Seven anti-fascist virtues

The alt-right is wired, non-ironic and coming to destroy a democracy near you

The men shouting into my face on Whitehall were white, middle-aged and mainly drunk. The words were familiar: “traitor, Remainer, scum” … but this time there was a new twist.

It was 7 September 2019: after trying to disrupt a People’s Vote rally, about 200 activists from the far-right English Defence League and the “Democratic Football Lads Alliance” decided to start harassing anybody around Parliament who looked vaguely middle class, progressive or just non-boneheaded.

After several minutes of shouting into my camera lens, one of them just said calmly: “We know who you are. We’ve researched you”.

In ten years’ time, if we get this wrong, some of us will look back on the year 2019 as the moment we started losing democracy to fascism. Not the fascism of the mesmeric leader on a platform, defying all logic, brutalising their audiences with the imagery of violence – that’s here already, in the shape of elected leaders like Trump, Bolsanaro, Putin, Orbán.

No, the fascism we will lose to is the hipster standing on the Austrian border holding a Spartan flag; of the far right “journalist” standing outside your home at midnight, banging on the windows while his friends livestream your fear on social media. The fascism of inarticulate rage, empowered by billionaire-owned websites, crowdfunded via Donorbox, channelled via news and talk radio shows whose sole function is give lies the semblance of truth.

“The only sympathy that’s going to work with the mass followers of Trump, Bolsanaro and Wilders is a harsh one based on logic, science, rationality and the rule of law”

Democrats in numerous countries are getting wake-up calls. Spanish daytime TV is now wall-to-wall Vox Party, demanding the shut-down of mosques and abortion clinics. In the Netherlands, the far right party FvD shattered the political establishment, becoming the biggest party in the senate on a diet of pro-Putin propaganda and misogyny.

A fascist governs Brasil. In New Zealand, the man who shot 50 muslim worshippers in cold blood painted the “black sun” symbol of the Waffen SS onto his body armour. In Germany, the man detained for the Yom Kippur attack in Halle claimed he wanted to "kill as many anti-Whites as possible, Jews preferred".

Fascism is non-ironic

Anton Chekov once wrote that, if a gun appears in Act One of a play, someone is sure as hell going to get shot by Act Three. On this principle it is safe to assume that the proliferation of Nazi salutes and swastikas is non-ironic. Fascism is revived – and unless we resist it, we will meet its newspaper sellers at the railway station and its stormtroopers sitting next to us in the bars of bohemian cabarets, just as Christopher Isherwood met them in Weimar-era Berlin. And after that, we will meet defeat.

You might think, given we know where all this leads, that stopping fascism would by now be the number one topic of conversation among educated and progressive people. But it is not. Just like in Auden’s poem on the day the Second World War broke out, the “faces along the bar, cling to their average day”. We’ve seen the struggle against Nazism so commoditised, by Netflix and Hollywood, that it barely dawns on most people that the threat could be real.

The paralysis currently gripping liberal societies has deeper roots than complacency. Fascism is scoring mental victories among populations with a 400 year history of enlightenment and rationality because they no longer believe in what they are defending. 

Hannah Arendt, surveying the rise of Nazism in Germany, said its psychological power lay in its “frank recognition … of the vacuum resulting from an almost simultaneous breakdown of Europe's social and political structures”. When the Nazis said the old order was finished, and could no longer guarantee justice and security for ordinary people, they were simply “lying the truth”. The problem lay not in the German character, Arendt wrote, but in the disintegration of that character.[1]

The triple crisis

I’ve spent the past decade reporting the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. I’ve watched an economic downturn morph into global stagnation, a social revolt of networked youth get smashed. I watched the Arab Spring and the Greek Spring destroyed – and in the aftermath I watched the pollution of social networks with lies and the language of violence. 

As a result, we face a triple crisis: 

  • an economic system that doesn’t work for most people in the developed world

  • the evaporation of consent for democracy, human rights and the rule of law

  • a crisis of technological control - involving persistent attempts by corporation and states to exert algorithmic control over our thoughts and behaviours. 

Each of these crises can be rooted in a deeper one, similar to the “disintegration of the German character” that Arendt observed. What’s disintegrating is a globally prevalent way of thinking, acting and living rooted in 30 years of practise in the free-market economy. What we’re facing is a crisis of the neoliberal self.

In response there are plenty of actions we can demand others take: for the editors of television news programmes tos stop platforming the minor celebrities who’ve created personal brands by echoing white supremacy themes. For the authorities to use the full force of the law against far-right terrorism and hate speech. For the parties of the political centre to stop forming coalitions of convenience with the far right. For the big tech corporations to stop trying to make money out of hate.

But to stop the 2020s century becoming a repeat of the 1930s, the biggest change has to take place between the brains and the fingertips of individual human beings. Neoliberalism, as Michel Foucault predicted, has made us “eminently governable”. We need to become ungovernable.

