THIS IS THE 30th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Natasha Lennard, an author, activist, and journalist whose work has been featured in many publications, including The Intercept, The New York Times, and Esquire. Her latest book is Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (2019).
BRAD EVANS: Your writings and work deploy what we might think of as a form of frontline journalism, which takes direct aim at the conceit of objective reporting. Central here has been your continued and explicit insistence about the need to confront fascism in the world. But what do you understand the vexed term of “fascism” to actually mean? And why do you think it’s impossible to engage with the problem from any objective or neutral position?
NATASHA LENNARD: If my journalistic work is “frontline,” I mean it in a very different sense than merely being on the ground, or present when a News Event (what gets deemed a news event) occurs. But much of the reporting I’ve done on social movements and activism has been from a position within or from a place of solidarity for activist groups and social justice struggle — so frontline in that sense. Perhaps better described as submerged journalism!
The idea of “objective reporting” as it’s typically used in questions of journalism is dismally far away from crucial, philosophical, and ethical questions about how truth, facts, and consensus realities are built. “Objective” reporting of centrist liberal media outlets gets understandably lauded above the explicitly violent propaganda of Fox News. But we’re seeing all too clearly how this lionized journalistic “objectivity” has played into the hands of the far right; if “objectivity” is achieved through a base two-sidesism, as it so often is, we end up entertaining and legitimizing questions that should not be up for question. Like whether black and brown lives get to matter. A type of journalistic writing that rejects this sort of “objectivity” can nonetheless be invested in the ethical, collective building of consensus realities and truths, which outright reject the far right’s genocidal ideologies.
It’s beyond the scope of these few paragraphs to explain fully what I mean by “fascism,” but I, as you do in your work, reject a reductive view that sees fascism only when constituted in a totalitarian, militaristic state regime (ideally from early last century!), I’m more interested in an expansive understanding of the term, that enables us to see fascist tendencies, fascist habits (the love of oppressive power, hierarchy, racism, misogyny), and how the desire for them gets fostered and enabled to flourish. I’m interested, like so many activists better than myself, in fighting fascistic tendencies through the understanding that they are not habits to be reasoned with. I want to take seriously the way a desire for fascism works.
In my work, I’ve tried to highlight a way of thinking of “what is or is not” fascism by calling upon Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to stress that definitions are built through use (language games!). So, just like I can’t give you one answer to define what is or is not a “game,” I can’t give you a definition for “fascism” that draws a clean line of what does and does not count in perpetuity. That’s the collective work of meaning-making!
I am struck by the idea of seeing fascism as a tendency, which works at the level of desire. Can you explain in more detail what you mean by a fascist tendency at the level of everyday power relations?
As you examined in your book, Deleuze & Fascism, there’s a certain impossibility to “anti-fascist” as an identity, insofar as everyday, or “micro-fascisms,” permeate so much of life under capitalism. That is, practices of authoritarianism and domination and exploitation that form us, such that we can’t just “decide” our way out of them. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote that it is “too easy to be anti-fascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside of you.” “Kill the cop inside your head,” as the anarchist slogan goes, is easier said than done. But not everyone becomes a neo-Nazi. This too takes fascist practice, fascist habit; a nurturing and constant reaffirmation of that fascistic desire to oppress and live in an oppressive world. And, to be sure, the world provides that pernicious affirmation. Donald Trump is president after all. Theorist John Protevi put it well: “[A] thousand independent and self-appointed policemen do not make a Gestapo, though they may be a necessary condition for one.”
I do appreciate that many of these concerns are develop in your recent book, Being Numerous: Essays on a Non-Fascist Life, which shows how you clearly take the politics of emotion very seriously — both in terms of outrage and to rally against a certain liberal sensibility that often cloaks itself in the language of moral purity, while happily supporting domesticated forms of violence from a distance. What makes your critique of fascism different from the self-congratulatory triumph of liberal reason?
As I touch upon above, I think it’s a problematic liberal approach to treat fascist formations as valid interlocutors. Centrist liberals urge that we follow Michelle Obama’s gracious direction: “When they go low, we go high.” This means urging debate with fascists and decrying violent or confrontational intervention (decrying antifa tactics).
There is a view that sees tactical and moral value in allowing the likes of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to publicly speak and rally, hoping that the fallacies of their hateful views are best made visible (thus crushing hate speech with debate and reason). The idea, then, is that the best way to defeat hate speech, such as vile arguments for race realism, would be to listen to it and thus allow its internal contradictions and idiocy to thwart itself. But liberal appeals to reason here will not break through to a fascist epistemology of power and domination — these are Spencer’s and his ilk’s first principles. And it is this aspect of fascism that needs to be grasped to understand the necessity of antifa’s confrontational tactics.
In the first essay in the book, which addresses this directly, I bring up a recent video that earned a lot of liberal praise, in which the Guardian journalist Gary Younge, who I really like, interviewed Richard Spencer. Younge described the interview thus: “In the course of our exchange, he [Spencer] claims that Africans contributed nothing to civilisation (they started it), that Africans benefited from white supremacy (they didn’t) and that, since I’m black I cannot be British (I am).” All of what the journalist says is correct, but that’s irrelevant. In the video, a Younge tells Spencer, “You’re really proud of your racism, aren’t you … You’re talking nonsense.” But Spencer is unmoved and says, “You’ll never be an Englishman.” A racist invested in the tenets of white supremacy as foundational will not be moved by Younge’s correctness.
Meanwhile antifa interventions, which include exposing the identities of white nationalists on social media and reporting them, as well as confrontational street protests, have had success in shutting down far-right figures. Milo lost his book deal; Spencer canceled his college tour and explicitly blamed antifa. People like this are just the tip of a white supremacist iceberg — Donald Trump is president and even before him America was never great — but I think we’re seeing the limitations, indeed the risks, of letting liberal demands for civility dictate how we deal with racist fascism.
I’d like to bring this directly to the question of violence as it appears in your work. Not only do you attend to the multiple ways the forces of nihilism can appear in the contemporary moment (including the harm we can do to ourselves); you also leave open the strategic necessity for violence when certain conditions dictate and leave no room for an alternative. In this regard, do you think nonviolence is myopic and actually puts itself on the side of the oppressor by not really confronting the political stakes head-on?
I don’t think strategic nonviolent tactics are myopic; indeed much crucial historic civil rights and social justice action has necessarily taken nonviolence as a guiding principle. Although it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King’s principled nonviolence had the intention of bringing attention to the violent response that the white establishment would enact upon black freedom fighters. The spectacle of violence was assumed and tactically deployed.
I think it’s myopic and dangerous for supporters of nonviolent protest to disavow those who would engage in more confrontational tactics. And I entirely reject a view that (aligning with the logic of the state and capital) sees more violence in a broken chain store or bank window than it does in a system that allows police to kill black people with impunity. If I say nonviolence is impossible, it’s not because I think everyone has to engage in riotous protest. What I mean is that in a state of affairs of vicious inequality, mass incarceration, and institutionalized racism, the background condition for so many people is already violence. At a fascist rally, when neo-Nazis can gather in considerable numbers and chant, “Blood and soil,” the background state is violence. So any violent protests against these background violences must be considered counterviolences. The rioters in Ferguson didn’t instigate violence; antifa activists in Charlottesville didn’t instigate violence. The violence was already there.
I am reminded here of the powerful interview Angela Davis gave in 1972 from Marin County jail. What was at stake for her was precisely the question of whose violence do we condemn. The violence of the system (which was/is as you say “already there”) or the violence of resistance. How do you think her voice, among others, still resonates in these troubling times?
I cite that Davis interview in an essay in the book, which looks at the (mis)framing of the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and other historic riotous uprisings for black life. I think it’s worth repeating Davis’s exact words here. She said,
If you are a black person and live in the black community all your life and walk out on the street every day seeing white policemen surrounding you […] And when you live under a situation like that constantly, and then you ask me, you know, whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.
These words are as relevant today as they were then. The media consistently attributes the act of turning to violence to people who literally cannot turn from it; whose lives and deaths are organized by it. Why not end the cycle? A better question: Is it not cruel to demand peace from those who are not permitted to live in it?
The voices of brilliant scholars and committed activists like Davis are crucial for contemporary struggle because the struggle is not a new one: it is the ongoing, unfinished, sometimes seemingly Sisyphean fight against white supremacist capitalism and colonialism.
Bringing this back to the question of activism and resistance, you have been openly critical of the power dynamics at work in social movements, especially sexual exploitation and how the most “enlightened radical” can often reveal the most authoritarian of personalities. What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self today before embarking on a journey into the world of political activism and frontline journalism?
To think that participants in social movements, by virtue of having righteous aims, could somehow be exempt from internalizing the sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic habits into which society’s hierarchies code us all — that would be irresponsible. Part of being in a radical leftist community, one would hope, would entail recognizing this — we can’t fight that which we fail to recognize.
In my years in anarchist and activist scenes in New York, I’ve known so, so many women who have been harmed by posturing men with the finest intersectional, feminist rhetoric. My most abusive long-term partner both introduced me to Donna Haraway’s work and gave me a book titled, I kid you not, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. Happily I think we’re seeing greater scrutiny and less tolerance for this sort of hypocrisy — I’d say that’s a #MeToo movement shift, and perhaps it is, but I think radical communities are rightly struggling to find a way to deal with sexual violence and manipulation without relying on (equally patriarchal and violent) criminal justice procedures that seem to animate many, but not all, #MeToo narratives.
What would I tell 16-year-old me? Oh god, she was so many me-iterations ago! I think I’d tell her that, as a privileged, white, cis-woman on an elite education track, she should pay attention to her privilege far sooner than she (I, in linear time) actually did. And that low-rise jeans look terrible.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.
Banner image by Chantal Meza, images from “the void” series. www.chantal-meza.com.