We need to stop calling white supremacists "fascists"

John Last (CC-BY-NC 4.0)

John Last (CC-BY-NC 4.0)

I read a Twitter thread today and got mad. It was written by a liberal schoolteacher responding to someone questioning his support for Antifa. In addition to being yet another example of the alarmingly annoying trend of using Twitter as a microblogging platform, it irked me in the way that only American liberals wanting to be radical can.

There are some serious issues with the way the conversation about the current political conflict in America is being constructed. I'm not talking about the malevolent actors who are deliberately misrepresenting the groups involved -- I'm talking about people who are, well, like me: mostly well-intentioned progressives.

What this thread brought home to me is how the Antifa vs. Nazi framing we've been subject to since the Unite the Right rally (and cemented in Berkeley) is an insidious development in a dialogue that should be about major internal contradictions in the ideology of this country. So, I wrote a thing.

(For the curious, here's the thread that started it.)

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We need to stop equating white supremacy and fascism. Fascism is a political system and an ideology -- it is an ecosystem of ideas ranging from the anti-modernist (Traditionalism) to the ultramodern (Futurism). Sometimes it's spiritualist (Ariosophy), sometimes materialist (Racialism), sometimes even more or less socialist. Lots of ink has been spilt trying to define exactly what fascism is, and isn't.* Many fascist philosophies incorporate and/or depend on racialist principles; all, I think is fair to argue, are welcoming to white supremacy -- but white supremacy is not itself fascist.

White supremacy is a doctrine of racial superiority that can be present to a degree in all political systems. Democracy as a political system originated before the modern concept of race existed, but it was nonetheless based on a proto-racialist theory of citizenship. More recently, constitutionalism is a doctrine that repeatedly enshrined white supremacy (and misogyny) as principles of government while guaranteeing the rights of white, landed men. And liberalism -- an ideological antithesis to certain forms of fascism -- functions partly by defining a “community of the free” often delineated on racial lines (h/t Domenico Losurdo).

I get that people like punching Nazis. I get that “nazi” and “fascist” are slurs on the left and taboos to some on the right, and provide some artificial sense of a unified, archaic, and unforgivable enemy. But I worry that it risks making white supremacy into an outdated belief espoused by nostalgists playing dress-up, rather than a core value deliberately in-built in even our most cherished cultural myths and institutions. It allows liberals and other well-wishers to get away with their own ideologies of white supremacy, all for the sake of a catchier placard.

Alt-right organizers choose bastions of liberal values to stage their protests partly because they are aware their beliefs are at work within that ideology. Many have pointed out the paradoxes of liberalism that allow armed racial supremacists to occupy public land for the purpose of provoking violence but excoriate a black president for once having a preacher who espoused racial supremacism within the bounds of religious expression. But to see these as paradoxes is to embrace the internal logic of liberalism and reject a critical posture.

The knowing smirk these demonstrators wear when parading hate symbols in Charlottesville or Berkeley comes from the knowledge that many liberals cannot see the mote in their own eye for the beam in theirs. The door to white supremacy, to the protection and endorsement of their beliefs by the culture at large, remains open as long as these demonstrators are seen as “others” and not as its products.

In response to an emerging culture of criticism, liberals' outgrouping of the opposition helps to defend their ideological myths. Instead of acknowledging Trump’s base as the miserable, rotten product of failed liberal policy and propaganda, they dismiss them as proto-Nazis duped by a pied piper, pitying them as victims of a political get-rich-quick scheme, somehow strayed from the “boot straps” prosperity gospel of their forefathers.

In America today, the ideology of liberalism is as broken and malignant as fascism. But in its dying gasps, it still has a few tricks up its sleeves. Making its own cultural excrement into a goose-stepping punching bag is by no means its finest, but it will preserve the institution of white supremacy so it may slither into mythology -- and policy -- for another day.


*This is my favourite attempt, from philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco.