Nov 13, 2017

The Alt-Right: History, Ideology, and the Future of a Fascist Movement (podcast)

Eric Draitser interviewed me for an episode of his Stop Imperialism podcast series on Patreon. The full podcast (almost two hours) is available to Patreon subscribers, while the first half is available for free. Here's Eric's description of the discussion:
This time on the podcast Eric welcomes author and researcher Matthew Lyons to the show to discuss the "Alt-Right," and how it relates to our politics today and in the future. The conversation begins with a discussion of what the alt-right is, and where it came from both intellectually, and in terms of its online evolution. From there, Eric and Matthew discuss everything from the terminology to the alt-right's discourse on women, culture, biology, race, politics, religion, and so much more.

The second half of the show explores the role of Donald Trump in mainstreaming the alt-right, and its relationship to international forces ranging from #Putin's Russia to active and nascent fascist movements throughout Europe. Eric and Matthew explore how the alt-right could potentially develop in the future, and what that means for #antifascists, and society generally. This in depth conversation goes down every rabbit hole, and explores myriad aspects of this complex and dangerous movement called the alt-right. Don't miss it!

Aug 20, 2017

Fascist anti-capitalism?

Henry Ford, industrialist and antisemite.
Jason Wilson of The Guardian has a good article about the role of socialism and anti-capitalism in fascist ideology. I am quoted along with antifascist authors Alexander Reid Ross and Shane Burley. Here's an excerpt:
[Lyons] talks of “a long tradition in Nazism and other parts of the far right of drawing a distinction between finance capital and industrial capital”, with the former, identified with Jews, being seen as “parasitic”.
                                        *                    *                    *

“Jewish finance” is consistently nominated as the principal enemy of these groups. Lyons explains that this distinction is an antisemitic variant on the ideology of “producerism”, which is common across the populist right and privileges the makers of tangible things over those engaged in more abstract pursuits. “They define industrial capitalists as ‘good’ capitalists, or even as workers,” he says, adding that this was how the noted antisemite Henry Ford described his role at the head of a giant auto manufacturer.
The question of fascism's relationship with capitalism is complex. This is a major topic of the book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, and I encourage those interested to check out the essays in that book by Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai. Both of those essays are available here. The following passage from my essay "Two Ways of Looking at Fascism" summarizes some of Hamerquist and Sakai's points on the topic:
In different ways, both Hamerquist and Sakai argue that fascism’s radical approach shapes its relationship with capitalism.... [Sakai] describes fascism as “anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist.” Under fascist regimes, “capitalism is restabilized but the bourgeoisie pays the price of temporarily no longer ruling the capitalist State.”... Today’s fascism “is opposed to the big imperialist bourgeoisie… to the transnational corporations and banks, and their world-spanning ‘multicultural’ bourgeois culture. Fascism really wants to bring down the World Bank, WTO and NATO, and even America the Superpower. As in destroy.”

Sakai argues that fascism radically reshapes the capitalist social order to create an economy of “heightened parasitism”: “a lumpen-capitalist economy more focused on criminality, war, looting and enslavement.” He describes how Hitler’s regime elevated millions of German workers into a new parasitic class of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats and replaced them with a new proletariat of foreign and slave laborers, retirees, and women. This process “created an Aryan society that had never existed before” -– giving Nazi racial categories a concrete, social reality that was qualitatively new (but which paralleled the color-line divisions of U.S. society).

Sakai’s discussion belies claims that Hitler’s regime had little or no impact on the socioeconomic order. We should remember, however, that this discussion does not apply to Italian Fascism, which lacked Nazism’s overarching racialist imperative and never consolidated the same degree of control over the state. Its effect on the socioeconomic order was far more limited.

Hamerquist takes fascist anti-capitalism more seriously than Sakai does. He notes that current-day fascist movements encompass various positions on how to relate to the capitalist class, from opportunists who want to cut a deal, to pro-capitalist revolutionaries who want to pressure big business into accepting fascist rule, to some third positionists who want to overthrow the economic ruling class entirely. It is unclear how serious a challenge to capitalist economic power any fascists would mount in practice. Where it has been tested, fascist anti-capitalism has meant opposition to “bourgeois values,” specific policies, or a “parasitic” wing of capital (such as Jewish bankers) -– not the capitalist system. On the other hand, as Hamerquist warns, it would be dangerous for leftists to dismiss the prospect of a militantly anti-capitalist fascism simply because it doesn’t fit our preconceptions.

Hamerquist’s concept of fascist anti-capitalism rests partly on his analysis (following German left communist Alfred Sohn-Rethel) that German Nazism foreshadowed “a new ‘transcapitalist’ exploitative social order.” In particular, Hamerquist argues, German fascism’s genocidal labor policy broke with capitalist principles. Not just labor power, but workers themselves were “consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital,” thus obliterating “the distinctively capitalist difference between labor and other factors of production.” True, “normal” capitalist development involves genocide “against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class.” But by contrast, “the German policy was the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes” –- i.e., the importation of colonial-style mass killing into Europe’s industrial heartland.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Nazism was in the process of overthrowing the capitalist system. The labor policies Hamerquist describes did not call into question the economic power of big business, and arguably could not be sustained for more than a brief period. But the very fact that they were not sustainable may be part of the point. As Hamerquist reminds us, Marx warned that the contradictions of capitalism might end, not in socialist revolution, but in “barbarism,” “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Fascist revolution could be one version of this scenario.
Photo credit: Jeffrey White Studios, Inc. - Time Magazine (public domain), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aug 7, 2017

An Alt Right Update - Six Months After "Ctrl-Alt-Delete"

"An Alt Right Update," published by Political Research Associates, is my attempt to summarize how the Alt Right’s political situation has changed since Donald Trump took office on January 20th, when the report "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" first appeared. I focus on five major developments:
1. Trump’s election has encouraged supremacist violence by vigilantes and local police.

2. Despite Trump’s volatility, in policy terms his administration has largely been coopted by conventional conservatism.

3. The Alt Right has largely abandoned its support for Trump.

4. Alt Rightists have taken to the streets alongside other right-wing forces.

5. Alt Rightists and their allies have been turning toward physical violence and creating a street-fighting presence.
From the conclusion:
"Despite its disenchantment with the Trump administration, the Alt Right appears to be simultaneously building a real capacity for organized physical violence and strengthening its grassroots connections with other rightist currents, including Trump supporters.... This type of activism is a direct physical threat to both oppressed communities and the Left, and can fuel authoritarian and supremacist tendencies within the state at all levels....

"At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate either the unity or the competence of this new wave of militant right-wing forces. Rightists are just as vulnerable as leftists to infighting, personality conflicts, and sectarian ideological squabbles.... So far, thankfully, their movement has failed to produce a skilled, charismatic leader who can unify them and provide strategic direction.... And even a strong leader wouldn’t necessarily overcome the basic political differences separating Alt Rightists from their conservative fellow travelers. In the long run, if the Alt Right wants to coalesce with system-loyal rightists, it either has to win more people to its dream of right-wing revolution, or abandon it."
Read more

The report "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" is also the lead essay in the book Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right (Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017).

Photo credit: Mark Dixon, via Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0).

May 2, 2017

How the alt-right is reshaping patriarchal politics

I have a new opinion piece in The Guardian under the title "The alt-right hates women as much as it hates people of color." The article's main focus is the contrast between the alt-right's version of patriarchal politics and the Christian right's version. Here's an excerpt:
...the alt-right is reshaping patriarchal politics. Its version of male supremacy is not just more explicit or aggressive – it’s strikingly different from the version that’s been dominant among US rightists for decades.

Consider abortion. Some alt-rightists, unsurprisingly, argue that abortion is simply immoral and should be banned. Yet many others in the movement disagree – and for reasons that have nothing to do with respecting women’s autonomy or privacy. These alt-rightists support legal abortion because, they claim, it’s disproportionately used by black and Latina women and, secondarily, because they see it as a way to weed out “defective” white babies. In other words, they support abortion as a form of eugenics. Both sides of this internal alt-right debate agree that women have no business controlling their own bodies. As Greg Johnson of the alt-right website Counter-Currents put it, “in a White Nationalist society … some abortions should be forbidden, others should be mandatory, but under no circumstances should they simply be a matter of a woman’s choice”.

