Fighting Fascism in a Complex World: A Response to William Gillis

There are many threads in Will’s post, spiraling out in several different directions, and it would be impossible for me to fully respond to all of them within the length appropriate for a response post. Furthermore, much of what I have already said can be cross-applied to his post – for instance, he seems to rely on a disease theory of fascism, so my response to Emmi & Logan is also a response to him. For this reason, this post will mostly focus on a particular division between Will’s view and mine.

This is that he fails to sufficiently account for the complexity of social phenomena. This is a product of his resistance to acknowledging anarchism’s specifically liberal character. Like many illiberals, he treats social reality as basically frozen apart from the intended effects of his favored interventions. Will is not assuming these interventions can be carried out by the state, but this does not stop him, unfortunately, from falling into some of the same analytical traps common to more state-friendly approaches.

For example, Will repeatedly appeals to the precision and care of actual antifa groups.1 Will argues that due to that precision and care, combined with their lack of centralized power, they can more directly pursue consequentialist goals, rather than relying on general rules. I agree with Will that it is less dangerous for antifa groups to adopt a policy of violently shutting down fascist rallies than for states to institutionalize that aggression by adopting a similar position. Unlike progressives and much of the left, then, we can agree that the ACLU’s pre-Charlottesville position is the bare minimum free speech standard applied to the state.

The problem is that Will shares with progressives a static view of the social world beyond the preferred institutions of change, forgetting that antifa activists are not the only actors in society. He treats antifa the way a progressive might treat the state, writing as if they can just achieve desired ends by performing surgical strikes with no unintended consequences, as long as the right people with the right expertise are authorizing that violence. When we take complexity more seriously, we have to consider the way other agents might readjust their plans after Will’s suggested actions, and this gives us reason to doubt his proposals.

In the following sections, I will give some examples of how this more dynamic and liberal view of the social world poses problems for his position. In closing, I will briefly respond to some of the more normative points raised by Will.

You Are Not the Only Audience

I agree with Will that actual antifa groups typically make a point to focus on actual fascists. However, he greatly overestimates how much that matters. One of the easiest ways to break down a social norm is for a large group of people to violate it in a highly visible way and remain indignant about that violation. When you bust holes in a fence, both those who understand why it was there and those who don’t can pass through. Carefully targeted aggressions from actual antifa groups can easily pave the way to more careless imitators.

These points are not hypothetical, either. Consider campus shutdowns of speakers who, while right-wing and disdainful in many ways, are simply not fascists by any non-hyperbolic definition. One such case left a faculty member injured. These stories are greatly overplayed by conservative media outlets in an attempt to create a narrative that civilization is crumbling at the hands of leftist rioters, but isolated cases have happened. That these events are not the product of established antifa groups does not mean that they can be treated as irrelevant to the actions Will prefers.

Given this leakage that has already happened at the level of interpersonal violence, I am simply unpersuaded by Will’s claim that taking a hammer to free speech norms could not also make way for state violence towards that end. It is true that antifa groups are overwhelmingly made up of anarchists uninterested in giving the state any power to regulate speech. However, the discourse involved in defending their preferred strategies has consequences beyond getting people to accept antifa’s surgical strikes.

I would ask Will to take an honest look at the character of the “of course it’s okay to punch a Nazi” discourse that has been part and parcel of the decentralized antifa PR campaign, especially as it is employed by people from outside the groups he considers antifa proper. Among other things, it has involved a constant mockery of “liberalism” and atrocious jokes about “freeze peach” – neither of which are exactly helpful for defending free speech norms even when applied to the state. It is no surprise, then, that we see hordes of progressives and leftists attacking the ACLU as a bunch of white supremacists.

Will does go some way towards recognizing the presence of this problem. Yet when he does so, he treats these illiberal narratives as disconnected from the illiberal tactics he endorses. Perhaps it is possible to normalize specific sorts of aggressive violence against assembly without normalizing other cases. That possibility is at least non-obvious, however, and observably requires more than whatever has been done towards that end so far.  

