No, That’s Not What Fascism Is
A while back I got an email, the same email I get regularly, telling me to be alert for a new fascist on the streets. These are reasonably common given what I usually write about, and sometimes prove useful in figuring out how the white nationalist movement is shifting and evolving, threatening violence into communities already at siege. This was not one of those.
Instead, it was telling me that an editor of Gods & Radicals had gone over the edge into the “fascist creep” and that I should join in outing them as such, not to mention I should refuse to write for them. The reason for this email seems to be a recent social media post by that editor in which they disagree, in strong terms, with the doxing of far-right people as an antifascist tactic. This angered many and, given some of the rumbling whispers about Gods & Radicals, it seems that the perception of the institution reached a tipping point. Now there was some fascism.
For some, this wasn’t the first transgression. Posts about radical environmentalism, esotericism, anti-modernity, and the like seems to give pause to people on the outside, all in a flurry of looking for signs of something sinister.
Social media itself has played a curious role in the development of modern antifascism, as, really, in organizing and the radical left more broadly. Much faster than antifascist publications in the past, new information about neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and the Alt Right can appear, quickly spreading and informing communities targeted by their violence and in support of antifascist organizers in creating counter-responses. This has been incredibly true with Facebook Pages and Twitter accounts where quick photos and screen grabs are able to disseminate much more quickly than article links because they are native to the platform, and therefore the algorithm gives them more sway in news feeds. This creates an ultra-quick cycle, but it also requires a reference point to decode them. What is the difference between a racist post and a white nationalist post? Is there really a difference?
At the same time, we have entered a period when the U.S. far-right (perhaps just the far-right in general) has completely disconnected from many of its previous incarnations into a space that often employs leftist critiques, strategies, aesthetics, and even allies, as well as highlighting meta-political strategies of art, culture, and spirituality as a method for social entryism. This is to say that swastikas, though still frequent, are less what people are looking for, and instead there is an entire generation looking through social media posts trying to decode fairly esoteric and antiquated semiotics in an effort to figure out if someone is a fascist or just strange.
In this world of syncretism, and especially Red-Brown alliances, how are we even to know the difference? If a person has on their profile a series of European pagan references, attacks on liberal democracy, and, now, rhetoric antifascists (including myself) find offensive, what does that make them?
There has to be a reliable base point when we are looking at something we think to be fascist, especially when it runs a certain level of subtlety that isn’t apparent on its own terms. I have defined fascism using two key primary points: inequality and essentialized identity.
Inequality: The belief that human beings are not equal for immutable reasons, such as intelligence, capacity, spiritual caste, etc. This inequality is not just fact, but it is a sacrament, meaning that society should be constructed with cleanly defined hierarchies, which are natural, and that society would then be healthier when those hierarchies are made explicit and enforced. This also lends itself to the importance of elitism, that there must be an elite ruler caste, even though they usually reject the existing ruling class.
Essential identity: Our identities are fixed and define us, they are not socially constructed or chosen. The most common of these is racial given white nationalism as the dominant form of Western fascism, but it could also include gender (male tribalism), specific ethnicities (inter-European nationalism), sexual orientation (extreme queer-phobia), or religion (Hindutva). And when I say essentializing identities I mean that it is not just an identity that is true (like being of African heritage), but that the identity defines you in some way as incidence.
There are several points that I consider very important in the definition of fascism, but often put just secondary to the two critical points. This would include a mythology about its tribal group, the sanctity of violence, revolutionary strategy (in some degree), authoritarianism, populism, and the appropriation of the Left. While these almost always exist in relationship to fascism, they are not defining of fascism because they may exist outside of fascism. It is not uncommon to interact with revolutionary left movements that are authoritarian or fetishize violence, and while that may be abhorrent, it does not make them fascist.
Other people define fascism slightly different, but there is still a pretty common core that unites most definitions or understandings that think about fascism as a specific ideological tract.
