of the Tune of tunes. Nobler instruments accepted it, the clarionet protected, the brass encouraged, and it rose to the surface to the whisper of violins. In full unison was Love born, flame of the flame, flushing the dark river beneath him and the virgin snows above. His wings were infinite, his youth eternal; the sun was a jewel on his finger as he passed it in benediction over the world. Creation, no longer monotonous, acclaimed him, in widening melody, in brighter radiances. Was Love a column of fire? Was he a torrent of song? Was he greater than either- the touch of a man on a woman?

It was the merest accident that Rickie had not been disgusted. But this he could not know.

-e. m. forster, ‘the longest journey’

 

 

 

 

Midsommar and the Temptations of Fascism

 

 

[SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY]

 

Midsommar is about the lure of fascism to the alienated white petty bourgeoisie.

 

The film opens with Dani, a young white female grad student, trapped in a dark, disconnected ‘ordinary’ world. She is agonizing over an ambiguous, disturbing email from her sister, trying (and failing) to get some comfort over the phone from her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. Dani’s guilty anxiety about whether or not to take her sister’s threats seriously will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a loved one have a mental crisis from hundreds of miles away. Dani cannot communicate with her sister or share her trauma; she is haunted by obligations to her sister that are absolutely pressing but impossible to fulfill. Her sister enacts a ritual sacrifice of herself and her parents, filling the house with car exhaust. However, within the context of the ‘modern’ world, this jump into the abyss can only be read as insanity.

 

In opposition to the grim and grab ‘modern’ world, the village of Hårga represents a triumph of Aryan collectivity which is profoundly attractive to Dani. There is no difference; there is no disconnection. Everything proceeds according to a perfect order. The villagers practice an idealized form of agricultural labor. We see women washing dishes, but the act seems symbolic more than anything, since nothing in the movie is ever dirty. We are bombarded with perfect, vivid colors against perfect, vivid white. We don’t see the kind of simple, soul-grinding drudgery that characterizes rural domestic labor—just the production of kitschy folk commodities and quaint foods. (And it is the outside capitalist’s worlds demand for these folk commodities that sustains the village economically, as we learn through Josh’s discussion with the village elder.) They use computers and watch Austin Powers. Contrary to the stereotype of a cult, the Hårga encourage their young people to go outside—not just for a sort of Rumspringa but for a third of their life—and experience the world. They are not an ‘alternative’ to the modern world but dependent on it and perfectly in harmony with it, and their nature-folk-worship only makes sense in the context of the modern world. The villagers of Hårga would be totally alien to actual ancient Swedish peasants.

The commune goes on and on about how connected they are with nature; but of course, they aren’t, particularly. Nothing about their violence is “natural”, in the sense of proceeding unmediated from the Forces of Nature; it is profoundly. Their practices around sex and death are profoundly odd. They resemble some real social practices, but they could not possibly sustain a real village commune for centuries. Everyone is tripping balls, constantly; you need mushrooms to get yourself through this existence, it doesn’t proceed according to the ‘natural’ human life cycle, such as it is.

Thus, the figure of Josh, the black anthropologist, is incredibly important. The movie carefully primes us with the familiar horror stereotype: the ugly Americans who charge into the ‘indigenous’ community and get what’s coming to them. The scene with Josh is so obviously telegraphed: the elders tell him about a sacred book he can’t see; of course he breaks in and looks at it anyway; of course they come and kill him and we think, Of Course, you Idiot, you broke into the Thing You Never Were Meant To See and paid the Price. But rather than see this as another revenge-by-the-natives-against-the-arrogant-anthropologist, we need to take race in the movie seriously.

Josh represents an indissoluble threat to their way of life, their imagined unbroken Aryan paganism. I’m sure Josh, if he were real, as a serious scholar of midsummer rituals, could tell us that the Hårga are based on nineteenth-century European understandings of paganism, suffused with racist ideas and having little to do with actual peasant communities. (The elder at the beginning of the movie is entirely nonplussed when Josh compares one of their beliefs to the practices of a group in India.) The script for the movie carefully notes the poster of James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, a key basis for this kind of ‘scholarship,’ in Josh’s apartment. The camera also lingers on a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Elder Uthark, reminding us of new-age fascism reinterpretations of paganism. (Extra thanks to a commenter on reddit for pointing out, which I did not know, that the poster at the beginning of the movie reads ‘Vote Free North. Stop mass immigration to Hålsingland.’) The imagined Aryan homeland must be maintained. They represent a colonial, imperialist fantasy of migration: their children can go out and conquer the world; they bring back only who they chose to, people who can be sexually exploited and killed as soon as they serve no other purpose.

The overwhelming fear of analysis, comparison, and a critical eye from the Global South prevents the villagers from understanding or accepting Josh—they can only kill him. The framing of the ‘arrogant anthropologist invading the native community’, a horror trope based on the actual historical racism of anthropology, blinds us to what is actually happening on screen. The murder of Josh represents the pervasive fear of ‘the academy,’ ‘SJWs,’ all those clever minority professors plotting white genocide in their ivory towers, whose rational exegesis threatens the mass delusions on which white petty-bourgeois fascism depends.

Similarly, the interpersonal dynamics of Christian and Dani’s toxic relationship blind us to the wider gender violence the cult asks her to accept. There’s been a lot said on “neoliberal identity politics,” much of it crap, but I think the film offers a useful example of a certain form of it—how you can use accepted tropes (accepted because they reflect reality) of certain kinds of stereotyped ‘bro’ behavior to lure the audience’s attention toward this and away from the wider violence going on all around you. It also represents the fantasy of complementarianism, which can be found in conservative religious writing but also misbegotten feminist writing which got away from a correct critique of the antimonies of white bourgeois feminism and ‘agency’ into reactionary nonsense. The women here have Power, they have equal status and in fact sexually exploit men, not the other way around. (I’ve avoided singling out Aster because, first, The Director Is Dead and what matters is what’s on film and, second, I don’t know/necessarily want to know his actual intentions, but I do find it annoying he sees this as a Clever Subversion of Horror Tropes when literally one of the most ancient stories around is that of the man trapped by the sexually predatory sorceress.) Their work, as I mentioned before, consists mostly of the sort of care and cultural production people tend to find value in, away from dirt and drudgery. The perfect—white—female community, in which everyone immediately feels your pain and is there to support you. The fulfillment of the pain (and it’s very, very real pain) of the white female bourgeois subject, who is a Queen of her own private fairy tale all along.

The village runs along the ritual sacrifice of the elderly and the outsider (and it is No Accident that the first to die are the POC Simon and Connie). Those who no longer have a concrete use can be ejected, as can those from the outside. Not just sacrifice, but total consumption by fire, and in a building specially designed for that purpose, after paralyzing the victims with various chemicals. This ritual purging is done for the emotional well-being of the villagers. But if the village is an idyll, from whence the extreme emotional angst that must be purged? Is this simply the Human Condition, Human Nature? Or is the central irony that the villagers do not understand that it is the village that causes the problems for them that it then solves? At the end of the film, he villagers Ulf and Ingemar willingly sacrifice themselves, but as the flames billow, we see at the end the pure terror in their eyes. They have realized, too late, that to sacrifice yourself for the Nation means nothing at all.

 

(But how was the movie, Elizabeth? It was good but I didn’t like it as much as Hereditary).

Pride Month, Part I: Angels in America

 

I’ve watched Angels in America at least twice before (although never on stage). I will say, on a third viewing, it still absolutely lives up to the hype. Go right out and watch it now if you haven’t yet. It’ll be better use of six hours than dragging yourself through Netflix.

 

For my money, the most precise, fully realized character is Louis Ironson, the gay Jewish word processor (back when ‘word processors’ were human beings) at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Louis is one of the best fictional representations of US liberalism I’ve ever seen. Precisely because both Kushner and the play itself are quite aware of the dilemmas of US liberalism but unable to break out of it, Louis emerges as the embodiment of the key themes of the play.

It is Louis’s abandonment of his lover, Prior, due to Prior’s AIDS diagnosis that undergirds the structure of the entire play. Act One introduces the probability that Louis will chose to leave rather than deal with the reality of caring for his lover through to his death, and Act One ends with Louis finally resolving to leave Prior. Act Two finally resolves with Prior and Louis reaching a rapprochement (through not really a reconciliation). Louis’s abandonment of Prior is the emotional trauma at the heart of the play, forming the basis for both how we view the closeted lawyer Joe Pitt’s abandonment of his wife Harper and how we view God’s abandonment of humanity as the play shifts into its supernatural aspects.