Already-Committed Fascists Are Also Not the Only Audience

Will’s static view of the social world is also present in the way he considers the question of how aggressive violence against fascist assembly might garner sympathy for fascists. He treats this question as if the only people in question here are already-committed fascists disposed to personally carrying out violence. Such a person, of course, has already rejected non-aggression, so Will concludes that an aggressive punch will not be any more outrageous to them than a defensive punch. After all, the distinction between aggression and defense is one they are not especially concerned about in the first place.

The first (less significant) problem with this analysis is that it relies on far too rationalistic a picture of moral psychology than is plausible. We call things like moral intuitions “common sense” because they are the sort of thing that everyone can be brought to see. Sometimes our abstract theories can blind us and make moral facts harder to see, but we will still feel the pull of the relevant intuitions, however faintly. A bullet-biting utilitarian will still feel uncomfortable with the idea of punishing the innocent, and even the most orthodox Kantians want to lie to the murderer at the door. It is much like if I were to personally see a sea monster rising up out of Loch Ness. My abstract theory that there is no Loch Ness monster will lead me to initially interpret it as a hoax, but I will still see it. In that same way, we have reason to think that even the committed fascist will feel more outraged about violence done to them when it is aggressive than when it is defensive. That this difference in outrage relies on a distinction they reject in the abstract is irrelevant.

More importantly, though, Will misunderstands the point by considering only the already committed fascist who fully rejects non-aggression in a fairly self-aware way. This treats the set of people potentially sympathetic to fascism as a basically uniform group, holding the same values with the same confidence for the same reasons. Becoming a fascist is not as sudden, binary, and all-or-nothing of a leap as Will presumes. I suspect that his implicit characterizations to the contrary come from accepting a disease theory of fascism – if ideas just leap from one person to another like germs, individual interpretations are not particularly important and do not create significant variation.

Yet if we see the marginal potential fascist as a human being rather than a zombie, we see that the social circumstances around them can greatly affect the subjective plausibility of fascist claims. I already said a good deal about this in my response to Emmi & Logan, so I will not go into great detail here.

Responding more specifically to Will, though, look at it this way: As he rightly notes in passing, overtly totalitarian communism (and toleration of those views) has become much more prominent within the radical left over the past few years. Someone might understandably say that the sorts of people who are going to make “Stalin did nothing wrong” memes have already accepted brutal aggression as the motor of the world, so it is not worth looking further into the circumstances which have made those views more appealing. Yet while it is true that only they are ultimately responsible for their falls in a moral sense, our analysis should not terminate there. It is not the case that people just wake up one morning and find themselves wearing a Red Army helmet. They get pulled in that direction by a long string of fears and circumstances – and a rising white supremacist movement is almost certainly a major factor.

When the President is Donald Trump and white supremacists hold torch-lit rallies, Bolshevism can be a hyperbolic refuge for thrashing out in opposition to such threats. It is unclear why the same kind of cultural blowback is not a plausible consequence of a strategy reliant upon aggressive political violence. People who become sympathetic to fascism due to perceiving social chaos when they look at political violence against fascists are unequivocally singularly morally responsible for their falls. That does not, however, change the fact that we ought to think seriously about what contexts make those falls more likely to happen.

As is often noted, a common fascist tactic is to dress up like more pedestrian right-wingers, knowing that they will be physically attacked, so that they can later push a narrative of antifa attacking ordinary Republicans. We should push back against these narratives at every opportunity, but we should also do more than that. We should stop giving them the opportunity to push those narratives in the first place. A crucial first step is to stop obediently going along with their plans by physically attacking them. There is a reason that this is a common fascist tactic, and we ignore that reason at our peril.2

Even the marginal potential fascist does not go from saying “Democrats are the real racists” and sharing Milo Yiannopoulos videos to emblazoning swastikas on their chest and joining fascist paramilitary groups overnight. In order to move them there, fascist propagandists need material with which they can craft certain narratives – that civilization is under attack, that The Left is unwilling to dialogue, that the culture war is becoming a literal war, and that your side will be picked for you whether you like it or not.