As far as I can tell, the only outsiders who have responded to this discussion are Christian rightists. For decades they’ve used the “black genocide” canard in an effort to smear abortion rights proponents as racist; now they have some actual racists to go after. But alt-rightists aren’t the least bit intimidated.
Note: The article draft I submitted included links to web-archived versions of alt-right and Christian right source articles (web-archived so you could see the content but it wouldn't boost traffic on their sites). The Guardian editors removed these links, because they didn't want to send readers to that kind of content, even in archived form. In the passage excerpted above, I've put the links back in.

Apr 26, 2017

Militant Tactics in Anti-Fascist Organizing--Interview Transcript

“I think some folks, many folks… try to divide the concept of a mass response with a militant response. That it’s only possible to do one or the other. I think we really want to challenge that. We think that what’s needed is both. And that’s not easy…but that’s our goal. To build a mass, militant movement that includes lots of people and that uses lots of tactics in order to confront this threat.”

This interview with longtime anti-fascist activist Kieran (who was one of the founders of Three Way Fight thirteen years ago) covers a wide range of topics: from the work of Anti-Racist Action in the 1980s and 90s to the IWW’s General Defense Committee today, from the politics of wearing masks to the dangers of relying on the state for protection, and from engaging organized labor to building community-based self-defense against the far right.

The interview was conducted for KPFA Radio’s Against the Grain by the program’s co-producer Sasha Lilley and was broadcast on February 14, 2017. The audio recording is available for download or online listening here. The following transcription, by Clarissa Rogers, appears with the permission of Against the Grain and the participants.

*                     *                     *

Kieran was one of the founders of Anti-Racist Action, a youth-based direct action movement that organized against Nazi skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, and the white power music scene from the 1980s to the 2000s. He’s now chief steward in a local union of telecom workers and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World’s General Defense Committee, which has taken on anti-fascist work in a number of cities. In late January, a member of the General Defense Committee of the IWW was shot at a Milo Yiannopoulos event in Seattle. Against the Grain, a program of radical ideas originating from KPFA Radio, spoke with him after demonstrators closed down Yiannapoulous’ event at UC Berkeley on February 1st.

ATG: Kieran, many liberals and leftists believe that the right of free speech is paramount. As you know, protestors using militant tactics shut down a Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC Berkeley, which is the home of the Free Speech Movement. Why don’t you think that the right of free speech should be extended to fascists and the far right?

Kieran: There are a couple points to this. I think there’s both a question of strategy and tactics. I think that all of this is with the understanding that what we’re opposing is not the free speech of fascists, or the speeches of fascists. What we’re doing is opposing the organizing of the fascists. So, for instance, in my workplace, I work with workers with a whole range of opinions on all different kinds of questions. And occasionally you’re going to run into people who are influenced by far right politics. In those circumstances it doesn’t make sense for me to start a fight, a physical fight with a coworker since they raised some perspective that comes from that background.

But that’s totally different than a situation where you have an organization or a personality who’s using the framework of a public speech or an event, a forum, in order to advance political goals. And so the way we look at it is the way we would look at any kind of organizing done by that group with those aims.

In the case at UC Berkeley, this outright celebrity and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, very clearly is trying to advance a certain kind of politics and more and more is trying to shape it into a movement. Our understanding is that he was planning to out undocumented students at Berkeley for the sole purpose of putting them under attack by Trump’s immigration forces. And, so, in that circumstance, we can’t let that attack go unchallenged. And I think that when you look at it from that perspective, it makes sense to try and oppose it.

If we just wait until they’ve created the groundswell, or created the base of support for these aggressive actions to take place, it can be too late. And so the way we approach fascist organizing or right wing organizing is not really focused on the question of free speech but is focused on whether or not we’re going to let them organize to implement their program. And our perspective is that we’re not. We’re going to challenge it. We’re going to try to stop it. We’re going to try to stop them.

ATG: Let’s talk about the stakes. On the night of Inauguration Day, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World was shot in the stomach by a Milo Yiannopoulos supporter in Seattle. What do we know about what happened there and the condition of the man who was shot?

Kieran: Yeah, that’s correct. On the night of the inauguration, Yiannopoulos was speaking at the University of Washington in Seattle and there was a mass demonstration against him that included a range of political forces. And there was also a number of supporters of Trump and Yiannopoulos who were there as well. So there was a fairly confrontational scene happening outside of Yiannopoulos’s talk. And in that situation, my understanding (I wasn’t there), but my understanding was that one of the right wingers started to spray mace or another chemical at the anti-Trump, anti-Yiannopoulous forces, and that a member of the IWW and the General Defense Committee tried to intervene to stop that person from doing that, and was shot in the stomach, as you said.