Robert O. Paxton, who is often thought of as the progenitor of Comparative Fascist Studies, defines fascism more as a process rather than just an idea. In his famous study, The Anatomy of Fascism, he looks at what a fascist movement is in the context of its formation rather than a concept separate from its existing politics.
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
The opening part relates to that point of mythology, but also looks at the motivations of a mass fascist movement that is rooted in feelings of victimhood. The mass-based party refers to the populism, a popular political movement that requires common participation not just controlled by elite powers, aristocracy, or a capitalist class. It then discusses the way in which it could come to power, through collaboration with existing structures of dominations, in an effort to explode outward and begin further colonization. This, again, says less about its ideology, but it is still concrete: it sees itself as a conscious movement that is heading towards explicit goals defined by its popularity, nationalism, and violent expansion.
Much of my own definition of fascism comes in the wake of academic Roger Griffin’s popular definition, which comes in contrast to Paxon’s in that it tries to look at the essential core of fascism’s ideas to understand it. With this he looks at common ideological components to different fascist movements in different parts of the world at different times, trying to sum it up as best as possible. With this he uses the phrase, “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of ultranationalism.”
This is, again, a mythological sense of group (essentialized) identity, that then becomes a driving tribalist force. He sees it both as autonomous, meaning not just a tool of the ruling class, and revolutionary, in that it must unseat the current power structures to instate a counter-institution. This is a process to find what Michael Freeden tried to nail down as the “fascist minimum,” which is what the base factors that would have to get involved across different times, places, types of communities, and conditions. This “ineliminable core” would be constant even if the specific myths and drive would be different. It is often this factor, the search for a how fascism might look in a context disconnected from a European past, that gets people beating the drum to analyze every possible subculture looking for palingenesis. Griffin would argue that there is a vast family of ideas, all with different characters and permutations, all of which would look very different while hailing back to an “ideal type” based on “ultra-nationalist” tribalism and a utopian vision that drives it as a social movement. That ideal type would then be not utopian as such, but a particular type characterized by hierarchy, essentialized identity, done together by rebirth.
Antifascist writer Matthew N. Lyons builds on Griffin while also considering the Marxist critiques that point out the contradictory nature of capitalism to fascism.
“Fascism is a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.”
Lyons emphasizes the point that fascism’s form of hierarchical domination is in contrast to existing structures of which the same could be said in a broad sense, but this movement is meant to unseat the current make-up in favor of something much more profoundly hierarchical. This is line with the concept of “three-way fight,” with which Lyons contributes, that outlines the idea that in revolutionary struggles there are often three, not two, actors. This could be the revolutionary force of the marginalized classes (the Left), the forces of capital, and then a reactionary element of the broad working class that may find allegiance with parts of capital.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other definitions, but there is a reference point here. Fascism is not just the extraneous pieces that are often attached to it, no matter how persistent they are. In the end, there are key aspects of it that are reasonably constant, and there is a way of differentiating them that doesn’t just look at specific signals but is able to understand what underlies them. The two factors, for me, are then the belief in an innate inequality of humans mixed with an essentialized identity that defines them, all wrapped together in a mythology of the past that validates those two tent poles and a fear that drives a populist mass movement.
This process has become incredibly difficult when it comes to esoteric fringes of the fascist movement: Third Positionist philosophical projects that lean into fascist ideas while also taking from completely non/antifascist places simultaneously. But this means picking apart what the underlying ideas and motivations actually are, what are the ideological patterns that found it, what its base looks like in regard to the superstructure.
The accusation that often comes up is one that Alexander Reid Ross has defined as “Creeping Fascism,” the process that ideological synthesis allows fascist ideas and movements to creep into spaces normally associated with the left. Over his book, Against the Fascist Creep, he chronicles this happening in anti-imperialist/post-colonial movements through the allegiances with nationalist factions inside national liberation movements, in environmental movements through allyship with racist and anti-immigrant ecologies, and many other examples, all showing a slide in the direction of the far-right from movements previously cemented on the radical left. In this way Ross alludes to the “process” of fascism, similar to Paxon’s description.