In all seriousness, I ask that you listen to Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Mike Enoch, Augustus Invictus, Christopher Cantwell, and other cretins on the Alt-Right. Because this is what they are saying. They are trying to escalate conflict because they know well that conflict is the condition in which movements like theirs thrive.

Sometimes defenders of strategies that incorporate aggression against fascist assembly bring up the fact that antifa groups have been around for decades, often using these same strategies, without those strategies feeding fascism. Among other problems with this point is that the average person had absolutely no idea who “antifa” even was until the last couple of years. We are now in a unique position where these tactics are under discussion on cable news and in publications like The New York Times.

Parts of Will’s post indicate that he agrees with much of what I said about the limits to any kind of “No Platform” strategy. Any such strategy – violent or not – does nothing to reverse the real problem; at best it could only slow things down. Will and I also agree that the real solution, that of general civilizational progress, has too long of a timescale to rely upon alone. We diverge in that Will does not seriously consider the possibility that aggression against fascist assembly might actually be counterproductive. It is not just that “No Platform” strategies are insufficient, it is that they can worsen the problem when they take the form of aggressive violence. That we should be mindful of timescales and more immediate threats is not a reason to take actions that ultimately shorten those timescales and strengthen our immediate threats by helping fascists disrupt the social shields of what liberalism we have already achieved.

Will is correct that the pressing danger is not “51% of the American population voting for a swastika LARPer on an explicit platform of genocide.” It is instead, as he suggests, “that the fascist fringe spreads terror, pushes the Overton window to make hyper-nationalism and racism acceptable in public, and gradually detaches the actual power of the state (the police and their guns) from the more reserved liberal legal apparatus supposedly constraining them.”

This is essentially what I meant in my first post by saying that we must focus on “the narrative” because “controlling the narrative is ultimately the whole point.” It is not the whole point in the sense of winning public opinion polls, it is the whole point in the sense of defending existing social norms against fascism, paramilitary groups, and everything else Will describes. There are certain cultural conditions under which fascism flourishes and those in which it quickly withers. Among our primary concerns must be defending the latter against flare-ups of the former.

To Win the War, We Must Refuse It

The way in which Will ignores the costs of escalation is worsened by a kind of war hunger that seeps throughout his post. This is despite the fact that he explicitly says he “absolutely … [does] not want a civil war,” and that we ought to avoid one “as much as conceivably possible.” For only a few paragraphs below that, he asks “why the fuck should we not consider ourselves at war with fascists when they consider themselves at war with us and are actively killing people?”

Even more important than the emphatic claim that we are in a literal war is the reason that Will makes it. He does so in an attempt to paint those who resist calls for aggressive violence as either self-righteous, oblivious, or both, as if those war resisters “embrace a high-horse fatalism … [of] ‘well okay, we’ll all die, but I’ll die with my soul intact.’” The argumentative problem with this remark is clear: it is an obvious strawman, seeing as virtually everyone who opposes strategies of aggressive violence does so, in part, for tactical reasons. I want to focus instead on the dangerousness of the narrative to which Will’s reasoning contributes.

As Will himself says, escalation into literal warfare would be horrific in its direct consequences – “the baby gets split, no one wins, the death toll is unimaginable.” That Will only factors in those direct consequences, though, further reveals his static image of the social world.

As I said in my original post, escalation to literal warfare with fascists would almost certainly set a social pretext for the existing government – if you need a reminder, that’s the Trump administration – to authorize whatever brutal crackdowns they want.3 One of the most basic insights for almost every libertarian and anarchist is that war is the health of the state. Will’s continuous push for escalating violence and seeing ourselves as already being in literal warfare is therefore unavoidably a push for circumstances that would further empower the most ideologically authoritarian President in over half a century.