It was a life-threatening injury. He was in the ICU for many days. He’s incurred at least two surgeries. So it was a deadly attack. And as of now, there have been no charges brought against the person who did it. Again, our understanding from media reports is that the person that shot him went to the police and gave a statement, and was released without any charges. And so, of course, this is sort of a bad sign for where things are at right now, that we take very seriously. Because as it stands what it appears is that some people are going to walk away from this with the idea that anti-fascists can be shot without consequences. And that’s very dangerous.

ATG: And in fact, that’s been the case. This past summer, there was a confrontation between white supremacists and radicals in Sacramento, California where a number of people were stabbed and there were no consequences.

Kieran: Right. I think that just points to a broader point, which is that we can’t rely on the law enforcement, on the state, to either defend our communities or defend anti-fascists. Some anti-racists have a perspective of wanting to try and call on the state to carry out justice and our approach is a little different. We come from it with an understanding that the state is not neutral. That the state is built on the foundation of a history exploitation and oppression, and represents the folks who are at the top of that system, and defend their interest. So when we’re organizing, we don’t do so from the point of view of trying to get the state or the police to protect us or to find justice for us, but instead we try and build movements that are self-reliant and are based on community self-defense, on popular self-defense.

ATG: There’s been a lot of debate amongst progressives and leftists about the use of militant tactics. Some of this is a continuation of debates that came out of Occupy, some of this goes even further back, but there are a lot of conflicting opinions. There’s no unity whatsoever amongst the left about the use of militant tactics, whether property damage or the shutting down an event. Are there times when militant tactics aren’t called for? Do they need to be considered strategically among other possible tactics?

Kieran: Yeah. I think all of this is a question of tactics. So that being said, I think we have some underlying principles, as well. And that those inform the tactics that we would draw from in order to organize effectively. And you can imagine lots of different situations where you’re encountering the right or the fascists, where either you don’t have the means to effectively disrupt their activity and their organizing, or you want to sort of put a larger emphasis on trying to undermine their ability to develop their base. And so there’s a few things, and it’s never been just a question of militant tactics. Militant tactics is a part of our strategy, but it’s not the only part.

A big part of it is a battle for the hearts and minds that the fascists are trying to recruit for their base. So we’ve always, along with militant tactics against their organizing, have also tried to engage with the communities that the fascists are targeting. And that can be from interviews or leafletting, to building cultural events like shows with bands, to trying to connect with the people in those communities that already have an anti-fascist impulse possibly because of their identity or how they see the world. But we try and bring a message that this program that the right wing and the fascists are selling is not in our interest as working class people. And that it is a dangerous and divisive one, and that it’s going to lead to a common catastrophe if enacted. And in fact, many of the concerns people have would be better served by organizing a united multi-racial, multi-cultural, anti-fascist movement that challenges the system.

ATG: One of the things that comes up in these debates--and not just from liberals, but also from others on the left--is that militant action can actually be alienating for those who would like to build larger grassroots opposition to the right. How would you respond to that?

Kieran: I’ve heard those arguments a lot. And I think it’s true that sometimes there’s poorly organized, or militancy that’s not well thought out. But I hear that argument, oftentimes from people who are really upset with how the mainstream media covers us. Or how the more moderate tendencies within the social movements react to it. While those things are important to be mindful of, I think that there’s also a question of people beyond the current left. People in working class communities. People who are already suspicious of what the mainstream media tells us. And I just think that it’s a fact that most working class people respect folks that stand up and are willing to defend themselves, and are willing to take risks. And so, you can watch a news report in which anti-fascists, or anarchists, or radicals are being condemned, but people receive that information in all different kinds of ways. People that are already suspicious of the way the mainstream media talks about anything, are likely to have a more positive response seeing a group of people standing up and fighting back.

So I think that we have to be really careful about arguments like that, because I think it tends to try and reduce all of our tactics to whatever the most moderate elements within the movement are willing to support. And that’s just not a recipe for building the kind of movement that we need. And it’s not a recipe for bringing in the most marginalized people, the people that are feeling sort of the knife’s edge of the system the most, because those folks already have an antagonistic attitude towards the system and towards these racists. And so if we’re serious [about] including those folks in our movements, then we can’t take a sort of moderate attitude towards them. When the racists and fascists are organizing, we have to be ready to stand up and fight.

