Fighting Fascism Requires Understanding What It Isn’t: An Interview With Author Shane Burly
Fascism can exist outside the state but requires widespread working-class support
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a podcast (hosted by The UnPopulist) about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical political, social and economic freedom.
On the one hand, it seems like everyone today is calling everyone else a fascist. On the other, genuine fascism is clearly on the rise, and fascist ideas have found increasing purchase, even mainstream purchase on the right. Taken together, these two statements mean that not only should we be serious about the work of combating fascism, but we also need to be very clear on what it is and what it isn't. To help work through these important questions, I'm joined today by Shane Burly.
He's a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse and Fascism Today, What It Is and How to End It.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron: Your book is about fascism, which is a term that has, I think, especially over the course of the Trump years, been increasingly hurled about, seems like everybody calls everyone that they disagree with in the political sphere a fascist nowadays, which has led to an unwillingness to recognize anything as fascism. Before we dig into the contemporary scene, and the way that fascism plays out in the American right, let's define our terms. What does it mean for someone to be a fascist?
Shane Burly: In my book, I define fascism along two primary temples, the first being a belief in human inequality. The second being essentialized identity. Identities that choose you not identities you choose. Ones that are eternal and transcendent, that create "essences" that are beyond just their quantifications or abilities to quantify them. Then you mix in a few other characters, and some of which are secondary, some of which are just temporarily necessary. For example, fascism is a modern movement. It's one that claims to reclaim the standard bearers of the pre-Enlightenment era.
They say that this is actually how human beings normally stratify. They normally have these essentialized identities, and they normally create social stratification out of them, and the Enlightenment destroyed that with its decadent modernity that dispelled people's natural focus consciousness. The reality is that this is a very modern movement. It's not actually reclaiming an eternal past. It's actually just revolting against that. Then you can only have a fascist movement in the modern political sense. It requires, for example, mass political organization, populism.
You can't really have that in an era before there's mass participation in politics. Those are fundamentally different things. To have a fascist movement, the way that we describe it has to be in the modern context. It's necessarily revolutionary. Revolutionary, we think the core of what a revolutionary or radical movement is, it's one that tears the fundamental roots apart of a social system. Their argument is that Enlightenment liberalism has certain precepts, for example, human equality and cosmopolitanism that they have to undo.
I think the left takes issue with this, oftentimes, because fascism makes explicit what we see implicit in society. But by the same token, fascists see certain trends towards Enlightenment liberalism, individuals, and so on, they take issue with that too. That's a revolutionary project in that way. Part of that is the culture of immediacy. I put this as a secondary characteristic, but the focus on violence, violence not just as a tactic, or as a solution of problems, but as a way of creating political identity, and embodying a contra way of doing politics and doing social organization.
The way that we define that is somewhat narrow. It doesn't actually track with what a lot of people use it to mean. The term is often used to mean authoritarian or it's used to mean just bluntly racist, which is not a good use of the term either. It's used to mean maybe one particular characteristic that someone thinks is really important, like the attack on democracy, fascist are critical of democracy, because they believe again, in this stratification, and if you had a stratification, the mass participation in a horizontal way wouldn't make sense. Some people are better than others so why would everyone have a say in it.
But that's not reducible to just that one thing. We can't just say, for example, the attack on voting rights is necessarily fascist. I think this comes out of what's often called the new consensus tradition in contemporary fascism studies, particularly Roger Griffin, and Zeev Sternhell, and number of other historians that look at fascism across different cultures and times as having a certain common baseline. That's what we try and boil down. For example, I don't mention nationalism or racism in the definition of fascism, because there are forms of fascism, though in the minority, that focus on different metrics.
Violence not just as a tactic, or as a solution of problems, but as a way of creating political identity, and embodying a contra way of doing politics and doing social organization.
For example, Hindutva—Hindu nationalism—that has a slightly different sense of itself than white nationalism does, but they both carry the central core. I think when we're talking about a fascist movement, we have to talk about it in this modern, reactionary revolutionary model, which necessarily leaves out a lot of the right, the modern right, which sees itself as a standard bearer of the Enlightenment project and it’s not willing to question those underlying assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism.
Aaron: There's a lot to unpack there. Let me start that unpacking by going back to one of the first things you mentioned, which was inequality and identity, because I can imagine someone who hears you say that central to fascist ideology is a belief in inequality, and that people are different in these essential ways, and that ties into identity and essential identity, and think, oh, so is identity politics a form of fascism? And identity politics in the way that it's typically gets described as a thing of the left. The way that the right characterizes intersectionality or Critical Race Theory as being about essential identities and then differences. Are those distinct? Do you mean something different by identity when we're talking about fascism than when we're talking about what gets labeled as identity politics?
