“We’re talking about a heavily armed populace that’s self traumatizing through its own mythology,” says author Shaney Burley. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with Burley about the state of fascism in the Biden era, mutual aid and building movements during an era of collapse.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the state of fascism in the Biden era, mutual aid and building movements during apocalyptic times. And I can’t think of anyone I would rather tackle those topics with than my friend, Shane Burley, who is a Truthout contributor, and author of the books, Fascism Today: What It Is and How To End It and Why We Fight. Shane Burley, welcome back to the show.
Shane Burley: Hey, thanks for having me back. I always love coming on.
KH: How are you doing today, friend?
SB: I’m doing good. I’m doing good. It’s been a long few weeks talking about the book and with everything going on, nothing ever seems to let up. There’s no slowdown period it seems like.
KH: It feels like we are all forever in search of a slow down. For years now, I’ve been saying that, once I finish whatever epic project I’m working on, things are going to finally slow down a bit. But as it happens, this is actually my last episode before I go on sabbatical for two months, which I am really excited about. And I’m so glad you could be here for this chat, for this sort of mid-season finale moment, because I’ve really been looking forward to talking about your new book, Why We Fight. Because I think that when Biden took office, a lot of people assumed that fascism had been defeated and that we didn’t have to think about it or talk about it anymore. And that’s a real problem. And I think part of that problem comes from how the idea of fascism as a threat, here in the U.S., got bound up in one person, who was ultimately removed from the White House and lost his Twitter handle. But right now, Republicans are taking drastic measures at the state level to curtail voting rights and the right to protest. And Democrats, at the federal level, do not seem to have the level of consensus or cohesion they would need to pass federal protections for voting rights.
So we’re looking at an explosion of new voter suppression measures and anti-protest bills that some are calling Jim Crow 2.0. And much like the Jim Crow era, we also have contingents of vigilantes who are waiting in the wings to enforce a white supremacist order. Even in states where anti-protest bills, that would legalize hitting protesters with cars, have no hope of passing, they represent a clear signal to white vigilantes that they have a role to play in a political project to re-institute some very old dynamics. That project has been underway for a very long time, but Trumpism, and now fantasies about a stolen election, have hit the accelerator.
We also have to understand these tensions within a global context, as you describe in your book, in an era of collapse, where shifting conditions are leading some countries to double down on borders and further centralize identity. But as a jumping off point, you talk in your book about the fascist fringe actually being more dangerous when they feel like they’re losing. So can you say a bit about why the fascist threat isn’t over and why we still need to talk about fascism?
SB: Yeah. I mean, so there’s a pretty stark dynamic that’s happened over the years. So when there’s a kind of above ground fascist movement, say like the Alt-Right, that had conferences and then formed activist organizations that did these sort of flash mobs or protest, things like that, there becomes a belief inside their movement that they can win through above ground organizing, whether it’s political organizing in the form of Trump or local level politicians, or more like traditional kind of activist stuff. But that inevitably fails, both because anti-fascists shut them down and also their own ineptitude. And then they hit this period of retreat where a certain desperation sets in. They’ve been pumped full of this kind of eschatology of the end of the world, this sense of white genocide and other things, this basically desperate need to act and then their actions are invalidated, so they don’t have anywhere to put it.
And that creates this kind of a flux on the fringes of their already fringe movement where people start to take these kinds of seemingly spontaneous actions, like the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. It was just desperate, they have to do something, “They’re going to kill us all, we have to do something.” And that pattern plays out very frequently. It particularly plays out when organizations have been allowed to grow and then they have a point of contraction. So like for example, the militia movement was more violent when it was growing and when it was actually had legislators getting its back. But what happens is this kind of growth and contraction form creates a situation where people engage in like seemingly impulsive acts of violence. I say, seemingly impulsive, because it comes from somewhere, it’s not like it’s just out of the air.
But we have a real extreme situation with that right now because what happened over 2020 was, what I call a mass radicalization event, where basically the level of radicalization that you normally assume only happens on the far-right fringe happened in a really huge swath for Republicans, I mean, we’re talking about massive percentages think the election was stolen or fraudulent, which therefore implies a revolutionary politic. If the government is illegitimate by their standards, then revolutionary action, violent action is likely legitimate, at least extra legal action and extra judicial action is legitimate.
And so I think now that point of retreat, and that narrative about captured governments, and QAnon, and that kind of shadowy cabals, that is creating that sense of eschatology inside a much larger swath of people and we’re talking about a heavily armed populace, one that’s radicalizing itself, that sort of self traumatizing through its own mythology, and I think that creates a really dangerous situation. And then I think it’s also important that these anti-protest bills, particularly the ones that legislate defense of people plowing their cars into protesters, that has the effect of not just affecting policy, but it has a reflexive effect with the public. And there’s a real strong interplay between what is publicly legislated and what is privately behaved as. It’s sort of the same dynamic between extra-judicial violence of militia movements or of like the Klan and other kinds of white paramilitaries and the state itself, where they do have a back and forth relationship.
And even if the bills don’t pass, what they do is legitimize that violent action in the public and help to send a message to a large swath of people that this is actually how you can engage with protestors. And we’re talking about dozens and dozens and dozens of car attacks in 2020. This used to be big news. In 2017, when James Alex Fields plowed his car through the crowd in Charlottesville, that was big news, but in 2020, they were just talking about car attacks on almost daily basis at times.
And so that said, these bills are helping to send the message that this is legitimate, that they actually are under threat and that you can take action. Even if they don’t pass in liberal states, that doesn’t matter as much as the effect of bringing them forward, because it changes the kind of sense of modality of what the threat of protesters are and how is an acceptable way to deal with them. So I think we should also think about legislation, not just as changing the actual conditions of the state, but actually changing the way that the mass public responds to social norms.
KH: Yes, and narratively, we’re also talking about a sort of retroactive validation of the murder of Heather Heyer, and a doubling down on that kind of violence. These legislators are sending a message that if someone is punished for vigilante violence against protesters, they will do their best to make sure future vigilantes are not. We’re again talking about efforts to recreate old dynamics, from a time when it would have been unthinkable for a white man to be punished for attacking anyone protesting for racial justice. Because that reaching backward in time, to some things that are mythical and never were, but also dynamics that are very real, is part of what’s being conjured here. It’s a vision that the right is offering to its adherents.
And I think it’s important to examine all of this within the framework of fascism, which is something people have spent a lot of time arguing about in recent years. We saw a lot of insistence that Trump the candidate, and then, that Trump the president, was not a fascist, for various reasons. The U.S. obviously has elements of fascism embedded in its history — with Native genocide, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow — and some of the mechanics of fascism embedded in its institutions that people experience today, like the prison industrial complex. But with Trumpism, we saw a fascist mass movement propel its leadership into the highest levels of government, and a lot of people were still unable to come to grips with what they were looking at, and I would say many more still refuse to understand how that phenomenon has rooted itself in our society, or what that could mean for us.
There’s a chapter in your book called, “25 Theses on Fascism.” And I have to tell you, after reading that chapter, I immediately texted a friend and said, “You need to order this book right away.” Because while I definitely recommend the book overall, I think that chapter is an essential resource, in terms of breaking down for people what fascism means here and now, at this moment in history. One of the things you broke down in that chapter, in very simple terms, was why [Robert O.] Paxton’s Five Stages of Fascism, which were cited by some people to explain why Trump’s movement was supposedly not a fascist one, doesn’t necessarily capture what the formation and ascent of fascism looks like today, in an era when fascists have built a lot of their traction online waging kind of cultural warfare on the internet, rather than first grounding their power in political organization. Can you say a bit about how fascism today manifests differently than it has in the past and why we can’t really squeeze it into some of the historical models we’ve studied?
SB: One thing that I think is actually significant about Paxton is that he changed his opinion about that after the Capitol Riot. And actually because he saw this, he saw that actually as the expression of the paramilitary force that was lacking previously. I think though, to get at the core of this though, and this is… I’ve gotten some feedback in the past, right? I don’t use a lot of Marxist scholarship on fascism in any of my work. And the reason is that a lot of that Marxist scholarship looks for specific class dynamics and uses that to define fascism, it’s the splitting of the middle-class, or the alliance between the petty bourgeoisie, there’s all these different kinds of versions of it. But what I think that relies on, unfortunately, is this functionalist understanding of fascism of how it forms out of the different political forces rather than getting ideologies and actually how mass movements work. And the reality, I think, is that mass movements today just work fundamentally different and actually class is different in some ways too — not the kind of mass division between the working class and the ruling class, but like subclass dynamics are somewhat different.
And so I think it’s hard to then look at those sorts of political formations to say, “Oh, the party is going to work like this, it’s going to try and have a totalitarian state or authoritarian state and this way it’s going to try and approach a paramilitary function in that way.” I actually think social movements are more diffuse now, they’re more based on social networks. A paramilitary force would probably be today less formalized, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It also would likely not rely on formal organizations at all to create that kind of mass movement. And I think what we saw there of Trump was that we had the few social movements, and there were organizations, Proud Boys are an organization, but there were also much larger kind of just social confederations of people that came out with kind of vague political allegiances to one another.
And so I think, how do you think about fascism in that future world, where a party politics don’t dictate social politics anymore necessarily, when the states that we’re working with now are much more advanced than the states during the interwar period? Even Nazi Germany, when we think of as a really overarching authoritarian state, was a really primitive state, it doesn’t have the kind of apparatus that the U.S. has and so those things are just fundamentally different.
And how people adapt their ideas is different, the role of a party in someone’s life is much different. And so I think that we can’t just look to those old functionalist stories about the class will move this way and the party will adapt this way and a certain kind of violence will occur, I actually think there’s a more diffuse answer for it and I think it’s one that has really been shifting. And sometimes I think that’s unsatisfying for people because it doesn’t give a very clear roadmap, but instead I think we have to look at a few overarching qualities inside of movements and then use that as the metric for whether or not we’re going in the direction that we’re trying to fight against.
KH: What you’re saying, and what you say in the book, about movements being more diffuse, and power being built in online spaces, that can translate unpredictably in the real world, really is true of both the right and the left. And I think it contributes to a kind of unpredictability on both sides.
SB: Yeah absolutely. And I think, so it’s increasingly unpredictable, there is a shift in dynamic about how organizations work. And I think that doesn’t undermine the need for organizations, it’s not like an anti-organizationalist position, I think. But instead there is, I think, a changing role for how organizations function and their relationships to like mass action. And the mass of people don’t exist within the organization, the organization has a different connection to them. That’s true in the right as it is on the left. And so I think we’re actually in an interesting place.
And actually this is true of 2020. 2020 is a really great example of that contention between the organization and the mass public and how those things relate to one another. I don’t think that there’s ever been a completely good analysis for how to manage that because we are in an era when we do have, it’s not spontaneous because it actually results from years of organizing and ideological work — there’s a lot of the things that go into a mass uprising, but we are seeing kind of explosions at a much faster accelerated rate over the last five or six years. And I’m assuming that will increase. We have a reason to believe it will. And so I think it’s actually hard now to figure out how you maintain organizations in between those periods and have the ability to actually help in periods of really kind of explosive struggle if that makes sense.
KH: I feel like, with both the left and the right generating so much power in culture building spaces, particularly online, and by generating moments and momentum, but struggling to build sustained organization that can uphold and reinforce struggle, that we’re in something of a stumbling foot race, in terms of figuring that out. You break down in your book how the Alt-Right tried to create an above ground movement, and how its organizing and coalitions ultimately exploded, but unfortunately, we have also seen how leftist organizing gets cannablized and ripped apart — or simply defanged. Because in our case, there are massive apparatuses built around ensuring that we don’t create sustainable membership organizations that actually take a bite out of the status quo. Some of that destructive energy comes from mainstream forces and government interference, and some of it comes from us enacting rituals of alienation from within — some of which I consider legacies of COINTELPRO. But when you were talking, just now, about living in these sort of explosive moments, it made me think of something you said in Why We Fight about the roles of strikes and riots in this moment. You talked about how the disempowerment of unions and the decrease in steady wage work has led to a sort of enlargening lumpenproletariat — that is, people existing as a form of surplus, economically, in many ways, who don’t necessarily shut anything down by withholding their labor. Can you say a bit about how these dynamics lend themselves to riots?
SB: Yes, absolutely. You know, there’s actually a great book by Joshua Clover called, Riot. Strike. Riot., about that change. Traditionally, the mass classes would engage in riots as a form of protests, but then as they’re invited into a collaborative workforce through unions, the strike became that, but we’re actually shifting a little bit away from that. I think there’s some clear social dynamics why. We have less unionization just that we have less unions now so generally strikes aren’t as viable. That’s increased, that is changing a bit and that’s really exciting, but the numbers aren’t profoundly shifting, right? We’re not talking about doubling of union density or something. But that’s a piece of that, but also just the precariousness of the economy has changed so profoundly that people actually don’t exist in stable workplaces where a strike always has the same pressure. It’s like if you’re a part of the supply chain and you’re all working at factories and you work there for 40 years, a strike is a big deal. It really affects that, but if you are a freelance worker and you’re signing a work contract for three months and then you talk about striking, what does that mean exactly? It’s a much different thing. It requires a certain type of economy and a certain kind of agency role. And in a way, we’re moving to a post-worker economy in as much as the traditional wage labor is changing. It’s fragmenting so profoundly. That doesn’t mean that unions aren’t as important. They are. It just means that the actual relationship of the strike and the union changes a bit over time. I think that’s changing part of it.
I mean, this is something that has accelerated. It’s almost like it’s the core of the dialectic because what’s happening now is that through things like gig economy, but just through the automation and different things that are increasing unemployment or maintaining a structural unemployment, that’s pulling people out of the economy and it’s pulling people out of “traditional” work, that because of its stability, pulled people out of spontaneous or ecstatic struggle. You’re seeing, for example, in 2020 with mass layoffs because of the coronavirus, people had the time and the ability and much less to lose by engaging in militant street action. And so I think that actually pulls people in that direction.
I think there’s other things about it too. Attacks on voting rights does not historically just make people apathetic. It actually makes them engage in riots. It makes people engage in militant, extralegal activism because they don’t have an invitation into participation. The idea of advocacy through NGOs or political struggle, that requires having representation in the state or even the belief or even the aspiration that the state could be like a neutral arbiter of human rights or something, but that’s not possible. That increasingly seems to be impossible. It’s always been impossible for most folks, but it’s really obvious now. I think all of that plays into it. And so, I think we’re shifting to a different way that we think about a collaborative political space. You know, if we were all in the same workplace, we have a clear same struggle because we’re struggling against the boss and that’s our shared experience.
But what’s our shared experience when 100,000 people head out to the streets? We have a different kind of shared experience there. It’s more horizontal. I think ideology plays into it a little bit more frequently. I think collapsing experiences, like the experience of folks being attacked by the police has collapsed in with their inability to pay rent because of bad jobs, and, they’re being fired. All those things end up feeling as though they’re part of the same structural inequality, which is true, and I think that’s just made really obvious. So we’re able to, I think, create these protest spaces that invite a ton of people in, because the experiences we’re talking about have been brought into kind of one narrative. So I think the ability of engaging in that struggle is really important.