ATG: I’d like to ask you about Anti-Racist Action, a youth-based militant direct action movement which organized against Nazi skinheads in the white power music scene and which you co-founded. It was started in the 1980s and lasted through the 2000s. How broad was it? And what sort of work did it do? There’s a renewed interest in it now.

Kieran: It started out sort of spontaneously in this sense. In the mid to late 80s, largely within the punk scene in the US and Canada, there was a sort of polarization politically that happened. And so, around the same time in many cities there were white supremacists and Nazi gangs formed. They were influenced by Screwdriver (which was a Nazi skinhead band, I should say), and the fascist politics of the National Front in Britain. And in response to that, or sometimes ahead of that there were groups that considered themselves militantly anti-racist and anti-fascist, and these two sets of groups could not coexist for long within alternative scenes, within the punk scene.

So there was a struggle that went on simultaneously in a number of cities, and the anti-racists who often started off as anti-racist skinheads and some punks, and some anarchist activists found each other after a while, either through touring with bands or through the letters column in Maximum Rocknroll, or by corresponding with each other, and started to network, started to build. So Anti-Racist Action was the organizing expression of that spontaneous organizing that happened in the youth culture scenes in North America.

Then, over the years it did broaden out to include people that didn’t come from those scenes that came from other subcultural scenes like graffiti, or young feminists, and hip-hop. It started to take on other issues, too, related to racism and white supremacy. So you had Anti-Racist Action chapters that organized Copwatch patrols against police brutality; participated in protests against police violence; helped defend abortion clinics from the far-right Christian right; and a number of other fronts that Anti-Racist Action was active in. So at its peak, it included several thousand mainly young people in North America who were self-organizing in their cities and in their scenes, and putting out zines and holding benefit concerts, and really, any time the fascists tried to make a move, resisting them.

At one point in the 90s, one of the major Ku Klux Klan groups tried to organize a series of rallies across the Midwest. They did this over the course of a few years, in little towns and big towns in Ohio, and Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan. Anti-Racist Action was key to organizing resistance in all of those places. That meant, also, being in those small towns and talking to people, mainly young people in those towns and trying to connect with them. That was successful.

There was a number of ARA chapters in small towns as well as the big cities where the left is stronger. I think Anti-Racist Action, which had plenty of problems as all movements do, can really say that it helped restrain and deliver some defeats to fascist organizing in the US.

ATG: How seriously did the far right take the work of Anti-Racist Action? Did they see it as a genuine threat to their organizing?

Kieran: Absolutely. We were the major force that they had to deal with in terms of opposition on the streets. So they were very conscious of Anti-Racist Action. In every locality there would be conflicts, and there were many people who were harassed or intimidated, who might have gotten their homes graffittied, or phone calls to their parents with threats from the fascists. They definitely saw us as an obstacle to their ability, especially their ability to organize openly and in the public, and in contested public space.

I suppose the peak of this was in Las Vegas in 1998, I believe, on the 4th of July weekend a couple of anti-racist skinheads, one who was African American and one who was white, both of whom were well-known in the scene and active in Anti-Racist Action were kidnapped by a gang of white supremacists, and tortured and killed and left in the desert. So there were people that died fighting, being a part of this movement. That really hangs heavy for me and the other people that have been part of this, as does the shooting in Seattle, when you hear people complaining about the possible violation of Milo Yiannopoulos’s rights.

ATG: Let me ask you a question of clarification. You’ve mentioned anti-racist and anti-fascist skinheads several times. I think for a lot of people, when they hear the term “skinhead” they assume that’s synonymous with fascist and racist, and not anti-fascist and anti-racist.

Kieran: Yeah, sure. Skinhead culture came to the US mainly from the influence of British music, bands. The initial skinhead cultural scene from England, and the bands that were most popular within it, was a multi-racial scene, heavily influenced by Jamaican immigrants to England. So the skinhead identity has always been contested. Anti-racist skinheads make a strong claim that in fact the original skinhead identity was not a racist one, and was a multi-racial one. In the US, among the original chapters of anti-racist action, and the original fighters against white supremacist skinheads were a number of youth of color. So there were African American skinheads. In Chicago, there were Puerto Rican skinheads. In Milwaukee. There were Native American skinheads in Minneapolis, and they were a big and important part of the struggle that happened against the racists.

ATG: Let’s take things up to the present, looking at the lessons that can be drawn from the decades of work of Anti-Racist Action for the current situation where, with the Trump administration in power, you have an emboldened far right. Part of that far right, the alt right, is operating less on the streets and more on the level of propaganda on the internet, but then there are certainly groups on the ground as well. Can you tell us about the General Defense Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World and your political approach to countering fascist and racist forces on the ground?

Kieran: Definitely. I think you’re right in describing the situation right now--that we’ve gone from a situation where we were concerned about the growth of particular fascist and white supremacist organizations, and their movement building to a situation where all of a sudden, particularly through the alt right, there’s suddenly this mass propaganda and mass distribution of fascist ideas, so it’s no longer just about the growth of a neo-Nazi group in a certain town, but it’s the fact that the college Republicans on your campus are peddling alt right ideas. Also that that’s circulating on social media, and that it’s become a part of the public debate in a way that the neo-Nazi groups and Ku Klux Klan groups could never quite achieve in the past couple decades.

So that is a serious situation, and I think the thing that the GDC brings to this, is trying to formulate, is trying to connect the ideas of community self-defense, popular self-defense, popular anti-fascism with the idea that we need to cultivate a working-class base. That it can’t just be a squadron of elite anti-fascist carrying out a technical operation that’s going to win this. That we need to get the masses of working class people in our milieus from all different kinds of communities and identities together. That’s what it’s going to take to defeat the politics that Trump is putting forward in the system that gave birth to it.

I think that while we are proud to be militant anti-fascists, and we take that identity seriously, and we take those tactics seriously, we don’t want to marginalize ourselves, we don’t want to be what Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin called a vanguard versus vanguard where people just see two street gangs fighting with each other, and don’t really see their needs or demands met by either one of them. Instead, we want to try and organize ourselves and our coworkers and our neighbors into a popular response to the fascists. One that, when we take action, we’re not just doing it on behalf of a small cadre of people but that it’s really an expression of a community, and of the working class as a whole.

ATG: How do you do that in practical terms?

Kieran: Well, I think, in many ways, it’s how we talk about it. It’s who we try to involve in our actions. It’s the way we report about and the way that we sum up our actions. The way we decide if we’re successful or not. So it’s not just purely a question of are we able to disrupt their organizing on this day? But it’s also a question of were we able to help develop a base within this community or within this working class that is going to be able to continually be able to confront the fascists and make it a hard place for the fascists to organize and grow?

Some concrete examples of that might be when neo-Nazis plan to organize against an anti-racist program that was being held by a local YWCA in Minneapolis a few years ago, we took that as an attack on the community. We organized leafletting in the neighborhood. We encouraged the neighbors to come out, the community to come out. We held a public meeting. So we gave a chance for people from the neighborhood and from different other organizations to become part of the organizers of the counter-action. There were some reformist leftist groups that came and really argued against any militancy. We argued with them in the open meetings so that there could be a community judgment about which tactics were best.

Myself, I coached soccer--youth soccer--in the parks here in Minneapolis and I let other parents from the folks that I coached with, let them know about this since it was in our neighborhood. And I distributed information about it at work, and brought out coworkers to it. So our attitude is that we want to build a popular defense against this. The fascists attack not just a small group of people, but really are against huge communities, and against the class as a whole. It weakens the class as a whole. So we want to have a popular response.

I think some folks, many folks--on both sides--try to divide the concept of a mass response with a militant response. That it’s only possible to do one or the other.

I think we really want to challenge that. We think that what’s needed is both. And that’s not easy. There’s no simple formula to it. We’re going to need to experiment. We’re going to get some things wrong. We’re going to bend the stick too far one way or the other, undoubtedly, but that’s our goal. To build a mass, militant movement that includes lots of people and that uses lots of tactics in order to confront this threat.

ATG: Frequently, when people are involved in militant actions, they wear masks or take other steps to keep from being identified by the police or the far right.  But what if that anonymity allows people to become vigilantes, unaccountable to other radicals for their actions?  In your experience, how has this tension between militant action and accountability been addressed?"