Shane: Yes. We're talking about fundamentally different things. I think what fascists do and this is, I think another kind of ubiquitous quality is that they will use not just the rhetoric of the left. I think people understand this as disingenuous, but they will actually use the functional strategic lessons of the left for their own purposes, and try and find ways of using the same language to mean fundamentally different things. They carry the same words with them. For example, you hear white nationalists talk about national liberation a lot.
Now, they're not joining the Algerian independence movement and participating in it But what they see is the language of national liberation, and even the superficial support of non-white national liberation movements, lends them a sense of credibility, if they can re-spin it that way. When we're talking about identity politics, on the left, we're talking about specifically the work of people like Kimberly Crenshaw, that were socialists first off. There's an inherent sense of human equality there. Identity politics is about looking at fulcrums of oppression and seeing within them the contradictions that can be used to organize.
If we think about in a classic Marxist sense, capitalism develops and it creates this new subjectivity through the wage relationship you have with workers. Workers are hyper-exploited by bosses, who own the means of production. That’s the basic Marxist view of it and within that, there is a contradiction. Those workers can withhold their labor, and all of a sudden, they have the ability to take the power back and flip it on its head. If that was taken to its logical conclusion, it becomes a revolutionary process that brings about something new, socialism. When you think about this, actually, in terms of intersectionality, which is the ways that different people experience different systems of oppression. Intersectionality, the term really talks about a lot of individual experiences, it doesn't necessarily talk about systems, but it implies the systematility of this. We're talking about race, talking about gender, sexual orientation that are then forced by existing cultures. But those make them, because of the contradictions, points of struggle. We acknowledge that, for example, economic solutions will not necessarily undo white supremacy. Those things actually have to happen simultaneously. We need a larger theory of it and people have to struggle around those identities.
There's a couple of really key things when we're talking about intersectionality. We're talking about identity in this way is that identity is not the same as oppression in all cases. I am Jewish, I don't think I am Jewish because antisemitism exists. I'm Jewish because I do Jewish things. That has value on its own, completely separate. You get rid of antisemitism, I continue to be Jewish. There's a lot of those celebrations that happen, some of which, for example, celebrations of Black identity and culture are a form of resistance. Those were erased. This is actually a cultural struggle. And some of them are just great things that people want to have in their lives.
What white nationalists want to do is say, "Yes, great, you're engaging in identity politics, you're fighting for your people. How great is that? Let's all return to a place where we fight for our people,” but that's actually not what's happening.
Black folks fighting and using the phrase "identity politics" are actually fighting for the eradication of white supremacy, and not just for example, Black hegemony. Or Black nationalism doesn't just extend in most cases to now it's a fight for Black dominance or something like that. I think that's important to separate those things. The liberal left does a pretty poor job unpacking what those terms mean and how they would be applied, particularly in an organizing context. What the far-right does is not just critique the left's failures, it is a critique of the left's failures.
When the left fails to explain identity politics or fails to talk about intersectionality in a way that's actually useful to people, the right is able to then take that bad interpretation—which has become pretty common— and then flip it on its head and use it. It’d say, "Yes, we're going to engage in identity politics. We're all engaging in identity politics now." Because they have the ability to create and have a large recruiting base—basically, the majority of white workers—they're able to get a lot of people then to think, and in terms of identity politics, but their identity politics, not the way in which the term was originally formulated. I think we should separate that as much as possible.
It's also certain, and I guess in a certain sense, a warning that straight identity is not sufficient grounds from which to organize. You actually have to be cross-identity… you have to find those commonalities. We're talking about the large majority of people have to be involved if you want to change society in a really positive way. I think in that way it's an implicit warning, but I think it's important to separate and say those things are just fundamentally not commensurate with one another.
I think when we're talking about a fascist movement, we have to talk about it in this modern, reactionary revolutionary model, which necessarily leaves out a lot of the right, the modern right, which sees itself as a standard bearer of the Enlightenment project.
Aaron: Is this how we get then the left are the real fascists idea that is common among a lot of the right, not even the fascist right but just conservatives? I'm thinking of, I don't know, maybe 20 years ago, Jonah Goldberg wrote a book called Liberal Fascism that seemed to be discovering that Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore the left were the real fascists. But that sort of thing does seem to be a pretty common view.
I guess one way to ask this question is: Is that stuff a conscious co-opting of leftist terminology or beliefs in order to make fascism more palatable, say? Or is there something in those kinds of beliefs that can lead someone in this direction in the way that we see happens in the wellness community, like the yoga moms to Q-Anon sort of pipeline?