And that, I think, necessitates a different form of action, because if we’re talking about a mass struggle of a million people, that doesn’t just take place in the form of a strike, or it doesn’t just take place in the form of a regional protest. Those things are important, but they’re actually part of this larger confederation of these actions. So, I think the question now is how do you use those… well, they’re being called traditional actions, they’re not actually that traditional, they were only for a period of time, but strikes, tenant strikes, those things, how do you integrate those into a larger mass action? How do you make it sort of confederation tactics so all of those are on the table and they all find their own unique fulcrum of power? Because the thing about the strike is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool based specifically on the position of the worker in the workplace, versus the riot, which is actually about numbers and its ability to take on the system in physical space. So, I think those things have to exist in a collaborative fashion. It can’t be one or the other.
KH: So, let’s talk about the end of the world.
KH: We’re living in a time of mixed messages around the apocalypse. The idea of saving the world is pretty deeply embedded in social justice messaging. But those of us who don’t avoid reading climate coverage know that the oceans are acidifying and a mass extinction event is underway. Even people who do avoid reading in-depth articles on environmental collapse, which is I think most people, see news stories about historic hurricane seasons and more expansive wildfires each year, and some are already experiencing these catastrophes themselves.
So the dissonance between the idea of saving the world, or even improving our way of living, and this looming sense of doom, is a real problem for our movements. A lot of people seem to deal with it by not acknowledging how bad things are, but that doesn’t really work either. I know people, for example, who used to work for some of the big environmental NGOs who left disillusioned, because the messaging the organizations were fundraising on was stopping climate change, when they knew that nothing they were advocating for was going to stop catastrophic climate change. So, when you have people walking away from their work because they feel like they’re lying to people they’re supposed to be activating, and like nothing they do within these formations, is going to shape any outcomes, something obviously has to give. In your book, you offer a different take on the apocalypse, what it means and how we have to understand it in relation to our work. Can you say a bit about that?
SB: Yeah. I think what it comes down to is that we can’t stop this thing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. God no, it doesn’t mean that, because we need to fight with every piece that we have. It’s sort of like the blood of the fight that has to happen, but the idea that we are going to stop catastrophic climate change and all of the permutations of consequence that that brings with it, that is an absolute fable. It’s one that we have to abandon because it is not allowing us the clarity needed to see what we actually have to do. Instead, I think we have to think about this more as a, how do we get to the other side, and hopefully on a long-term basis change the fundamental precepts that started the problem in the first place. There’s only radical solutions there. There’s absolutely no reformist option that will address that.
I mean, look, I’m happy about electric cars. You know, if I can buy an electric car, I’ll probably buy one, but the idea that these sorts of reforms are getting us to stop what is basically an avalanche of crisis, it’s more than wishful thinking. It’s sort of like delusional mythologies that we’re creating simply to exist. So I think it’s really important that we start to kind of reanalyze what these terms like apocalypse even mean. By any measure, we are living through what people feel emotionally as an apocalyptic event. You know?
So, I opened the book by talking about what was happening right when I was writing the introduction, which was the mass forest fires. So, in the sort of fall of 2020 in Oregon, up and down the coast, really, but Oregon specifically had really mass forest fires. I think 12 percent of the state was on fire. The smoke was so profound that it became the worst air quality in the world. We couldn’t go outside. Inside my house, we were running multiple air purifiers, but of course air purifiers became a scarce commodity that you couldn’t actually get. Any time I went outside I had to use an actual gas mask. And it basically changed the color of the sky to have this really deep kind of blood sickening red, a lot of times, which really does speak to this kind of like blood moon, apocalyptic eschatology, you see a lot from evangelicals. There really was this sense that as the smoke is blotting out the sun, that we’re living in the era prophesied, right? Like we are living through a mass climate collapse, protests were happening around the country against white supremacists, police violence, we have the coronavirus. This is a tough time. No matter where you are at, this is tough.
So, we have to kind of think about, what does it mean to have an apocalypse? Now there’s a couple of things here. I mean, on the one hand, we’re not stopping the crisis any time soon, so we have to think about what, in a way, a post-crisis society would look like. How do we get to the other side? How do we survive as best we can and how do we change things so, hopefully, in the long-term sense, like human civilizational sense, we’re actually able to sustain as a species?
Then I think the other part is what does it mean? What does the end of the world actually mean? I think I explore that a bit in the book is that if we’re talking about the kind of crisis you see in, like, Christian circles where we’re talking about increased violence, increased collapse, things like that. Well, that sounds like the world. That just sounds like what we live through now, but more so. I mean, to actually end the world would be to end the conditions we’re living through now. And that would only be true if we were to replace it with something else. And so I think if we’re talking about the apocalypse and the experience of the end, we actually need to think about what comes next. I think that’s what actually puts this to end, for one, and two, it’s the only option we have.