Louis running away from Prior is shown as a character flaw, if quite a human one. However, it also flows from his politics in ways that are not fully appreciated. Louis’s fundamental characteristic, as his not-really-friend Belize tells him, is that he is “ambivalent about everything.” Louis has deep anxiety about the law and fear of judgment. It is an eternal ambiguity, not radical or deconstructive, but destructive.

When justifying to himself his decision to leave Prior, he tells Prior he hates the law because “all that matters is the verdict,” gabbling on that the law “should be the question and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all complexity in some unsatisfying little decision.” Prior, knowing what Louis is really saying, responds, “I like this; very zen; it’s … reassuringly incomprehensible and useless. We who are about to die thank you.” Louis’s sin (and he and the play both view it on some level as a sin in the real sense) is, interestingly, justified in thoroughly liberal terms. His is the classic liberal critique of harsh right-wing jurisprudence: that life is too nuanced to be decided in a court room, that it is unjust to squash all the possible complexities into a singular narrative. In fact, this is the reigning view of much of current academia, which takes the reality that oppression denies the reality of the oppressed and concludes from this that the real problem is that there was a narrative at all. Louis isn’t wrong, exactly. But he is, as Prior says, “useless” in the face of real need.

One of the characteristics of contemporary US liberalism is a wallowing in ambivalence, mistaking this for wisdom and maturity. This has often been remarked on, to the extent that “nuance” has become a punchline. It is the inability to decide which side you are on, an overpowering fear of conclusions which would then require actions, actions one is not willing to take.

This form of thought allows all critiques, viewpoints, and ideologies to coexist, without one gaining supremacy over another discursively. It is precisely by this mechanism that the true workings of American power are obscured. At the end of the play, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother Hannah are all joined together in a heated but basically friendly argument. Louis’s last words are a confused mess in which he, characteristically, both rejects religious forms of ‘Zionism’, declares himself an ‘advocate of the Palestinian cause,’ and insists that Israel giving up the Golan Heights and the West Bank would be ‘a bridge too far.’[1] Prior then addresses the audience directly, asking us to tune out the argument and focus on the sacred, universal gift of life which he bestows upon us.

As David Savran argues in his analysis of the play,

a kind of dissensus (of which liberal pluralism is the contemporary avatar) has been the hallmark of the very idea of America – and American literature – from the very beginning. In this most American of ideologies an almost incomparably wide range of opinions, beliefs, and cultural positions are finally absorbed into a fantasy of a utopian nation in which anything and everything is possible, in which the millennium is simultaneously at hand and indefinitely deferred. Moreover, the nation is imagined as the geographical representation of that utopia, which is both everywhere and nowhere. For, as Berlant explains, “the contradiction between the ‘nowhere’ of utopia and the ‘everywhere’ of the nation [is] dissolved by the American recasting of the ‘political’ into the terms of providential ideality, ‘”one nation under God.”’ Under the sign of ‘one’ all contradictions are subsumed, all races and religions united, all politics theologized.”

Louis’s conversation with Belize, referenced earlier, is also quite relevant here. Louis responds to Belize’s accusation of racism by insisting ‘most black people are anti-Semitic’, referring to the then-current incident of Jesse Jackson calling New York ‘Hymietown.’ This reflects a decades-long history of using the specter of black anti-Semitism to separate black and Jewish people politically—a tactic which has made a roaring comeback in the past few years. Belize then points out Louis donated to Jesse Jackson; Louis says his check bounced, which is what prompts Belize’s statement that “All your checks bounce; you’ve ambivalent about everything.”

Louis is not ignorant. He insists he doesn’t “want to speak from a position of privilege” when Belize contradicts him, although he doesn’t really understand what Belize is saying. His liberalism has red tints sometimes, like when he calls Gorbachev “the greatest political thinker since Lenin” or claims to think “the world, …. will change for the better with struggle,” as “a person who has this neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress toward happiness or perfection or something.” He only manages to finish saying the Kaddish for a dead Roy Cohn in one scene through the assistance of a ghostly Ethel Rosenberg; but is totally unaware of her presence and sees this recitation as his own personal achievement. This suggests how certain forms and parts of Marxism can congeal with liberalism while diluting any kind of real radicalism—and here it’s hard not to see Tony Kushner himself, who can passionately read and translate and genuinely understand Bertolt Brecht, and yet be an equally passionate fan of Obama and write a movie like Munich.

Louis’s ambivalence is not simply a character trait; it is representative not just of liberalism, but of a certain kind of liberalism in a certain kind of place and time, the liberalism of the American intelligentsia, in late ‘80s New York. I don’t mean to imply that liberalism was good at some point and then lost its way, but rather that real shifts in what liberalism was occurred. Liberalism provided no assistance or solidarity to gay people in the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Instead, both frightened and attracted by the sweep of neoliberalism, liberalism fell into the arms of conservatism, as Louis is attracted, despite himself, to Joe Pitt.

In fact, it is Joe, the conservative Mormon in the grip of the Reagan Revolution, who speaks for embracing the imperfections and complexities of the world and of personal freedom outside of the law: “You believe the world is perfectible and so you find it always unsatisfying. You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. … The rhythm of history is conservative. You have to accept that. And accept as rightfully yours the happiness that comes your way.” (In the stage directions, though not in the miniseries, this conversation occurs as Joe is jerking Louis off, further emphasizing the seductive nature of conservative ideology to Louis.) In the language of Adam Smith[2] and the invisible hand, he tells Louis he shouldn’t feel guilty for abandoning his lover, because you have to be cruel to be kind and the good derives from self-interest, not charity. Liberation from the law, which had seemed (and usually really was) a left-wing cause, becomes instead liberation from ties to others, to the oppressed, and for pursuit of one’s own personal profit.

This is, however, also the scene where Louis first begins to seriously pull away from Joe. Louis is genuinely disgusted when he learns Joe is the protégé of Roy Cohn and finally rejects him, to which Joe reacts violently (“Like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, huh,” Louis says bitterly). This is important because liberalism in the US, contrary to some basically correct but one-sided left-wing critiques, is not simply conservatism in disguise. It truly does hate the right-wing (and is hated back), it recoils in disgust from the truth of America, but this disgust leads to nothing. (But, you say, Louis does go back to Prior in the end. Patience, I’ll get there.)

Angels in America is obsessed with movement and change. The reactionary Angel demands humanity stop moving. Prior finally rejects this in the climax of the play, exhorting us to move. Louis is someone who can’t move anywhere, or rather, can’t stop moving but not to anywhere, a movement that is meaningless.

Louis’s later reunion with Prior is not quite a reconciliation or a forgiving, but there is a rapprochement, representing gay America’s rapprochement with America itself, a suppression of the realities of the AIDS crisis.

Who, then, is Prior? Belize and Ethel represent the radical ‘outsides’ of America, Joe and Roy represent American conservatism (in its flamboyant, corrupt and its repressed, religious forms). (Harper and Joe’s mother, despite their importance to the play, somewhat fall out here and relate to politics only obliquely—Harper can’t be bothered to care, has only an emotional/mystical intuition of environmental catastrophe and Joe’s mother, while a devout Mormon, does not see her religious and gender politics as interacting with state politics in the way that Joe does. Which probably shows some kind of gender problems deep in the structure of the play, but I’m too fatigued to think about that right now.)

Prior is much harder to slot in. He has very little character apart from suffering from AIDS, his bitterness over AIDS and his abandonment by Louis, a bemused fear of the Angel, and a gay affect/camp. He is ‘featureless’ (that is, he is rich, white, and male), thus can stand in for all gay men who died of AIDS. He must literally come down from above to heal, he represents the possible messianic potential of ‘America’. He, unlike Louis, has an unproblematic and loving relationship with Belize. He is the real ‘angel,’ the messenger who ushers in a new age. He is the imaginary mediator who must exist for US liberalism to make sense.

Maybe predictably, it is the conservative political fixer and real-life villain Roy Cohn who has the sharpest view of what power in America really is. judging from YouTube comments, most people read Roy Cohn’s “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” as ‘denial’ or ‘mental gymnastics’, incorrectly seeing this as a denial of Roy’s true identity. They miss the point that Kushner is making through Cohn here: that we, like Cohn’s doctor, think words “mean what they seem to mean,” that they identify something’s essence rather than its power, what Cohn throughout the play calls “clout.” Labels are “where an individual fit[s] in the food chain,” they are relational statements. Cohn is quite right to say it is not “hypocrisy” or “sophistry” to say that he is not a gay man.

