Attendees of the Million MAGA March in Washington, D.C. – December 12, 2020. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud / Shutterstock.com
Shane Burley is a journalist, filmmaker and author who has studied fascism for 10 years. His latest book, Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse, reflects on the evolution of the alt-right in the aftermath of Charlottesville and where the movement might be headed under the Biden administration. We have seen many ebbs and flows of this virulent strain of far-right thought, but it seems the movement will continue to menace America and Europe for the foreseeable future. I was lucky enough to sit down with Shane and ask him a few questions about what the future looks like as the fight moves into the post-Trump years.
The last five years or so have seen the rise of one of the most virulent strains of far-right thought in modern history. Why now? And what do adherents find so appealing about the far right?
In a way we have seen multiple strains splinter off in a radically accelerated period of time, with manifestations that hit all different social groups: middle class, blue collar, rural, urban, college. We’ve seen the impact inside mainstream political organizations and outside of them. So it has been a simultaneous and collaborative fascist insurgency at most levels of white society.
The reasons for this are complex, but it all hinges on both an actual crisis of modern neoliberalism and the internal cultural and emotional crisis of whiteness. While class conditions certainly can create a revolt against circumstances — just look at the explosion of the rank-and-file labor movement in the United States over the past few years — it can also result in the perception of a loss in resources and status. This is where the “wages of whiteness” really play into it because the emotional content of whiteness, the feelings of social superiority and white social status, has mobilized a backlash against both demographic changes and shifts in public values.
Whiteness is coming to a head as it is threatened, and therefore other, material crises are being reframed through the lens of whiteness and twisted. So the answer is then an insurgent racist movement to confront changing social circumstances, where they try to recuperate class struggle into a racialized discourse.
All this is to say is that the old world is dying and something else is fighting to replace it, and white racialism is seeing a massive resurgence as a counter-revolution. This will likely only increase over the next few years as we have to deal with global problems through internationalism, where global conflict and climate change force down borders and political and economic classes try to find a way to hold onto their power.
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville happened nearly 3.5 years ago. How has the far right adapted and regrouped in the aftermath of that debacle?
You can’t overstate just how catastrophic the Unite the Right rally was for the alt-right. It helped to mobilize a mass deplatforming event over the following two years, which undermined the primary reasons they were able to grow in the first place. Something as large scale as the alt-right simply would not have been possible in an era before mass media and small scale, independent media outlets had collapsed into one news stream in the form of social media. Before Charlottesville, Richard Spencer could be on the same website (Twitter) as mainstream celebrities and news figures, which means the alt-right’s platform was only growing.
Charlottesville gave the proof of what their movement was to people who otherwise hadn’t been watching, and now antifascists could pressure tech companies to deplatform them. And they did, enough so that their public presence has now been relegated to the backchannels of the internet.
A mass antifascist movement had also formed, and it only expanded in mass form after Charlottesville. What used to bring out hundreds into the streets now brings out tens of thousands, as we saw during the mass actions against racist police violence in 2020. Antifascist infrastructures have grown even past the formal organizations that had been doing the work, and now a mass re-orientation to action has taken place, so much so that entire generations are now used to flooding the streets.
That is mixed with a mass consciousness about antifascism as an operative principle and an acknowledgement of what letting white nationalists organize without objection results in. Now it is next to impossible for white nationalists to have events like they had in Charlottesville without it being run out of town. All the conditions are different than they were in 2017, and the general public is more ready to take action against this very real threat.
As the far right rose to prominence and came to exert an unhealthy influence over right-wing political parties, many on the left have deployed various tactics to slow or stop the fascist creep. What tactics have been especially effective? And are there some that belong in the dustbin of history?
I think the tactics that have been most effective are the ones that are incredibly clear about what they are trying to accomplish and why. For example, the mass deplatforming after Charlottesville resulted in the shrinking of the recruitment pool for alt-right organizations, leading the eventual shuttering of groups like Identity Evropa and others. So the organizing that went to pressure tech companies to deplatform them was focused on getting a result that had a proven logic behind it.
When it comes to the information revelations about far-right figures, this has created incredibly effective campaigns to isolate those people, challenging their effectiveness in the white power movement and discouraging less committed people from participating. What has been less effective is mass information dumps without context or organizing behind it, and particularly when the information is less than reliable. To make that kind of work meaningful people have to have incredibly high standards for their information, keeping their reputation beyond reproach so that people will believe it and treat it as meaningful.
