by David Langstaff
(1/28/17) – [The image above is from the Become Ungovernable march in downtown Detroit on the day of Trump’s inauguration – photo by Shanna Merola.]
how to theorize and to politicize violence in the midst of violence, to indicate the wetness of water while submerged in it
our house slips under these wings
shuttle between nightmare and the possible.
For liberals, progressives, and leftists alike, 2016 appeared to drag listlessly to its close, as if straining under the weight of some malaise born of the conjoined sense of political crisis and political impasse, the seemingly paradoxical coincidence of panic and morass. The feeling of shock at Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections was, significantly, largely shared across these political dispositions, and especially amongst their white cross-sections. In the course of this apparent historical sea-change, fascism once again returned to center stage in left political discourse. On social media, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s ominous reflections on the interwar conjuncture seemed to circulate with greater intensity and foreboding, if not greater frequency: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
2017 opened uncertainly, with the left recommitting itself to resistance in the face of reactionary ascendance, reiterating the hope which the secular faith demands, but nonetheless lacking a coherent or unified narrative of the nature of the avowed crisis, its origins and trajectory, or the means by which it might be radically confronted. If Gramsci’s aphorism seemed to capture the mood of the left as the old year passed, then the mood at the beginning of the new year could be said to have resembled W.E.B. Du Bois’ ruminations at the turn of the twentieth century, penned as he took stock of the heroic struggles and awful wreckage of Reconstruction, at once turning unflinchingly towards the emergent regime of racial terror that Sarah Haley has termed “Jim Crow modernity” and casting his vision towards a yet unknowable future that for him retained a sense of radical possibility: “And all this life and love and strife and failure – is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?”
Yet, if at first glance, Gramsci and Du Bois’ words can be read as interrogations of and struggle within a common problematic, as if these two towering historical figures could, from a world-historical perspective, be taken as comrades of a sort, the reality is in fact more complicated and more fraught. For while Gramsci’s monsters were products of a conjunctural crisis of capital, albeit the deepest crisis of the capitalist world-system to date, the monsters which haunted Du Bois were terribly familiar, given in the wake of the racial slavery that has been and remains foundational to the modern world and modern politics. A “vast veil” separates Gramsci and Du Bois, and, just as surely as this veil presents Du Bois with the gift and burden of “second sight,” it promises that the depth of the question and disruption instantiated in Du Bois’ writings remain hidden for Gramsci.
It is in relation to the lacuna and aporia that manifests, in this instance, between left materialism and the black radical tradition that I want to situate the question of fascism, the question of violence and resistance in this historical moment and beyond it, in hopes that this line of inquiry might offer a modest contribution to the task of articulating and transcending the epistemic and material impasse in which left praxis continues to be mired. For turning towards the “position of the unthought” opens up the possibility, not only of grasping systemic violence at its roots, but of recognizing and imagining, celebrating and embracing, forms of insurgent social life which already move beneath, against, and beyond the socio-ecological catastrophe that is the modern world.
Trump’s Victory and the False Binary of Race vs. Class
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, unanticipated by so many across the politic spectrum, liberals, progressives, and leftists have been experiencing a sense of whiplash. Many of them had, just earlier that year, rallied enthusiastically around avowedly “socialist” presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and had actually entertained, if only for a brief moment, the possibility that Sanders might not only win the Democratic primary, but perhaps even the presidency. There were, of course, dissenting radical perspectives, my own among them, but the fact remains that for many of the people that comprised the base of the “Sandernista” coalition, Trump’s election felt like a profound reversal of fortunes. How could this happen?, they asked in utter disbelief.