KH: I appreciated your framing of the apocalypse as posing a question: whether there is a world to come beyond the world we know — which I saw as a challenge to imagine change and transformation, in both good ways and bad. I really slammed up against this, I feel like, as an organizer, early in the COVID-19 crisis, when I was trying to get people to take action, and no one wanted to believe that what I was saying was going to happen could be true. Other leftists didn’t want to believe me. People who I know generally respect my judgment were ignoring me, or telling me it wasn’t going to be that bad and to stop panicking. And it was because none of them could imagine their worlds changing to the extent that I was outlining. A lot of people, including a lot of people on the left, are navigating these apocalyptic times by latching onto degrees of separation between themselves and what they perceive as apocalyptic. They put hard limits on how much they can imagine their own worlds changing, and people scoffed at me, and some publicly mocked me, during that time, because, to them, what I was saying had to be alarmist and absurd, because they could not allow themselves to imagine their worlds being altered to the extent that our worlds were ultimately altered during the last year. And I think that tendency has held us back in very real ways. So long as we imagine ourselves as living outside the reach of climate collapse, or war, or pandemics, or prisons, we will not reckon with any of these expanding catastrophes with the urgency that these things require.
This is one of the reasons I loved your focus on mutual aid in Why We Fight. I found it really grounding after the events of the last year. I’ve had a lot of frustration around trying to address, not just the failures of government that we witnessed during the pandemic, but also, our social failures in terms of people failing to shift their behaviors in ways that could have saved a lot more lives. Because I know we have that potential, and I don’t think selfish or self-serving actions are fundamental or inevitable. And when I say these things, people immediately remind me that so many people did come together to help each other and that it was unprecedented. And it’s like, fam, I was there. I was one of those people, and I am so proud of and heartened by so much of the work that happened, but I’m also a strategist. So I’m not just going to talk about the times and the places where things went right, because we lost too many people and I think we have a massive opportunity to learn here in terms of what effective organizing in a moment of collapse looks like.
I also feel like there’s a kind of mental rewrite that a lot of people have authored where there are two sides, those of us who banded together and took precautions and cared for each other, and the anti-maskers who spit at cashiers and spread misinformation and hoarded all the toilet paper. And that’s just not what happened, because we had a lot of people out there who I think had the potential to get it right, people who generally share a lot of my own values, who either acted in ways that were explicitly harmful or just floundered. And when I talk about this, I always get attacked for “blaming individuals,” but I feel like that’s only true if we’re looking at this through some kind of punitive lens, because I’m not looking to indict these people or hold hearings, or shame them for their vacation photos on social media. I am asking myself what we can build and do differently that would generate different outcomes that those people might play a role in. Because I believe most people have the impulse to help one another in times of crisis, and there’s a lot of history and scholarship that agrees with me on that, but you need certain things, right? For one thing, people need frameworks that emphasize that their actions and sacrifices have meaning.
I think people settle into modes of thinking and modes of being when they’re flung into a crisis and that we need to learn from what just happened, and figure out where those modes of thinking and doing need to be constructed now, because there’s a lot more crisis ahead. So, how do we build out that fabric and infrastructure?
SB: I mean, that’s a really good question. I think it may be the hardest one about this. I mean, one piece of this is that, and I talked about this back in the book, but mutual aid work was better this time around than it has historically been. Not in every instance. There [are historical] instances of profound mutual aid work, you know, like the Panther’s Survival Pending Revolution programs. There’s a number of examples, but we did a particularly good example pretty quickly in a lot of instances this time. There’s a lot of reasons for that. I think that one was that the technology actually is better and easier to use now. That creates a lot of options. I think it was a really mass crisis that everyone kind of experienced, at least in the beginning, there was a lot of shared fear about it, so it actually put people on the same page.
The state also was completely unable to provide services. Not just that it didn’t provide good services or they didn’t do it in a good way, it was unable to do it period, which sort of necessitated the mutual aid. And I think that actually speaks to what the ongoing crisis actually will be, not just of a counter power situation where we think we can do it better than the state, or we want to replace the state, but the state is not even able to live up to its promises anymore, which creates a vacuum and a space for us. But I think part of this is that to really do this well, you can’t invest in the crisis. You have to invest in the lull period. You have to actually build standing organizations that have the ability to not just do structural work, but have the ability to make the case for people’s lives to constantly integrate this stuff, and that’s something that we’re not particularly good at, and we’re actually especially bad at, in this area of de-organizational approaches.
So I think that’s part of the work that has to be done. We have to look at what organizations exist and how do you pivot them to include mutual aid work. That’s really important, but maybe that’s only surface, because there are deeper problems, I think, at play in some of these spaces. And there was a lot of this sort of like in-group, out-group mentality that existed in left spaces that proliferated inside mutual aid, in particular, that was wholly toxic and didn’t have a space for people that weren’t kind of immediately shoveled into subcultural spaces, into these friendship networks, and that particularly affects people in marginalized groups. You know, people who are experiencing chronic illnesses, people who have three jobs, people that have a lot of things that pull them out of those kinds of permanent recreational spaces in a way that end up acting as the fulcrum. And we’re continuing to rebuild and kind of rebuild these antiquated radical spaces that basically prop up more of these kind of social issues that don’t include people and they don’t move them along. They don’t create actual community, but instead just kind of replicate friend groups or clicks or boundary based organizations that lack the kind of inclusivity that I think a revolutionary approach has to have. The reality is that a mutual aid movement is only as good as its actual ability to sustain an entire community. If it’s just members of some X, Y, and Z radical organization, then it might as well be the Elks Lodge because that’s really all it’s doing. I understand the value of having tight friendship networks and having a brand to associate with that. That’s fine, but we can’t pretend that that’s done something else and I think there’s a lot of work that has to be done to make people a mutually collaborative space.
