The ethics of punching fascists, continued

File:Partizanke na Dinari (1943).jpg
Some women who punched fascists, Yugoslavia, 1943
I wrote four very short throwaway posts on punching fascists these last few weeks, since that viral video of alt-right pin-up Richard Spencer getting punched. I posted them on my Tumblr site rather than here, as I scratched them out on the bus on my phone, and they have a kind of tentative, provisional nature, so I wasn't sure I wanted to post them here. But I'll link to them now:

1. On punching fascists
2. A bit more on punching fascists
3. Defining fascism
4. Why I think we are already under attack

I got a lot of stick for this on Twitter, mainly from liberal friends. Almost all of it was a variation on the trite and logically flawed responses that "it's a slippery slope: what's to stop you punching other people you don't like?" or "punching fascists is a bit fascist itself isn't it?"

However, Tom Owolade, one of the smartest people on the internet, has written a far stronger response to views like mine, and I am going to try to take a bit more care in responding to him. It's a great post, and the final paragraph is an especially fine piece of writing.

Tom starts by noting the amorphousness of the category "alt-right", which I think he is correct to say. "Alt-right" and "fascist", as well as "far right" and "Nazi", in my view, are overlapping but not identical categories. (This is a really good piece I read this morning by Matthew N Lyons on the "alt-right" and where it sits in the constellation of right-wing movements.) In what follows, I will defend some forms of violence against fascists specifically and not against the right in general or the "alt-right" in particular. I am not defending attacks on Milo or his supporters, nor the specific attack on Spencer that started this whole thing off (although I think Spencer probably does qualify as a fascist).

Then Tom does a brilliant job of elegantly setting out some of the defences of punching fascists, some of which are ones I'd subscribe to:
"The genocidal legacy of fascism is too potent to brush away as a historical memory. Fascism doesn’t respect the norms and values that underpin a liberal society: it celebrates violence and aggression; it rejects tolerance and peace; it is assertively anti-rational. Invoking liberal tolerance when talking about an intolerant belief-system is scandalously myopic, so the argument goes. If someone doesn’t recognise the basis by which you can articulate your liberal vision, denies the basis of black and Jewish and brown people’s claim to moral legitimacy, threatens the safety of minority groups through eliminationist rhetoric, this doesn’t constitute a mere disagreement — this is irreducibly dangerous rhetoric. It is thus justifiable to punch and to prevent, by any means necessary, people like Richard Spencer from speaking publicly."
He then holds this argument up to some scrutiny, based on actual evidence, and finds it wanting on many counts, and it is this part of the post I will respond to.

There are,  in my view, a number of flaws in Tom's case. Here are some of them.

1. Punching fascists is not a form of "protest"

Tom frames his argument mainly in terms of whether violent protest is effective. He martials some evidence that it isn't. However, I don't think this is at all relevant to the matter at hand. "Protest" is designed to persuade authorities not to do something, or perhaps to persuade publics in order to indirectly persuade authorities. I would agree with Tom that violence is generally counter-productive as a form of protest.

However, punching fascists is not protest. It is not sending a message to the government; it is delivering a message to the fascists themselves. Or, rather, it is not communicating a message so much as performing an action: to practically stop fascists from organising in our communities.

2. Support for violent "protest" does not preclude support for non-violent "protest" too

Tom compounds this mistake by adding this: "A corollary of [the belief in violent resistance] is that non-violent resistance is a less effective way of dealing with far-right politics." He frames a choice: violent or non-violent. In fact, in reality, few who advocate violent resistance to fascism advocate only violent resistance. Here's one example, Britain's Anti-Fascist Action from the late 1980s to 2000, as related by academic Nigel Copsey:
"[AFA] applied a ‘twintrack’ strategy: physical confrontation combined with ideological struggle. AFA not only wanted to restrict, contain, and ultimately eradicate fascist activity through a physical war of attrition with fascists on the streets, it also counteracted fascist propaganda, typically through public-speaking, organising concerts and other events, and leafleting working-class housing estates."
My view is that fascism can not be defeated without violence, but it can not be defeated only by violence.

3. Arresting the electoral rise of fascism is not the only thing that needs to happen to stop fascism

Tom's first case study for showing the ineffectiveness of violent protest is the defeat of the National Front in 1979, which he attributes (using Chris Husbands in Marxism Today) to Thatcher stealing their thunder and winning right-wing voters. This is undoubtedly true (although the early work of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism also buoyed up an anti-racist popular culture that blocked the growth of the NF among the young - see this post by Dave Renton on this debate). We are seeing the same thing now with the collapse of UKIP (not fascist, but hard right) as Theresa May's Tories revive an authoritarian populist form of Conservatism. Tom notes that the BNP also fell as society became less racist and as its voters switched to the more electable UKIP.

The problem with this analysis is it sees stopping fascism only in terms of stopping fascism rising to power electorally. If that was our only aim, supporting authoritarian populists in mainstream parties would be the best strategy. But actually, fascism is not only dangerous in power; it is dangerous as a movement within liberal democracies. It is dangerous as a movement because it works by inflicting intimidation, terror and violence on the groups it despises (e.g. the Jews of Whitefish, Montana).

If we look at British history, we see two different types of far right strength. Generally, when we have had Labour governments, the far right has attempted to work electorally: the NF in the late 1970s, the BNP in the 2000s. Under Conservative governments, we have seen violent street movements: Combat 18 and the BNP in the 1990s, the (proto-fascist rather than fascist) EDL in the 2010s. These are two different sorts of threats, which need different tactics and strategies.

4. The psychological motivation for taking a moral position (e.g. on punching fascists) is irrelevant to whether the moral position is right or not

Tom argues that the desire to punch fascists responds to a psychological urge on the left, linked to the self-righteous desire to be on the right side of history. Tom is undoubtedly right about this. But it does not mean in itself that the "deontological" case for punching fascists is wrong. This is like "virtue signalling", with which the Eustonite left and Spectator right are obsessed. Tweeting about punching fascists may fulfill a psychological urge to be regarded as noble by fellow leftists. But the fact people are showing off how right they are does not mean that they are wrong.

5. Punching fascists and resisting Trump is not a zero sum choice

Finally, Tom makes this powerful point:
"Trump is the dream for the writer who has transitioned from writing dark comedy to writing tragedy; his hostility to the New York Times and the free press would be funny if he wasn’t the elected executive of the most powerful liberal democracy in the world; his humiliation of the social conservatives who have excused his wandering phallus and serial dishonesty would be funny if the victims of his predation and lies were not vulnerable women and ethnic minorities; his exposure of the liberal tendency to cry wolf at previous president’s alleged racism would be funny if he wasn’t the wolf stalking the forest. Some of the responses to him would be funny if he wasn’t manifestly a threat to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. The seriousness of the threat he poses needs robust opposition, not one ready to celebrate vigilantism and the costs, both consequential and moral, that come with it."
That is true, but it misses the point. Most people who argue that we should punch fascists are not arguing that Trump is a fascist. The relationship between Trump and fascism is complicated. To put it crudely, Trump's rhetoric emboldens fascists, and thus fascism as a movement becomes dangerous, not because it will rise to power but because it spreads terror. So, we have to seriously respond (non-violently) to the serious large-scale threat Trump poses - but we also have to seriously respond (perhaps violently) to the serious if small-scale threat that resurgent violent fascism poses in our communities. 


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