As liberals, progressives, and leftists scrambled for explanations of Trump’s unexpected victory, the tired left debate surrounding so-called identity politics – which, though it has perhaps died down since its fever pitch in the 1990s, continues to reassert itself on the left with almost comedic regularity (“first as tragedy, then as farce”) – once again reared its stubborn head. In this competition of left analyses, one side has tended to emphasize elite manipulation of a legitimately disaffected working class, reeling from the economic dislocations born of nearly four decades of neoliberal class war from above, and ostensibly neglected by a left that has become, as Todd Gitlin once put it, “lost in the politics of identity.” Bruce Lerro’s reflections on Dissident Voice are emblematic of this perspective:
the biggest appeal to the working class was the prospect of jobs; that is, economic appeal…Liberals, social democrats and many anarchists who embrace identity politics view the election results as proof that the American working class is racist, sexist and against Islam. To some extent this may be true, but…in most of the counties that voted for Trump, these same people voted for Obama in 2008. That means that the same working class people liberals and social democrats label as racist voted for an African-American president. If social class is any indicator, these working class people switched from Obama to Trump because Obama’s administration actually made economic life worse for them, as it did for the poor and the middle class…The New Left and its identity politics was not very successful in its heyday when economic times were better. It is a failure to deal with the continuing crisis in capitalism which has been accumulating for 45 years. We have to be far more ambitious, show far more socialist imagination if we want to have any hope of forming an alliance with the poor, working class and middle class people.
The other side of the left debate has tended to stress the centrality of racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia in determining the outcome of the election. Generally speaking, neither perspective goes deep enough, but for the moment let’s take up the former, as I hope to deepen the latter over the course of this short essay. (The question of Russian hacking, while perhaps important to gauging emergent geopolitical or transnational ideological alliances, I set aside entirely, as it is largely irrelevant to the deeper questions of violence and resistance I am trying to raise here.)
In critically assessing the claim of Lerro and his ilk that Trump’s victory ought to register firstly as a misguided yet understandable revolt on the part of a disaffected American working class, it is worth briefly turning to the poll data. As Vito Laterza and Louis Philippe Römer have noted, “[t]he majority of white voters across gender and most income groups who went to the polls voted for Donald Trump, someone who does not hide his white supremacist view, condones sexual assault, and built his campaign on openly anti-immigration, anti-Latin and anti-Muslim themes.” While the bulk of these voters no doubt sell their labor-power, and thus could be considered working class strictly in terms of their relationship to the means of production, they were certainly not among the most immiserated of this class (as Marxists like to put it). Clinton won the majority of votes from those whose incomes were less than $50,000 a year, while Trump took the lead with voters who earned over $100,000 a year. The median annual income of Trump voters is around $72,000.
Much has been made of the 700 counties that had voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, but which turned out in support of Trump in 2016, with many commentators suggesting that this shift in allegiances indicates that it was economics rather than race which principally determined the election’s outcome. Here there are several points worth noting. First of all, the counties in question are overwhelmingly white, and this cannot be dismissed as merely incidental. As David Roediger and Kathryn Robinson have more generally observed, “[t]he disaster, economic and otherwise…of the second George Bush’s terms as president surely shaped Obama’s 2008 successes more than an incipient anti-racism.” Moreover, while these 700 counties may be worthwhile sites for further sociological investigation, the widespread fixation upon them (both by the left and in the mainstream media) obscures the more general pattern among white voters nationally, which, as already noted, points to majority support for Trump across class and gender lines. An exit poll conducted by the New York Times found that Trump voters declared “Immigration” and “Terrorism” to be the most significant issues determining their votes (both registering as significantly more important to these pollees than “the economy”), issues which, as Robin Kelley points out, are thoroughly racialized. A more recent study, which analyzes data from a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults administered online by YouGov, found that racism and sexism were more significant factors in voting decisions than economic discontent.
Meanwhile, as Kelley notes, “[t]he vast majority of people of color voted against Trump, with black women registering the highest voting percentage for Clinton of any other demographic (93 percent).” Moreover, due to a combination of racial-carceral civic expulsion, anti-immigrant civic exclusion, and outright racist voter suppression, millions were disenfranchised altogether. In short, it seems that Lerro’s “American working class” is really just a euphemism for the white majority. This is especially ironic, given that the more dynamic forms of contemporary rank-and-file labor organizing tend to be located within more precarious sectors of the workforce that are disproportionately made up of immigrants and people of color. And, of course, this discussion doesn’t even begin to address the nearly half of the eligible population (myself among them) who didn’t vote at all, a fact which, though generally interpreted as a symptom of political apathy, could just as easily be read as the widespread refusal of the terms of engagement afforded by this quadrennial democratic spectacle and power contest between elites. I have addressed the matter of electoral politics elsewhere, and will not recapitulate that line of argumentation here, save noting that the routinely massive abstentions from U.S. electoral politics is perhaps indicative of at least a latent popular recognition of the fact that, as Fred Moten puts it,
U.S. democratic politics is a mode of crisis management whose most conspicuous and extravagant rituals – elections and inaugural celebrations and protests that each in its way confirms them – operate at the level of the demonstration. Elections in the United States are meant, finally and above all, to demonstrate that an election took place – a central consideration for structures of authority that depend on the eclipse of democratic content by the ritual animation of supposedly democratic forms…the United States is the land of formal democratic enclosure.