Shane: I think that there is something inherent in their ideological predilections that leads them to understand politics this way. Jonah Goldberg is a good example. The Goldberg analysis, if you can call it that— and also, I should say Jonah Goldberg is very embarrassing [laughs]. We're not talking about great intellects here. The argument is basically one about—it's like a libertarian argument about social intervention. The fundamental core of fascism is its sense of social control, and liberals with their welfare state and their PC culture and stuff, they also want social control, so it's fundamentally the same thing.
Then what they'll pull at, a lot of what fascism does is it creates a critique of capitalism. It has a sort of anti-capitalism in it, and also, a social welfare component. National socialism is a socialism of a particular nationality. It's preferencing [giving preferences to some groups] using redistribution and welfare state tactics a lot of times. They'll argue that, well they [liberals] have a welfare state and that's what the liberals want, so it must be fundamentally the same thing. This is just very, very smooth brain thinking but that's where it leads to.
I think most commonly though, the liberals are the real fascists right now comes from that sense that they are actually authoritarian. It also comes from the idea that the fundamental core predilection of fascism is the destruction of free speech, and therefore liberals are engaging in a project to destroy free speech. Now, something we talk about in the book, the concept of free speech is one that's about state intervention in speech. It's not about whether or not everyone has access to speech. I don't have access to speech. I don't get to just write on the front page of The New York Times anytime I want. That's not what you're promised in free speech. I'm also not able to go on a street corner, yell racial slurs, and have no one be offended and try and stop me. I'm not owed that. This isn't an issue of free speech at all.
I think what's happening is that because basically the privilege to say and do whatever you want is understood by a lot of these folks as being the fundamental core democratic feature—their belief is to do it without consequences. That feels like it's imposing on them very severely and then that must be where fascism is coming from.
Again, this is also part of the long history of anti-communist conspiracy theories and the rhetoric, particularly entering into the early Cold War and after World War II, of flattening the differences between authoritarian ideologies. Stalin’s state communism on the one side and fascists on the other…as being two sides of the same coin. It's US against totalitarianism…it's a fetishization of American capitalist democracy in almost like Francis Fukuyama sense of this being the obvious and eternal pathway to liberation. These other things are commensurate with one another. That flattening is about creating a new binary between the capitalist west and the second world and the fascist world and these other institutions. It does have within a certain critique, it's a stupid one, but it does have coherence to it.
There's a couple of really key things when we're talking about intersectionality. We're talking about identity in this way is that identity is not the same as oppression in all cases. I am Jewish, I don't think I am Jewish because antisemitism exists. I'm Jewish because I do Jewish things.
Aaron: You said earlier that fascism is not, it sometimes gets used as a synonym for authoritarianism, and that that's not correct. What is the relationship between fascist ideology and increasing state control? Because I'm thinking about Josh Hammer, he's the editor of Newsweek's opinion section, and is an ultra-far-right national conservative. I think it's in line with a lot of what we're talking about. He has explicitly said that he sees the aim of politics is basically to reward your friends and punish your enemies. That he draws these lines, I think, in ways that are analogous to what we've been talking about.
On the other end, you have, say, people in the anarcho-capitalist circles, so they're anarchists but have a lot of…the problem with government is that it doesn't allow me to discriminate against groups. I want my little white nationalist enclave, or it wouldn't be nationalism because we wouldn't have nations in anarchist, but I want my little white community and the state has anti-discrimination laws and all these other things, so it's basically not allowing me to discriminate, but if we had perfect private property, I would be allowed to exclude based on whatever categories I see fit.
So one is authoritarian, one is at least from a state sense, not authoritarian, but they both seem to share this underlying, like, “this is the world we're aiming at.”
Identity politics is about looking at fulcrums of oppression and seeing within them the contradictions that can be used to organize.
Shane: I think it's important to decenter the state in these discourses. I have argued in my last book that fascism doesn't depend on the permanence of the state. In fact, the state is ancillary. That may be a distinction without a difference since most fascist movements we can consider have either looked for state power, or they've conceived of themselves as being something that can produce state power or state hegemony or state stability. That's not necessarily the case. If you look at especially how I define fascism, but how other people do as well, there is ways of conceiving this outside of the modern state.