I think most mutual aid groups were stunning in their ability, and there’s also ones I’ve talked to that worked really hard to keep people out and I don’t understand why in every situation. That’s not, by any means, the majority of them. Most of them have every accolade that they should deserve, but we need to also think about how do we bring people into that? How do we meet people where they’re at? And that’s really important as well.
KH: Shifting gears a moment, I want to talk a bit about Daniel Baker, who was recently convicted after a two day trial on two counts of “transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure another person.” Now, what happened in Baker’s case is that we have someone who made statements on social media calling on people to defend the Tallahassee capitol on Inauguration Day if the building came under attack by a mob of white supremacists as part of a Trumpian insurrection. Baker said, “This is an armed coup and can only be stopped by an armed community.”
Now Baker faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release for making these statements online. This brings up a number of concerns. Many of us warned immediately after January 6 that any focus on going after supposed terrorists would quickly be turned on the left because that’s what always happens, and we see it happening here. The fact that the entire case hinged on these vague, highly theoretical statements of bravado, like “if” white supremacists show up with their guns, and try to overthrow the government, then other people should be there with guns to prevent a coup.
The fact that this was treated like some kind of fully formed conspiracy against real people is absurd. Baker’s lawyer characterized his client’s statements as “equivocal, conditional, and failing to show an intent to immediately inflict injury.” I tend to agree, but if we look at the criminal complaint against Baker and the probable cause laid out by the FBI, the situation gets even more worrisome. Interstate travel to participate in Black Lives Matter protests, identifying as an anarchist, sharing a video about first aid for protesters, and even photographing law enforcement are all cited as evidence that Baker posed a potential threat. Baker’s posting an Eat the Rich Meme is also cited as a threat, and I have to say as a connoisseur of Eat the Rich Meme connoisseur I find that troubling. In all seriousness, I am always telling people to be careful what they say online, because as we have seen, historically, bravado and sarcasm do not play well when your posts and DMs are being read back to you in court, but the reach here is extreme.
Baker also posted about gun ownership and about the need to be willing to show up armed, but as uncomfortable as some liberals may be with guns, we have to remember gun ownership is legal, and right wingers hold armed assemblies all the time, and their rhetoric is often a lot more heated than anything Baker said. Personally, I am really worried about what this case signals in terms of how law enforcement plans to leverage the Capitol attack. We have already seen the passage of a massive bill to fortify the Capitol police who failed to adequately defend the Capitol that day, not because they were under-resourced, but because they simply didn’t plan to defend it.
I feel like a lot of people immediately embraced this framing of terrorism as the big concern right after January 6, which couldn’t be more disastrous, because that highly flexible terminology as a container for our fears has leveraged the public’s complicity in atrocity and the evisceration of our own rights for decades now. At some point we have to have a firmer analysis of what we’re afraid of and why and how to stop it. So what do you make of this case?
SB: Yeah, I think what’s so funny about some of the things, that evidence that was listed, was like, I do all those things.
SB: They’re talking about me, y’all, but really they’re talking about us. They’re talking about all of us, that what they listed was an outline of qualities and behaviors, and “evidence” that describes most of us, which basically wants to suggest that there’s sort of this mass criminal conspiracy of ideological allegiances that we’re all kind of collaborating something on the borders of terrorism or the borders of extra-judicial violence or something like that.
Again, this is why the liberal approaches to the things of fortifying police against terrorism or gun laws, things like that, get turned back and left almost immediately. They get turned back and actually more specifically, they get turned back on marginalized communities almost immediately. It’s why those don’t, while seductive I think as a solution for white supremacy, dealing with insurrection or white supremacists, it doesn’t actually provide a solution. I think what this does is help to reframe radical activism as something on the fringes of legality and that basically kind of cultural modalities like Eat the Rich Memes, and yo, I love me some Eat the Rich Memes. Those suddenly become evidence of this kind of terrorist cultural affiliation.
On the one hand, prosecution is one thing to be worried about, like being prosecuted for something like that. That’s terrifying, just like the J20 arrestees. There’s a number of them. But these are also evidence for lots of other things, RICO cases, lawsuits, which can be just totally destabilizing for entire communities, grand juries, other kinds of investigations, firings at work. There’s all kinds of things that come along with this, just like we were talking about the effect of legislation on “non-legal activity,” that has the effect far beyond these prosecutorial limits.
I think by suggesting that, for example, retweeting a meme about eating Ted Cruz or something, is going to be indicative of something that’s far beyond the norms of society. That’s going to end up creating millions of people who are sort of like refugees from legality that are suddenly not actually considered a part of the discourse of polite society. And so, I think it is something to be concerned about. I think it’s also important to be concerned that liberals aren’t going to stop this. In fact, in a lot of ways, I expect them to outflank the right.
