Violence is the great obfuscator. When its name is invoked by the powerful, rest assured that it is masking much more than it reveals. While it is presented as an objective description of a state of affairs requiring immediate condemnation, it simultaneously serves to discredit movements and ideas, deny the political agency of certain actors, and cloak brutal forms of domination. Its purportedly objective presentation is, in fact, a legerdemain that stirs up moral sentiments in order to muddy political analysis. Under the guise of indubitable moral rectitude, the world is turned upside: those who stand up for justice are often made to appear as senseless savages, and the greatest perpetrators of violence are exonerated, or even presented as victims.
Of late, violence has made headlines in the U.S. corporate media by serving to discredit the work of anti-fascist activists and distract from the actual threats of fascism and white supremacy. One would think that the very expression “anti-fascism” would immediately convoke pledges of allegiance in a country whose nationalist narratives include the story of its own rise to power as the global hegemon through the militant defeat of fascism in WWII. Regardless of whether or not we sanction its veracity, the story of the violent fight against fascism—not with kicks and punches, but with bombers, tanks, heavy artillery and nuclear bombs—is, indeed, one of the founding narratives of contemporary America.
However, in the current political climate, innumerable spin-doctors, corporate-funded pundits, and even supposed leftists are intent on misrepresenting and discrediting antifascism with their sweeping and self-congratulatory denunciations of the “violence” of antifa activists. Rhetorically, they do this through a series of elisions and obfuscations. For one, they sever contemporary antifa movements from the long history and deep ideological commitments of anti-fascism. They aggressively misrepresent activists mobilized in defense of equality and justice as nothing more than savage progenitors of violence, obfuscating the fundamental political stakes of the movement, as well as the vast array of its activities. It should come as no surprise that this is occurring precisely at the moment when racist, xenophobic, and fascist ideologies are gaining institutional power and seeking greater normalization in U.S. political culture (indeed, the Department of Homeland Security has recently classified antifa activities as “domestic terrorist violence”).
To take but one glaring example, the dominant mass media image of antifa has recently been consolidated by Chris Hedges, who has indisputably demonstrated that public figures associated with the Left can sometimes serve the agenda of the Right better than their own foot soldiers. From a privileged vantage point far removed from the violence enacted by white supremacists, Hedges peremptorily proclaimed that antifascist direct action that openly confronts fascist violence is nothing but the mirror of the latter. In one grandiose and historically inaccurate claim after the next, he levels the variegated and heterogeneous social phenomenon of antifa, patronizingly flattens the political agency of all of the different actors involved, collapses the colossal difference between fighting for fascism and struggling for freedom and equality, and crushes an entire field of political struggle in order to make it fit neatly within his simple moral categories.
This rhetorical leveling of antifa by the reckless moral bulldozer of a right-minded leftist, which has been resolutely criticized by John-Patrick Schultz and others, exemplifies one of the key tactics used to discredit dissent in general, which consists in smothering its political claims under the the scarlet letter of “violence.” When people who are oppressed and vulnerable resist domination and assert their political agency, it often takes forms that do not follow the protocols so cherished by the liberals and conservatives in power, precisely because the system that supports them works to kettle the agency of those below. The powerful and their lackeys use this as evidence to assert that dissenters are illegitimate, uncivil, and ultimately savage. Out of control and ungovernable, they need to be forcefully trained to obey the civilizing moral compass that only the Right, and right-minded leftists, can provide. This obviously does not imply, by contrast, that we are obliged to indiscriminately condone everyone and everything affiliated with antifa. It simply means that we need to train ourselves to see through the numerous tactics employed to discredit it across the board and ignore its political stakes.
In the face, then, of this contemporary restaging of the savage and the civilized, which is viciously intent on transforming a complex political struggle into a simple moral opposition, it is important to remind ourselves of a few basic things. First of all, as the author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook has cogently explained in a recent interview, antifa is rooted in a century-long battle against the fascism that rose and spread in interwar Europe by using the parliamentary system and many of the very same protocols defended by so many liberals and conservatives today. It is part of a vast historical power struggle over the very meaning of politics, and it stalwartly resists the assumption that those who are violently dedicated to destroying certain sectors of the population are simply expressing an opinion that should be respected or tolerated. These are precisely the views that were at the root of some of the most ruthless and destructive political regimes of the last century, including the Nazi Third Reich and the bloody dictatorships of Franco and Mussolini.