Take those two examples you have, you have on the one hand people using the state control, and I think the analogy with the Newsweek editor who's basically using a distinction made by Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist, the friend-enemy distinction. You do not necessarily need what we understand as a modern state to accomplish that, you can have other institutions. There are many conceivable ways of organizing society that don't just mirror the modern state. On the other hand, you have the anarcho-capitalist, which I would say is also equally authoritarian. It just doesn't depend on the state to enact those sorts of authorities. It depends on different forms of coercion. In this way, private military would end up being what anarcho-capitalists tend to describe ends up looking more like a feudal situation where people are nobles that own property and then they have these MLM-style downturns. I think we should stop assuming that the hegemony of state control is how fascism necessarily plays itself out. One of the problems is that a lot of this early fascist writing was written when responding to rather primitive states. Italian fascism is not a very sophisticated state system. Nazi Germany wasn’t even actually a very sophisticated state.
None of them come close to what we have in modern America in terms of the ability to do surveillance and to enact sweeping law enforcement or to incarcerate people. I think instead, we have to think about this more about an approach to society and communities. That might involve a state, it might involve some other concept, and actually, it might involve a combination of the two. You think about the Nazi party is a really good example where various party functionaries, which are not necessarily always considered part of the state, have really active roles in society. Autonomous roles have the ability to enact violence, up to and including genocide.
I think we need to start to decouple this a little bit. The problem I think people have with this is that it becomes almost hopelessly theoretical at that point. What are we talking about? People really want to ground this with modern politics, and I think that's a problem because what we're doing is trying to look for practicals in a situation where the practicals never existed. We don't have modern fascist states in the way that Nazi Germany was a fascist state. We don't have them, fascist movements, responding with overwhelming control to modern states. We have far-right parties moving into power or having partial power.
There's different versions of it, but we can't, I think, make such tactile predictions about how the state will look because we have to adapt to where modern politics is at. We can make assumptions about how people might use the state or how they might go outside the state, but by just centering the state in our analysis of fascism, we end up, I think, focusing on one version of far-right ‘entryism’ into politics, and we avoid many, many others. We also negate the revolutionary potential, which actually literally might involve them smashing the state and rebuilding a new state or a counter institution.
Most fascist movements we can consider have either looked for state power, or they've conceived of themselves as being something that can produce state power or state hegemony or state stability. That's not necessarily [always] the case.
Aaron: Is it fair to characterize Trump and the hard edge of Trumpism as fascist or fascist adjacent?
Shane: Maybe fascist adjacent. I think it's a little hard to go on the “full fascist” argument I think. Also, this may be irrelevant because I think what ends up happening is people move in and out of these ideological predilections. We don't want to use the ideal type as the analysis for all fascism. Let's take something like Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer is a fascist ideologically. I don't even know that he would disagree with that description. You can look through his well thought out ideologies; spend a lot of time on this. Those are fascist ideas. There's a whole intellectual tradition…He's a part of it.
Now, is Trump the same way? No, but could he participate in a fascist movement? Yes, absolutely. I think actually, most people would engage in that way and they would respond to certain impulses. If we look at the development of actual fascist states, you actually see the role of ideological fascists with the rest of the broader right that ends up taking on their modalities maybe without buying them in their entirety. I think it's fair to see the MAGA movement as having fascist potential or being a proto-fascist movement, and including fascists and having the ability of developing the full-throated fascism in the state form if they had sufficient power.
I think the debates over what qualifies and what doesn't end up missing the point.
Aaron: How does that play into the history of these movements, let's say in the American context because when Trump first came to prominence, he was running and then he became the nominee, and then became the president. In the mainstream press, there was a lot of analysis of, especially when he would say things that I think were definitely pushing in that direction of looking fascism adjacent. You’d get really ugly stuff coming out of MAGA rallies and so on. There was a lot of like, "Where did this come from," analysis. There seems to be this brand-new thing that came out of nowhere.
This isn't what the American right was. The American right was the classical liberalism of Reagan or something like that. Does that analysis miss the point? I think one of the interesting things in your book is not just how many of these fascist movements there are in the United States in the weird tributaries of political culture and the internet and so on, but their history. I guess to make a long question hopefully shorter, what is the relationship between all of those movements and their history and then what we suddenly saw in the political mainstream in 2015, 2016, and onwards?
Shane: There was a great book that came out this last year called The Far-Right Vanguard by John S. Huntington that talked about the role of the far-right adjacent to the electorally-focused conservative movement. The point is that there always was a far right that was at the core of modern conservatism, basically post-1950s National Review-style Republicanism. You see that in the Goldwater campaign. You see it and a number of other these vanguard moments, but that the far-right was always baked in there.
I think what's fundamentally true is that the far-right has always been at the core of conservative politics. They just often haven't been able to publicly self-identify those trends. For example, we can see the attack on the welfare state very clearly, and I don't think anyone that looks at this would disagree that that's a racist attack fundamentally. This is about going after communities of color at the same time as increasing profits for corporations. It's like a very basic analysis on that, but that requires a certain nationalist far-right politics that underlies it for that to actually work.