Similarly, in his conversation with Belize, Cohn spews a bunch of racist rhetoric but then insists “These racist guys, simpletons, I never had any use for them—too rigid. You want to keep your eye on where the most powerful enemy really is.” The point is not the simplistic one it might be, that Cohn uses racism for political power but is not personally racist, that, as Louis argues earlier to Belize, that “racists just try to use race.” Rather, it’s that Cohn is racist, including in the “merely” personal ways, but understands that racism is a power relationship, which he can use to antagonize and bully to get his way (as he does with Belize later). Race is not some real thing that should motivate you, as it motivates those “racist simpletons.” Cohn’s concern for racism is explicitly how racial categories allow the operation of American power, as when he tells Belize that unlike Jews “you people had Jesus so the reds never got to you. I admire that.”

It is Louis’s fear of the body, as he explicitly discusses, which causes him to leave Prior. Describing himself in the third person, he says “maybe that person can’t, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go. Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn’t so good with death.” Similarly, Roy Cohn complains “Americans have no use for the sick…. It’s just no country for the infirm.” Liberalism starts to stumble when it realizes its autonomous, free, unencumbered individuals don’t actually exist.

The best defense of Louis is, of course, that the hardship of caring for a lover dying of AIDS should not fall on just one person. Sarah Schulman rejects the play on this point, because it doesn’t show a politically engaged community of gay men, in a criticism that, I think, really misses both the real achievements of and real problems with the play. For one, I think Schulman’s account of unity in the face of the AIDS crisis is a little idealized; two, the point of the play is to show the consequences of the absence of care, in a way that thus makes the case for its importance; and, three, more to the point of this essay, the characters in the play are representations of currents within American society as much as they are individual gay men living in New York. (Which I am all for by the way: more allegories, fewer “three-dimensional characters.” Otherwise we are cutting ourselves off from the full possibilities and capacities of art as a form.)

So in the end, I don’t think we can judge Louis Ironson, the character in Angels in America, too harshly. No one person can take on the role of guiding another person through a nasty death.[3] But what about gay liberalism, as a political project? And, for all the sturm und drang around homonationalism and assimilation, how do we create a real, concrete alternative? Is the problem that liberalism can accommodate queerness, or that it can’t? Can we get beyond simply bemoaning the existence of gay/queer liberalism to building a genuine queer socialist movement? I hope the next books I discuss here will help me think through these questions.

Works cited:

Angels in America. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Tony Kushner. HBO, December 2003.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2013.

Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal 47.2 (1995): 207-227.

[1] Kushner, for his part, reveals his own limited imagination when Belize, positioned as part of black radical thought, chooses to advocate only for a Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

[2] I am perfectly aware of the revisionist readings of Adam Smith claiming he was actually a prescient critic of capitalism and can be reclaimed for the left and I do not agree with them, so don’t @ me about it.

[3] Nor do I want to turn to some exhortation to care for each other, rather than fighting for a world where health care doesn’t depend on personal aid. Nor do I want to suggest the sick cannot fight and care for themselves.

pride month reading project

This June, I will be focusing on reading and watching queer media. I mean ‘queer media’ in a broad sense – works with queerness as a central theme, works by queer authors, works with cultural significance to queer people. I’ve realized recently that reading too many books by ‘great’ straight male authors is hurting my sense of self. It’s disorienting (I know, I know, I’m sorry) to be constantly surrounded by straight culture. I’m also frustrated at how so many demands for ‘representation’ amount to demands where the social and historical reality of queerness is suppressed, or for demands to slot queer characters into cookie-cutter Marvel narratives. I don’t think queer teens need ’empowering’ or ‘reassuring’ media, but media that speaks to their actual reality and needs. I’m interested in defending queer narratives of struggle, tragedy, and loss.

I plan to post an update every Friday (so, the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th), with a list of queer works I’ve consumed, a brief paragraph about each, and more in-depth analysis on works that interest/move/anger me. I hope you’ll follow along and find something useful in my writing.

messy

 

messy: has a word about dirt and grime ever been so sanitizing? messy is one of those words that is used to suppress the existence of the phenomenon it purports to describe. it goes along with words like complexity and nuance (the latter of which the Cool Kids have turned against these days).

 

you’ve read hundreds of passages on messy, complex, flawed[1], glorious reality, probably. it’s a highly cliché sort of passage that people somehow always think is saying something unique. by use of the word messy, one can avoid talking about the actual mess. it generates a consoling, fuzzy feeling of embracing the evils of the world without actually facing them. mess is no big deal – nothing permanent – easy to undo, potentially totally fixable. it’s not like dirt, which brings disease and shame, and which you can never quite get rid of.

 

now dirty does operate in the same way, sometimes (“getting your hands dirty”), but even then it retains some more of its real content, has a slightly harsher, darker connotation than getting messy.

 

As Louis (one of the finest metaphors for American liberalism in fiction)[2] explains in Angels in America, “Messy, not dirty. That’s an important distinction. It’s dust, not dirt, chemical-slash-mineral, not organic.”[3]

 

a messy reality is a reality which seems bad but is in fact safe, solvable, and even sort of quirky and cozy. to speak of reality as messy means to deny the real horrors of the world.

 

[1] Flawed: an even worse word than messy.

[2] Essay on this forthcoming, possibly.

[3] Angels in America: Perestroika, Act One, Scene 6.

intifada!

I don’t really have time to produce new content for this blog until the semester is over, so I will be using this to collect all the halfway decent writing I’ve done in one place. This is an editorial from The Daily Texan on November 9, 2015, after Texans for Israel accused the Palestine Solidarity Committee at UT of supporting terrorism and violence for using the phrase “Long Live the Intifada!” 

Texans for Israel is clearly excited to condemn the Palestinian Solidarity Committee-UT for “condoning” violence. But we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and can only perpetuate itself through continual oppression of the native population. Palestinians have the right to resistcolonialism, occupation and aparthied by any means necessary.

As the scholar Ilan Pappe has shown, Zionist forces expelled about 1 million Palestinians in 1948 and even more in 1967 when Israel seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Moreover, as Patrick Wolfe has stated, “invasion is a structure, not an event” insofar as Israel must perpetually struggle against the native population it seeks to displace. This occurs through “silent transfer,” in which Israel expels “small numbers of people on a weekly basis” through demolishing homes, denying construction permits, revoking residency rights, etc.

Furthermore, as many legal scholars have demonstrated, Israel is beyond a settler-colonial state. It also represents an apartheid regime under international law. This includes spatial segregation, denial of the freedom of movement, an ID system, differing legal regimes on the basis of identity, etc.

Meanwhile, attacks by “well-armed, well-organised and ideologically driven” Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their lands are a constant reality of life, of which the firebombing of the Dawabsheh family home this summer is only one horrifying example. These settlers’ express aim is to expropriate Palestinian land, but only Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to military courts with a near-100% conviction rate.

Thus, Palestinian youth have revolted, rejecting both “military occupation and an ineffectual Palestinian leadership.” Israel has responded with mob violence and extrajudicial killings, including the lynching of the Eritrean asylum-seeker Haftom Zarhum. In the recent uprisings, from mid-September to Oct. 31, 69 Palestinians were killed and almost 7,400 injured, compared to 8 Israelis killed and 115 injured.

This is not to say Palestinians are in the right simply because they are weaker but to induce a sense of reality about who is terrorizing whom. If one wants to condemn violence, one should start with Israel, which, two summers ago, unleashed a brutal onslaught against Gaza, slaughtering over 2,200 Palestinians, 500 of whom were children. As TFI directly calls for people to materially support the IDF, the institution responsible for this carnage, we find any moralizing about violence from TFI to be hollow.

Moreover, one cannot equate the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed. As Lina Alsaafin argues, “[o]ppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressors, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.” And, as we saw in the divestment campaign last spring, even an extremely moderate call to divest from specific companies profiting from human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories is fiercely resisted. Any form of Palestinian resistance, no matter how nonviolent, is rejected outright. Palestinians deserve liberation and justice, not lectures on moral failings. And so — long live the intifada!

fascism and anti-fascism at the bus stop

57170692_2513752631986977_5539106626004320256_n

I took this picture yesterday at 2:34 p.m. at one of the bus stops on campus. The big sticker at the top is a sticker from the fascist group Patriot Front, which someone scraped off. (You can still discern the red-white-and-blue pattern.) Beneath it, someone pasted a ‘Champaign-Urbana – Always Antifascist’ sticker.* Turning Point USA tried to cover this sticker with one of their ‘Socialism Sucks’ stickers. It’s quite telling that TPUSA’s reaction to seeing a sticker denouncing fascism and white nationalism is to respond ‘socialism sucks’, when the original sticker (although based on a DSA design) doesn’t mention socialism at all, and that TPUSA feels itself implicated in a denunciation of white supremacy. Someone then apparently attempted to remove the ‘Socialism Sucks’ sticker, or possibly both stickers at once, or possibly the TPUSA person tried to remove the antifascist sticker and then someone came back to try to remove the TPUSA sticker. I wonder how much of this is legible to random passersby, and how they interpret it.

