Why We Fight: An Interview With Shane Burley

Shane Burley’s new book Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse is out from AK Press. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Steven Monacelli: We’re big fans of your work here at Protean. We’ve published a handful of your essays, so our readers are likely to be at least a little familiar with you. But for those that aren’t, let’s start there. What should people know about you and your work before they read Why We Fight?

Shane Burley: I write mostly about the far right, fascism, antifascism, and social movements. This is my second book. It’s composed of different essays, some of which are new, some of which are old, and some of which are old but have been rewritten. What binds them together is the experience of the apocalypse—of the Trump years, of coronavirus, of forest fires, of police violence.

SM: You wrote in the introduction of your book that it was difficult to get anyone to publish work on fascism seven years ago. Since then, you’ve published two books that touch on or are specifically about the subject, and you’ve become a leading voice regarding the resurgence of fascist tendencies in the United States. Obviously a lot has happened since 2014. Do you think editors and publishers are more in tune with the burgeoning threat of the right in the United States?

SB: I think they generally get it. In the intro I wrote about how I pitched something in 2014 and had gotten a response letter that basically said: this isn’t really the most important thing, these people are never going to grow into being a real threat, and they’re certainly never going to make it into the government, so this seems like a distraction. I disagreed. Now, people are much more willing to talk about fascism in a serious way. I don’t know whether they’re more willing to use the word correctly, but that’s a longer battle.

That being said, subtopics can be difficult. For example, it can be difficult to get people to publish stuff that is more nuanced about where far-right ideas come from. It’s harder to get people to publish stuff about ecofascism. It certainly was before the various shootings that referenced ecofascism. But it is still difficult to get people to talk about those trends when they’re a bit more subtle. I think it’s on us, the people writing about it, to communicate the importance of these things. If we can’t explain it, and can’t write on it well, it won’t get picked up. There’s a challenge in explaining how things correlate with one another. Word choices and things like that.

For example, Andrew Sullivan recently was tweeting some stuff basically in defense of his work publishing segments from The Bell Curve in the 90s when he was the editor of The New Republic. He published these very famous racist passages about race and IQ. In response to people saying this was racist, he came back and said, “Are you saying that there’s no population difference in IQ?” Now, the term “population difference” is not a commonly accepted one outside of what is called the “human biodiversity” sphere, which is basically the new form of race science and eugenics. So it’s basically a dogwhistle for a really deeply ideologically driven scientific racism. It’s not a casual phrase. It’s a sign of something running a lot deeper. We’re talking about some really radical ideas being brought up in quote unquote left/liberal spheres. It’s hard to explain to people why a seemingly casual phrase in a tweet is a sign of something. It’s on us to draw those pictures for people so they can see how these ideas form as it’s happening, rather than having to wait for some spectacular act of violence to justify it being published.

SM: Right. To wait until fascism is here and in effect, committing violence in communities across the country, seems too late in the cycle. That’s an unfortunate reality you’re dealing with in some of your work.

SB: Yeah, Richard Spencer was saying back in 2014, as a sort of catchphrase he used to say at the beginning of his speeches, “something is happening.” He knew it. He was telling everyone it was happening. He was very clear about it in public speeches. But somehow people couldn’t hear that something was happening at the time. There’s a lot of old assumptions about how society works, about the rules, that are no longer true. So I think it’s pushing publications to follow suit. The other thing is just the reality of publishing is really complicated right now. It’s very hard for things to make money. That being said, publications like Protean are working on creating sustainable models and are on their way to being sustainable, so I think that is changing things a bit. Reporters themselves are also able to use things like Substack and Patreon or whatever, I think that allows their work to get an audience. I don’t have to rely on gatekeepers quite as much as I did five years ago.

SM: There’s something to be said about how being able to work on this independently allows you the freedom to tell the stories you think are important. Switching gears a bit, I’m wondering what parallels do you see with the past in the current landscape of right-wing politics, and what might appear new or distinct?

SB: So, there’s the obvious ones. Economic and social crises, with a constant stream of economic crises in particular since 2008. The crisis over white reaction to demographic changes. There are corollaries in other countries, historically and contemporarily, where white workers or privileged workers are basically bought off with what DuBois called the wages of whiteness. And I think there’s a number of these pieces of connective tissue: the crisis of modernity, the narratives about naturalness and the artificiality of cities compared to rural communities, the romanticization of the past with their own identities. These things are really constants. What I think is important is to not get too bogged down in that. There’s a bunch of reasons why I think it’s not useful to constantly look at the corollaries.

One reality is that the fascism of the 20s to the 40s is fundamentally different than anything we have now for a bunch of reasons. Political parties in general don’t define social movements any longer, and in fact formal organizations are not defining social movements. Different sorts of social formations are defining them, so it’s really hard to look at the rise of the Nazis and find exact corollaries. For example, few political parties have militias engaging in street fights. Instead, we have decentralized groups and individuals engaging in street fights. So we have to look at what some of the core underlying features of fascism are and port them into a modern condition, which looks different.

This is why I think a certain way of looking at fascism is needed, sometimes called the new consensus approach, that looks at some of the underlying philosophical components and behaviors that are broad enough that they can be ported over to any time or culture and still remain true. For example, what binds together the far right in the United States with the BJP in India are underlying factors: a feeling of cultural humiliation, the need for rebirth, identity as a core driving force behind the idea that humans are unequal and we need stratified societies, a spiritual story, and some version of scientific bigotry. All those things are present now in an increasing way. They’re starting to be less fringe and more commonly accepted.

In terms of the way the left responds, we can’t look at something like the crisis of the Great Depression and think it’s going to be a direct model for economic crises now. The modern left response is much different. It doesn’t have as much teeth as it did in those days when they were shutting down factories. There’s obviously an increased labor movement right now that’s really exciting, but it’s not exactly the same. And so I think it’s important to look at how movements form, how they think of themselves, and how they grow, as well as what kind of lessons we can take from the antifascist movements of the time. How do we build a broad base—not necessarily organizations the way they had then, but broad social movements. I think people are doing that now, thinking about people in the multitude rather than just siloed-off organizations that are specifically like what we had in the past.

SM: You’re working on a book about antisemitism right now. I want to specifically ask you about is something I’ve come across in my own reporting, a sort of contradictory relationship between right-wing Zionist political elements overlapping with conspiracy theory driven groups like QAnon and anti-maskers. For example, a local right-wing Jewish conservative group here in Dallas is led by a guy who was at the Capitol on January 6th. I wonder, how can they justify aligning themselves with people who wear Camp Auschwitz shirts? How can they promote tropes like “cultural Marxism” that can be traced back to the idea of “cultural Bolshevism” promoted by the Nazis?

SB: I think it comes back to structural antisemitism. This is not the same thing fundamentally as structural racism or structural white supremacy in the way we conventionally think of it. Outside of Orthodox Jews, Jews are not more likely to be killed by the police, they’re not more likely to be discriminated against at work usually in the United States—though that may not be true everywhere. What structural antisemitism tends to refer to is the structures of thinking and problem solving in Western society.  There’s a number of things that are common about the antisemitism that appears on the far right and appears on the left. The language that working people often use to talk about socialism is populism. People simplify class antagonisms or antagonism to power, which are structural contests in terms of regular people versus elites. The reality is that we have deep-seated suspicions about Jews and caricatures of people that often tie Jews together with whatever conspiratorial narrative, like George Soros and the Rothschilds. But even some conspiracies about Bill Gates maintain the same antisemitic character, even if they don’t name Jews.