I think that's what the Far-Right Vanguard as Huntington labels it has always worked on. This has always been an adjunct to the conservative movement and there's several generations of this. They'll pick up on certain wedge pieces that help bridge the vanguard with the more moderates. Whether it's fighting desegregation that was a great wedge issue for them. Or if it was going after busing and other forms of integration and affirmative action, if it was the paleocons in the '80s and early '90s, there's different versions of this.
What's different now is that point at which the far right meets the larger right base, actually had started to have a much more profound effect on its base and was able to grow its audience in that way. There are a few factors. I think one is the availability and ubiquity of conspiracy theories allowed that flow back and forth to occur much more effectively. I think that it's the consequence about 30 years of talk radio-style conservative speech that has actually changed the electorate really profoundly. I don't think that this actually signals anything foundationally different about the American project.
I think, again, we're talking about implicit conditions becoming explicit. We just said this is how the party thought. This is how they thought about racial issues. That's how they thought about a lot of issues. It's just simply that that has become more explicit and that they're able to convince people and by speaking not just through dog whistles, but through a more direct rhetoric. There's a couple of other really key things though. One is that libertarianism has become untenable on its own terms for most of the Republican electorate. Basically, people want a class politics. They want them to signal a politics of capitalism's decline.
Now, they often still use the language of libertarianism. That's still the case, but what national conservatism, which is what's taking over the base of the Republican Party, the energy of the Republican Party is that they're speaking an economic populist language and economic protectionism. They're basically what they're doing now is successfully speaking to the working class. Obviously, I think we'd agree that that's a false lesson. It's not going to get them to a better life or anything, but they are now speaking to that. That's part of it. I think national conservative politics have the ability to speak to people who are now entering the 2020s in a really economically precarious situation. I think that's part of it. In the 1990s, you could have a libertarian energy and with the perpetual growth of the economy before the dot-com bubble and stuff, people bought that lesson but they're not buying it anymore.
The other thing is that the Republican Party has found that racial issues are going to continue to be their wedge for quite a while. I talked about at the beginning of that book that Richard Spencer did a press conference years ago about what he called “the majority strategy” which is basically that since the Republican party is the party de facto of white people, it should just explicitly be the party of white people. What it should do is try to most effectively engage white voters and dispel everybody else and take all the energy that's not working to get minority votes and just pump it into white identity. That's essentially what they did.
That turned out to be successful in a way. I think all those factors are playing together in this. It's unstable. It's necessarily unstable. I think the MAGA movement in general, because it hinges so heavily on over-the-wall conspiracy theories, really outlandish conspiracy theories, it creates a lot of structural instability. They're never actually making an ideological case or anything. The national conservatives are trying to stabilize that. If they're successful in stabilizing that will become the centerpiece of the new Republican Party's identity. That's likely how it will become and you'll see those two things play out in the major contest in the next election. The MAGA side will be Trump, the national conservative side will be DeSantis and that will be the debate about how that's going to play out. I think going forward as we see things like increased migration because of ecological catastrophe, the increase of economic inequality and the instability of the economy, the increase of precarious workforce, the industrialization attacks on labor units, things like that. As long as that accelerates then the national conservative argument for itself will become the centerpiece argument because it's one that at least tries to address, or at least acknowledges the economic precarity of white workers.
Aaron: You mentioned class a couple of times and you mentioned populism earlier on in the conversation. I'm curious about the relationship between fascist ideology and class, because Trumpism was, and right now seems to be a largely white working-class ideology, if we can call Trumpism an ideology that is based around status. A lot of it is based around status anxiety, class-based status anxiety, and then that gets tied into race-based status anxiety. The national conservatives are much more of an elite. Josh Hawley and Adrian Vermeule, all these people either attended very elite institutions or come from very elite backgrounds—are professors at very elite institutions are at the editorial page of Newsweek. Newsweek is not as elite as it used to be but it still is a major publication.
Is fascism primarily a working-class movement or can it be an elite movement? Or it sometimes seems like elites are just using the working class, manipulating the working class, in order to advance what is not necessarily a working-class agenda.
Shane: Yes, I think that that describes it. I think that the majority of the fascist movement depends on the working-class participating. Historically you see basically ruling class people using fascism as a way of ducking out of the accountability called for them by the left. Communist movement grows—communist party grows—in response to wealth inequality. They offer up fascism, which claims to be a project of equalizing the class differences of whites, as a way to dispel that anger and it basically keeps them in power. There's a vested self-interest in that. It does have an element of coming from the top but its constituency does end up being primarily from the working class.
