Is Narrative The Whole Point? A Response to Jason Lee Byas

Obviously, I strenuously object to anarchism being classified as a “liberal” — I find Jason Lee Byas’ attempt to reclaim that term profoundly misguided and I’ve written my thoughts on this before.

Jason claims that fascism cannot survive in liberalism and so seeks to disrupt it, but this is ass-backwards in a lot of ways. A more accurate assessment would be that fascism utilizes the fundamental shortsightedness of liberalism to its ends. Liberals do not grasp the threat posed by fascism. They over-privilege the perceived stability of their institutions and codify simplistic codes of behavior modeled upon the state’s legal system that the fascists can run rings around. It’s such simplistic codes that fascism exploits with all the dexterity of a schoolyard bully delightedly shouting “I’m not touching you! But I’m not touching you!”

In this sense Jason borrows from the tradition of liberalism, but what he borrows is a framework incapable of responding effectively to bullies. Focused, like liberalism, on the personal reassurance of having followed a script to certify one’s own moral ‘character’ rather than diligently making the world a better place.

When a bully has a pattern of beating you up after school you don’t wait for that bully to throw the first punch this time around, you jump him first. It doesn’t matter if, to a bystander blind to the context, you might look like the “aggressor.” It doesn’t even matter if you are the aggressor in that isolated moment. The benefit of surprise outweighs the benefit of the bystander’s meaningless approval. And if the bully rolls deep with his buddies you don’t stop to poll each one individually on their history of violence and future intentions. Bullies respect force and sometimes it is necessary to give it to them. A grandma down the street tut-tutting about you (apparently) throwing the first punch is irrelevant, what matters is getting the bullies to back down. To demonstrate that you are not bound by myopic rules they can exploit and that you will make their plans for violence costly.

There is a very real sense in which I think Jason is over-leveraging inclinations to think that violence is only justified in defense. “Defense” is a profoundly loaded term and concept that is often structured in wildly different ways. His analysis starts from this point even as he tries to avoid appealing to a formal Rothbardian construction. I think our notions around defense are a “rule of thumb” — not an axiom but a heuristic derived as strategy in pursuit of something deeper. I’m a consequentialist who seeks to maximize agency, the freedom of all. There are many practical, even very general, constraints that fall out of such a commitment. You cannot gulag people into liberation, after all. Our notion of “defensive” violence is a very good norm, but when extreme cases arise we must remember the reason we gravitate to that norm, the underlying goal we are supposed to be targeting.

Our very categories here are problematic. Jason says that “speech cannot itself be violence” but numerous definitions of violence claim that it can be. Speech is just the transmission of information, but the distinction between information and physicality — while generally quite fundamental — is not perfect. Transmitting photons in a way designed to send someone into an epileptic fit is hard not to classify as violence. Similarly, the transmission of a virus to your computer, the bypassing of your firewalls, are just a speech acts, just a transmission of information, but it is also more than that. If I hack the device keeping your heart pumping it’s hard not to see that as violent. I bring these classic issues up to underline just how broken our casual language can be. The notions that serve us in daily life may not actually work outside a limited domain. We are radicals precisely because we do not settle for common sense or intuitions, but seek to always probe deeper.

Jason argues that Identity Europa and the College Democrats, while different in degree and many other dimensions, occupy the same category of advocacy for systemic aggressive violence. He means this as a reductio, but I’ll happily concede that some measure of violence can be justified against College Democrats — provided we consider issues of degree and causal connection quite seriously. Identity Europa’s recruitment efforts are of course more directly and substantially causally tied to street violence against people of color, the students recruited today may join the Identity Europa fratboy-wannabes menacing through my city’s streets, armed and harassing poc, tomorrow. While the violence that Hillary Clinton may do with bombs abroad is far greater, her capacity to do so has almost no causal dependency upon a College Democrat rally. But who among us wouldn’t approve of say protesters throwing fake blood or red paint on the College Democrats attempting to rally for such a warmonger while pretending their hands are clean?

Such would certainly constitute some low degree of violence and property destruction, but it would nonetheless exist in the category of “aggressive violence”. Provided of course that we adopt a myopic view of “aggression”, where the ongoing violent context of war being waged on people of color abroad somehow “doesn’t count” as impetus for a response to the social mechanisms perpetuating it.

I’m not trivializing the deep intractability of that predictive calculation, but Jason keeps basically pointing out that there’s a slippery slope here and then sitting back as though he’s proved anything. I emphatically agree that there’s a slippery slope to certain actions, but there can also be a slippery slope to inaction. If we take these strategic rules of thumb as more absolute than they actually are we risk a catastrophic failure to recognize the exceptions.

