Is Chomsky Totally Wrong About Antifa? No

By Jonathan Michael Feldman

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky has argued that what antifa does “is often wrong in principle – like blocking talks – and [the movement] is generally self-destructive.”  He continued, “when confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win – and we know who that is…That’s quite apart from the opportunity costs – the loss of the opportunity for education, organizing, and serious and constructive activism.”  Do we resist or reconstruct society? That is the larger problem as I see it.

I don’t agree with the idea that Chomsky is entirely wrong. First, Chomsky’s arguments are potentially plausible in some instances.  One key question is whether such a movement provides legitimacy for the Right by engaging in anti-democratic practices. For example, there is some resonance with blocking free speech and what happened in Evergreen State College (where the pseudo-Left aided the Right) or elsewhere in the United States when valid forms of free speech or democratic rights are disrupted.

Peter Beinart has explained this problem in an essay in The Atlantic:  “Antifa activists are sincere. They genuinely believe that their actions protect vulnerable people from harm. Cornel West claims they did so in Charlottesville. But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists—who no one elected—can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing ‘red maga hats’ marched alongside the local Republican Party. Because of antifa, Republican officials in Portland claim they can’t even conduct voter registration in the city without being physically threatened or harassed.”

The antifa effort seems directed in part at the symptoms of the fascist problem. Is this movement doing any proactive work related the underlying causes of fascism, racism or the racist variant of nationalism?  This kind of in the street activism is not proactive regarding the educational basis of an anti-fascist movement which might start by mobilizing in the schools (not that this always succeeds as the teacher of James Alex Fields can attest).  Yet, in Sweden there has been some success in anti-fascist education in the schools in terms of attitudinal change.  Another issue is how the larger Trump/nationalism movement is based in part on valid arguments related to de-industrialization, capital flight, unemployment and manufacturing.  I don’t see ANY direct line between antifa politics and building jobs for white people who are totally desperate, committing suicide in record numbers.   Nevertheless, the existing state security regime against fascists is dysfunctional, unable to offer basic protections against Nazis, fascists, and racist thugs.  The police failed in Charlottesville, as Alex S. Vitale explains in The Nation: “Backed up by armored vehicles, riot police stood rooted in formation, quietly watching fascists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis battle Black Lives Matter, religious leaders, and antifascists.”

The very language deployed by the Left, centered on key terms like “white supremacist” is totally misleading, confusing, and self-defeating. By understanding this confusion, one sees part of the larger problem. First, there is nothing “white” about “white supremacists” other than their investment in a fictive narrative in which “whites” are superior.  The fiction is twofold: (a) these people don’t speak for all white people, so using the label “white” as a modifier makes no sense; (b) they don’t really believe all whites are superior because they often hate Jews (many of whom are white). The countervailing argument is the modifier “supremacists,” so you could argue that they are not just talking about “whites” but a new entity, i.e. “white supremacists.”  Yet, these people do not believe that all whites are supreme or superior, i.e. they don’t put “white” Jews in that category.  So, the whole concept of “white supremacy,” whether mouthed by racists or those opposed to them, makes utterly no sense whatsoever.  The term “white supremacy” reminds me of a similar term, “Islamic radicalism,” which similarly contains a kind of malware tied to Islamophobia, although fears of Islamophobia have also sustained terrorism as Gilles Kepel argues in the book, Terrorism in France.

The term “racist thug,” however, does not contain an encrypted advertisement for an academic theory within it (centered on so-called “white privilege”), so the idea of “white supremacist” is a bit like malware.  To identify these people by their own self-description of their ideology is not exactly a radical or critical conception, reminding one of a Republican Party that does not embrace “republican” ideals or a “Democratic Party” that does not support “democracy.”