Obviously, cultural Marxism is an antisemitic conspiracy theory, point blank. What they’re doing is taking the Judaized antisemitism and allowing those cultural explanations to flourish. That helps create mental categories that allow Jews to be slotted in really easily when we’re talking about finance capital and parasitic this-and-that elites. What we’re talking about is caricatures that have been used historically to marginalize Jews or to tell stories and rumors about Jews. They’re just simply not explicitly saying Jews. This is true of QAnon, which is just basically coated-over blood libel, blood libel being the medieval allegation that Jews would sacrifice Christian children and drain their blood for their Passover rituals. QAnon essentially takes that model, mixes that with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and then tells a story about the Democrats.

Now, what does that mean when a Jewish group is doing it? And what does it mean when we are seeing Israeli flags at events? I think this runs a lot deeper through the history of Israel and the history of Zionism in general, particularly Christian Zionism, which is essentially an antisemitic dispensationalist theory about the end times, one in which the Israeli political right is given bids for support because of the strength of Christian Zionism in the United States. In a lot of ways what we’re seeing is Christian Zionism and the Christian political establishment in general rejecting the Jewish diaspora and the history of Judaism as it actually is, and instead, forcing an image of Jews that will mirror their Christian Zionism and imperialist aspirations. It’s not pro-Jewish in any fundamental way. It’s only pro-these kinds of Jewish organizations that maintain their interest. It’s a fucking shame any Jewish organization would go along with this. I have nothing but disgust and disdain for any Jewish organization that will collaborate with conspiracy theorists or with right-wing Christian Zionist groups. There’s absolutely nothing justifiable about it.

Solutions to end antisemitism are often framed as either political centrism, because political radicalism is seen as dangerous for Jews, or Israeli nationalism that keeps Jews safe with a militarized state. But the fundamental core of antisemitism is not related to those things. The core is related to white supremacy and the history of white Christian imperialism. It would benefit us to more collaborate with other marginalized folks and create a shared experience as a way to fight back than to bet on centrism and Israeli nationalism while getting support from the same people that have been persecuting them historically. Jews are used on the right as proxies for a lot of things. The right likes Jews as much as they like aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.

The same party that partners with Likud in Israel is the same one that’s talking about Jewish space lasers in Congress, the same ones that are talking about George Soros and cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism is basically a warmed-over conspiracy theory that the Frankfurt School, which was founded by largely Jewish philosophers, is somehow undermining Western civilization with their pernicious universalism and their decadence. That’s an antisemitic conspiracy theory. We certainly shouldn’t let them use Israel or Jewish organizations as a way of covering over their collaboration with that. There’s a number of white supremacists that have said that they’re Zionists because they want Jews to leave and go to Israel. So there’s some collaboration there.

SM: What is your understanding of the role conspiracy theories like QAnon play in coalescing these disparate groups? In providing them some sense of shared narrative or mythology? And what role do you see the machinery of the Internet playing?

SB: They have a really useful utility in that conspiracy theories don’t require consistency in any way. They require crossover, sharing rhetoric, sharing broad claims. This allows for mutation very easily, and allows for a structure that’s not based on any formal organization. QAnon shifts constantly. The QAnon of six months ago is not the QAnon of today. That actually works really well for horizontal social movements where people are adapting all the time, where they have to change with the circumstances. When the Great Awakening doesn’t happen and Trump doesn’t arrest everyone, how do you adapt quickly and easily? What we have now is a rapidly changing, accelerating, and evolving conspiracy narrative that allows people to continue it, to elevate it, and to recruit other people to it without it breaking down. It would be impossible at this scale without the Internet, and without the kind of deregulated social media environment where essentially everyone’s a content creator in some way.

I think what conspiracy theories narratives do today, and what they’ve always done, is create a kind of heroic story about the people involved, what their role in history is, about how the complexities of the world boil down to conspiratorial actors. That serves as an emotional stabilizer for people. It’s a lot easier to say it’s these people than to say it’s a system of things. These stories bind people together in a very emotional way. It’s incredibly church-like. If you’ve ever been to a QAnon rally, these people are really in a fervor. I bet they’re feeling ecstatic, and like they’re discovering something, that they’re part of something, that they’re fixing something. Being a part of a social movement that has consequences and has to be put to the test is perhaps not nearly as emotionally satisfying as stopping Satanic pedophiles and their adrenochrome or something.

SM: There was a man who gave the pseudonym Dresden Berns at a White Lives Matter rally I reported on in Fort Worth, Texas. He denied being a white supremacist in person, despite promoting the white replacement theory at the time. A quick search of the pseudonym turned up antisemitic memes, pro-Hitler screeds, and claims of genocide against the white race. What I’m getting at is that white supremacists often do not describe themselves as such. How do you navigate that in your research of these groups?

SB: Obviously, they will not describe themselves accurately. They never have. I’ve talked to a lot of white supremacists in my life, and they have never described themselves as white supremacists, even the hardliners. I tend to have certain questions and look for certain specific things. For example, race and IQ stuff is such a clear line, and so is Holocaust denial. I think there’s a lot of things like that that actually show ideological sophistication, and that’s sort of what I’m looking for in those cases. Are they saying something that’s coded and antisemitic that maybe they haven’t even thought about? Or is there something that’s crystallized? Having clear standards of what you’re looking for is the most important thing. The Proud Boys are a perfect example of this, because they’re a multiracial group. They use the rhetoric of civic nationalism, which I refer to as “alt-light” in the book. Which basically means they’re like the alt-right, but they don’t commit to open white nationalism. So they may be virulently anti-immigrant, but they’re not going to go as far as to say white ethnostate kind of stuff. They might say antisemitic stuff, but they’ll also probably say they support the state of Israel.

And so it’s important to look at them as a totality and see what the patterns are, see clearly how their associations work, see clearly what the rhetoric is actually saying. You have to apply that standard uniformly so that you don’t allow them to minimize things. Which is what they want to do. If you talk to a lot of these guys, they’ll actually say really moderate stuff. I’ve interviewed and talked to Proud Boys at these events. They’ll sometimes sound like middle-of-the-road Republicans. It’s only when you take a step back and actually see what their behavior is and see how they’re addressing things, and particularly how they fight the left, that you actually see something else is going on.

Some people and some in the media only interview white supremacists, and not the people they’re victimizing. It’s wrong to allow them a platform and let them say what they’re going to say without being challenged, and without also focusing on the survivors of their violence and the people who are counter-organizing. I talk about this the book—we can’t just let white sources be the story here, the community’s response has to be the core of the story. I think resistance narratives are important when thinking about this. Otherwise, we allow their terror to be the story, and I don’t think we want to do that. We certainly don’t want white voices to be the dominant story in the story of white supremacy and the response to it in the 21st century.

SM: Something that comes up a lot in your book and in your writing elsewhere is the overarching theme of the apocalypse, of living through apocalyptic times. What is the connection you see between the overwhelming sense of impending doom or collapse and the rise of the far right? And what do you see as a way out of this sense of pending apocalypse?

SB: The accelerating crises create advantages for the far right because those underlying tensions and insecurities give them something to manipulate. For some people it’s the same energy that the left builds upon. Instability, insecurity, and the feelings of being overwhelmed and vulnerable play into organizing on the left: organizing against police violence, organizing unions, organizing self-defense networks. This is why I say that fascism splits the privileged class of the working class. For some, it’s easier to blame immigrants and call to close the borders. And by working class, I mean the people who don’t have capital, not just blue-collar workers. So I think the conditions of instability as they accelerate will continue to bring up these forces—particularly what’s been called ecofascism. As resource extraction creates more instability and creates climate refugees and wars triggered by climatic conditions, the far right could potentially capitalize on a sense of prevailing whiteness to try and push back on communities of color that are being victimized by environmental racism. Capitalism is breaking down in a lot of ways, and I think that crisis also feeds the dissolution.