We cannot, then, strike at just any given fascist due to what other fascists might do.

Collectivist groupings of people is a terrible instinct, but in some extreme situations it’s warranted and failing to recognize those situations can be catastrophic. There were definitely nazi soldiers who did not intend to commit violence in the second world war, nevertheless, it would be clearly justifiable for a french maquis cell to chuck a bomb at a group of nazi soldiers without interrogating each on their personal orientations.

I think Jason pretty evidently has in mind mostly some irrelevant scrawny frog twitter kid playing the edgelord, but this framing is disingenuous to the subject at hand of established antifascist activism and their targets. There’s a long long history of antifa activism before 2016. While there are valid criticisms to be made about the strategic and narrative context post-2016, the terms of this conversation keep being set sweepingly to condemn the work antifa has done over the last few decades. What I want to hear more than anything from Jason and others is specifics. What fascist gangs and organizations don’t you think it’s fair game to treat as at war with humanity or with anarchists? Golden Dawn? Aryan Brotherhood? National Action? European Kindred? Volksfront? Atomwaffen? Vanguard America? Identity Evropa?

Where and how do you draw the lines? Because it seems to me like even very nuanced and reasoned critics like Jason don’t actually think we should consider even the very formal groups that explicitly commit terrorism, murder, and street thuggery to be worthy of preemptive (or delayed) violence.

That would be shocking and abhorrent enough, but the next logical question is where you would fucking draw the line with historic fascist organizations. Like when the historic Black Shirts or Brown Shirts were rampaging around terrorizing minorities would you likewise think that no one has the right to go to their strongholds and crush them?

And don’t say “those aren’t the subject of the conversation” — those sort of organizations are PRECISELY the bread and butter of antifa. That’s the central focus of what they do — just read them! — and to shift the focus into edge-cases is aggressively doing the work of conservative demagogues.

I am a radical I want to pick at the loose strands and explore how things break down. I want to be alerted when the calculation starts to change. I want to be aware of when and how neonazi militias with members killing anarchists start to constitute an occupying army on par with Vichy France. When the collaborators start to become worthy targets too. I feel an ethical obligation to evaluate all the feedbacking dangers, all the pressures and considerations.

I’m into ethics to actually see the world better, not to quickly shove exceptions out of sight. This means actively and carefully probing for them, not resisting acknowledging such exceptions until the proof is so overwhelming that it’s too late.

I wasted a pile of space going over why neonazis constitute a pressing threat — although not as much as I could have — because I do not think that Byas and others really see this. I think they continue to see things in terms of the Near Enemies they are familiar with, threats in the very conventional political spaces in which they live, discounting the Far Enemies whose threat is less real. Byas is a diligent and sincere opponent of war — this cannot help but place the threat of the US war machine, of mainstream pro-war narratives etc, front and center in his attention.

Jason makes arguments about the breakdown in social norms against violence, but let’s be real, what antifascists did in the 80s to bust up nazi rallies was far more hardcore by and large than what is being done today. No cataclysm ensued.

There is a difference today, to be sure, now that antifa and fascist narratives about them have been fed into the modern conservative media machine, but we should be clear that this is an issue of context, not a fundamental challenge. And further, it’s worth noting that antifascist groups have largely responded to the new mainstream-media terrain by focusing on more nonviolent or defensive approaches.

I think there is certainly a place for strategic conversations over the optimal timing and placement of violence by antifa activists. But Jason is resolutely framing his critique as a rejection of the bad antifa, rather than as an internal disagreement. This tribal framing requires there to be some harsh line that distinguishes the bad “antifa” (with all the silly associations and baggage that conservatives have suddenly built up about them) from the good “anti-fascism” (a pure conceptual stance). This line does not exist.

There are people who call themselves “anti-fascists” who are leninist scum as blockheaded as any fashy lunk and deserve our absolute and unwavering opposition. But there are anarchist antifa organizers with PhDs in philosophy who consider the ethics of their strategies rigorously. I know because I’ve debated them in person.

In contrast, Jason seems to be grasping at straws to justify the conclusion he wants to reach.

A commitment to aggressive violence as a regular tool is a commitment to aggressive violence being the primary tool, as it weakens all others.

This is an absolutely unsubstantiated leap. It’s also flagrantly absurd. One can use a tool with some regularity without it becoming one’s primary tool. I sometimes squash spiders when they appear to close to me but this does not magically transmute violence into my primary tool. The presumption otherwise is just folk psychology.