This process, or “creep,” takes place through the “positive” intermingling of conservatism, parafascism, and hardcore fascist groups, as much as it is a result of the “negative” distinction of fascists identifying themselves in isolation.
“If we consider the left’s embrace of equality as its defining characteristic, fascism remains decisively on the right. However, fascism also embraces aspects of social and ecological movements usually attributed to the left. The shared ideological space cannot be tidily blamed on co-optation, although many fascists embrace co-optation and “entryism.” Instead, fascism emerges as a unique response to the same material conditions. It lies at the extremes of ideology, courting the public through a rejection of conventional conservatism and a call for the return of a golden era.”
This process of “creeping fascism” on areas of the left is well known as Third Positionism, defined as fascism centered on anti-capitalism and other critiques known on the left, has dominated the growth of post-war Western fascism. The intellectual wing of the far-right, philosophers and artists, lie almost exclusively in this synthesis, and the growth of far-right subcultures that are reviving fascist music, spiritual, and academic traditions have led to the experience of discovering a fascist in corners least expected. Ross outlines this as having two distinct processes for the shift in of fascist influences into left spaces:
“It draws on left-wing notions of solidarity and liberation into ultrantationalist, right-wing ideology
At least in its early stages, fascists often utilize “broad front” strategies, proposing mass-based, nationalist platform to gain access to mainstream political audiences and key administrative positions.”
While the second point is often discussed in terms of internationalist relationships between the left and non-Western nationalism, currently Russia and Syria, it is the first that signals the process of concern in subcultural leftist spaces. A particular political point, such as anti-capitalism, may be shared by the far-right and far-left for different reasons, yet that common cause creates the opportunity for cross-over, facilitating the option for blending of ideas. The far-right has increasingly focused on left-wing rhetoric, strategy, and tactics, but for vastly different ends, and that final difference is what is important to highlight.
The supposed creep of fascism does not indicate a particular political point in its uniqueness, such as anti-capitalism, deep ecology, or anything else. Instead, there is a multitude of perspectives that can appropriate critiques for a variety of end games, some left, some right. The creep is the adaptation of those right-wing motivations, the pre-political values and goals that lead to political and social choices. If the left opposes capitalism because of its inherent creation of inequality, the far-right’s opposition is that it destroys “organic hierarchy” and is not inherent and enforced inequality. If they can both agree on an opposition to the alienation caused by capitalism, that does not make them synonymous since their vision of the problematic nature of that alienation is fundamentally at odds.
This distinction is not obvious, not easy, and cannot shortened to 140 characters (or 280). The reality is that when we are talking about fascism, and not just obvious racism, we are talking about complicated motivations, utopian visions, and meta-politics, and complicated analysis and challenging ideas need to be looked at with seriousness, and a reference point, and flash judgements simply do not work well. It is easy when an Alt Right person types a racial slur, it is hard when they are discussing perenniallist philosophy. This does not play well on a quick social media cycle, and that makes sense since the threat of white nationalist violence and influence over social movements is real, immediate, and dangerous.
For Gods & Radicals, this presents more than a few problems. If you wanted a library of items that the right has used both as deep ideological signifiers and dog whistles, you will find it here. Runes, anti-civ commentary, deep ecology, anti-modernism, and, in a way the most controversial, European paganism. All of these things have been tainted by the conscious appropriation by the fascist right, all of which have created a sense of suspicion in the left. The problem here is none of this is fascism, because fascism has a definition and it is not runes or primitivism. It is the deep and essentialized identity and inequality, and that can be attached to critiques of symbolic culture or ultra-futurism or free market capitalism. It has, very recently, come under the guises of romantic neofolk and theodinist heathenry, but it just as easily came attached to a three-pieced suit or motorcycle leathers because what makes fascism fascism is not anything other than its common principles, and everything else is incidental.
So, what did this guy even fucking say?
He posted a critique of doxing as a tactic used by antifascists to confront, and disarm, white nationalists. The post makes a correlation between the doxing used by antifascists, which reveal the personal information of a white nationalist to an employer or other stakeholder to get them fired and retaliated against, to the same process done against queer people. The author then made comments about fascists and antifascists mirror each other, which seemed to add insult to injury in the minds of most people.
