On the Disease Theory of Fascism: Reply to Bevensee & Yershov

Emmi Bevensee & Logan Yershov’s “Free Speech Dreams and Fascist Memes” is probably the single most thoughtful and nuanced defense of violently disrupting fascist assembly. Of particular note is the way that it draws out something lingering implicit in most other defenses of that tactic. This is what I will call the “disease theory of fascism.” For that reason, their essay deserves special attention.

Can You Catch the Fash?

Emmi & Logan’s post relies heavily on the highly controversial idea of memetics. I am personally strongly inclined to agree with critiques of memetics like the one Charles W. Johnson lays out here. Rather than reiterating those points, I want to focus specifically on its application in constructing a disease theory of fascism.

Throughout their discussion, Emmi & Logan talk about fascism like catching a cold, where it just jumps from one person to another, independent of the reasons and interpretations of either person. After contact, Emmi & Logan refer to fascists as “hosts” – the implication being that it’s more a case of the idea holding the fascist, rather than the fascist holding the idea.

As I said above, I’ll avoid making a full-scale critique of memetics here. However, this near-literal disease theory of fascism strikes me as particularly difficult to believe. So much so that I doubt Emmi & Logan would take it to its logical conclusions.

Those aware of antifa’s actual activities beyond the highly-publicized violence know that they spend a good deal of time researching fascist movements – listening to their podcasts, reading their articles, so on and so forth. This is also true of other anti-fascists. I know that I myself have spent far too much time these past few years consuming far-right material to understand the threat they pose. However, despite this close contact, there is no documented phenomenon of antifa activists or other anti-fascists becoming white supremacists en masse.[1] Apparently, it’s possible to digest the fash in pretty large quantities, over and over, for a long period of time without contracting it.

This might look like a strawman, implying something much stronger than was intended by the disease analogy. Yet it is this implausibly strong sense of fascism as a “disease” that Emmi & Logan implicitly operate under in their defense of “quarantining” that disease through violence, on the premise that “throwing facts at zombies does not work.”

When we move away from the near-literal infection framing, to a more metaphorical one, the disease metaphor is no longer sufficient to clearly get us their conclusions. Instead, we are left with the simpler observation that certain ideas fit better with certain personalities and methods of argumentation based on those ideas’ internal structure. The incentive structures given by those ideas, though, must still pass through the reasons and interpretations of those encountering them. Those features of fit are not buttons and levers that mechanically control our rejection or acceptance of ideas. We hold ideas, they do not hold us.

What is important about this difference is that it changes the way we see the surrounding circumstances in which ideas spread. The primary distinction between an idea and a germ is that the former has no power independent of human interpretation. This further means that the relevant circumstances to consider in controlling the spread of an idea are the social circumstances which frame our experience and influence interpretations. These circumstances are not physically given, they are products of human interaction.  

Therefore, figuring out how to best combat fascism can’t just be about looking at fascism’s features. It also has to involve evaluating what background conditions will make the appeals of fascism more plausible to those receiving those appeals.

Fascist Methods in the Context of Political Violence

Emmi & Logan do an excellent job outlining the sorts of biases, heuristics, and fallacies that fascists exploit. They also correctly identify the reason fascists rely on them so heavily. Fascism’s total inversion of liberalism gives it a disrespect for reason, mirroring liberalism’s reverence for it. It is a kind of anti-thought, and is therefore incentivized towards strategies that “appeal… not through reason, but by routing around reason.”

It is worth asking, then, whether these tactics fare better or worse against a background of violent conflict. We should closely consider how our tactics might affect the perspective of the marginal potential fascist, and therefore influence their interpretations of fascist appeals.[2]

Fascists, note Emmi & Logan, rely on a narrative that productive dialogue with non-whites – and realistically, with non-fascists – is impossible. This attempts to inflame already-pervasive in-group tendencies so that counter-arguments will be ignored.

It is difficult to imagine what we, as anti-fascists, could do to better help that narrative than to explicitly affirm the idea that dialogue is impossible and any engagement must be one of physical force. Similarly, their teamspeak and anti-intellectualism have higher salience against the backdrop of events like “the Battle of Berkeley” where all that we see are two “sides” facing off with violence. Richard Spencer himself seems to take particular glee when clashes break out. There he can appeal to listeners that if you are a white person on the right, it does not matter if you actually are a white nationalist – you will be targeted as if you are. For the purposes of his propaganda, it does not matter whether or not the people attacked in any given case actually were non-fascists. It just matters that he has been given a context with which he can make the claim.

Fascist attempts to control the narrative, either by promulgating falsehoods or labeling truth as falsehood, also have more uptake when political violence becomes normalized. When you are worried – rightly or wrongly – about your physical safety, you grasp onto any information you can get your hands on. When a group has explicitly affirmed the use of political violence, it is especially easy to concoct fictional stories of political violence about them. When a group becomes associated with political violence, it also becomes easier to argue that the information they’re giving you is false. After all, it is normally plausible to suggest that a person comfortable with assault and battery is comfortable with libel and slander.

Fascism’s pretense of forbidden knowledge is also amplified in a context where fascists are being physically attacked. Combined with the lie that their opposition is just a bunch of Marxists and progressives, they can claim to be the most serious opponents of the totalitarian and authoritarian left.

This feeds into the fact that fascists, as Emmi & Logan note, regularly claim that aggression and domination are inevitable. This appeal is meant to provoke the listener into ignoring ethical concerns and choosing to “defend themselves” by becoming a fascist. A context of political violence draped in WWII memes can make some more receptive to that argument. That context can also instill a sense of nihilism – that what matters is not abstract values, what matters is being on the winning side of an inevitable war.

Finding the Cure

I also want to note that there is much I agree with in Emmi & Logan’s article. In my last post, I said that we needed something more sustainable than “No Platform” but more quickly available than “civilization” to deal with this sudden surge of fascists. Much of what they say in the section titled “Part 3: Winning the Meme War” gives us an idea of those tools that lie between “No Platform” and “civilization.”

That discussion is also couched in a memetics framework, but the basic ideas do not require it. We ought to both help those susceptible to fascism’s appeals realize the seriousness of what they’re getting into and provide a space for them to exit. We ought to familiarize ourselves with fascist ideas so that we can better spot and combat them. We ought to expose fascist misinformation and promulgate easily digestible corrections. So on and so forth.

However, notice again how stepping away from the overly literal disease theory of fascism repositions these points. We must take stock of the way that surrounding circumstances will impact people’s interpretive frameworks. This is what I meant in my first post by saying that the decision to use aggressive violence as a tactic is necessarily a decision to use aggressive violence as your primary tactic. Because it creates a new context around which all other tactics must adjust. For the reasons I have given here and previously, the fundamentally liberal tactics of discursive warfare lose their force when shoved into a context of political violence.  

[1] There are of course assorted cases – see the Atlantic profile on Andrew Anglin, which notes that in high school he had a “FUCK RACISM” patch on his backpack, and well into his 20s bemoaned the effects of white influence on the globe. However, as that profile shows, there are several unique things about Anglin’s personality that make him an exception. Furthermore, his lapse into ideological racism does not appear to have initially come from contact with racist ideas.

[2] This is obviously not to say that the perspective the marginal potential fascist is the one that most morally matters. In fact, if someone is already in the position of being a marginal potential fascist, there’s probably something very blameworthy about the way they’ve cultivated themselves that’s gotten them there. The ultimate blame for them becoming fascists, if they do, is on them. My purpose here, though, is to talk frankly about strategy and tactics. The stakes are too high for us to ignore what works due to misplaced and misused moralizing.

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