In any case, there is an extent to which even regurgitating these “anempatheic numbers” obscures as much as it reveals, for – in addition to reinscribing positivist fetishism – the epistemological circumscriptions and political unconscious of these methods tends to reproduce a false dichotomization of race and class. Certainly, understanding the origins and dynamics of Trump’s electoral victory in all of their historical specificity requires an analysis of the vast political economic transformations that generally fall under the rubric of neoliberalism (massive financialization, cascading debt, bourgeoning inequality, the relocation of industrial production to the Global South, the transnationalization of capital and its circuits of production, the dismantling of socially oriented public infrastructure and expenditure, the privatization of hitherto public enterprises and assets, deunionization, more regressive taxation, selective liberalization of markets and borders, the slashing of environmental protections, and so on). Indeed, the more thoughtful assessments of the 2016 election have not argued for the primacy of racial over or against class determinants, but rather have asserted that class is always ineluctably racial, just as raciality is always imbricated in class relations. As readers of Cedric Robinson (and Du Bois, and many others) know well, capitalism has always been racial capitalism. More specifically, as Kelley has put it, “[t]he easy claim that Trump appeals to legitimate working-class populism driven by class anger…ignores the historical link between whiteness, citizenship, and humanity, and the American dream of wealth accumulation built on private property.” Thus, while it is undoubtedly true that Trump was able to exploit discontent among masses of working and/or middle class white voters that has been generated, in part, by economic dislocations, this discontent is incomprehensible outside of the deep structures of racial/colonial entitlement and subjection through which it takes shape. If Trump’s election does indeed index and abet a form of populism, then this populism is decidedly white nationalist in character.
The widespread tendency of both the right and left to deploy the term “fascism” as invective largely devoid of analytical content – save a vague notion that it denotes something politically authoritarian and morally reprehensible – has led many to abandon the term altogether. If we are to assess the concept’s utility for making sense of our current historical moment, we must strive to clarify precisely what we mean by fascism, as well as what we hope to achieve by reasserting the concept within left and popular discourses.
Fascism studies is perhaps more geographically and historically restricted than many fields within the so-called social sciences, centered largely on the time and place in which the term originated and first appears applicable – that is to say, parts of Europe (or, more narrowly, Italy and Germany) during the interwar period and through the Second World War. There is a great deal of debate among scholars of fascism regarding its fundamental characteristics, its origins, dynamics, trajectory, geographical reach, and even whether it can be coherently classified as such, making it particularly difficult to generalize about the scholarship on the whole. Here I draw selectively on the scholarship as it pertains to the matter of theorizing violence and resistance in the present conjuncture.
In its “classical” European iterations, fascism emerged within a period of profound social crisis, registered most immediately by “the war to end all wars” and its ruinous aftermath, but better understood, as Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver have suggested, as the culmination of a world-systemic crisis marked by the overaccumulation of capital, the decline of British hegemony, the escalation of inter-imperialist rivalries, and an intensification of uneven development on a world scale – conjoined unhingings which were momentarily obscured (at least for elites) by the belle époque that was ushered in by financialization. Meanwhile, the very means which were deployed by ruling classes as both expressions of and attempts to resolve this crisis of the capitalist world-system – notably imperial and financial expansion, and, especially in the United States and Germany, technical and organizational revolutions in capitalist production – served ultimately to exacerbate the crisis, as labor, socialist, and anarchist movements were consolidated within the core of the world-system, as anti-colonial nationalist movements gained traction in the Euro-American colonies and semi-colonies, and as world-economic and geopolitical fissures deepened. World War I merely announced that the season of British hegemony, and the world-systemic regime of accumulation and rule it had spearheaded the construction of, had shifted from autumn to winter.
It was in this chaotic interregnum that Gramsci’s monsters came to the fore. With the weight of the crisis fracturing consent from both above and below, fascism was well positioned to push its way through the cracks in the social order. As Geoff Eley asserts, “fascism prospered under conditions of general political crisis in societies…[in which] liberal or parliamentary methods of political containment were shown to have exhausted their potential, guaranteeing neither the political representation of the dominant classes, nor the mobilization of popular consent…fascism successfully presented itself as a radical populist solution.” Here it is important to distinguish between fascist movements and fascist regimes, for the vast majority of fascist movements never attained state power. That said, most historians would agree that fascism became a truly international tendency following the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and especially after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.
These fascist movements and regimes were populist, both in the sense that their bases of support stretched across large cross sections of the societies in which they flourished, and in the sense that these bases were actively mobilized for strength and legitimation. Martin Kitchen, employing a Marxist analysis which extrapolates from the European experience, argues that
fascism recruits its mass from a politicized, threatened, and frightened petite bourgeoisie. Artisans, small independent businessmen who are threatened by monopolisation and severely hurt by the economic crisis flock to the fascists, attracted by their political rhetoric, in the hope of finding economic and social salvation, where they join forces with white-collar workers and lower civil servants who are determined to ward off the immanent [sic] threat of being cast down into the ranks of the proletariat. In some instances they are joined by members of the ‘aristocracy of labour’ who no longer identify with the working class and see in fascism a means of enhancing their social status.
Notwithstanding the material concerns or ambitions which undoubtedly constituted part of its appeal, many scholars have noted that classical European fascism emphasized its affective and spiritual dimensions over concrete or consistent intellectual positions or political programs. Robert O. Paxton, one of the leading contemporary scholars of fascism, suggests that fascism is structured by certain “mobilizing passions,” even if “they may sometimes be articulated only implicitly[.]” For Paxton, these mobilizing passions can be summarized as follows:
1 The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual
2 The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group’s enemies, internal as well as external
3 Dread of the group’s decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism
4 Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary
5 An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem
6 Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny
7 The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in Darwinian struggle
Within classical European fascism, the “group” to which one belongs, and in the name of which one engages in violent, militaristic struggle, is that of the race and nation. Against the perceived moral and material decline of this nation (at the hands of liberal cosmopolitans, immigrants, Jews, people with disabilities, communists, etc.), fascism sought a radical renewal or rebirth of the nation and a cleansing of all those social elements identified as the sources of the nation’s degradation, effected through essentially divined will and might to which only “true” members of the nation could lay claim.
Of course, the messianic dimensions of fascist movements were not necessarily the ingredients that produced fascist regimes, nor were fascist ideologies and programs left unaltered along the road to power. Paxton schematizes five stages that mark the temporal progression of fascist development: “(1) the initial creation of fascist movements; (2) their rooting as parties in a political system; (3) the acquisition of power; (4) the exercise of power; and, finally, in the longer term, (5) radicalization or entropy.” In practice, fascist movements that succeeded in attaining state power (stage 3) had to forge alliances and make compromises with fractions of the existing conservative establishment. Perhaps the clearest point of agreement between fascists and the conservatives with whom they allied with was the necessity of obliterating leftist social movements. Hence the Marxist emphasis on fascism as a last resort of the ruling class, reasserting social control through reactionary populism and repression of opposition, and economic control through a corporatist merger of state and capital. Palmiro Togliatti emblematizes this view in his assertion that
fascism proves itself conclusively to be not only an instrument of reaction and repression, but also a centre of unity for all the dominant classes: finance capital, large industry, the landowners…The Fascist Party thus tends to lose the character of an autonomous movement of certain indeterminate social strata that it had to begin with, and becomes…intimately fused with the economic and political strata of the system of the dominant classes.