And so these bills that sort of fortify the police … the police didn’t stop the, like you said, it wasn’t that the police were underfunded and understaffed that didn’t stop them. They didn’t stop the Capitol insurrection because they’re police. There’s no amount of fortifying them that’s going to change that. There’s no liberal funding measures that will fundamentally shift the dynamic. And so I think we have to actually think about, in terms — in a lot of ways, same thing with gun control. Gun control measures are not suddenly going to disarm the right. It’s not fundamentally going to happen. You’re not going to pass an effective gun control that will happen. More often than not, gun control measures are still used to basically bust up marginalized communities to basically fortify police in marginalized neighborhoods. They go after folks and that has historically been the role that, if we don’t actually reckon with the fact that these liberal measures don’t actually help people that are being affected by this, then we’re not going to have any solutions.
I am concerned that as Biden, like the Biden Harris administration try to position themselves as being centrally liberal because of the PRO Act or environmental legislation, that they will allow through these sort of legal measures as a way of saying, “Look, leave politics to us. We don’t want to be a part of those kind of Antifa radicals, that kind of thing. Instead, we’re the positive face of progressive politics.” And I think that helps them bifurcate between good liberals and bad leftists. And by allowing these measures to go through, I think they have a stake in that. You know, Biden has no stake in fighting for this guy. Biden has no stake in fighting for people that want to eat the rich. He gets nothing from it, as do most liberals. Their model has nothing that correlates with our political vision. So we can’t think of them as allies on these particular issues. And also we can’t, I think, be brought in by these seductive ideas about policing the far right. You know, I think people who might be horrified by the FBI and the apparatus that makes up federal law enforcement, but then will applaud them being applied to the far right.
And I get it. Fuck, as much as anybody, I want to see the FBI take down a bunch of neo-Nazis. Nothing makes my day more. But the reality is that fortifying the FBI doesn’t just take down neo-Nazis, even if that’s your entire function for it. Even all the measures that you think are specific to neo-Nazis, are specific to the militia movement, it will be used against marginalized communities because the state is there to do that. And there’s no amount of changing that dynamic that will ever shift the results of it. So I think by looking at that and thinking, oh, let’s just pump money into law enforcement to go after these particular radicals, not the other radicals, you’re not going to get the results you want. And instead you have to think outside of the state for that.
KH: Another thing I find disturbing about Daniel Baker’s case, was the government highlighting the fact that in 2017 Baker joined the people’s protection units or the YPG, which was fighting in Syria against the Islamic State. As far as I know, Baker’s participation in YPG being cited here as evidence of terrorism marks the first attempt by the U.S. government to go after Americans for having participated in that struggle.
So I think that’s something to watch as well, in terms of the government sort of retroactively, indirectly criminalizing that participation in internationalist struggle.
SB: Yeah. It’s also looking back at something that was explicitly not criminalized, like his participation in supporting the movement that frankly the state itself was actually in support of, like fighting ISIS, but then using that retroactively as a way of criminalizing or creating this extra legal argument about their behavior. So I think it also looks back that as things change in the state, anything you did do may be subject. Like your deep past, may be used evidence against or of your criminality. So it’s not like going forward you can suit and tie up and suddenly you’re going to be real respectable and you’ll totally be safe. That’s not the case.
KH: And I think, much like Baker’s position on armed struggle and gun ownership, his participation in YPG offers something that allows liberals to distance themselves from him. He’s not like them because, even though he’s an army veteran, which people tend to venerate in this country, he took up arms in a foreign struggle, and that’s well outside the bounds of anything most liberals can imagine or identify with — even if they agree with the underlying cause, like helping people defend themselves against ISIS. Because the government’s supposed to have a monopoly on violence at all times, even though most liberals will acknowledge that the government is a completely untrustworthy administrator of violence.
SB: Yeah, absolutely. I think in a lot of ways, that’s what the threat is. In a way I think that actually gets to the heart of the liberal problem with radicals, is that they fundamentally believe that the state, though imperfect, is going to be the thing to reform so that it can treat everybody fairly. And that the state itself is part of the liberal project or the post-enlightenment project is going to fundamentally defend us. And then what radicals do is the same thing that right-wingers do, which is they engage in anti-liberal politics, they take action in their own hands. They lack the accountability of the democratic process as if American democracy is like accountability. And so I think that they are unable to see, I think, the inherent inequalities in the system that exists, but they’re irreformable. And I think when you look at it that way, it’s really actually hard to see why people believe in self defense or why people fundamentally will never trust the police. And so I think that there’s kind of an unbridgeable chasm there, which makes a lot of liberal politics quite dangerous to people’s safety.
KH: I think liberals, and even some leftists, have a tendency to imagine themselves as distinct or removed from the worst consequences of what this government does and is capable of. I think we saw a flash of people sort of losing those illusions, during the George Floyd protests, when the handling of the pandemic led a lot of white people to reckon, just for a moment, with their own disposability under this system. And I think, because of that brief reckoning, people were more capable of solidarity. But I think the fact that it was an election year led people back around to the idea that we could find salvation at the ballot box. But the fact is, the Democratic establishment is at a disadvantage in a lot of ways right now. As the effects of inequality become increasingly drastic, under late capitalism, and fears around scarcity set in, there is a hunger for change, and while Biden has talked some progressive talk, what we are getting is pure neoliberalism. So the rise of fascist populism is still very much a threat, and Republicans are busy rigging the game to make sure they don’t lose the next time around.