Likewise, information about an individual far-right person is not that useful if antifascists do not clearly explain why they are a threat and what community members can do to keep themselves and others safe. When organizations have released information and then followed it up with a specific campaign with specific goals, such as getting a concert venue to sever relationship with a neo-Nazi band or trying to get an employer to cut ties with an alt-right figure, those have proven effectiveness. But that requires a real commitment to communicating with the public, vetting information and creating actionable plans. Part of the challenge is that people are simply overwhelmed with the number of individuals that truly are threatening, and so I imagine many organizers find it difficult to take time when they are being pressed by circumstances.
I also think what has proven effective is using existing organizations and movements to augment a larger antifascist campaign. Labor unions, tenant unions, immigrant rights organizations and environmental groups all have a role in collaborating and forming coalitions to confront the far right, particularly in mass counterdemonstations to challenge fascist access to public space. Looking at what resources people already have, what organizations they are already a part of, and what unique skills, perspectives, and ideas they have is better than expecting everyone to conform to a singular organizing model.
Overall I think we should trust antifascists. Many people have done this type of organizing for years, including before Trump, and they often know how to make strategies effective.
January 6 was another unmitigated PR disaster for the far right, and the movement once again finds itself mired in disarray. Biden won a decisive victory over Trump, and Democrats now control both the legislative and executive branches of government. A lot of people seem to think the threat has passed. Would you agree?
Absolutely not. On the one hand, we have business as usual for all the conditions that brought about a fascist insurgency in the first place. Widening income inequality, the death of the working class, military intervention and violence around the globe, rapidly accelerating climate change, epidemic rates of police violence: Joe Biden and the Democrats who swept into office have no solution to this.
What the far right will do is shift to a slightly more rear guard movement, a back-and-forth game they have played historically. While during the last four years under Trump sizeable sections of the far right felt like they had an ally in the White House, large portions of the fascist movement viewed Trump as a traitor. This is not out of step for the historic trajectory of white nationalism. Even while Ronald Regan was essentially staging a far-right coup in the US, the burgeoning white power movement composed was turning towards terrorist action and militia attacks based on the idea that the federal government had already been captured by the enemy (the Zionist Occupation Government). Just before Trump, Richard Spencer’s and other leadership in the alt-right had done speaking events about how reform was impossible, they were waiting for collapse and/or revolution.
So they have always been ready for this. But what is more concerning is that with the “stop the steal” rhetoric destabilizing basic consensus reality, a mass radicalization event has taken place where millions have been baptized into a sort of conspiracy theory fueled accelerationism where their conception of the state is one caked in millenialist rhetoric about devil worshippers and human trafficking. What this means is that we are entering an era in which our main concern is ideologically motivated, seemingly impulsive acts of violence based on desperation narratives.
This is a really dangerous time, one when some of the old safety valves have been destroyed and the crisis Trump created will really be allowed to run wild. This is part of what I discuss in the book, that this gives us the very real feeling that we are living in the end times. Not because some outside Biblical force has predicted it or caused it, but because in their belief in the apocalypse they will seek to make it real.
The title of your last book implied we could end fascism. Do you think we can stomp it out forever? And if so, what will that look like?
It may not be a satisfying answer, but we have to look at the real basic assumptions and structures of our society. Fascism is a radically blunt realization of the inequalities and dominations that are implicit in the rest of our world, which is built on a history of slavery, imperialism and colonialism. These inequalities fester through class, white supremacy and an interlocking system of oppression. Fascism is this system in crisis, and since that crisis is set to constant repeat, the only way to stop it is to remake the center of our social arrangement.
But I actually think we should be incredibly hopeful about this. The apocalypse the far right is creating is also the one we are living with, and our acts of compassion and survival are actually a new world in utero. The past year saw mass acts of resistance around the world, but also the semi-spontaneous creation of mutual aid networks — not completely spontaneous of course, real long-term organizing is necessary — that met real people’s needs amidst the global pandemic and forest fire crisis. Our ability to challenge power is only magnifying, and in doing so we actually show not just what it takes to confront this system, but we actually live out a piece of what a new world would look like.
We should trust ourselves. We already know how to do this better. We have been doing it small and large everyday.
Shane Burley’s Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse is out now from AK Press.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/why-we-fight-shane-burley/