The problems don’t end there, though. War is not just the health of the existing state, it is the health of illiberal impulses more generally. Hardening oneself to intentionally commit aggressive violence with regularity requires shutting down empathy. It requires discipline and conformity to a central animating purpose that ties you to those jointly-engaged in your aggressions. This is the reason that war is the health of the state. It is the reason that the state itself is born of war. It is among the reasons that even revolutions with the most liberatory dreams so frequently beget the most brutally authoritarian governments.

The ideas that thrive in physical conflicts are not those that center reason and cooperation. They are not those that demand loving one’s enemies and seeing yourself in the other. They are not those that preach toleration of difference or resolving disputes through open discourse.

The ideas that thrive in physical conflicts are the ones that center loyalty and submission. They are the ones that paint other human beings as mindless beasts that need to be put down. They are the ones that penalize dissent and treat attempts at merely understanding the enemy as collaboration with the devil.

This is how I understand the main point of Grant Babcock’s contribution. Yes, actual antifa groups are almost uniformly made up of anarchists, not Marxists. People like Will, Emmi, Logan and various others in this exchange are even more consistent in that anarchism, given the influence of libertarianism on their views. However, that is not enough.

Different methods make sense for different values. We cannot treat the efficacy of a given tactic as generic between different movements. Direct applications of aggressive violence make sense for movements that value domination. They do not make sense for those who value social harmony, freedom, and understanding. To be clear, this is not an ethical point, it is a tactical one.

For if violence escalates, there is no plausible case in which anarchists rise to the top of that conflict. It is most likely that the right-wing authoritarians already in power would further consolidate that power through such a conflict. It is also possible that the fascists would see massive recruitment, control actual territory, and actually rise to the ISIS-level threat that Will asserts they are. It is even possible that the Bernie-to-Bolshevik pipeline rapidly speeds up and expands, making the Bob Avakians of the world a bit less of a joke. Whatever happens, though, it would not be a return to the pre-2014 world, and it certainly would not be a step forward towards liberation.

Respect for Persons Is a Scale-Independent Proposition

Throughout Will’s contribution, he makes analogies between fascists and recruiters for either ISIS or the military. As I understand him, the purpose of these comparisons is to suggest that we ought to see violent disruption of ISIS & military recruiters’ activities as justified, and we therefore also ought to see violent disruption of fascist assembly as justified. I have so far been focusing on tactical considerations, and there are many points there that can be cross-applied here. However, since Will’s argument here is about ethics, I will similarly switch my focus to normative considerations.

Will’s analogy becomes less clear when we break down the categories of fascists, Islamist theocrats, and military supporters into more distinct categories. The randomly selected fascist assembled in public to support fascism (either as a speaker or an attendee) is not comparable to actual recruiters, strictly speaking, for either ISIS or the military. In terms of the military, they are analogous instead to those who participate more vicariously in the culture of war – the ones demanding that we “support our troops,” penning horrible songs about the glories of the American soldier, or writing widely-read columns arguing for war. In terms of terrorism motivated by theocratic Islamism, they are more like pro-terrorist clerics who preach in favor of these terrorist organizations and the states they seek to construct.

I for one believe that the United States military’s drone-strike execution of Anwar al-Awlaki for what were essentially speech crimes was morally indefensible for reasons over and above collateral damage and due process. I suspect that most anarchists (of any flavor) would similarly diverge here from the Gillis-Obama-Trump consensus.

Moving to the military analogy, Gillis would say that there are strategic reasons that physically assaulting every participant in the broader culture of war is unnecessary and therefore unjust. Consider for a moment, though, how staggering a conclusion that is on its own. Virtually everyone who is not ideologically committed to anarchism has at one point or another participated in the culture of war. This is also true of the culture that supports punitive incarceration and many other state crimes. On Will’s view, strategic violence against each and every one of these people is a morally available option in the right tactical situation.