So… having said all of these incredibly daunting and depressing things, I know you and I are both people who have a lot of hope, and that we’re both really engaged with people and projects that give us cause for hope. So as we enter this new chapter that isn’t really post pandemic, but where more of us are vaccinated and more people are venturing out into the world again, what projects or political developments are you seeing that are giving you hope?
SB: Well, I think what gives me hope is that the insurgent organizing that came in 2020 hasn’t stopped. The size of it was profound and has continued. Things go through phases, obviously it’s ups and downs, but the fact that this is continuing, that the revolutionary turn, particularly in confronting police violence and white supremacy has become so sort of generational that I don’t see it ending. And I feel like it’s only radicalizing further and people are seeing themselves in the open struggle against white supremacy, and finding their role in it, and feeling as it’s something that they actually have this really deeply laid stake, that’s important. I think that’s changing. I think solidarity of Palestinians has hit a new kind of crescendo and I think that’s actually changing the game quite a bit on that. The labor movement is in a massive upswing and the situation is changing quite a bit.
I know people are very depressed and should be about what happened at Amazon, but across the country in the last three or four years, things have really shifted. And we see the opportunity to really change that dynamic, and also to change it for a different type of workforce, a changing workforce. You don’t just have to be a healthcare worker for 20 years, now unions are showing up and labor organizing is showing up in different ways. Same thing with tenant organizing, that has become a lot more common sense nowadays. And so I think we’re seeing the ability to create independent tenant organizations that are coming forward. I also think that a lot of the mutual aid groups that were started in 2020, or basically came to capacity in 2020, are continuing. People know that they are necessary. And so I think that’s creating a new situation.
I actually have every reason to be optimistic, to be perfectly honest. I don’t want to be too rose colored about things, but there is so much here that has the capacity to really take on what we’re after. And it doesn’t mean it will. Things change on a dime sometimes, but I think we have all the tools there. It’s based on relationships. We have to deal with our contradictions. We have to deal with the particularly oppressive politics inside of left spaces, which don’t just disappear. But we have every reason to believe, I think, that things have changed, that we’re able to build social movements and organizations to capacity to do what we need them to do.
And that’s what I kind of write about in the book is that the idea that we can reach a post-now world, where the rules are fundamentally different, I actually think we have the tools for that. And whether or not we build this is another question, but I do think that the conditions are right and that people have changed profoundly and we’ve actually seen a sort of pathway. We only have to kind of see it through to the end.
KH: I absolutely agree. I think that there’s so much to be hopeful about. And even in the ways that we’re falling short, I see so much opportunity for growth. And I think part of that growth has to be getting people to understand that in this hyper alienating society, that’s ready to abandon or devour us at any time, living in struggle is actually a better, more well supported way to live. The people I know who were engaged in community work, and who were part of communities that struggle together, had far better support systems during the last year than people who didn’t, and a lot of us found a lot of joy in those spaces. Because there is a lot of joy to be found. Because to me, creating space for that joy is non-negotiable. Struggle is where I live, so of course there will be joy there. Meaning, purpose, collectivity, but also, definitely joy.
SB: I think people think of these things as like a means to an end. Like a protest, for example, is a means to get something to change. And therefore once it changes the protest ends and you are successful. But I think what people are encountering now is that we actually have to live in a state of program revolution where actually what we engage with, what people have called activism isn’t as much, it’s actually a different way of living. It’s becoming engaged and responsible for your community and for yourself in a way that most people don’t live. And that’s a joyous way to live.
That’s a very alive way to live your life. And I think that breaks down the barriers of representation and mediation that have really alienated people. And so I think what we’re engaging in now is not just the pressure that we’ll see something different. We’re actually just rebuilding our societies and our social relationships. And that, I think, is the revolutionary process that reaches a tipping point. So I think we should be joyous in those spaces. We should be excited that these things happen and we did live and validate that excitement and we can live with the happiness of it.
KH: Well, Shane, this has been an amazing conversation, as always. I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
SB: Yeah, thanks so much for having me back.
KH: And I hope everyone will pick up Shane’s new book, Why we Fight, from AK Press. And I hope you all already have a copy of Shane’s first book, Fascism Today: What It is And How to End It, which I have always considered an essential text.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
(You can also check out an excerpt of Why We Fight here.)
Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It by Shane Burley
Other books to check out:
Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings by Joshua Clover
Liberation Itself Is Sacred by Shane Burley
I’ve Hesitated to Call Donald Trump a Fascist. Until Now by Robert O. Paxton
Why We Fight: An Interview With Shane Burley by Steven Monacelli
FBI Arrests Activist Daniel Baker Over Posts About Police Abuse and Self Defense by Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Big Door Brigade includes concrete tools for starting mutual aid projects and for maintaining them.
This “Introduction to Mutual Aid” session was recorded during The Janine Soleil Abolitionist Youth Organizing Institute on June 17, 2020. Facilitated by Mariame Kaba, the session addresses how mutual aid is different from charity, philanthropy, and state social services, the role of mutual aid in liberation movements, and how mutual aid efforts were being organized in response to COVID-19.
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