Kieran: The question of masks is one that there has been some debate around within the General Defense Committee and the broader circles we participate in. But I'm not sure that accountability is the main issue. I agree that there should be some kind of accountability by individuals and groups to the broader movement (and, I would say, to the working-class base) but what that accountability is - is open to debate. For instance some sections of the movement insist on strictly legalistic framework and use the argument that anything outside of a strict legalism threatens the most vulnerable and oppressed. We should challenge that argument--when real, sustained militancy erupts it is almost always from those who feel the pressure the most--if others join in, that is an important act of solidarity. And we should reject "accountability" to the law or to forces inside the movement who would turn people over to the authorities.

But it is true I think that groups and individuals should be answerable in some form to their tactical decisions - but this is not just true of masked-up militants, but of everyone in an action. People should be accountable for working with the police (an act that endangers us), or for the political line that they project on banners, flyers, or chants etc. In other words ALL tactics should be open to debate and criticism.

To get further at the specifics of your question--masks may hide an individuals identity and therefore prevent that particular individual from being "accountable", but generally people in political movements, especially if they've been around for a while, have an idea of the different forces involved and not knowing an individual's name has never stopped folks from (rightly or wrongly) criticizing actions.

The question we've been debating here about masks is a little different. We've been debating whether they are actually effective for security. Now we aren't arguing about whether they are effective at concealing your identity--lets say they are. But we've noticed that if you are a smallish group of people all masked up in a larger demo--the police will actually focus on you--instead of becoming camouflaged, you are actually in the spotlight. The cops may not immediately know who you are but if they focus on the masks, they can just wait until an opportune time and surround and detain the masked-up people and ID or arrest them. We've seen this happen a couple of times.

This speaks to what actually provides security--I would say it is having a real working-class base of support for your organizing, for your projects. Regular people that have a stake in the organizing, that understand the need for militant action, that are willing to stand up and defend each other both politically and physically - that give a shit if one of their friends or comrades is attacked or arrested. This is a much more important, much more real form of security--but it often gets lost in the aesthetic desire for a certain militant "look" that includes masks.

Another related consideration is that masks can make it harder to further develop a base--to talk to people at an action or other event, to have discussions and arguments. There is also the very real factor that folks can get confused as to what people in the masks stand for--and not just liberal pacifists either. The GDC's experience in participating in the struggle for Justice for Jamar Clark (a young unarmed African-American worker killed by the Minneapolis Police in 2015) was that many times people from the Northside community where Jamar was from, who were quite militant were also very suspicious of people in their midst with masks on. This was exacerbated by the fact that a group of masked-up white supremacists attacked the protest occupation, shooting and seriously wounding four people. So there were a couple times where people from the community tried to evict masked up activists from street demos--and this wasn't the "peace police"-types, but neighborhood militants. We spent time arguing with people over evicting them, we defended those wearing masks--but I started thinking "Is this really effective? Is this the best use of our time?"

In saying all that, we should never rule out masks. It's a tactical choice. For all the above negative examples, there are also counter-examples of folks from different scenes sharing masks at mass actions that turn militant, where masks handed out were appreciated and seen as an asset. The point is that we should think through tactical choices, weigh the pros and cons--with one of the main considerations being will this help build/expand a militant working-class base to fight fascism, to fight exploitation and oppression.

ATG: You’re the chief steward at a local union in Minneapolis, which represents telecom workers. What do you think labor’s role should be in battling the forces of the right? Most unions are, of course, not the Industrial Workers of the World. They don’t self-identify as radical. But even though unions only represent a small portion of the working class, they still are the only membership-based organizations of the working class. Is there a role for unions? And is it realistic to expect them to be involved in such militant action against the right?

Kieran: I think so. I think if we look at where there have been mass confrontations, going back to the 80s and 90s where some Klan rallies provoked big responses, where large numbers of people came out in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, Indiana--lots of times you’re going to run into union members who come out against that stuff. We need to turn it away from just being individual actions of individual union members, to more of an organized expression.

So I think you’re right that unions, along with churches and other houses of worship, are some of the few mass membership organizations out in the class. We need to go to the unions. And if the union leadership wants to avoid it or doesn’t take this seriously, then we need to build rank and file groups that are willing to take this seriously.

My experience is, actually, that people in work places are incredibly interested in this stuff. If the Klan is coming to your town, or if there are fascists organizing in your city, people--more people than one might expect--are interested in opposition to that. And I think we need to build on that. And I think that hopefully the GDC, with its origins in the labor movement, can play a role in bringing on board some unions, or groups of rank and file workers from the unions who can be a part of this movement.

ATG: Let me end by asking you perhaps the hardest question, which is: in thinking about opposing the right and the very serious threats that people are facing in the United States right now, is the greatest threat from fascist groups on the ground or is the repression of the state a much more serious issue as we’re seeing with the deportations of the undocumented, first under Obama, of course, and now under Trump? And if that’s the case, how do we fight that?

Kieran: That’s a good question. I don’t think that it’s either/or. I think that the state is becoming increasingly oppressive. And part of what is allowing that to happen is, even though Trump lost the popular vote, and millions more people didn’t vote for either of the candidates, the fact that he did have millions of voters allows him to present a mandate to carry out these actions.

I read a recent article about how Trump was very keen on using his Twitter to unleash action. This wouldn’t be formally state action, he’s not necessarily calling the FBI to go harass one of his critics. But by using social media he’s able to unleash a torrent of abuse on whoever he’s decided is the enemy of the moment, by his supporters.

So I think that there are two things. There’s the danger of increased deportations, increased raids, attacks on the ability of women to get reproductive health care. There are attacks on so many fronts that are going to come from the state, and some moving back by both parties. We have to be aware of that. So we’re going to need to form resistance to that.

And then at the same time, one of the big dangers is that the forces on the ground, people that we might live next to or work with, are going to be organized into right wing and fascist formations, or at least be soft support for that taking place. I think that some of our tactics and our strategies are similar for both, though. When we talk about organizing community self-defense, that’s not just against the fascists, or just against the state, but against whatever attacks come. Even from attacks within the community from anti-social or sexist or racist elements within the community. So I think that a strategy that we’ve set for the near term, which is organizing community self-defense, is the method that’s needed for both.

  • Feb 18, 2017

    How the Alt Right builds on earlier far right upsurges: teleSUR article

    I have an opinion piece on teleSUR about “How the Alt Right Builds on Earlier Far-Right Upsurges.”  A lot of my work over the past couple of years has been based on a distinction between the far right and the system-loyal right. The teleSUR article summarizes this analytic point:
    "The alt-right's attitude toward Trump highlights an important dividing line within the U.S. right — the divide between those who accept the legitimacy of the existing political system, and those who don't. I reserve the term 'far right' for forces that (1) regard human inequality as natural or inevitable and (2) reject the established political order on principle. The 'system-loyal right,' by contrast, includes those forces that want to make change through incremental measures. An analogy on the left is the difference between social democrats and communists, reformists and revolutionaries.

    "One of the biggest ways that far rightists make an impact is through collaboration and interchange with system-loyal rightists, such as alt-rightists helping to put Trump in the White House and using his campaign to increase their own visibility. Yet the two part company on whether to accept the U.S. political system or abandon it and sooner or later that is likely to lead to conflict."
    The article presents the Alt Right's rise in the context of the Nazi-Klan upsurge of the 1980s and the Patriot movement's rise in the 1990s:
    "Unlike the Nazi-Klan movement of the 1980s or the Patriot movement of the 1990s, the alt-right mostly exists online. This means it is unlikely to take up armed struggle or organize militias, but it has powerful tools to continue its 'metapolitical' strategy, to shift the parameters of political discourse as a first stage before transforming institutions. And unlike the previous two far-right upsurges, which were met by federal government crackdowns, the alt-right now faces a presidential administration that it helped to put in power."

    Feb 8, 2017

    Against the Grain interview: The Origins and Politics of the Alt-Right

    The Pacifica Radio program Against the Grain recently broadcast an interview with me about the Alt Right. Here's their description:
    "Until the last year or two, most people had never heard of the alt-right. But the lead up to the election of Donald Trump has highlighted its noxious influence, including in the corridors of power. Is the term the 'alt-right' just a fig leaf for neo-Nazism? Or is the alternative right a new formation of reactionary politics, steeped in white supremacy and misogyny? Scholar Matthew Lyons talks about the intellectual origins of the alternative right, and the relationship between the alt-right and Trump’s key advisor Steve Bannon. He also weighs in on whether the Trump administration is fascist."
    The interview, which was conducted by Against the Grain co-producer Sasha Lilley and aired on February 6, is available for download or for listening online.