But we all know what’s really going on here, Jason is explicitly enthralled by the liberal myths of democracy. He is infected with the assumption that winning the popular narrative is the same as winning:

Much of this is about controlling the narrative, because controlling the narrative is ultimately the whole point.

“The whole point”? “The whole point”??

There’s no remote way that Jason would apply this to say winning the struggle against gun control. It matters far less whether we win hearts and minds and control the narrative in the popular media than whether we just make gun control unenforceable. Ninety-percent of the population can hate guns and fervently buy into the same shitty narratives so long as we establish enough 3D printing infrastructure that no political body, even with widespread popular support, can ever reign them in.

And while yes, ultimately our long-term goal requires us to win everyone over to anarchism, winning the war sometimes requires winning some battles along the way. It can’t JUST be broad strategy and long-term investments. We must survive.

Jason is, again and again, seeing the forest in its most abstract outlines and missing the trees he would have us walk directly into.

Upholding good norms is the entire point, for example, behind not wanting to normalize fascist rhetoric and ideas.

Let’s be clear: not wanting a genocide is not reducible to wanting good norms. Jesus no. The problem with fascists isn’t that they break down social norms against violence — that is at best a minor attendant issue — the problem is that they’re out to fucking impose fascism on the world. A world where broadly tolerant and non-aggressive norms break down to some degree would be bad, but that’s not the same thing as outright fascism.

This may seem a pedantic critique of rhetorical overreach on Jason’s part, but it screams to me that Jason is not primarily concerned with the fascist threat but sees it only in the context of existing mainstream political and cultural struggles. This should at least be made explicit. Countless critics have come out of the woodwork since 2016 to critique mainstream and longstanding antifascist activism. In the most charitable light these critics are only now waking up to the threat antifa activists were long focused on and — convinced of its severity are applying their backseat driving sincerely. But it often seems more the case that these suddenly emerging critics of antifa who had nary a word to say over decades of antifa work, are doing so not because they think the struggle against fascist groups is important but because the footprint of antifascism has crossed into domains and narrative battles they actually do care about. Meanwhile, the actual Literal Nazis keep planning to do shit like blow up nuclear power plans. It’s insanely frustrating. Tens of thousands of people are preparing to wage full-blown war on us — in many cases are already trying to kill us — and the conversation about how to stop them keeps getting derailed into conversations about broad abstractions in very conventional political arenas.

Will fighting nazis alienate conservatives and erode norms around violence in an increasingly partisan society? Yes! And that sucks! And we should pay some attention to that concern! But jesus fucking christ let’s not try to solve that problem at the expense of letting the motherfuckers out to kill us all organize unaccosted.

Jason warns us against the seductive appeal of violence, the psychological catharsis such can provide. And he is right to give such warning, but the myopia of simplistic rules on our behavior have their own ease and dangerous pull.

Simple analyses are what define liberalism. And in this sense fascism must be understood as the fullest expression of liberalism. Not something at odds with the liberal order but deeply dependent upon the intellectual and ethical laziness it encourages. Liberalism establishes the state so powerfully, so rigidly framing our lives and thoughts that what might’ve been organic social norms become calcified until we treat them like philosophical axioms. We are domesticated within the confines of the liberal order — liberalism encourages us to march along to the cop or foreman in our heads, embracing the simple — the “common sense” — at every opportunity unless overwhelmingly forced out of it. It is a frame of mind where nuance and complexity are not to be sought out but to be avoided. It should be no surprise fascism (as well as state communism and even flat-earthery) arises from such conditions.

We’ve seen liberalism turn to fascism repeatedly:

“As a liberal, he had dealt with troubling facts—the achievement gap between black students and white students, say—by invoking the history of racial oppression, or by explaining why the data didn’t show what they appeared to show. As a Marxist, he had attributed unpleasant facts to capitalist exploitation; as a libertarian, he had blamed the state. But all those explanations were abstract at best, muddled at worst, and they required levels of context that were impossible to convey in a Facebook post. Now he was free to revert to a far simpler explanation: maybe white people had more wealth and power because white people were superior.” [source]

Violence can be a simplifying force, that brutally strips away the rich complexity of the world and our subjective desires. But so too can non-violence and non-aggression be dangerously simplifying. Ethics has no obligation to be easily parsable by human brains. The correct path may not be codifiable in simple acontextual terms. And while we should be humble about our limits, we likewise have an obligation to be vigilant. To never settle for rules of thumb.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory