Antifa—the strategy of direct physical and verbal confrontation with extreme right groups, in person and online—understands itself and its tactics as radical, in opposition to the liberalism of the mainstream. Adherents of antifa believe that the mainstream, with its embrace of such liberal values as freedom of speech, has too soft a response to the existential threat presented by the far right. Liberals don’t understand the zero-tolerance approach that is required to defeat neo-Nazi and other fascist or “alt right” groups. In fact, the criticism one will most often hear the antifa adherent leverage is, quite simply: “Liberal!”
That is why it is ironic that antifa, in its current manifestation, is liberalism. “Liberalism” is that political outlook which sees society as a collection of individuals. Its original proponents, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, argued that society is not something organic, not some kind of fundamental relationship of interdependence, but is made up of the individual behaviors of individual people. A similar analysis runs through liberalism’s contemporary proponents, like John Rawls: society is simply an amalgamation of the private preferences and behaviors of private citizens.
Liberalism thus stands in contrast to an approach that looks at how society is structured, and to whose benefit. Such an approach would take stock of societal institutions and their functioning, to examine how this deploys relationships of power between different social groups.
Antifa is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses racism in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the racist (say, the neo-Nazi), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.
For example, a tremendous amount of antifa attention and energy has been devoted to protesting or attempting to shut down (“no-platform”) talks by alt-right figureheads such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer on college campuses. The argument is that this hate-mongering speech has no place in any forum; that it doesn’t merit seeing the light of day, both because its ideas have no merit and because it causes harm. The most specific or acute claim of harm is that these men’s presence (however brief) makes those campuses hostile places for undocumented and trans students, among others.
But the focus on Milo or Spencer and their ilk as individuals obscures what is really the source of those student populations’ vulnerability. If they are able to make a campus inhospitable to some students, it is only because the infrastructure doesn’t exist to protect them in the first place. A well-circulated rumor suggested that Milo was going to name undocumented students at a talk at UC Berkeley. The event was ultimately cancelled, which antifa claimed as a victory. But does the security and well-being of undocumented students really hinge on a single event, even an inflammatory one? First of all, what is to prevent Milo or anyone else from releasing that info online at any moment? More to the point, if the university community does not have the power or the political will to prevent its undocumented students from being persecuted or deported just from being publicly named, that is an enormous structural problem of which Milo is merely the canary in the coalmine. If Milo has the power to cause authorities (or hate groups) to harass or deport an undocumented student simply by naming them, the antifa mobilization to no-platform him is chasing after the symptom rather than disease.
The same applies to trans students on campus. Milo did publicly mock a trans student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in a reprehensible act of bullying to which the institution demonstrated blithe indifference. Again, however, if Milo can existentially threaten a student just by naming them, it is an indication of how the university community as a whole is failing those students (indeed, the frustrated student had left the school by the time Milo gave his talk). What makes universities dangerous for trans students is the lack of institutional resources and political will to thoroughly protect and defend them, including gender neutral restrooms, trans-positive student identification cards and records policies, strongly enforced policies against discrimination, support for relevant student groups, as well as a strong culture of inclusivity and trans positivity.
Far right speakers don’t themselves have the power to make campuses or communities unsafe. As Stokely Carmichael succinctly put it, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.” And yet, antifa focuses its efforts on these individuals, mobilizing against their one-day sideshows, instead of addressing the university administration and student body.
There is also a tremendous amount of antifa attention devoted to identifying and publicizing the covert affiliations that individual police officers, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, have to the KKK or other white supremacist groups, or whether they as people privately subscribe to racist or fascist ideals, say on the internet. It is entirely unnecessary to know this in order to recognize that law-enforcement organizations act in a repressive and racist way. In fact, such knowledge actually obscures why law enforcement agencies embody and enact racism and repression. The function of the police is to tamp down the class war among those who have least to lose, and most to gain, by rising up. Under the pretext of law and order, they break strikes, prevent mobilization, terrorize the population with violence, and criminalize and disenfranchise black and brown youth, abetted by such mechanisms as the school-to-prison pipeline. Immigration authorities discipline the most vulnerable, making them afraid or unable to access basic protections in the workplace and in society. Contrary to politicians’ rhetoric, the immigration system in the United States is designed to create “illegals”—a flexible and docile workforce or population base that doesn’t have access to social services, can be used as a political football, and is disenfranchised enough to be detained and deported at will—precisely because this disciplines the entire population: don’t complain or make demands at work lest we replace you with someone cheaper and more afraid to stand up for themselves. ICE is thus another tool in the class war, a sector of law enforcement focused specifically on immigrants. This is obscured by the approach taken by antifa, which instead looks for individual, belief-based explanations for the behavior of police and other authorities.
A significant amount of antifa attention is likewise devoted to identifying fascist hand gestures or lapel pins among individuals working in politics and government, instead of criticizing their very legible—and terrifying—policy objectives. The Trump administration has been explicit that it intends to transfer wealth from the working class to the owning class, to continue to punish immigrants, to bolster the security state, to bust unions, and to disenfranchise people of color. But instead of taking these political authorities at their word, the antifa approach is to look past this, for secret or coded allegiances and intentions. This is structurally identical to the “truther” idea that 9/11 and its aftermath were the result of a conspiracy by a handful of individuals within the US government, as opposed to a straightforward terrorist event with decipherable motivations which was taken advantage of to reinforce and promote a long-standing, pre-existing political agenda of militarism and increased domestic surveillance. Again, the liberal idea here is that individuals are responsible for policy, rather than vested institutional interests.
In general, antifa treats white supremacy as a matter of inner beliefs rather than of the structure of society that grants arbitrary privilege to white people, ensures the white working class’s compliance with the capitalist system of exploitation, and further represses and disciplines the part of the class that isn’t white. Again, equating white supremacy with the Confederate flag-waving, hate-spewing racist is a form of liberal thinking, because it reduces power relations to the behaviors and intentions of individuals. Even equating it with a pattern of Confederate flags and statues, or of racist comments or chat groups on the internet, is a form of liberalism—it treats society as a collection of individuals, too many of whom have the wrong beliefs, rather than organized structures by which the population is segregated through unequal access to credit, communities where people of color live are red-lined, their schools de-funded, and their electoral districts gerrymandered. Confederate flag-wavers are a manifestation of the deeper fact that (1) the vast majority of the population is required—if they want to survive—to generate profits for a tiny sliver of private interests, and (2) this is abetted by systems of dividing that population, encouraging them to fight amongst themselves and blame one another (or punch down), rather than confront the actual source of their disempowerment and exploitation.
That is why, as we have seen, antifa’s strategies and solutions are liberal and individualistic. One of the most notable recorded moments of the last year-and-a-half was the punching of Richard Spencer, which yielded hundreds of column inches devoted to justifying and elevating an enjoyable gag into some kind of praxis, as well as serious editorials railing against the lily-livered “liberals” who would shy away from the use of violence and fail to do “what needs to be done.” Of course, it’s not clear how punching Richard Spencer has been effective in making him or other neo-Nazis go away, be quiet, or cede the streets, as opposed to martyring them, encouraging them to spread their hate through online platforms instead, or galvanizing those who identify with victimhood. Moreover, once again, it identifies the harm of racism with an odious individual prick spewing genocidal ideas, rather than the systemic impoverishment and arbitrary criminalization of people of color—which are, it bears repeating, not the brainchild policies of individual racists but built into the very infrastructure of capitalism and American democracy. It is in no way clear how a tactic like punching Nazis in the streets relates to a broader strategy of confronting the main ways that racism affects people’s lives. Other tactics that go after members of the alt right, such as doxxing them, creating databases of them, or removing far-right websites and videos, are likewise understandable expressions of disgust and zero-tolerance towards their particular brand of nonsense and hatred, but these approaches have little bearing upon shifting the power balance in society towards working class people of color, and it remains to be seen whether such tactics can even successfully halt the online communication of those ideas. Meanwhile, groups like Redneck Revolt and the John Brown Gun Club apparently believe that individual gun ownership will have some political impact (the fact that 20 people purchase individual weapons and then sometimes practice shooting together does not make this any less of an individual response) and do little else to foster community integration or empowerment. All of these tactics ultimately indicate that the antifa approach is more concerned with individual displays of heroic resistance rather than attacking the problem at its root by building a mass movement to mobilize social power to resist exploitation and domination—the kind of power that would draw upon solidarity among the entire working class, and ultimately make neo-fascism look like the pathetic, scapegoating non-starter that it is.
Note, carefully, that none of this is meant to argue that no one should ever punch or doxx a Nazi, or that counter-demonstrations against alt right groups should not take place. It is merely an argument that those tactics, as well as the analysis that undergirds them, are liberal. Nonetheless, plenty of people find liberalism to be an attractive and defensible position.
Finally, many proponents of antifa will read this piece and agree with the limitations of the tactics mentioned but declare their embrace of a “both-and” approach: we should build organs of working class power (unions, block associations, tenant groups), while also confronting individual fascists and fascist groups. Such a “both-and” approach is not necessarily objectionable. Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones. Contrary to antifa’s self-understanding, it is not distinct from liberalism but another form of it, one that has merely taken on a more radical veneer.