I shouldn’t make any question about this, I think this is an incredibly silly and simple statement. The difference between the antifascist use of doxing and the use of doxing against queer people is not in the tactic, but in the goal and the offense. Queer people, as a marginalized group who faced actual oppression, experienced the extra-judicial violence against them, including doxing, as the extension of a massive infrastructure of oppression. The doxing of them was to expose them to the bigotry of their employers, and to weaponized that bigotry against them. The inverse of this is doxing fascists, who now face repudiation by their employer because of the problems that mass movements present to those employers if they continue to work with the white nationalist. This is an action which shifts the balance of power from the employer back to the community and forces an antifascist standard to be applied extra-judicially. In this way it does not rely on the state, but instead on the strength of what the community can accomplish together.
Likewise, and maybe most importantly, it is demonstrably effective. The Alt Right has seen a massive dissolution since Charlottesville, a point that should not be debatable when looking at the size of their organizations, media presence, and the ability of open and explicit white nationalists to organize. This is the result of organized antifascism, which put pressure on their platforms, shut down their public events, and to dox them, making it much more difficult and costlier to be involved in these organizations. It then helps to dissolve the less committed sphere that exists around any white nationalist movement, leading only the core. Leaders without anyone to lead. In the words of white nationalist leaders themselves, from Richard Spencer to Andrew Anglin to many others, it was this massive antifascist wave that did it, and doxing was one of the most effective of these because it mobilized the power of mass public scrutiny.
The last sentence was basically parroting back a line popular on the right, which is basically to say, “antifascists are the REAL fascists,” a silly bit of wordplay that we honestly shouldn’t have to entertain at this point. The answer to that is, again, one is fascist as defined above, and one is not. Tactics don’t make fascism any more than rune tattoos do.
There is a critique of doxing to be had, however. When doxing is used by organizers, it puts pressure on the employer to use their tools to “hire and fire” to enact the will of the community. It has been argued that this helps to reinforce the legitimacy an employer has to actually fire people by suggesting that there is acceptable and ethical firing in a workplace, which is a concept under attack by the worker’s movement for 150 years. This could, theoretically, make it easier for workplaces to target members of the left, particularly marginalized communities, for similar treatment.
The problem is that the statement in question never mentioned this, nor do many of these critiques, and the process by which doxing takes place is one that centers itself in community pressure to influence institutions. If those workplaces and their HR departments are relied on to be agents against oppression then we have already lost, but if it is about the cause and effect of a community united together, then we are relying on the popular democracy of our neighbors rather than corporate structures or state statutes.
So, in my opinion, the statement that was posted was wrong. As wrong as wrong could be. But nothing about it indicates fascism because, if we assume anything to be consistent, then it would have to actually meet some commonly understood standard. The definition of fascism can be fuzzy, and can evolve, but it has to have a core to mean anything at all, and to apply it to idiocy or offensiveness on its own does nothing to create clarity in how to fight it. Fascism is a word that means something, and it is not everything awful, everything problematic, or everything that shares a cultural or tactical heritage. It must be rooted in those fundamental principles otherwise it has a different character.
Gods & Radicals is an easy target for a left that lacks a critical space. It talks about paganism, civilization, romanticism, all things running counter to the narrow space that even the radical left exists in in Europe and the U.S., and that is where it is at its best. The way that fascism attempts to recruit inside the radical left is that in periods of deconstruction, when basic ideas about society and self are being challenged, that is the moment when perceptions become malleable. Everything has come into question. The reaction by some has been to then avoid these iconoclasms since it bears resemblance to the right. But this misses the point entirely, because it is not the journey into abyss that defines who we are, but key fundamental ideas that we bring back. We may never get a perfect litmus test for how to see the kernel of fascism at first glance, but we have some standard principles for what it really is even if it shares superficial elements with communities and traditions wholly its opposite. And this isn’t fucking it.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1