Along with this sense of whiteness as a mythology. When people are told this false story about whiteness and how it’s being encroached upon by non-white folks, they have this panic response. It’s such an artifice, created to promote subjugation, but it still has resonance and needs to be addressed. All of that is creating a sense of crisis. Some of those pieces we can’t ignore or stop. We can’t stop some degree of climate crisis. We must do everything we can to fight that. We’ve crossed the Rubicon, and we have to deal with the reality of it. We should start to think about not just how we push back against the worst effects, but also how we build something on the other side.

So we talk about apocalypse as a number of things. For one, we talk about it as the end of things. When white supremacists or other extremists decide to engage in a mass shooting, it is the end for a lot of people. It is an apocalyptic moment, even if it’s on a small scale. Another is when we get together to end the social conditions that we’re living in. I think the left is attempting to do that as well, and in an accelerated way. In 2020 we saw huge mutual aid networks start to form in ways that really didn’t exist a few years ago. We are seeing state services break down, including NGO services. There are community defense networks that have grown out of mass action against police violence. All these things are growing and accelerating.

In the introduction of the book I talk a bit about Jewish Messianism, and Walter Benjamin specifically. He talks about the story of the human being as one of toil, and when the Messiah comes, it’s not because the world is ending. The Messiah is the one who ends the world. But rather than a person, we can think of the Messiah or the Messianic age as a process, as what we build. We are building revolution in these counter-state projects, like mutual aid networks. And as systems break down, they will become even more necessary, until we reach a tipping point and actually come into direct contest with the society we have now. Only one can make it out. Antifascism is required for that, but it can’t end there, because that will just put us back at the status quo. We have to go a step further. We have to start building something new that will challenge the basic assumptions of our society.

SM: This is somewhat of a selfish question, given our interests here at Protean. What role do you think things like art, poetry, fiction, and literature in general can play in the fight against fascist tendencies, while we navigate this apocalyptic scene we’re inhabiting?

SB: I have an essay in the book called Contested Space that talks about meta-politics as a battle for people’s ideas and sense of self. Our cultural and spiritual institutions have a really important function in building up people’s sense of identity, which helps them form political ideas down the road. Cultural struggle is absolutely essential to this. It’s also essential for making life worth living. Often on the left, we think in functionalist terms of how we can get something, but we don’t necessarily think of what the world will be like when we do. It’s really important for us to do that. It’s also important for us to push the far right out of cultural spaces they want to inhabit, like black metal or neofolk music. Even pagan stuff. So that those and other spaces can help percolate a liberatory sense of the world. We have to see culture as an actual terrain for struggle, and we have to have media projects to do that. I don’t think it’s a replacement for organizing. Practical organizing has to still be the work of fighting the battle. But I think we need to build a space of expression so that people can actually live in these ideas a bit more. The media world is kind of ruthless in some ways, and inaccessible in others, so I think it’s really essential to build publications like Protean and a cultural sphere that can help envision what that world will actually be like.

SM: Last question. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

SB: I want people to understand that this sense of the apocalypse shouldn’t inspire depression. I know that there’s no reason to believe that crisis will necessarily lead them to take action or rise up. In fact, little victories along the way are usually what get people involved. I’m not depressed, and I’m not pessimistic about the future. I think we have every reason to be hopeful about things. I think that we have all the tools here, and all we really need fundamentally is to come together as a community to work together and envision something new.

There’s really no reason, even during the rise of the far right and all the other crises that can feel hopeless, to think we’ve lost anything. I don’t think there’s any stage along the way when something is too late. I don’t think it works that way. The planet will not explode in one singular moment. We need to think about what it’s going to take to build a sustainable new world, what those pieces are and how they work together. I want people to walk away with the sense that there is a lot that is upsetting, but there’s also all of us.  And that’s what’s actually needed. That’s what matters historically—that there’s enough people that want to build something new.

SM: I think that’s a very hopeful note to end on. A lot of people get stuck on the dystopian future or end-of-the-world scenarios of apocalyptic times, as opposed to the notion that it’s just a transition, the end of something old and the beginning of something new. All we have is each other. And that’s all that’s needed to envision a better world. Thanks for speaking with me, Shane. It was a pleasure. ♦