One of the important fronts of the current anti-fascist struggles concerns the horizons of political acceptability. Empowered by a state apparatus that has proven time and again that it has their backs, fascists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis are on the attack (and receiving ample funding from reactionaries, as well as extensive media coverage). They are rabidly intent on expanding the field of political acceptability to include them, perniciously attempting to co-opt and operationalize principles of “free speech,” “civil discourse,” and “tolerance” for their own ends. It is precisely in this context, and against a historical backdrop in which liberal tolerance and the parliamentary system did little or nothing to stop the rise of fascism in the interwar period, that activists are putting their own bodies on the line to expunge fascism’s extreme violence from the field of political possibility before its roots spread even deeper.
We should never forget, then, that antifa is a struggle against the violence of fascism. Those militating for white supremacy and Nazism, as well as those standing on the sidelines waving the banner of their own moral superiority while they promote “non-violent” tolerance of the opinion of those whose kin have built gas chambers and run lynching campaigns, are fighting for the right to establish or militate for a system founded on the most extreme forms of systemic violence. Rather than people who wear black, hide their faces from the oppressive surveillance state, or put their own lives at risk to protect others (such as Cornel West and other threatened activists in Charlottesville), why aren’t the fascists—as well as those defending their right to push on others the “opinion” that swaths of the population should be decimated—identified as the violent ones?
One reason is that systems of domination do everything in their power to render their own violence invisible, in part through the hyper-visibilization of any significant resistance to it, which is precisely what is labeled as “violent.” Self-appointed moral referees like Hedges falsely presume that the term “violence” simply refers to an objective fact rather than operating as an ideological tool used to discredit dissent. They believe, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, that the Right and the corporate media and state apparatus—with all of their well-paid specialists in smear campaigns, public lies, infiltration, and false flag operations—would simply respect some ephemeral “moral authority” of the Left if the latter never engaged in activities that they identify as violent.
To take but one of the most flagrant examples of why this is utterly incorrect, let us recall the FBI’s position on the most outspoken defender of non-violent resistance to white supremacy in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. Two days after the peaceful March on Washington and his uplifting “I Have a Dream” speech, the head of the domestic intelligence division, William Sullivan, summed up the FBI’s stance in a memo to top bureau leaders, and later wrote an anonymous letter to King trying to blackmail him into committing suicide: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
The notion of violence operates, perhaps first and foremost, as an instrument of perception management. It serves to organize a political playing field in such a way that certain movements and figures are delegitimated, and particular tactics are taken away from the oppressed, while the repressive strategies of those in power are legitimated, naturalized and ideally rendered invisible. The corporate state and their pawns in the media and elsewhere thereby seek to establish and maintain a monopoly on invisible violence.
One crucial question in this regard is why the conversation about violence that is continually re-staged in the media overwhelmingly focuses on tactics of resistance by the underclasses. Among those who are vociferously proclaiming a pure form of “non-violence” as an unquestionable moral principle, who of them is arguing that this principle should be applied to the corporate state and all of its imperial endeavors? Alongside the countless statements reprimanding anti-capitalist activists for street scuffles, where are the articles calling for the dismantling of the military-industrial complex, the dissolution of the police force, or the abolition of the prison system? Why isn’t the debate around non-violence centered precisely on those who have all of the power and all of the weapons? Is it because violence has actually worked successfully in these cases to impose a very specific top-down agenda, which includes shutting out anyone who calls it into question, and diligently managing the perception of their actions? Is violence somehow acceptable here because it is the violence of the victors, who are the ones who presume to have the right—and in any case have the power—to define the very nature of violence (as anything that threatens them)?
Clearly, the fetishization of non-violence is reserved for the actions of the underlings. They are the ones who, again and again, are told that they must be civil (and are never sufficiently so), and that the best way to attain their objectives is by obeying the moral dictates of those above. Let us recall, in this light, James Baldwin’s powerful statement in the context of the black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s: “The only time non-violence is admired is when the Negroes practice it.”
It is time, then, for us to get violence. We need to figure out how it functions and the work that it does as a practical concept to orchestrate a field of political possibility, distribute tactics, legitimate or discredit movements, render particular actions visible or invisible, and ultimately define the very nature of what is politically acceptable. This will allow us to refuse the handcuffs of the oppressive moralism that shackles agents with the inchoate question: “violence or non-violence?” Throwing off these shackles, and the assumption that there are two purely delimited forms of action between which we must choose once and for all regardless of circumstances (including those of self-defense), we should instead be engaged in a much broader and deeper inquiry, which the latter question seeks to obfuscate: what are we to do with the deadly white supremacist, capitalist empire at this precise historical moment when it is emboldening its most fascist elements, and how can we make sense of the ways in which it operationalizes “violence” to simultaneously stigmatize resistance and perpetuate its monopoly on invisible violence? We really need to get violence. We need to understand it and wrest control of it away from those who marshal it—under so many different guises and with such force—against us.