At best, this term is part of a background explanation to something else.  At worst, it is part of a postcolonial displacement system unable to recognize any broader totality to what being white is or isn’t or the dialectical character of fascism and racism, i.e. it partially builds on valid narratives or feelings of victimization, some of which is grounded in reality rooted in the destruction of jobs, which are distorted by historical inaccuracy, hatred and a juvenile if not insane version of sociology.   Just as Judith Butler viewed working class whites supporting Trump with utter contempt, objectifying them so as to complicate any serious movement to defeat Trump, we need to think a bit deeper about the problem.  Many whites suffer from job loss and a feeling that they are not validated by a system glorifying elites and celebrities.

Police failure and the breakdown in the state security regime does not mean, however, that a defensive measure against fascism or even a physical confrontation with fascists gets at the larger underlying basis of support for fascism in (a) economic decline, (b) deindustrialization, (c) the lack of a coherent pro-active discourse vis-à-vis this phenomena.  We see how the failure of the system creates an opening for a left political innovation which does not quite work properly because it is partially based on a kind of morality play which is divorced from deep political or economic analysis, or even cultural analysis.

Donald Trump is rather clever by bringing up the racism of Thomas Jefferson.  Yet, Thomas Jefferson believed in radical democracy, something Trump’s narrative effectively buried.  Jefferson believed in local, grassroots democracy in which the masses of citizens created an accountability system with respect to the State, through town meetings and related forms of action and assembly.  I don’t see antifa leading to that and I see it potentially excluding that mode of action.

There might be a division of labor where groups like antifa do their thing and other groups do something else, i.e. there is no “zero sum game” and so antifa protects people from the fascists.  That is a plausible argument, but the problem is that antifa’s tactical mistakes (noted above) and the way they become the epicenter of social movement ideas about how to fight fascism put the Left into a potential swamp where they can never win.  Street fights and street protective measures are not the epicenter of anti-fascist action.  You cannot compare anti-fascists who volunteered to fight Franco with the effort necessary to defeat Trump who–at this point–is the most significant support system for Fascists in the U.S.  Or, more accurately, if antifa sees its lineage in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, perhaps they could recognize the failure to support a proactive politics within the Left which helped sustain fascism.  In sum, antifa is another left product, with potential roots in a dysfunctional academic culture, which is not radical, sometimes useful, but can’t put the Left on a pathway to systematically accumulate power.

Postscript, August 19, 2017

A reader has pointed out that Peter Beinart’s use of the word “claims,” leaves the impression that Cornell West’s argument that antifa saved his life or that antifa saves lives is patently false. We do not doubt West’s account. We do not doubt that antifa saves lives.  Moreover, in the post above, we imply that antifa can serve a useful purpose.  Our point of departure is not focused on debunking everything about antifa so much as showing that parts of Chomsky’s argument (if not much of it) is entirely plausible.

The article suggests that the larger movement (of which antifa is a part) uses language and arguments which has drawbacks.  It is entirely conceivable that a street-centered movement to oppose fascists can be necessary, but the way that plays out as a larger defensive system can be constrained.  These constraints or limits occur when such a movement simply becomes a defensive or reactive system organized with respect to its enemies and cannot be part of a larger effort which takes on a broader cultural, economic and political agenda.

Another reader suggested that the term “white supremacy” is valid and should not be questioned given the current political context.  I have no doubt that there is a mistaken belief by certain persons who are white that whites are superior, but I still believe that their linguistic and symbolic claims to whiteness are based on an absurdity that should not be validated.  In fact, just as the term “Islamic extremist” partially legitimates the credentials of terrorists as Muslims, the term “white supremacists” validates the adjective “white” as a proper modifier.  While, objectively speaking, the persons in question might be considered Muslims and can be characterized as “white” (respectively) clearly there is a lot more going on. The additional modification or explication of what is going on can’t be limited to “extremism” or “supremacy.”

More importantly, the various terms used to explicate terrorists who self-describe themselves as Muslim or try to root what they do in Islam, end up being deployed in Islamophobic practices.  This has made it actually hard to act against terrorists because the fear of Islamophobia prevents measures to regulate, monitor or control such persons because of the way they deploy or engage in Islam for their purposes.

