Civil Society, Antifa's Silent Partner

Is antifa winning? Yes, and no.

I don’t like Richard Spencer. That won’t surprise those already familiar with my thoughts on him. But there’s more to it than dislike. Hatred is accurate. So is contempt. Not only does he advocate white supremacy as a theory for reorganizing the American polity, he does it all while getting an allowance from his rich mom.

It would pain me to say Spencer is right about anything. In this case, however, he might be. This weekend’s rallies in Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., got wall-to-wall coverage and overwhelming scrutiny, but both were unqualified failures. More than two dozen showed up to protest near the White House. About the same number arrived in Charlottesville. Counter-protesters outnumbered fascists two to one.

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What does that have to do with Spencer? In March, he said antifa was winning.

Antifa is short for anti-fascism. These are the black-clad people who come to protest the fascists. They are mostly peaceful but they are open to using violence. That’s what happened last year in Charlottesville. The melee would have been the top-line story had one of Spencer’s fellow travelers not rammed his car into a crowd, killing one.

“I really hate to say this,” Spencer said in a YouTube video in March.

“Antifa is winning to the extent that they’re willing to go further than anyone else, in the sense that they will do things in terms of just violence, intimidating, and general nastiness.” (My italics.)

But is antifa really winning? Yes, and no. The answer is complicated.

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To begin, we should have a better understanding of antifa. For that, we should have a better understanding of fascism. Here’s how Mark Bray, a Dartmouth lecturer and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, put it. Fascism, he wrote, is:

“a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood … [that] abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Antifa, on the other hand, is committed “to fighting to the death the ability of organized Nazis to say anything,” Bray wrote, adding that it’s “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists.”

The temptation has been to say that fascism and anti-fascism are two sides of the same coin. That comparison is categorically wrong. These are not moral equivalents for a simple reason. One side is fascist. The other side is anti-fascist. That’s the easy part.

Harder is seeing antifa’s shades of gray. I disagree with leftists celebrating it uncritically. I agree with the head of the Connecticut GOP, who said:

“All these neo-Nazis are assholes. Where Trump missed the mark, and the only way I can explain this, in the grand scheme of things, this white supremacy Nazism, on a scale of evil, that’s a 10. But the antifa guys are like at an eight.”

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Antifa is almost evil, but not quite? That sounds about right to me. It’s bad but not as bad as a worldview that in the end rationalizes and seeks to murder entire populations. One is obviously, empirically, and absolutely evil. The other is more or less tolerable.

Violence is the difference between an open and closed societies. But openness is why the Richard Spencers of the world have flourished. In making room for their “free speech,” open societies make room for ideologies that desire “internal cleansing and external expansion.” Philosopher Karl Popper called this the paradox of tolerance.

To remain tolerant, he said in 1945, open societies must sometimes be intolerant.

we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

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Today’s liberals, like Nancy Pelosi, won’t and probably shouldn’t condone antifa. The House Minority Leader said last summer: “The violent actions of people calling themselves antifa … deserve unequivocal condemnation.” But civil society is working with antifa to fight fascism. I’m not suggesting coordination, only correlation.

Over the past year, members of the the far right has undergone enormous press scrutiny. Some have lost credibility. Some have lost jobs. Others have lost marriages. Spencer, and now conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, have been pushed off social-media platforms, and therefore pushed out of the the realm of legitimate public discourse.

Add to that the problem of countervailing physical opposition in the streets, opposition that’s “willing to go further than anyone else.” Polite society is never going to accept antifa, but that doesn’t matter when the result, as Spencer put it in March, is that his hate-speech rallies and championing of fascism aren’t fun anymore.

“When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun,” Spencer lamented. “Until the situation changes, we are up a creek without a paddle.”

Is antifa winning? Yes, as long civil society tolerates it.

And it will, because civil society won’t tolerate fascism.

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Reader feedback

MF sent thoughts regarding “Dems Like Leftism, Not Bernie Sanders.”

I agree with you, being a Democrat who came to dislike Sanders throughout the campaign, mainly at first because of his lack of actual accomplishments and his broad statements, which he could not back up or explain how they would be implemented. Later, of course, he not only hurt Clinton, but ended up turning some of his followers against the Democratic Party.

However, I disagree with your statement, "This is not Barack Obama's party anymore." First of all, given the Congress we handed him in 2010 and 2014, he had to play more to the center than he would have otherwise. We elected him and then threw him to the wolves, and he played the hand he was dealt brilliantly. Second, Obama spent his campaign and his entire eight years in office motivating people to become involved. It seems as though the lessons have bloomed now that he has left office and we see the devastation of the Trump administration. Before we heard, but now we know what he meant when he said I am not the change, you are. I doubt there would be this outpouring of new candidates and new voters had he not spent nearly a decade teaching, showing, imploring us to see what we could do with our power.

So many of the successful candidates had their start in his campaign or administration. This is Barack Obama's presidency writ large.


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