 

*I helped put up some of these stickers about a month ago, but not this one.

How I don’t write

I feel feverish. My brain feels like it’s overheating, short-circuiting.

I imagine what I would think if my words were written by someone else and I read them. Portentous, try-hard, banal, bad.

I can’t stand the thought of writing something someone else might not be impressed with. Narcissistic? Yes, I know that, but that doesn’t make me feel anything less.

As long as the words stay inside my head, they are full, flexible, expansive, expanding. Once they’re typed then bam! the wave-function collapses and you’re stuck with one series of words, one which will always be imperfect. But then, you can move the words in the word document around and around forever, in an endless series of imperfect sentences.

I write something I like, and then I am terrified by the thought I am unconsciously plagiarizing it from somewhere and anxiously search my memory.

I scroll through a cluster of bad words on Facebook. I feel guilty for not doing my work, angry with myself for wasting time on something that isn’t even enjoyable, and afraid that I will write something just as bad.

Writing, even in its most prosaic forms, forces you to show parts of yourself. Writing means shaving off little bits of skin and bone and giving them up to whoever asks, even people you don’t particularly like or trust.

Why do we write, unconsciously? Because we want there to be something that remains after we die. And what if that thing is bad? Then our lives were bad and worthless. Narcissistic? Again, yes.

I laugh when I grade bad student papers and wince at poor arguments, but ultimately I feel sad and a little guilty, because we are all so bad at teaching. We can’t train students to obsessively count grade points and equate memorization with learning for 13 years and then expect them to emerge as college freshmen bursting with “critical thinking.”

The possibility of accomplishment and relief taunts me. The idea that I will accomplish one day, maybe, possibly, only reminds that I right now I am not accomplishing anything. If I will get better someday then right now I am dysfunctional. Then I start to feel nauseous.

I am terrified of asserting myself, personally or politically, because people can talk about ‘living your truth’ all they want, but that sort of real honesty rarely ends well, and I am terrified of being annihilated by someone whose truth requires the destruction of mine.

Hillary Clinton’s Memoir is Bad

I am posting here my review of Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” that was originally published on Socialist Worker on September 22, 2017. I am obviously not thrilled with the last paragraph at this particular moment. But as a historian, I have always been irritated at interpreters who try to wrench communist writers’ “universal” or “valuable” lessons out of their “problematic” devotions to certain parties, while ignoring that these documents can only be understood from the contexts in which they emerged. Also in the interest of honesty.  Also also because socialist organizing is still good. I have, however, edited out some of the revisions the SW editors made. There’s no real difference in politics or content; they were just weird, unmotivated stylistic changes. 

Readers of SW will probably not be shocked to learn that this book is bad. So why bother with a review? The answer is that, while books like this aren’t exactly intellectual achievements, they do provide a useful window into how the ruling class thinks about us.

Much of the book is boring in a thoroughly banal way: Hillary met a voter on the campaign trail that inspired her! Hillary has a list of wonkish policies! Hillary loves her family! There are the inevitable references to Hillbilly Elegy, self-care, and Hamilton.  In fact, the book sounds like Clinton (or her interns, rather) read a bunch of thinkpieces from Vox and Slate, put them through a blender, sprinkled in some quotes from fridge magnets, and frosted the whole thing with some cloying Methodist piety.

If you’re wondering if Clinton takes responsibility for anything in this book, she does: she takes responsibility for being too smart and too good for the rest of us. She ‘confesses’ that her “instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things,” but people were simply too angry to listen. In one passage, she describes throngs of women coming up to her to do penance after the election: “On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting—which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’ Of course, I didn’t say any of that.” Of course, Hillary was too classy to scold her to her face: she chose to do it in a book released to the national public, instead. She even bizarrely wonders whether her (token) efforts to help Flint after the water crisis lost her white voters in Michigan, but magnanimously explains “that’s not what it was about for me” because there were “real live kids” to help. Truly, not since Nelson Mandela (whom she namedrops no less than three times) has someone been so willing to sacrifice themselves in the anti-racist struggle.  

In fact, this emphasis on her ostensible devotion on dealing with “real live” issues suffuses the book.  She accuses Bernie Sanders of “thunder[ing] on at every event about the sins of “the millionaires and billionaires,” while she “was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people,” as if “millionaires and billionaires” didn’t create the “real problems” working-class people face in their everyday lives. Instead, Clinton offers a patchwork of policies: a higher minimum wage (but not too high!), further fixes to Obamacare, proposals to give businesses more money in the vague hope they might create jobs someday, even a program to simply encourage people to move out of economically struggling towns (and she wonders why she lost in the rust belt!) By “practical solutions,” she doesn’t actually mean solutions that work. She means solutions that are “practical” for the ruling class, that cause them minimal inconvenience and forestall radical change.

While of course Clinton would never say that in those words, she is quite explicit about her hatred of radicalism. She recounts her reaction to the 1968 police attacks on protestors at the Democratic National Convention: she worried “the antiwar movement was causing a backlash that would help elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war.” Never mind that the 1968 protests occurred precisely because the DNC elected a pro-war candidate, Hubert Humphrey: the most important thing was getting a Democrat into office at all costs.  

No, she says that “[i]nstead of waiting for a revolution, the kind of change this girl needed was … ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’” The entire history of socialists and radicals doing precisely that kind of hard, slow work in building the labor movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement whose legacies she seeks to appropriate is ignored.

Furthermore, she complains about protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter disrupting her talks because they wanted her to take responsibility for supporting the 1994 crime bill that helped created mass incarceration. She goes on to defend both the crime bill as a “tough compromise,” and throws in a defense of her husband’s destruction of welfare for good measure. This sums up Clinton’s “practical solutions”: policies that devastate black and working-class communities. She scolds the protestors for not “engag[ing] constructively,” unlike the “leaders” she met with who back neoliberal education reforms that tear apart black and Latino working-class schools.

The chapter “Turning Mourning into a Movement” highlights this insincerity and condescension. She seeks to impress her readers with how much she listened to family members of victims of police violence and how deeply she felt their grief, then goes on to assure us that “I feel strongly about this: the vast majority of police officers are honorable, brave public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect others.” She then turns the whole issue into a discussion of gun control, ignoring that the Black Lives Matter movement started to protest precisely those murderers who are armed and funded by the state.

One of the most insidious things about the book is the way Clinton appropriates the struggles of ordinary people in order to try to convince us that her interests are the same as ours. She complains about emotional labor, a concept originally meant to explain the experiences of female service workers. However, for Clinton it is a problem for “women CEOs” and “women heads of state” who might have to serve coffee at a meeting, not for the women who stand on their feet serving coffee every day and don’t earn six-figure salaries. And she credits female politicians’ experience in this “emotional labor” for allowing them to form better coalitions in Congress than their male counterparts. The nature of these coalitions, however, is left unspecified: should we celebrate Congress voting to drop bombs or deport immigrants because they were brokered by women?

Hillary also succeeds in what might seem like the impossible task of attacking Trump—from the right! She indulges fully in paranoia about Russia, comparing the United States to a body whose immune system has been weakened: “Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they’ll keep at it. . . . Their ultimate goal is to undermine—perhaps even destroy—Western democracy itself.” In order to protect our precious bodily fluids, “we need to get tough with Putin,” by increasing US intervention in Syria and Ukraine and bolstering NATO. (No appeals to “emotional labor” here!) She warns that Trump will not “face this threat head-on” and begs us not to dismiss her discussion of Russia “as me trying to shift blame for my loss in 2016.” In a way, she’s right—while she is trying to shift the blame for her loss, she’s also trying to present herself to the rest of the ruling class as the best manager of US imperialism. She presents herself as the defender of the American-led order as a whole, which “defended universal human rights, defied totalitarianism, and delivered unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom.” This neglects the millions killed by the US in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S. itself over the course of the twentieth century—but perhaps we can assume Chileans or Palestinians or Vietnamese had it coming for not engaging constructively.  

Along with the cops, the military, and the intelligence agencies, Clinton finds much in common with the politicians on the “other side”. She gushes about how warm and comforting George W. Bush was during the inauguration. She finds inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist, whom she praises as “a shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left, who wanted to go even further toward Socialism, and conservatives on his right, who would have let the robber barons amass even more wealth and power.” Clinton clearly sees herself in this mode, bragging about her “defense of the American system of free enterprise” in the Iowa primaries. However, if anything socialists should be heartened by these passages—prominent U.S. politicians now feel the need to openly attack socialism, rather than simply ignore it.

Let me close with one good piece of advice Clinton writes in this book: “Find an organization that’s doing work you believe in. … If it doesn’t exist, build it.” Like nothing else, the bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as a whole in the face of the horrors of the Trump era proves the need for our own, working-class organizations. So fight the right, build the left, join the socialists!

Can there be an anti-liberal anti-fascism?: Reflections on ‘Against the Fascist Creep’

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me throughout the writing process and to Alex and Heather for doing that fascism reading group with me. Please read the endnotes; they’re important too.

 

Last Wednesday afternoon, I spent several minutes on campus scraping a fascist sticker off a glass display case. It’s not the first time I’ve run across fascist propaganda, either at this campus or at my old one. There are open fascists on the streets these days; but far more often there’s just a steady drip of fascist propaganda quietly appearing and disappearing in public places. In this environment, it’s no wonder a book called Against the Fascist Creep gained a wide hearing. Ultimately, however, the book points the antifascist movement in all the wrong directions.

Against the Fascist Creep, written by Alexander Reid Ross for the anarchist AK Press, devotes itself to “those messy crossovers on the margins of left and right, the ways fascism cultivates a movement, and the ways that the left often unwittingly cedes the space for fascism to creep into the mainstream and radical subcultures.”[i] There are certainly plenty of examples of this kind of “red-brown” crossover, including the recently-deceased Lyndon LaRouche. Given things like Fox News host Tucker Carlson condemning “big corporations,” or Diana Johnstone endorsing Le Pen in the pages of Counterpunch, there is a pressing need for a specific analysis of how fascists use left-wing rhetoric and infiltrate left-wing spaces.

However, in Against the Fascism Creep, this left-right crossover is not just a particular aspect of fascism that leftists need to be aware of. Rather, this kind of “syncretism” is, for Ross, part of the fundamental nature of fascism. Ross gives two pathways for “fascist creep”: through the mainstream right or through the far left. However, the crucial role of mainstream institutions, from the military to the police to churches to the media to big business[ii], in developing and driving fascist movements is neglected throughout the book. Instead, the main focus is on the margins, on cranks and grouplets and underground figures. This would be one thing if Ross was just writing advice to left-wing activists on how to recognize and combat fascist infiltration. But, instead, for him fascism is definitionally a synthesis between the far left and the far right.

This tendency to lay fascism at the doors of the left is only partially developed in Against the Fascist Creep. However, Ross’s work and public statements have only gotten more strident on this point, pushing him away from the left and toward liberalism. The nadir of this, for me, was his recent attacks on Leen Dweik, the Palestinian student who protested Chelsea Clinton because of the latter’s support of Islamophobia. Ross equated Dweik’s anti-Zionism with “eliminationist” anti-Semites like David Duke.

Unfortunately, the most vocal voices fighting with ARR have themselves been based on shaky politics and sloppy arguments-by-association rather than a thoroughgoing analysis of the flaws in Ross’s analysis.[iii]So, how does the author of an anti-fascist text end up standing against a young woman from an oppressed group protesting against mainstream racism? This is what I want to try to tease out.

Ross’s focus on the “syncretic” nature of fascism is not unique. He explicitly draws on the academic “new consensus” on fascism and the paradigm established by the historian Zeev Sternhell in his book Neither Left Nor Right. In the introduction, Ross argues “fascism’s syncretic form of fringe fusion takes place as a result of extreme responses to modern conditions.” He then goes on to argue the presence of ex-leftists as prominent fascist leaders shows that “[t]he [interwar fascist] movement was led by a host of frustrated and powerful leftists joining with sectors of the nationalist radical right to attack liberalism.”

I want to emphasize this, so I am not accused of oversimplifying or misinterpreting the book’s thesis. Ross’s argument is not just that red-brown cross-overs exist, but that fascism is defined by left-right synthesis:

New syntheses that mixed agrarian populism, urban workers’ movements, and elite conspiratorialism began to develop among revolutionaries. On the most fundamental level, the grand populist theories of left- and right-wing collectivism, aggregated into nationalism and socialism, met head-on with individualist theories of the vanguard—the conspiratorial elite and the superman. Russian revolutionaries like Pyotr Tkachev and Sergey Nechayev began to fuse Narodnik populism (similar in some respects to the völkisch movement), Blanquism, Bakuninism, and Marxism into a vanguardist doctrine of the seizure of state power through violent acts, including terror and assassination.

This is a superficially powerful account, given the reality of figures like Mussolini (formerly of the Italian Socialist Party, and its radical wing at that), and fascism’s fierce attacks on existing society. However, it relies on fundamentally liberal myths of what fascism is. Fascism is not a “revolutionary” doctrine that seeks to overturn modern capitalism. Rather, it is a counter-revolutionary doctrine, which seeks to defend capitalism and private property from the threat of proletarian revolution. It is not a synthesis of right- and left-wing insurrection, but a right-wing insurrection against left-wing insurrection.

One challenge to this paradigm is Ishay Landa’s book, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer. Landa sets himself up against the academic paradigm established by Sternhell. He discusses Sternhell’s strongest example: Georges Sorel (also mentioned by Ross), the syndicalist theorist whose ideas about myth and the nation formed a bridge for some socialists from Marxism to fascism. Landa shows that, while Sorel fetishized “proletarian violence,” he was not “a fierce revolutionary opponent of the bourgeois and of capitalism,” but instead advocated “middle-class regeneration” and “the pristine strength of capitalism.”[iv] Similarly, John Abromeit quotes Sorel’s 1902 statement that Sorel “presupposes that private property is an unquestionable fact” and that ‘socialization’ of the economy did not require overturning private property. Abromeit argues that “Sorel’s critique of bourgeois civilization here is …. directed at the specific development of the European and, in particular, French bourgeoisie. Rather than calling for an abolition of the bourgeoisie as a separate social class, Sorel believes that they need to return to the ‘noble sentiments’ of hard-work and asceticism.”[v] This sort of ideology helps explain why Mussolini could celebrate “workers’ control” while collaborating with industrialists. For Ross, Mussolini’s celebration of the widespread occupations of factories by Italian workers in 1920-21 is proof of the “synthetic” nature of fascism. However, while Mussolini did attempt to participate in the factory occupations, he was rebuffed, and while he claimed to celebrate workers’ control, he also promised Italian factory owners that “At this moment—we repeat it at the top of our voice—we will resist a bolshevik experiment with all the means at our disposal.”[vi]

 

Thus, fascist (or proto-fascist) condemnations of modern capitalism, the bourgeoisie, big corporations, and so on are not anti-capitalist critiques. They gain adherents who want to overturn aspects of modern capitalism they despise, while maintaining the basis of private property. This is not a “synthesis” between left and right. It is a right-wing reaction against potential left-wing revolution. As Landa cautions, one cannot equate all forms of opposition to liberalism: “one can be anti-liberal from a markedly pro-capitalist and pro-bourgeois position, whereby liberalism means an ideology and practice that burdens capitalism and stands in its way.”[vii]

Private property is not one issue among many. The defense or abolition of private property is the crux of the conflict between right and left. Fascists may complain about the bourgeoisie or capitalism, but their fundamental aim is always to crush working-class revolution, preserve private property, and uphold hierarchy and inequality.

Let us look at a specific historic situation to see why Ross’s model of fascism fails. It is true that Mussolini gathered quite a few cast-offs from the socialist movement around him. But it was not this “cross-over” between the left and the right that allowed fascism to “creep” into the mainstream. Rather, it was how the fascist movement served the interest of the existing capitalist class at a particular juncture. Italian fascists gained power not through crankish ex-leftists and clever rhetoric. Rather, their initial leap into mainstream politics was by proving to Italian landowners that they were effective in suppressing left-wing peasant organizations. Thus, it is highly misleading to view “agrarian populism” tout court as a source of fascism. It was, rather, a way to maintain the power of landlords. As the left-wing historian Tom Behan writes,

The second wave of fascism occurred in the countryside, and was largely outside of Mussolini’s control. Around towns such as Ferrara the landowners’ main crop, hemp, had fallen in value, and to maintain their profits they had to drive down wages. Furthermore, peasants had been radicalised by the war, and in the South they had begun to occupy land. Financed eagerly by large landowners, the fascists systematically attacked the organising centres of these structures. Fascists beat up Socialists, while promising a return to traditional values and order. Unlike the nationalist and populist fascism of the cities, rural fascism was violently anti-Socialist and openly supported the interests of large landowners. Mussolini wanted to be involved with this second wave, and at the very beginning urged fascists on during a rally in the town of Cremona: ‘A million sheep will always be dispersed by the roar of a single lion.’….The success of rural fascism had shown [Italian industrialists] that Mussolini was the right horse to back.”[viii]

As Robert O. Paxton puts it, “Mussolini was saved from oblivion” by squadrismo.[ix] His book, The Anatomy of Fascism, highlights how the fundamentally similar conditions of French, Italian, German, Japanese, and American countrysides produced various forms of fascism (the earliest being the Ku Klux Klan). Thus, it is highly misleading to refer to fascism as a form of “agrarian populism.” Fascism did not “creep” into the mainstream via collaboration with the left. It smashed its way into the mainstream by physically attacking the left.