This means that on the grounds given by Will, what ought to stop us from brutally repressing the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population is not the fact that they are persons deserving of freedom and respect. It is just the fact that there is not a clear of way doing it that would work.

I take the basic tenets of anarchism to be both ethical and tactical. If forced to choose, I would say that the ethical aspects are primary. I know that the same is true of Will. However, the position he argues for in this context effectively reduces the rationale for not violently repressing almost everyone we have ever met to tactical considerations. The strategic silencing of empathy encouraged by this mindset is on full display when he rhetorically asks with exasperation, “Oh for the love of – why should anyone care about Nazi organizers getting beat up?”

As I said in my first post, rejoicing in violence against fascists even when that violence is merely expressive is understandable. Fascists, by being fascists, have announced their affiliation with many of the worst crimes in human history. In some ways, they are worse than the average member of the actual Nazi Party was, because they look back at Hitler’s Germany and revere it in full knowledge of what it wrought.

Yet if we want to make the repetition of those crimes impossible, we must refuse their accompanying philosophies of enmity and brutality. We must have a total hatred for fascism, the state, white supremacy, and every other constraint on human freedom. Entailed by that total hatred of oppression and the ideas that enable it is a total respect for every single person. This includes our enemies, whose actual interests we should want to further even when we are most dedicated to frustrating their perceived interests. Our goal is not conquest of Them by Us, it is universal liberation.

Will has eloquently expressed this vision elsewhere:

Your freedom is my freedom because freedom tolerates no divisions, accepts no adjectives, belongs to no one. There is simply freedom or constraint. Liberation or rulership. This common empathy in liberty is the foundation that makes anarchy a coherent idea, that makes a world without rulership conceivable.

It is no accident that liberalism both normatively embodies a clear and inalterable respect for persons and descriptively sees a social world of massive complexity and perpetual change. For the liberal vision is in part distinguished from others in that it consistently remembers that persons are persons. As persons, they are not subject to coerced conscription into the plans of other persons. As persons, their power of free choice further makes futile any such plan, because the planner is mistaken in assuming that only their intentions will play a role in determining the final consequences.

As Adam Smith explains in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:4

The man of system … is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so [enamored] with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might [choose] to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Retreats from liberalism bring about disastrous consequences by abandoning this insight, as is seen in the failures of central planning and progressive technocracy. Will’s suggestions are nowhere close to as morally or strategically misguided as those, because he does not institutionalize this conceit through the state, nor does he generalize it beyond controlling the spread of fascism. What he neglects to remember is that these liberal lessons are scale-independent propositions. Treating persons as objects is always an error, and any calculations based on that error are unlikely to work out as planned.

  1. Unfortunately it is somewhat difficult to locate who exactly Will is talking about when he refers to antifa. Sometimes, it seems to expand to literally every group positively working against fascism and white supremacy in a decentralized way – even to the point of treating “antifascist” and “antifa activist” as if they are interchangeable terms. Yet that implicit definition greatly contracts as Will discounts both any group whose activism he agrees is overly reckless and anti-fascists who oppose particular tactics. “Antifa” it seems, is both everyone and no one, depending on the particular point Will is making at that moment. The most frustrating part of this, of course, is the occasional implication that anti-fascists who oppose strategies of aggressive violence are not really all that positively opposed to or concerned with fascism.
  2. Similarly, we ought to both push back against the numerous completely fabricated hoaxes of antifa violence against non-fascists and recognize why those hoaxes are being made. They are made because perceptions of widespread, mindless violence are rich soil for fascist recruitment. Silencing those hoaxes is much easier when they are not about movements which have, at the outset, announced their intention to commit acts of aggressive violence that they deem useful.
  3. This point is also not purely hypothetical, considering serious discussions of expanding gang classification to cover antifa, and reports that intelligence agencies are treating the movement as a domestic terrorist organization.
  4. Paragraph VI.II.42
Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory