Rather like the blogpost the NSW government’s multi-million dollar ‘Step Together’ program cites as an authoritative source on ‘far-left extremism’, the ‘Rise To Peace’ (R2P) post on Antifascist Action (ANTIFA) is quite woeful — and it feels bad, man. To make me feel slightly better, however — and in response to overwhelming public demand — I thought I’d chuck some words at it. So …
Like its cack-handed assessment of ‘far-left extremism’, R2P’s analysis of anTEEfa (credited to a ‘John Wilson’) is brief, short on detail, and long on presumption. Together with a terrific excursion into the bowels of ANTIFA’s history, an assessment of its current status, and an attempt to answer the question ‘Where The Bloody Hell Are You?’, it provides a potted, executive summary, then attempts (or purports) to explain the who/how/which/where and why of ANTIFA.
I’ll address the summary first.
1) ANTIFA represents a semi-disorganized collection of extremists on the far-left, sometimes considered the alt-left
Um … what’s the difference between ‘semi-disorganized’ and ‘semi-organized’? Presumably, this phrasing is meant to hint at the non-existence of what the author understands as ‘organisation’ (or their inability to discern it), along with the absence of a clear and fixed identity. Translated into English, this may begin to provide some useful analysis. As for what distinguishes ‘extremists’ on the ‘far-left’ from the ‘far-left’ as a whole, who knows? But who reckons ANTIFA is or in some way ‘represents’ the ‘alt-left’, why, and what do they mean?
Well, while it was coined by others, the term ‘alt-left’ was popularised by President Trump in August 2017, when he responded to a question about the ‘alt-right’: specifically, the Very Fine People who organised the murderous ‘Unite The Right’ rally in Charlottesville. For Trump, the ‘alt-left’ were the individuals in Charlottesville who:
… came charging at [indiscernible] – excuse me – what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?
What about this? What about the fact that they came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day.
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group – you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
REPORTER: Do you think what you call the alt left is the same as neo-Nazis?
TRUMP: Those people – all of those people, excuse me – I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.
In which case, R2P reproduces — very peacefully, of course — the same fuzzy logic as the US President. That said, as Mark Bray (see below) has indicated, the term ‘alt-left’ did not stick (though the ABC has had a crack). For his part, Cornel West credits semi-disorganized ANTIFA extremists for saving the lives of clergy on that horrific occasion.
2) ANTIFA is more accurately described as a brand, as opposed to a formal group, however, for ease of understanding it may be referred to as such throughout this assessment
You say ‘ease of understanding’; I say ‘unnecessary confusion’. In my view, ‘ANTIFA’ may be more accurately described as a label, one whose misapplication has skyrocketed since pundits in the Anglophone made the Columbus-like discovery that yes, Virginia, there is grassroots opposition to the extreme-right. It’s also possible to distinguish between, on the one hand, formal, organised groups of anti-fascists — which are relatively few in number — and a broader milieu or movement, in which individuals occasionally participate, may (or may not) explicitly identify as ‘ANTIFA’, and/or for whom participating in explicitly anti-fascist political and organising projects is a function of broader political commitments. See : antifa notes (june 3, 2020) : notes on antifa.
3) With the upcoming presidential election, ANTIFA violence should be expected to rise alongside increasing political turmoil
Maybe. On the other hand, if anti- rather than pro-fascist sentiment is at issue in the contemporary United States, might it also be possible to ask: ‘why?’. Further, what, if anything, does this have to with the Trump presidency, and what, if any, ‘political turmoil’ is the country experiencing at the present moment? I would suggest that the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, may have added something germane to this discussion when it concluded that the far-right has committed “the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of rightwing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years”, with the far right launching two-thirds of attacks and plots in 2019, and 90% of those in 2020. And call me a crazy, bloodthirsty anarchist if you must, but I would further suggest that: one important dimension of the current ‘turmoil’ in America is the acute problem presented to the US state (and other relevant authorities) by the urgent need to co-opt and/or repress Black Lives Matter; increasingly rampant forms of economic, political and social inequality; a collapsing ecology; and now — since the publication of this anti-antifa diatribe — a global pandemic which has to date destroyed the lives of over 200,000 US citizens.
TLDR : Houston has a problem — but it ain’t ‘anTEEfa’.
So much for the summary. As for the rest:
“Summary of Extremist Narrative”
• Yes, anti-fascists oppose fascism, attempt to disrupt fascist organising, counter fascist propaganda, and otherwise seek to attach a social penalty to the open espousal of fascist doctrines; this is achieved by a variety of mechanisms; no, conservatives and those on the centre-left are not fascists.
• TLDR : anTEEfa are teh enimies of Freeze Peach, and employ violence against those who says things what they don’t like (and the police who protecc Them).
First, ‘free speech’ has a particular legal and cultural resonance in the United States which doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere (Australia, for example, has no Constitutional protection for speech, and a highly-limited notion of what the law affords in this regard). Secondly, it’s certainly true that self-described anti-fascists in the US have taken action to disrupt or prevent some events from taking place. The most notorious of these events was likely Berkeley in February, 2017 — when a professional troll and pedophile apologist named Milo was seriously inconvenienced — but there are others, over a much longer period of time. Can such actions be justified? I think so, but the reasons for this are difficult to provide without agreement on some basic facts, which is absent in this instance. In any case, the things I think bear thinking about in this context are not merely the theoretical proposal that there exists some thing called ‘free speech’, but the conditions under which its exercise is rendered possible, recognition that all such possibilities have been made real through struggle, that this has always had an extra-legal dimension, and that such struggles have a long history.
“History of the group”
• TLDR : “ANTIFA” is/not a group or organisation, but a dynamic network; most ANTIFA are Marxists; you can learn about ANTIFA in books; communism, socialism, and far-left anarchism are Marxist and its adherents call for revolution.
Curiously, the blogpost contains exactly one reference, sourced from World Net Daily (WND), and which appears here. Once described as ‘the granddaddy of right-wing conspiracy sites’ and known as ‘a right-wing online site that had played a central role in promoting the lie that Obama came from Kenya and his Hawaiian birth certificate was a forgery’, WND has ‘also pushed virulently anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim content’, and is currently being used to raise funds for Republican (Florida) and QAnon candidate Laura Loomer:
Like writers for WND, Loomer has frequently pushed anti-Muslim bigotry. The right-wing commentator has described herself as a “proud Islamophobe,” has stated that she didn’t “care” about the anti-Muslim mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, and has said that she would like to see “more” migrant deaths.
Not surprisingly then, the account provided by WND, titled ANTIFA: What Americans Need To Know About The Alt-Left, is suitably histrionic. Hence:
The truth is that Antifa is fighting for communism. Its members are fighting for anarchy. And they always have been. Antifa aren’t the real fascists or the real racists. They aren’t militant Hillary Clinton supporters or Nazis in disguise. Nor are they even anything new. They are simply the same leftists who have drowned the world in blood under the cover of egalitarian slogans since the days of Lenin … it’s time for all Americans to see these violent extremists as they really are, in their own words. This is the story of the masked radicals who think they have the right to tell you what you are allowed to say, hear, and think. This is the story of the black-clad people who beat Trump supporters in the street for the “fascist” and “racist” act of loving their country. This is the story of America’s most dangerous domestic terrorist group. It’s the story of Antifa – The Rise of the Alt-Left.
And so on and so forth. The lines of argument in the text would appear to have decisively shaped R2P’s approach to the subject, and it concludes that ANTIFA is the declared enemy of most Americans and wants to subject them to annihilation. It also tentatively suggests that ‘decent’ Americans — ones governed not by ideology but only ‘common sense’ — take action and form ‘Anti-Communist Action’ (as though this term, like ‘anti-antifa’, hadn’t already been adopted by fascists, American and otherwise).
• TLDR : Reference is made to ‘cumulative extremism’ and fascist creep, therefore ANTIFA violence; Yanquis began using the term ‘anti-fascist action’ in the mid-2000s; the Trump 2016 Presidential campaign produced a surge in ANTIFA activity and membership; this activity has ‘sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States’ with groups like ANTIFA in the ultra-violent vanguard.
While reference is made to ‘political theorists’, none are named, and while there appears to be some attempt to define the concept of ‘cumulative extremism’ — ‘Political theorists have argued that the spread of extremist political leanings begets the rise of the opposite form of extremism along the linear political spectrum’ — the relevant literature provides some guidance. See, for example, Interpreting “Cumulative Extremism”: Six Proposals for Enhancing Conceptual Clarity, Joel Busher & Graham Macklin, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.27, No.5, 2015:
The concept of “cumulative extremism” — described in 2006 by Roger Eatwell as “the way in which one form of extremism can feed off and magnify other forms [of extremism],” has recently gained considerable traction in academic, policy, and practitioner discourses about extremism. Yet in spite of the growing usage of the term, particularly in analyses of the dynamic between extreme Islamist and extreme Right-Wing or anti-Muslim protest groups, there has to date been scant interrogation of the concept itself or of its application. In this article, we make a series of six proposals as to how we might enhance the conceptual clarity of these conversations about “cumulative extremism.”
The idea of ‘fascist creep’ is presumably a reference to the work of writers like Alexander Reid-Ross (see : Against The Fascist Creep, AK Press, 2017) which traces today’s often-disguised forms of rightwing extremism through the decades and across the globe to show how infiltration is a conscious and clandestine program for neofascist groups that seek to co-opt and undermine both the mainstream and the new social movements of the left.
As for the claim that since 2016 anTEEfa has ‘sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States’, I would gently suggest that the author reads more, and perhaps even reflects upon a li’l history.
“Current state of the movement”
• TLDR : ANTIFA is an extremist ideology and brand; its current iteration has ‘become increasingly active and violent since its inception just over a decade ago’, and will continue to be ‘a source of far-left extremism for the foreseeable future’, with its ability to recruit ‘highly dependent on a politically volatile United States’; the 2020 presidential election means even more ultra-violence.
Uh-huh. Leaving aside the fact that (ermahgerd) fascist movements do indeed tend to ‘beget’ opposition, in the meantime, I suggest the following are relevant: ROCIC Special Research Report Antifa / Anti-Antifa Fighting in the Streets, Property of the People, March 31, 2019 | Anti-Anti-Antifa, A.M. Gittlitz, Commune, June 12, 2018 | Far-right smear campaign against Antifa exposed by Bellingcat, BBC, August 24, 2017.
“Where is ANTIFA operating?”
• TLDR : Across the nation but mostly major US cities, college campuses and anywhere there’s heaps big trouble.
As the WND text notes, Rose City Antifa and New York City Antifa are two of the relatively smol number of groups in the United States which describe themselves as such, but there are others, and a broader network of aligned groups and projects. As a general rule, anti-fascist and anti-racist coalitions form if and when fascist and racist groups become particularly active in a given area, but in doing so draw upon a longer history of struggle (mostly based in the labour and Civil Rights/Black liberation movements) against white supremacy and extreme-right doctrine and organisation. The relationship of these ideologies and movements to nationalist ideology, colonial-settlerism and US politics, culture and society generally is of course a much longer story. Happily, I understand that over the years a number of people have written about these histories, and it remains possible for those interested to read these texts, consider and reflect on their contents, and analyse and critique their perspectives and understandings in terms of their own experience — perhaps even over a lifetime.
(On anTEEfa as vanguard of BLM, see : “The Anti-Black and Anti-Semitic History of ‘Outside Agitators’”, Spencer Sunshine, June 3, 2020.)
“What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement?”
• TLDR : teh intarwebs; Mark Bray.
It’s true: you can read about ANTIFA, anti-fascism, fascism and a number of other things on the internet. It’s also true that in 2017 Mark Bray wrote a book titled Antifa: The anti-fascist handbook (given an unflattering review in Rupert Murdoch’s zine ‘The Australian’, sadly). He also wrote an article for The Washington Post in September titled ‘Five myths about antifa’ which, like his book, is recommended reading. Otherwise, I would suggest that anti-fascism attracts sympathy, support and sometimes participation mostly on account of the fact that some people look around the joint, see a resurgence in fascism, white supremacy and related doctrines — and then decide they wanna do something about it.