 

This is not to say left-right crossover in the realm of fascism is a myth. It is not; I mentioned several examples above, and you can probably think of more. Fascism does emerge partly “from below”—that is, from those outside the ruling class who are deprived and frightened by the course of modern capitalism. But this does not make fascism independent of the capitalist ruling class or of capitalist economy. It is, as Michael Kitchen argues, the very interplay between the fascist movement and capitalist elites that characterizes fascism:

The economic system of fascism is therefore characterised neither by the ‘primary of politics’, whereby the fascist regime exercised full political domination over the economy in a direct interventionist system, nor by the domination of the entire state by a group of monopoly capitalists. For all the close relationships between the fascist regimes and the capitalist elite, for which there is massive empirical evidence, and for all the similarities of the aims and intentions of both groups, and in spite of the fact that fascism was exceptionally useful for the capitalists, it would be a gross over-simplification to insist on an identity between capitalist elite and fascist party. The relationship is best described by the Hegelian concept of ‘non-identical identity.’[x]

This is because, fundamentally, “the social function of fascism was to stabilise, strengthen and, to a certain degree, transform capitalist property relationships and to ensure the social and economic domination of the capitalist class….It claims to stand for those with property, however small and insignificant that property might be, against those who threaten to take that property away from them.[xi] (emphasis mine)

So, this is the fundamental problem with the idea of fascist “syncretism.” Fascism is a reaction by the right against the left, not a synthesis of left and right. For leftists who want to be on guard against fascist infiltration, the kind of rhetoric, figures, and movement to look out for are those who criticize aspects of capitalism while defending private property, pouring scorn against actual socialist and workers’ movements, and calling for the purification of the existing order of ‘corrupt’ bourgeois elites. This is a fundamental issue of anti-fascist strategy. If fascism is a synthesis between the left and the right, the far left is a dubious ally against fascists. In fact, its radical critiques of capitalism and support for violent revolution make it susceptible to cross-over with fascism. If, however, fascism is a right-wing, capitalist movement, it is necessary to oppose capitalism as a whole to defeat fascism. Defense of “liberalism,” “democracy,” “tolerance” is insufficient; in fact it is liberals who are dubious allies, who are forced to side with fascists in certain scenarios to maintain capitalism. Seeing fascism as a form of counter-revolution leads to a strategy of alliance with workers’ and socialist movements, across tendencies, no matter how much we might hate each other sometimes (and we do).

 

Another major issue with Against the Fascist Creep is the “fusional”, “synthetic” nature of fascism tends to shatter upon closer examination. For instance, Ross describes the thought of Julius Evola as “a kind of mystique that animated the rhetorical framework of right-left syncretism—visions of Nordic gods on earth, mythical Arctic-born superraces, archaic spiritual signs transcending both science and Judeo-Christian ethics, and cosmic spiritual oaths of samurai loyalty.” But what about this is a synthesis between the left and the right, even just on the rhetorical plane? All of these aspects are quite classical, obvious right-wing, reactionary preoccupations. Or take Ross’s discussion of the battle of Seattle and the fight against the WTO. Ross is quite right to say many fascists cheered the left on here as a fighters against “globalization.” However, the fascist he cites as an example is not a clever, sneaky fusionist, but very obviously a fascist, talking about the protestors as “White people” revolting against “world Jewry.” No left-wing observer is going to have to consider for very long whether or not this man could be a worthwhile ally. And when it comes to fascists adopting the language of “self-determination” and “anti-imperialism” to ‘defend’ their goal of white nationalist states, Ross comes straight out and says this is just a lie. So it is unclear whether “fusion” actually goes deeper than opportunistic adoption of left-wing phrases.

For another example, let’s go back to exactly what Tucker Carlson has to say about corporations (emphases mine):

“There’s nothing free about this market,” Carlson said on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “A lot of these companies operate as monopolies. They hate markets. They use government regulation to crush competition. There’s nothing conservative about that, just as there’s nothing conservative about most big corporations. Just the opposite. They’re the backbone of the left. Pick a leftwing cause that you think is hurting the country. Check the donor list, and you’ll find the name of some corporation. Often many corporations. Corporate America enables the progressive lunacy you see every night on this show. They’re funding the revolution now in progress,” he added.

This is a very common fascist argument. In fact, it directly echoes the Sorelian arguments Landa highlights: modern capitalism is corrupt because it violates the ideas of the free market and private property; the middle class needs to revolt against both the ruling class and the working class, who are somehow united against the middle. This is why Marxist analyses of fascism always characterize it as particularly attractive to the ppetty-bourgeoisie. 

 There is plenty to criticize in interwar Marxist analyses of fascism—after all, fascism did actually rise to power in both Italy and Germany, so one cannot say that either the social democratic or the communist parties got antifascism really right. But Ross’s almost total dismissal of existing Marxist theories of fascism is flawed and sectarian. For example, Ross claims “[t]he Communist Party’s principle [sic] theorist, Antonio Gramsci, avoided joining a bloc of anarchists, liberals, and socialists, hoping that an armed working class would better fend off fascist squadristi without liberal or socialist leadership.” However, Behan, who is highly critical of the PCI’s sectarian attitude toward the Arditi del popolo, notes that Gramsci’s views “shifted significantly from his previous position of underestimating fascism and being relatively uninterested in anti-fascist work” and Ordine Nuovo, the publication of Gramsci’s faction, was far more supportive of the ADP than the ‘official’ PCI line. Futhermore, many rank-and-file Communists ignored their party’s analysis and participated in the ADP anyway.[xii] Ross’s book is written for an activist audience. By tossing aside Gramsci’s subtle and foundational analyses of fascism in one sentence, Ross turns his readers away from exploring a vital writer in the anti-fascist tradition.

Ross also claims that “Trotsky warned the KPD [German Communist Party] not to take fascism too seriously.” The footnote to this does not actually give a source for this, so I have no idea he is talking about, but this is a bizarre claim. Ross later pats Trotsky on the head for “realizing” fascism is not a puppet of the ruling class, but continues to insist fascism is “a uniquely revolutionary and oppositional collaboration between right and left.” Again, by mischaracterizing Trotsky’s writings, Ross encourages his readers to neglect serious Marxist analysis of fascism.

 

The strongest portion of the book deals with the connections between environmentalism and fascism. Ross’s analysis of fascist fetishization of “nature,” the “organic,” and “conservation” are fascinating. However, this is the exception that proves the rule. “Environmentalism” in itself is not a left-wing cause—it requires you to take no stance at all on human equality or on capitalism, after all. This example does not show that fascism incorporates left-wing thought; but, rather, that there are both right-wing and left-wing forms of environmentalism. The same is true of the sections on neopaganism and of musical subcultures.

 

As Ross attempts to analyze recent antifascist movements and give proscriptions for a way forward, the cracks in his analysis become apparent. He ends up lapsing into liberal ideas and obscuring the ways in which good liberals and democrats promote forms of racism that allow fascism to thrive.

A key example is his discussion of Charlie Hebdo. Ross obscures the centrality of state-sponsored and liberal forms of Islamophobia in generating oppression of Muslims in the West. Instead, he characterizes the “spirit of mass demonstrations in Paris” as calling for “peace, coexistence, freedom of speech.” Really? The demonstration led by the likes of Merkel, Cameron, and Netanyahu? Is this not worthy of mention? If one is looking at how racist and nationalist ideas invade the left, one must look at the French left’s embrace of Islamophobia in the name of liberalism and universalism.[xiii]

If the key question is how fascist ideas ‘creep’ into the mainstream, one must look at liberal ideas (“freedom of speech” in particular has become a rallying cry for fascists) with a clear eye as well. Thus, when Ross moves on to talk about how the German far-right group PEGIDA’s use of Charlie Hebdo, he misses the fundamental dynamic that allows far-right groups to profit so much from their use of Islamophobia.

This brings us back to Leen Dweik and Chelsea Clinton. If we ignore the prominence of liberal Islamophobia, if we ignore how the Democratic Party has been one of the main drivers of attacks on Muslims, if we ignore the prominent idea that Muslim immigrants need to be educated out of their essential anti-Semitism—how can we actually resist Islamophobia? Nor can we ignore that the state of Israel is, in itself, based on an eliminationist project against Palestine and Palestinians. Whatever happened to looking at Zionism from the standpoint of its victims? Instead, Ross ends up apologizing for Zionism—one of the most violent and racist state forms existing today—lining up with the oppressors against the oppressed.

 

What kind of anti-fascist politics does Against the Fascist Creep lead us to? One that sees the left as culpable for fascism; one that sees any kind of revolutionary politics as constantly vulnerable to fascist corruption; and one that sees any critique of bourgeois liberalism as giving aid and comfort to fascism. An alliance with liberalism against the left is not a totally necessary conclusion from the analysis presented in Against the Fascist Creep, but it is the most natural one. If you are looking for a political movement oppose fascism, and you’ve rejected the political left, what else is there? Liberalism.

However, fascism despises the left, whatever it calls itself—socialist, communist, social democratic, Marxist, anarchist, whatever—and any self-organization of the oppressed—women, qlgbt, racial and national minorities, whatever. But if fascism is a synthesis between the far left and the far right, the left becomes forever suspect, corrupt, and in need of purification of its ‘illiberal’ elements. You turn your suspicion to the very people who ought to be your allies, who are the best fighters against fascism, and the one fascists attacks en masse and without distinction. It is an ironic mirror of the sectarian ‘third period’ politics Ross condemns earlier in the book.

For a book published by an activist press for an activist audience, Against the Fascist Creep is noticeably short on tactics and strategy. The last chapter describes some anti-fascist initiatives, but does not evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of particular approaches. Nor does it draw out how the descriptions and theory of the previous chapters apply concretely to antifascist action today. It has some sensible suggestions about doxxing fascists, targeting their PayPal accounts, etc., but that’s about it. Also, these are tactics, not strategy. Ross’s chief demands revolve around vague proscriptions for “education,” “hope,” “mutual aid” and “solidarity.” These are all good ideas, but they are weak tea indeed against the rise of violent fascist movements.

 

In his public statements following Against the Fascist Creep, Ross has crept (sorry, I’m sorry) farther and farther right. This accelerated especially after a dust-up with Max Blumenthal et. al. about whether or not certain lefty pundits are red-brown agents. (My particular analysis: what we might call the ‘RT intellectual crew’ are shallow, tedious, and not to be trusted with regards to Russian foreign policy, but to call view them as red-brown agents of Russian destabilization efforts is conspiratorial and ridiculous.) An example is his recent article “From Exile to Dirtbag.” The bulk of the article is about the eXile, a magazine run by American expats Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi in 1990s Russia. Personally, I have nothing to dispute with Ross’s account of it: it was a horrible, misogynistic magazine that boosted genuine fascists like Eduard Limonov. But there is also not much new in this analysis of eXile/Ames/Taibbi—it’s been public knowledge for a while. I easily accessed information about it as a moderately-online high school student. What doesn’t hold up is Ross’s attempt to insist that the American left has been infiltrated by National Bolshevists.

“From Exile to Dirtbag” shows how Ross has moved significant to the right since he published Against the Facist Creep. For instance, in the book he is highly critical of the left’s orientation toward Euromaidan and Western involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. He discusses the fascists supporting Ukrainian nationalism as well as the ‘National Bolsheviks’ in the Donbass. However, the article only mentions the latter, while associating critiques of US intervention in Ukraine with the likes of Richard Spencer. He even goes so far as to defend NATO! If we are worried about fascist creep, surely we should be worried about painting American support for the far-right abroad and traditional American fears of Russian “subversion” in leftist colors?

The article is almost too transnational—or whether, it is transnational in the wrong way. There are, to be sure, real ties between the likes of Spencer and the likes of Dugin. But this hardly makes Russia a primary source of American fascism. Service in the U.S. military, or the police, or Border Patrol; right-wing churches; grandfathers and uncles with experience in past fascist movements; all of these things (as Ross’s own work suggests!) have been far more important in building cadres for American fascism.

 

A recent article published by Ross together with Shane Burley on the Christchurch attack also shows the inadequate nature of his solutions to fascism. Ross and Burley see the source of fascism as a “desperation” that “comes from within—not just the white nationalist movement but white communities themselves.” However, fascism is not just some form of irrational desperation from ignorant white people, as we have seen. It is a form of irrational desperation from ignorant white people that gains strength from mainstream forces, including liberalism and is often useful to the capitalist elite in preserving its own power. The murderous Islamophobia displayed at Christchurch does not derive just from marginal, alienated elements. It emerges straight out of the wars against Muslims and Arabs waged by the Western imperialist powers.

 

However, Shane and Burley characterize fascists as just resistant to “the conditions and possibilities of the modern world.” Without being accompanied with calls for fundamental structural change, this suggests that existing, modern, liberal capitalism is basically fine. Fascists are irrationally afraid of it, but they need to learn to accept it (and so, I guess, do the rest of us.)

 

So, can there be an anti-liberal anti-fascism? Not only can there be, but there must be. Not “anti-liberal” in the sense of rejecting and condemning the wide swaths of people who identify with “liberalism” against the right-wing because it is the main form of politics accessible to people that seems to stand for equality and tolerance. But “anti-liberal” in rejecting liberal capitalism and its structures and institutions, which sustain the society that produces fascists and leave us unable to truly resist them. We need a form of anti-fascism that does not start out from the premise that the revolutionary left is constantly at risk of collapsing into fascism. Instead, we need anti-fascism that understands fascism as a form of counter-revolution. Rather than fearing the radical potential of left-wing revolution, we should embrace it as our central inspiration as we fight against fascist and for a better world.

 

Works cited

 

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” In Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: History and Recent Tendencies, edited by John Abromeit, Gary Marotta, Bridget María Chesterton and York Norman. Bloomsbury: London/New York, 2016.

 

Behan, Tom. The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini. London: Bookmarks, 2003.

 

Landa, Ishay. The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010.

 

Kitchen, Martin. Fascism. MacMillan: London, 1985.

 

Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2004.

 

Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the Fascist Creep. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2017.

 

—-. “From Exile to Dirtbag: Edgelord politics and the rise of ‘National Bolshevism’ in the U.S.” 20 Jan. 2019, last accessed 2 April 2019.

https://medium.com/@areidross/from-exile-to-dirtbag-edgelord-geopolitics-and-the-rise-of-national-bolshevism-in-the-u-s-84822021b0e8

 

—- and Burley, Shane. “How to defeat the cretinous ‘great replacement’ theory at the heart of the Christchurch attack.” 18 Mar. 2019, last accessed 2 April 2019.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/christchurch-attack-new-zealand-shooting-brenton-tarrant-great-replacement-a8827966.html

 

Spriano, Paolo, trans. Gwyn A. Williams. The Occupation of the Factories: Italy, 1920. London: Pluto Press, 1975.

[i] I don’t have a paper copy of the book, so these citations will be messy; but what the hell, it’s not an academic paper. This quote is from the first page of the intro.

[ii] Yes, I am giving a nod to the dread “functionalist” Marxist explanations of fascism here. A bit more on this later.

[iii] In particular, his dust-ups with the Khalek/Blumenthal/Norton crew have been particularly unenlightening and tedious on all sides. An example is Ben Norton’s response. He calls Ross “a Eurocentric racist” for ignoring forms of fascism outside the imperialist countries, such as Hindutva in India. Discussing non-Euro-American forms of fascism is certainly necessary to a clear understanding of fascism, particularly now given events in Brazil and India. However, Norton does not explain how this actually disproves Ross’s claims. It’s a demagogic gesture, particularly as Norton was among those willing to minimize Gabbard’s Hindutva ties so she could Tell the Truth About Syria ™ on a national stage. He’s also wrong, as Ross connects imperialism and fascism in the very first chapter. Norton uses the citation of Sternhell, a Zionist, to ‘prove’ also claims Sternhell is a “Zionist” and therefore Ross’s citation of him proves his Zionist imperialism. Now, Ross is soft on Zionism, as we will see. However, Norton does not actually explain what is substantively wrong about Ross’s account; he simply looks at the first footnote and declares Ross an imperialist agent. This is part of a self-reinforcing loop in which two groups of journalist-pundits declare war on each other, with the flaws of each other reinforcing the other in their self-image, and allowing them to declare victory at one another’s hypocrisies and capitulations. In the end, one ends up with a great deal of information about American journalists’ tweets, funding, old blog posts, and sketchy friends, but very little about the actual world at large.