There are certainly a number of parallels between our current historical conjuncture and that in which classical European fascism emerged. Just as the Great Depression represented the culmination of contradictions within a world-systemic regime of accumulation that had been gathering force since the 1870s, so too did the global economic crisis of 2007-08 signify an escalation of the contradictions internal to the neoliberal regime that emerged from the crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s. If the outbreak of World War I must be understood in relation to the intensification of inter-imperialist rivalries that had accompanied the decline of British hegemony and the ascendance of states (e.g. the US and Germany) which sought to vie for that mantle, then the current period of geopolitical realignment and disorder must be understood at least partly in relation to the decline of US hegemony and the absence of a clear successor. And, as in the interwar period, it would appear that the existing institutions and programs of domestic rule are increasingly inadequate to their task, as evidenced by a series of interconnected, though often non-analogous, movements and rebellions across the globe over the past decade. It should therefore not be surprising that the past several decades have witnessed the reemergence of fascistic movements and parties across the globe, from Golden Dawn in Greece to the Sangh Parivar in India.
However, there are also important differences between the interwar period and our present conjuncture. To begin with, the dominant fraction of the capitalist class is now emphatically transnational in character, and many national states have, albeit in a more incomplete and contradictory manner, become integrated into a global architecture of governance that William I. Robinson refers to as an emergent “transnational state apparatus.” These transformations bear a relationship to shifts in the instruments and strategies of state repression, with the core of the world-system increasingly turning towards counterinsurgency and deeper imbrications of military and police functions and forces. It is unclear what implications these reconfigurations of state and capital have for a formation such as fascism, for which state repression in the service of the ruling class has been an historic feature. Moreover, whereas classical European fascism arose in the context of, and as a violent reaction against, massive labor, socialist, anarchist, and anti-colonial movements, many parts of the world where fascistic movements appear to be flourishing are still reeling from several decades of counter-revolutionary repression, following the apex of left radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, whereas the world-systemic crisis of the interwar period ultimately found “resolution” through global conflagration, imperialist expansion, and a new regime of accumulation and rule ushered in by US hegemony, there is mounting evidence that the capitalist world-ecology has entered the throes of an epochal crisis from which it may well not recover.
For these and other reasons, many theorists who suggest that we are presently witnessing a worldwide flowering of fascism stress that we should not assume fascism will simply replicate the forms assumed by its classical European iterations. Robinson argues that
a twenty-first century fascism would not be a repetition of its twentieth-century predecessor. The role of political and ideological domination, through control over media and the flow of images and symbols, would make any such project more sophisticated and, together with new panoptical surveillance and social control technologies, probably allow it to rely more on selective than generalised repression. These and other new forms of social control and modalities of ideological domination blur boundaries, so that there may be a constitutional and normalised neo-fascism (with formal representative institutions, a constitution, political parties and elections), all while the political system is tightly controlled by transnational capital and its representatives.
If fascism must be situated historically, then it also must be interrogated geographically. Aijaz Ahmad has written that “every country gets the fascism it deserves,” which is to say that “although a general phenomenon across the world and over a century or more, fascism nevertheless takes a very specific form in any given country, in accordance with its particular historical formation.” As noted previously, fascism is animated, in part, by the ideological crusade against perceived national or racial decadence, in which adherents strive to recover the illustrious dominion which they take as rightfully theirs. In the United States, this supposedly beleaguered figure is the white, the settler – that citizen–subject who has been produced principally through the cataclysmic depredations of racial slavery and settler colonialism. Steve Martinot suggests that in the U.S. we might speak of “white-identity fascism” – movements of white nationalist revanchism and regimes of racial totalitarianism that have emerged in force when the integrity of the “white socius” is threatened by the prospect of what Du Bois referred to as “abolition democracy.” In these moments of “crisis for white racialized identity,” Martinot argues,
the white socius renovates its structures of racialization, in order to reconstitute the cohesion of the culture of whiteness. The identity crisis for whites emerges from the force of autonomy and equality in the hands of those upon which white identity depends. And in each case, the white socius has responded with a multitude of forms of violence, and a demand for white allegiance. The vast defense of slavery, the KKK and other paramilitary operations, and the prison-industrial complex, all participate in the emergence of what could be called “white-identity fascism.”
In our present moment, I would suggest, we are witnessing the intensification of a white nationalist revanchism that has been unfolding for decades, spurred initially by the historic conjunction of anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, and queer rebellions that Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “world revolution of 1968” – in particular by the “Second Reconstruction” driven by the black freedom movement – and subsequently stoked both by neoliberal class war from above, US hegemonic decline, and the cynical exploitation of all of the above by an ascendant right. In more recent years, the fires of white revanchism have been fueled by black rebellions against the everyday violence of racial apartheid in Ferguson and Baltimore, an increasingly dynamic and variegated landscape of black organizing not unproblematically referred to as the Movement for Black Lives, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the migrant justice and Idle No More movements.
In this supposedly tragic drama of white victimhood, the stage was set for Trump to swagger onto the political scene with his promise to “make America great again.” Although much has been said, and rightly so, regarding Trump’s ruling class allegiances and his virulent rhetorical spectacle of misogyny, anti-immigrant racism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia, far less has been said about the relationship of Trumpism to settler colonialism or to racial slavery and its afterlives. These absences are significant, and point us towards an even deeper problematic with respect to theorizing fascism, violence, and resistance.
From the Flower to the Roots
The Nazi genocide is widely held up not only as the most brutal incarnation of fascism, but as the very pinnacle of violent depravity in the history of the modern world. Having put its ruthless machinery to the task of exterminating some twelve million people – not only Jews, but people with disabilities, Roma, Slavs, queers, communists, and resistors of various stripes – the infamous reputation of the Nazi regime is unsurprising. Yet representing the Nazi genocide as unprecedented and without parallel not only obscures its antecedents, it obscures its very conditions of possibility. It was precisely such exceptionalization that the anti-colonial poet and activist Aimé Césaire famously decried in his classic text, Discourse on Colonialism:
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But nevermind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted upon them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.
In other words, as Walter Mignolo summarizes, Césaire was astutely aware “that for Europeans the horror of Nazism was the horror not only of killing, but of killing white people based on the arguments and strategies that Europe had applied for 450 years to the non-European world.” The racial-colonial ghost in the machine of Western civilization would not be so easily exorcised.
Although his excavation does not dig deep enough, the late Zygmunt Bauman suggested that Nazism is best understood, not as a departure from modernity, but rather as the violent culmination of specific processes which are immanent to it. It is not simply that Nazism adopted tactics and strategies that had been deployed in other historical and geographic contexts – though it certainly did that; Nazi eugenics were partially inspired by U.S. racial/ableist programs of forced sterilization, just as the Nazi concentration camps drew upon the genocidal methods of U.S. settler colonialism, which Hitler is said to have admired for their exterminatory efficiency – but rather that the fascist architecture of Nazi Germany was erected upon the foundation of modernity’s cataclysm.
This reading of Nazism is at odds with the reigning conception of fascism as a radical deviation from or negation of the liberal democratic social contract that governs modern civil society, that territory which Gramsci took as the terrain of revolutionary struggle. Here we come to the crux of the problem of theorizing violence and resistance in relation to fascism, for the reigning analytical certitude and moral revulsion regarding fascism derives precisely from the ways it is understood to violate the rights and protections that are expected within civil society. Fascism, in this reading, inaugurates a regime premised upon the endurance of what the Nazi intellectual Carl Schmitt referred to as the “state of exception.” Why, then, is it that black revolutionaries such as George Jackson (who was himself murdered by guardians of the carceral state) identified the U.S. as a fascist dispensation nearly half a century ago, when the “Golden Age” of the postwar period was just beginning to draw to a close? The answer given to us by way of Jackson and the black radical tradition to which he belongs is that the liberal democratic social contract upon which civil society is premised has only ever been realized through the most brutal depredations and expulsions. Violence is not merely deployed as a means of repressing or punishing dissent within civil society, but is rather, as Dylan Rodríguez asserts, “primary and productive” to and of civil society itself.
We can learn a great deal about the nature of this social formation by paying attention to when and where violence even becomes legible, let alone an ethical crisis, for those who make their home within civil society. In Detroit, where I live, water shut offs impacting tens of thousands of predominantly black residents, or the massive dispossession of more than ten times that number due to foreclosure in just this past decade, or the unforgiveable police murder of seven-year-old Ayana Jones – these instances of quotidian violence, the brutality of which frustrates even the imagination of redress, are non-events for civil society. This is, as Denise Ferreira da Silva observes, the logic of racial violence:
raciality immediately justifies the state’s decision to kill certain persons – mostly (but not only) young men and women of colour – in the name of self-preservation. Such killings do not unleash an ethical crisis because these persons’ bodies and the territories they inhabit always-already signify violence…That is, in these territories the state’s right to kill is always-already legitimate…these racial subjects are nobodies…they inhabit a position that political theorisizing has yet to bring under consideration…the one that gazes at the horizon of death[.]
The boundaries of civil society are drawn up along the lines of what Lisa Lowe terms the “colonial division of humanity.” To some extent, these boundaries are historical. As Rodríguez points out, the “U.S. social formation constantly draws and redraws its own internal (domestic) geographies of human immobilization and (physical, biological, and cultural) genocide, at which the exercise of state and state-sanctioned violence becomes the condition of social reproduction.” Japanese internment during World War II or the current calls for a Muslim registry are instances of the historical contingency of these boundaries. But there are also atrocities which are foundationally constitutive, structural and enduring, most significantly settler colonial genocide and racial slavery. For black and American Indian peoples, the mundane operations of U.S. national sovereignty have always comprised a state of emergency, and this officially undeclared state of emergency has been and continues to be the very ground upon which the liberal democratic state and the normative subject stand.
The growing discourse on fascism indexes, at least in part, anxieties that the boundaries of civil society may be in flux, that the social contract many had imagined as theirs might be unravelling, that the state of emergency may be spilling out of the territories to which it has been relegated. And, it may very well be true. There are good reasons to think that we are witnessing the inauguration of a regime that might well be described as proto-fascist, in the more restricted sense of the term. It is not my intention to downplay the dangers posed by the Trump administration or the white nationalist revanchism which brought it to power. White supremacist vigilantism is on the rise, and Trump has promised policies that would mark a massive escalation of violence against blacks and American Indians, immigrants, Arabs and Muslims, people with disabilities, queer and trans people, women, and poor and working class people generally, not to mention the rest of the world, and there is little reason to doubt him at his word. These are life and death matters for many, and their gravity cannot be overstated.
It is my intention, however, to suggest that the manner in which we understand the violence of this regime, the manner in which we construct our resistance to this regime and the foundations upon which it stands, matters a great deal as well. If we seek to ward off the specter of police rule, yet fail to recall the emergence of police forces from slave patrols, if we condemn white supremacist vigilantism, yet fail to recognize the ways in which white being is always already deputized, always already inextricable from policing, we will be unable to articulate the kinds of questions and critiques, and unable to embrace the forms of insurgent social life, that are absolutely necessary to confronting this regime in ways that refuse socio-ecological catastrophe. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney remind us,
[t]he state is nothing other than a war against its own condition. The state is at war against its own (re)sources, in violent reaction to its own condition of im/possibility, which is life itself, which is the earth itself, which blackness doesn’t so much stand in for as name, as a name among others that is not just another name among others… We have to recognize that a state—the racial capitalist/settler colonial state—of war has long existed. Its brutalities and militarizations, its regulative mundanities, are continually updated and revised, but they are not new. If anything, we need to think more strategically about our own innovations, recognizing that the state of war is a reactive state, a machine for regulating and capitalizing upon our innovations in/for survival.
Over the course of the past week, the mood of the left has shifted tentatively in a more hopeful direction. Massive numbers of people turned out to protest Trump’s inauguration, in particular as participants in the various women’s marches that took place in localities around the country. While mainstream publications such as USA Today have estimated that some 2.5 million people participated in these marches, decentralized aggregate movement estimates run as high as 4.5 million. Insofar as these numbers index popular rejection of the Trump administration specifically, and more generally the possibility that our historical moment is creating conditions that could serve to galvanize progressive movements of a truly mass character, these are certainly positive developments.
At the same time, the discursive and material character of these popular demonstrations – from the critiques of misogyny derived from largely white, middle class, cisgendered womanhood, to the celebrations of non-violence, civility, and more inclusive forms of national belonging, to the enactment of predictable, state-sanction choreographies of protest – also index a collective failure to locate the origins of Trumpism in the foundational violence of racial capitalism and settler colonialism (including their immanent imbrications with heteropatriarchy, ableism, and other oppressive structures), as well as a failure to imagine and enact forms of resistance that both prefigure and chart a path towards more livable futures.