I think there's a lot of rhetoric about how the Trump movement is not actually of the working class because there's all these middle managers or small business people. I think that we need to think about this in the more broad horizontal sense, the working class being the non-rich. There's a culturally—and in a not directly economic way— we're talking about certain cultural sectors, rural areas, people identify blue-collar work, even if they're managers like that. I think you're right also about the loss of status. People sometimes talk about class politics as an objective phenomenon. These people are working class, these people are not working class, that kind of thing. These people will cut your economic benefits. These people are offering to give you more. I don't think that that's how it's actually experienced by people. I think it's much more subjective. Class is often understood as status. For example, I don't feel bad about how much money I make until I go on Facebook and see that people I went to high school with make more than me. This is a very common experience. I think that we're talking about people making emotional decisions. We can't think about this in just class terms.
If we're talking about working-class people about to enter their retirement and they're voting for people that are about to block Medicaid and stuff, that's going to be destructive to them. But that's not the message they're actually getting. They're getting a much different message.
This also gets to how they understand populism. I don't think that right-wing populism will solve people's economic problems. I don't think there's any evidence to believe that that would be the case. Populism is the language people use to talk about socialism.
It's how they internalize, naturalize their impulse towards class struggle. Class struggle is not something that people choose to engage in. They just engage in it. When you go to work, you are engaging in class struggle. You try and work as less as you can even though your boss wants you to work as much as you can. You try and fight for a better income. You do different ways of dealing with that. Some that are effective, some that are not effective. What's happening here in populism is that people are giving into that impulse.
They're just also at the same time bringing a lot of the baggage they came in with, primarily racial baggage or conspiracy thinking. They allow that to help drive their decisions in this class struggle. I think it's really easy for us to look at the absurdities of factual inaccuracies of a lot of these movements. We're actually talking about how very real conditions are experienced subjectively.
I think that the majority of the fascist movement depends on the working-class participating.
Aaron: What is the role of I guess call them personality cults in fascism? Hitler was a personality cult. Mussolini was a personality cult. A lot of Trumpism—and particularly the parts of it that shade the most into fascism or fascism adjacent—seem very much a personality cult. I know that at least several definitions of fascism include an element of a strong personality who claims to embody the identity of the volk and then represent them and assert their will at the national level—which again seems to describe at least these three characters and some of the ultra-far-right populist leaders we're seeing around the world. Is that fundamental to fascist movements to have some embodying personality?
Shane: I would say it's likely fundamental but we easily find instances that might challenge that universality. One thing that's important for far-right movements and how they conceive themselves is that they’re using an idealist model for social change. We want people to model the heroism that makes emotionally salient the points that they want to make. If the argument is about strength and violence, why not have a leader that rules through strength and violence—particularly if he is one of yours, if he's going to engage in strength and violence for you. That then transmutes to the culture of people who are going to participate in this project, they're also going to engage likewise.
People emotionally tend to connect with an individual. It's a lot easier to have Bernie Sanders than it is to have the less identifiable socialist movement. I think that actually does a lot for people. I would hesitate I think to give it the stamp of universality though.
The other thing is that we're talking about a very disaffected movement. Large portions of the far right really dislike Trump—really huge portions of the far right. I think we can still consider them in a fascist project with people who also support Trump. I don't think that we can say necessarily that there's a singular ruler that unifies the movement.
If they were to unify the movement, then they’d probably be more successful. That could be a sign of their strength. Trump had the capacity to do that in a way that other people did not. Ron DeSantis will not empower the neo-Nazis in the way that Trump empowered neo-Nazis. It just simply will not play out that way. I would be curious to see how that heroism plays out in the future. I think myths of people in the past play an important role too. I think past mythologies and individuals are just as central to fascist projects.
Aaron: Why does there seem to be a such an unwillingness to grapple with this stuff among, I guess call it the political mainstream in the sense that, we talked about how they all were like this came out of nowhere, even though a lot of this had been present for a long time among the American right. There also is a dismissiveness of even the kind of talk that we're having today, as it's one thing to talk about fascism in a historical sense and to draw up your little narrow definitions and so on. But if you start talking about either genuine fascist movements particularly within Western democracies, or you start talking about fascist elements of maybe non-fully fascist movements within Western democracies, you're engaging in a degree of histrionics. You're being fundamentally unserious, you're being unfair, and so on.
The worry that I have is that as we see these movements gain more and more traction, they need to be combated. Part of combating them, part of pushing back against them is acknowledging them. There just seems to be this real digging in among the professional commentariat, say, among journalists, among mainstream politicians to grapple with it.
People emotionally tend to connect with an individual. It's a lot easier to have Bernie Sanders than it is to have the less identifiable socialist movement.
Shane: I think there's a few reasons. One is that most of that class of folks simply aren't qualified to talk about it. I think that's part of the issue. People talk very confidently about movements they haven't studied and don't seem to have a sense of how to discuss them in a contemporary context.
I think part of it is that to acknowledge what's happening is to acknowledge that the brief moments of democratic stability were simply brief moments— and that that's actually out of context for most of the history. That immediately places us into a revolutionary context where the entire system of state and economy is really fallible and can fall apart.
I think, also, we need to acknowledge that this emerges from within our democracy, that there's something flawed here, and that we cannot rely on the state to protect itself or to protect us. That is not the role of it. I think it is incredible hubris for largely white men to talk about it seeming like it came from nowhere when there was an unbroken chain of folks of color talking about this is a problem, this is growing, this is an ever-present part of our lives. It would require completely shifting how they understand the world and people don't want to participate in that.
I think it's also that people have bought the hype from a lot of right-wing commentary. People don't understand how anti-fascism works. They don't understand how social movements work. They don't care to. I think all that is involved.
I think also though, there's a lot of hyperbole when we talk about this. I think a lot of very unserious people have talked about fascism in really overwrought ways that are super un-useful. Then often, you'd make moral arguments rather than strategic arguments. I define fascism this way, not because I think other things that people call fascism are okay or good or acceptable or not as bad.
I talk about it because it's strategically important to understand how it functions because you can only take it down if you understand how it actually works. I think there's a lot that's going on in that. A lot of these sectors simply aren't committed to the project of undoing fascism.
I think when you understand yourself in that way, it has a larger sense of urgency to get it right and to do it now.
Aaron: Given the threats that all of this represents what do we do about it? The underlying motivations, a lot of policy, you can have policy disagreements with someone and you can hash them out in the public sphere because you could say we share common ends. We want to lessen or eradicate poverty. We share that goal, or we want everyone to have access to high-quality health care. We share that goal but we disagree fundamentally about the different ways, whether we're going to socialize things or we're going to have free markets do it. We can have a conversation because we ultimately share the thing we're aiming at.
With fascism and fascist adjacent movements and to go back to your, basically, hierarchy and identity, what they want is fundamentally immoral and untenable in a free society. They want their categories, however, they define it, their nationalist categories, their racial categories, their class categories, whatever it is, religious, and so on, they want it to dominate and to basically form the identity of the nation and to exclude those who aren't part of that identity. That's not a project that you can compromise with because anything, any movement towards them getting what they want is fundamentally bad and harmful.
That also makes it hard to have arguments with them because unlike a free marketer arguing with the socialist and saying, actually, I think this isn't going to lead to what you want it to, with them, what you're saying is what you want to do is wrong and you need to give it up, which is a harder thing to have a conversation around. In a liberal democratic society, where the way that we engage with each other is through discourse and then that discourse manifests in policy through voting and so on, how do we push back on these kinds of fundamentally corrupt values and aims?
Shane: You don't. The system is, as described, unable to deal with this entirely. There is no system of policy that can be dealt with this. There's no system of discourse, legislative process, electoral reform, nothing. There's literally nothing that actually addresses this because what it does is it capitalizes on the fundamental imbalance in our system, which claims to do one thing, yet does another. For example, we don't actually have control over the state. It's a democratic society in name only. We don't actually have the ability, for example, to get together and vote away the wealth of the 1% let's say. We don't actually have those levels of controls.
What we're talking about is being channeled back into a system that does not actually deliver the level of reform that it promises. This actually gives us a much older solution, which is, again, to think about this outside the auspices of the state. How do people solve problems rather than petitioning their electorate? If the state functions are unable to deal with it, then how do people deal with it? And people do this all the time. This is actually not that wild of an idea. In fact, you can even make an argument that people do this with most issues in their life. They actually coordinate with their neighbors to fix a problem, whatever it is.
I think that's the way this needs to be thought of because the state itself and the society and all the economy and the leadership and the tradition that it emerges from has these inherent flaws in it. These unchecked assumptions. The only way for the society to be a pure democracy that allows that stuff to be worked out in that public square, is, for example, to eradicate certain kinds of inequalities. To look at the fundamental assumptions of society that emerge from colonialism and imperialism, and other long systems of oppression.
That's not the place for it. We're not here revolutionizing society—and building that— right at that moment. Instead, you have to think about what it is people are owed in this. Do you owe these people a conversation? What is most important? I think the anti-fascist answer first and foremost is that people's safety is the most important thing. Protecting people, how you do that, I think, however, you need to do that, that's step one. I think it sounds almost blunt to the point of being stupid but the way that you stop fascist movements is you stop them. Meaning you disrupt their functionality. You look at how they work, how they recruit, how they do that, and you break it. Not by arguing with them about it. Though you can do that. If you have a family member who is part of a problem or something and you want to talk them out of that, have at it. But you have to break the functionality first. You have to make it impossible for them to have meetings to recruit, which is essentially saying make it impossible for them to reproduce themselves. You're breaking that functionality. This involves a form of large-scale community organizing in the way that we have a really long tradition.
We have the civil rights movement, you have the women's movement, you have the labor movement, you have a lot of these traditions where people get lots of people together, and they don't just ask for things. They don't petition them. They force them to happen. This is, I think, the fundamental and important thing about what organizing, or as people call activism actually is, it is not about stating a case or engaging in discourse. It is fundamentally a battle of forcing something to take place. If workers are in the workplace and they strike, they are not making a case to their employer that they should have their wages, they're forcing their employer to give them better wages, their existing power.
That's what needs to actually take place here, is that people say that this is actually so intolerable and that we're not willing to engage in that conversation. Forcing people to engage in those fundamental conversations it's different than like what's the best way of applying Medicaid, right? That's a different conversation. The whether or not, for example, people of color have lower IQs or not, that is not up for debate any longer. No one's engaging in that conversation. That conversation is long past done, it shouldn't have happened in the first place, and we're not willing to even give that airtime. Instead, we're going to disrupt that and we're going to go outside the norms of the system, acknowledging that the system itself was so flawed that it was unable to deal with that.
I think that's an important point to make here—that I do not think that people will be able to engage in the electoral or legislative process as a solution to the problem. Now, if people really believe in legislative and electoral reforms, there are things people can do to make the world better. That's true. You could vote for a candidate you like that might make the situation better.
That in theory could, I think, ameliorate some of the impulses that drive far-right movements, and far-right movements are often driven by economic precarity. If you had a candidate that came in and gave everyone universal healthcare, and we get a couple of decades on and people are now pretty happy that they have healthcare, that actually takes one of the arguments away from the far-right. That's pretty good and if you look at the way that, particularly in rural areas, people address the growth of the militia movement, it's often by giving people resources that the militia movement is offering.
Militia movement often recruits in areas where there's no high-speed internet and they don't have ambulance service, things like that. If you get people those things, they oftentimes don't have a need for the militias anymore. You can ameliorate that, I think, in those things, and that's a good long-term project, and it's part of why anti-fascism is not disconnected from other social movements. I do not think that there is a way to channel this just back into that process. That's a really important point here because this is part of what makes anti-fascism a radical project, is that it does not actually lend itself over to reforms. It lends itself to actually breaking down some of the systems that have existed prior that don't serve these changes and it's deciding that your community's going to go outside of them. That's what's happening increasingly with all forms of social movements. That's what mutual aid groups are all about is that the state is unable to do these things so we're going to do it ourselves. I think this makes some people uncomfortable because it lacks accountability to the public.
There's a number of other kinds of disconcerting things, but I think those are questions to be answered in the same way that we answered questions about the state now. How do you make it accountable to the community? How do you make it ethical? What are the ethical questions that you would ask yourself in those situations? You could still apply that same rigor though you are stepping outside the auspices of the state.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoyed the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
More crazies in the comments 😆
I pretty strongly disagreed with this argument:
"Militia movement often recruits in areas where there's no high-speed internet and they don't have ambulance service, things like that. If you get people those things, they oftentimes don't have a need for the militias anymore. You can ameliorate that, I think, in those things, and that's a good long-term project, and it's part of why anti-fascism is not disconnected from other social movements."
I am related to a lot of Trump voting rural Iowans, and I don't think the lack of infrastructure is per se why they are vulnerable to fascist thinking and I don't think infrastructure is something that militias are promising. Rather what people are looking for is hope, a life narrative, drama, etc. And that's also what fascist thinking provides.
They don't want to think that it was an unfair advantage that's been righted as people become more free when men either inherited business or got good factory jobs and women had no other opportunities besides staying in town to be helpmeets for them. Instead, that way of life is gone because of nefarious plots by the Mexicans and then"globalists" and the feminists. And while more universal access to infrastructure is nice and good, if liberals want to compete against this fascist impulse, it's that sort of hope and meaning we need to provide.