[iv] Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 198-9.

[v] Abromeit, “Transformation of Producerist Populism in Western Europe,” 243.

[vi] Information about Mussolini and the factory occupations is from Spriano, Occupation of the Factories. The exact quote is from page 149.

[vii] Landa, Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 7. Unfortunately, however, (and ironically), Landa’s analysis falls into a similar trap of equating revolutionary opposition to the status quo with fascism. Landa draws a distinction between (good, democratic) “political” liberalism and (bad, undemocratic) “economic” liberalism. He sees fascism as an attempt by economic liberals to maintain free-market capitalism against working-class movements. He excuses socialists, including Leninists, from being opponents of democracy on the grounds that even Lenin advocated participation in bourgeois parliaments and defending democratic reforms. This is true, but it ignores that Lenin’s ultimate strategy was rupture with liberal democracy, which he saw as democratic only for the capitalists themselves, and toward proletarian democracy. Thus, while Landa is correct to argue capitalism is undemocratic and thus liberals are forced to turn to fascism in certain situations to maintain it, he ends up reinforcing the idea that attacks on liberal democracy are inherently reactionary.

[viii] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 42-43.

[ix] Paxton, Anatomy of Fascism, 58.

[x] Kitchen, Fascism, 48-49.

[xi]Kitchen, Fascism, 85-86. Kitchen ascribes fascism only to ‘late’ industrial capitalist states. This I think is wrong. He claims fascism needs “a powerful capitalist class, a large and organised working class with a potentially revolutionary ideology which calls for a radical restructuring of society, and a large petit bourgeoisie which is caught in the contradictions between capital and labour and is unable to find any way out of its social, economic and political dilemmas.” However, all of these conditions are met by today’s capitalism on a world scale. Many countries have weak national capitalists; but all countries are vulnerable to the intervention of powerful imperialist governments that are more than happy to suppress any restive oppressed group, outside “their” borders as well as inside them. It’s also worth noting that Global South these days does not at all equal ‘weak forms of capitalism.’ India and Brazil have rapidly-growing, combative working classes; restless peasantries; substantial middle classes that feel threatened from both above and below; and powerful local capitalists. So there is no puzzle that they include some of the largest fascist/fascist-like movements today. Fascism can also arise in response to revolutionary potential, as Kitchen states, and not necessarily an actual revolutionary movement—contrary to those who insist fascism is not a major threat i.e. in the US because there is no prominent revolutionary movement. Thus, I would suggest the development of a capitalist world economy means fascism is a latent possibility anywhere on the globe.

[xii] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 67-68.

[xiii] Another example are the absolutely goofy statements Ross makes about alleged Russian support of “separatism” in Western Europe. Ross blithely condemns Basque, Catalan, and Scottish independence movements as “ultra-nationalist origins and their deep traditional trends,” “national-anarchism, national syndicalism, and other forms of contemporary fascism.” There are certainly anti-immigrant parts of the Catalan independence movement, but this ignores how the forces on the ground have been led by the left. It sure isn’t the occupation of Fiume. It doesn’t make any sense to fear-monger about “separatism” while passing over the existence of the UK and Spanish states as if their existence was unproblematic. Surely the movements to be worried about right now are the British fascists waving the flag of St. George and the Spanish Franco fans performing the fascist salute in response to the Catalan independence vote?

 

[1] I don’t have a paper copy of the book, so these citations will be messy; but what the hell, it’s not an academic paper. This quote is from the first page of the intro.

[1] Yes, I am giving a nod to the dread “functionalist” Marxist explanations of fascism here. A bit more on this later.

[1] In particular, his dust-ups with the Khalek/Blumenthal/Norton crew have been particularly unenlightening and tedious on all sides. An example is Ben Norton’s response. He calls Ross “a Eurocentric racist” for ignoring forms of fascism outside the imperialist countries, such as Hindutva in India. Discussing non-Euro-American forms of fascism is certainly necessary to a clear understanding of fascism, particularly now given events in Brazil and India. However, Norton does not explain how this actually disproves Ross’s claims. It’s a demagogic gesture, particularly as Norton was among those willing to minimize Gabbard’s Hindutva ties so she could Tell the Truth About Syria ™ on a national stage. He’s also wrong, as Ross connects imperialism and fascism in the very first chapter. Norton uses the citation of Sternhell, a Zionist, to ‘prove’ also claims Sternhell is a “Zionist” and therefore Ross’s citation of him proves his Zionist imperialism. Now, Ross is soft on Zionism, as we will see. However, Norton does not actually explain what is substantively wrong about Ross’s account; he simply looks at the first footnote and declares Ross an imperialist agent. This is part of a self-reinforcing loop in which two groups of journalist-pundits declare war on each other, with the flaws of each other reinforcing the other in their self-image, and allowing them to declare victory at one another’s hypocrisies and capitulations. In the end, one ends up with a great deal of information about American journalists’ tweets, funding, old blog posts, and sketchy friends, but very little about the actual world at large.

[1] Landa, The Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 198-9.

[1] Abromeit, “Transformation of Producerist Populism in Western Europe,” 243.

[1] Information about Mussolini and the factory occupations is from Spriano, Occupation of the Factories. The exact quote is from page 149.

[1] Landa, Apprentice’s Sorcerer, 7. Unfortunately, however, (and ironically), Landa’s analysis falls into a similar trap of equating revolutionary opposition to the status quo with fascism. Landa draws a distinction between (good, democratic) “political” liberalism and (bad, undemocratic) “economic” liberalism. He sees fascism as an attempt by economic liberals to maintain free-market capitalism against working-class movements. He excuses socialists, including Leninists, from being opponents of democracy on the grounds that even Lenin advocated participation in bourgeois parliaments and defending democratic reforms. This is true, but it ignores that Lenin’s ultimate strategy was rupture with liberal democracy, which he saw as democratic only for the capitalists themselves, and toward proletarian democracy. Thus, while Landa is correct to argue capitalism is undemocratic and thus liberals are forced to turn to fascism in certain situations to maintain it, he ends up reinforcing the idea that attacks on liberal democracy are inherently reactionary.

[1] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 42-43.

[1] Paxton, Anatomy of Fascism, 58.

[1] Kitchen, Fascism, 48-49.

[1]Kitchen, Fascism, 85-86. Kitchen ascribes fascism only to ‘late’ industrial capitalist states. This I think is wrong. He claims fascism needs “a powerful capitalist class, a large and organised working class with a potentially revolutionary ideology which calls for a radical restructuring of society, and a large petit bourgeoisie which is caught in the contradictions between capital and labour and is unable to find any way out of its social, economic and political dilemmas.” However, all of these conditions are met by today’s capitalism on a world scale. Many countries have weak national capitalists; but all countries are vulnerable to the intervention of powerful imperialist governments that are more than happy to suppress any restive oppressed group, outside “their” borders as well as inside them. It’s also worth noting that Global South these days does not at all equal ‘weak forms of capitalism.’ India and Brazil have rapidly-growing, combative working classes; restless peasantries; substantial middle classes that feel threatened from both above and below; and powerful local capitalists. So there is no puzzle that they include some of the largest fascist/fascist-like movements today. Fascism can also arise in response to revolutionary potential, as Kitchen states, and not necessarily an actual revolutionary movement—contrary to those who insist fascism is not a major threat i.e. in the US because there is no prominent revolutionary movement. Thus, I would suggest the development of a capitalist world economy means fascism is a latent possibility anywhere on the globe.

[1] Behan, Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, 67-68.

[1] Another example are the absolutely goofy statements Ross makes about alleged Russian support of “separatism” in Western Europe. Ross blithely condemns Basque, Catalan, and Scottish independence movements as “ultra-nationalist origins and their deep traditional trends,” “national-anarchism, national syndicalism, and other forms of contemporary fascism.” There are certainly anti-immigrant parts of the Catalan independence movement, but this ignores how the forces on the ground have been led by the left. It sure isn’t the occupation of Fiume. It doesn’t make any sense to fear-monger about “separatism” while passing over the existence of the UK and Spanish states as if their existence was unproblematic. Surely the movements to be worried about right now are the British fascists waving the flag of St. George and the Spanish Franco fans performing the fascist salute in response to the Catalan independence vote?