This is not to advocate a politics of purity. As many on the left have noted, it is important to “meet people where they are at” and to recognize that whatever opportunities for building mass movements from the momentum of this moment will necessarily be fraught, messy, and rife with contradictions. That said, we need to be attentive to the ways that injunctions to coalition and unity have historically been advanced by way of subordinating, excluding, or erasing the most radical critiques and transformative praxes of black and indigenous traditions, among others, and commit ourselves to struggling toward forms of coalition predicated on the deepest forms of solidarity and the most expansive liberatory visions, rather than coalitions that seek to grasp power by moving towards the center. We must not lose sight of the fact that the center is built upon a foundation of racial slavery and settler colonial genocide. Confronting the foundational violence which constitutes the normative subject and the civil society this subject takes as home, grappling with the ways racial capitalism and settler colonialism have shaped and delimited our material practices and imaginative horizons with respect to violence and resistance – these are conditions of possibility for genuinely ethical coalition. Of course, our political formations will continuously fall short of these radical ethical aspirations, but we need, at the very least, to commit ourselves to figuring out how to move with and towards them. If we elide the deepest structures of violence or disavow the most radical critiques and praxes in the service of “unity,” we will continue to find ourselves trapped in the (re)production of socio-ecological catastrophe.
Trump’s inauguration also compelled other, numerically smaller, but more radical forms of resistance which give at least as much, if not more reason, for hope. In Washington DC, for instance, Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL activists blockaded security checkpoints for the inauguration, situating the white nationalist revanchism which brought Trump to power in relation to anti-blackness and settler colonialism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, activists blockaded Uber headquarters and CalTransit, and held protests outside Wells Fargo, ICE offices, and the Israeli Consulate, highlighting the imbrications of white nationalist revanchism with racial capitalist gentrification, financial predation, border imperialism, and Israeli settler colonial ethnic cleansing and apartheid. If the larger liberal and progressive mobilizations speak to the populist stirrings that gave momentum to the Sanders campaign, these smaller actions need to be situated in relation to the arguably more significant upsurges in black, indigenous, and immigrant resistance that have been unfolding over the past decade. For many of these latter actions, the slogan of the day was “become ungovernable.”
Governance emerges as a desperate attempt to simultaneously regulate, subordinate, and capitalize upon the ungovernability which inheres in the very fact of ecological materiality, in the very existence of social life. This ungovernability goes by the name of blackness, of queerness, of decoloniality, of poetry, of earth. It is, as Moten and Harney theorize it, “that criminality that brings the law online, the runaway anarchic ground of unpayable debt and untold wealth,” that fugitive social life which moves beneath and beyond the terrain of the necropolitical, that “maternal ecology” through and for which we survive the disaster. In other words, as Claudia Rankine formulates it, “the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.”
In the time to come, we will need to develop concrete strategies of resistance to white nationalist revanchism and the racial capitalist, settler colonial regime in which it is embedded. Many of these necessary forms of resistance are already underway, from migra watches and sanctuary campuses to anti-fascist collective self-defense. As we confront these imminent threats, we will also have to deepen and extend existing struggles that raise foundational questions about social organization, from prison abolition to disability justice. And, we will have to imagine new forms of resistance that reveal the roots of fascistic ascendance in the socio-ecological disaster that is the modern world, that fateful conjunction of “the transatlantic slave trade, settler colonialism and capital’s emergence in and with the state,” while simultaneously inventing and enacting other modalities of existing on, in, and with the earth.
Yet, as we struggle to find methods of resistance capable of addressing the demands of our conjuncture, it is also crucial that we move towards a greater recognition and celebration, and hence protection and extension, of those forms of ungovernability inherent to social life, those forms of ungovernability we already practice every single day. Listening to Moten and Harney’s poetics of black jurisgenerativity given in and by way of the figure of Michael Brown, we can remind ourselves that, “for a minute, but only for a minute, unpoliced, another city gathers, dancing. We know it’s there, and here, and real; we know what we can’t have happens all the time.” Now and always, our task is to reimagine and to reinvent the ethics of this gathering.
About the author: David Langstaff has been involved in movements for collective liberation for the past decade. He currently organizes locally with the Michigan Abolition Alliance and Detroit Eviction Defense, and is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. He has previously organized with Sins Invalid, the Block the Boat coalition, the Stop Urban Shield coalition, and the Third World Resistance Contingent for Black Power, among other formations. He lives in Detroit, MI.