The parallel point with “white supremacy” or “white supremacists” is admittedly not so transparent.  There are structures associated with caste or social constructions of race which create a hierarchy and basis of power for some or many whites vis-à-vis non-whites.  The idea of “white privilege” can become highly problematic, however, when it fails to acknowledge mass unemployment, poverty and despair among whites who are hardly privileged or whose privileges pale in comparison with their non-privileges.  The basic point is that we know that there are so-called “inter-sectional” forms of oppression involving race, class, gender and the like.  So the term “white supremacy” only captures a fragment of the oppression totality.

More importantly, some people will argue even though the term “white privilege” is problematic, it does not mean that we can’t think of “white supremacy” as valid.  Yet, when the “white supremacist” is a fascist, we know that their power deployment system or origins are not simply reducible to racial structures, castes or even alleged or real “white privileges.”  The power base involves a discourse related to de-industrialization, manufacturing decline and globalization as well, e.g. indirectly rooted in economic alienation.  None of that is captured in ideas of “white supremacy.”

The counter-argument is that these persons have an ideology rooted in white superiority and this motivates their political engagement.  But, what gives these groups a great deal of power (or potentially is most threatening about them) is their capacity to exploit citizens’ economic fears. This capacity is not simply rooted in the self-identification of so-called “white extremists” or the labeling system and analysis of much left analysis of such groups.  Rather, there is a value in aspects of economic nationalism that anchor jobs within the U.S.  The counter-arguments in which the left celebrates globalization, the achievements of Indian or Chinese capitalism to develop at the expense of the white (and non-white) working class are partially being manufactured by elite, academic universities which themselves are often patronized by global financial capitalists or those aligned with them.  A radical agenda to support manufacturing and control over the economy is often considered heresy (with notable exceptions like Ha-Joon Chang at Cambridge University).

In the case of Richard Spencer, the discourse often centers on a belief of white marginalization and encirclement.  As he says, “our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” His ideology is tied to validating identity based around whiteness: “What blocks our progress is the meme that has been carefully implanted in White people’s minds over the course of decades of programming, from Mississippi Burning to Lee Daniel’s The Butler—that any kind of positive racial feeling among Whites is inherently evil and stupid and derives solely from bigotry and resentment. And that the political and social advancement of non-Whites is inherently moral and wonderful.”  Basically, Spencer invalidates the idea that racism exists, but does advance some notion of political mobilization around “whiteness.”

If a person who is white is excluded from society and the multi-cultural, Neoliberal society offers that person very little, it is possible (as opposed to morally acceptable) that some fraction of such persons will gravitate to Spencer and his ilk.  Yet, it strikes me that the supremacist language tied to deploying notions of “whiteness” conflates problems of scarcity, alienation, and feelings of having one’s culture or identity devalued into a simple problem that can be solved by “white power.”  That notion is clearly idiotic, but I don’t think we should cede to such persons their claims to deploying whiteness in this way.  Islamic extremists want their self-understanding of being Muslims and deploying Islam to be validated.  White supremacists similarly want their self-understanding of being white and deploying whiteness to be validated.  Any such validation gives these people power and defines them from a vantage point partially rooted in these persons’ self-understandings.  I don’t think that is sufficient as a basis for triggering a characterization of such persons.

Certain variants of postmodernism, identity politics, cultural studies, postcolonialism, and the like are very weak at identifying non-cultural, non-ethnic, and non-racial forms of motivation, identification and social processes, e.g. those rooted in materialism, political economy, and capitalism requiring equitable economic development and economic democracy as means of redress.  When journalists and such academics describe the supremacists they often use the supremacists’ own self-referential modifiers (or parts of them) to do so and end up creating confusion as to what these people represent and how to stop them (if they are dangerous, as they increasingly are).