Self-care is not enough

At the dawn of the neoliberal era Foucault wrote, half jokingly, a guide to surviving everyday life in amid the absence of hope. Modelled on a 17th century treatise by St Francis de Salles, he called it An Introduction to the non-fascist life.[2] 

You’ll recognise Foucault’s postmodern “virtues” if you’ve ever been to a conference of social movements, or a liberal university, or a climate camp: do not become enamoured of power, don’t think in a negative way, don’t be sad as you resist oppression, don’t reach for coherent systems of thought and or political projects but revel their fragmentation. Above all, do not embrace utopias, because they can only lead to the Gulag, the Holocaust or Hiroshima.

It’s the philosophy of self care, and while it was good for an era of social peace and atomisation, in this era, on its own, it’s not enough.

Though few people have read the actual text, it is fair to say that Foucault’s commandments have been widely adopted among people trying to resist globalisation, climate change and repressive states. A whole generation of activists has attempted to dissolve power through networked activism, by shapeshifting from one struggle to the next, and through the strategy of ‘one No, many Yeses’, and suspending belief in any particular over-arching goal.

In the face of the threats we face, I think we need to abandon the implicit drift and quietism of that lifestyle. Instead of the “non-fascist” life we need to learn, as our grandparents did in the 1930s, to live the anti-fascist life. Try saying the two phrases in a bar, or at work, in a lecture theatre, to see if the alteration of that single word triggers an emotional reaction?

It should. Because antifascism is edgy, carries risk, can get you sacked, doxxed or killed. If you are really unlucky, doing something antifascist can actually get you labelled a fascist in newspapers like the New York Times or by centrist politicians like British Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

But in the course of reporting this crisis, I've learned from people at the forefront of resistance that struggle against the authoritarian right begins with a reform of the priorities of the self. On a demo against Trump on inauguration day, in Washington DC, I met a marine biologist from California with her two teenage sons who looked into my camera and said calmly: “it’s not about lobbying my Congressman anymore, it’s about where I put my body”. 

I heard the same thing from a survivor of the Tahrir Square occupation: a revolution is about what you do with your body, not your Facebook account.

The Global Spring

In the next ten years, many of us will be obliged to put our bodies between fascist movements and their objectives; to hold not just physical space but political space, media space, cultural space and legal space - as the heirs to Hitler and Mussolini try to shut out humanistic thinking, rationalism and science.

It's nearly 20 years since the outbreak of the global anti-capitalist movement in Seattle: if I think back over those two decades, the impulses that made young people and workers unite against the social effects of neoliberalism then are much stronger now. With each act of resistance, those in power need to do something bigger and more dramatic - and if Trump, Salvini, Bolsanaro and Carrie Lam can't contain this movement, we are approaching a crunch point.

If I am right, there will soon be something we have to label a Global Spring – after which the current period of irrationalism and xenophobia will seem like the last paroxysm of the old world of hierarchies and superstitions. To make it happen, we need to develop a new set of reflexes which, combined, will enable us to conduct a radical defence of the human being against authoritarianism and machine control.

Like Foucault, and St Francis of Salles before him, I've listed seven qualities - call them reflexes or even virtues if you like - that I try to personally embody as I write, act and resist…

#1. Reject performative behaviour

The first is: to reject performative behaviour. In a chain coffee shop, the hardest way to get a cup of coffee is to engage the server in a spontaneous conversation as a human being. It is easier if you go through the script of pleasantries, smiles and card-swipes dictated by their draconian management rules and your lack of time. Neoliberalism required us to perform to a script whose subtext is that everything is a market interaction. Billions of tiny programmed interactions eroded our spontaneity and ingenuity. 

The result is mental stagnation. The industrial revolution was produced by workers tinkering with machines, engineers improving on the designs of other engineers. No McDonalds employee today would think it their right to suggest a better recipe for the burger. One space after another is being turned over to programmed behaviour – and the spaces that cannot be programmed, like the local pub, or the impromptu football game in an urban public space, are being steadily eradicated.

Here I think the early Christians hold a great lesson for those who want to resist today: the Romans told them “just keep your crazy religion to yourselves, your holy books out of sight and come, just once in a while, to burn incense to the pagan gods”. The Christians said they’d rather die. And though I don’t recommend martyrdom I do note that by refusing the performative behaviour required by the elite they actually destroyed the pagan religion in a space of 80 years. 

#2. Resist machine control

The second reflex I want us to develop is the determination to resist algorithmic control.  The 5,000 datapoints that Cambridge Analytica was able to collect about 240 million Americans was not dead knowledge: it was used actively to predict and manipulate voters’ behaviour.

If you want to know what an algorithmically controlled society would look like, think of an airport. As you enter the security gate you are willingly subjecting yourself to algorithmic control – that is, for decisions about you to be taken by rules and data stored in a machine. For seasoned travellers, the only way to survive this near-daily routine is to become an extreme fatalist for the hour it takes to get to the gate. Don’t make jokes, don’t get angry or tense. Subject yourself to the routines. Become predictable.

As more of everyday life becomes like the airport security gate, making jokes, getting angry and becoming unpredictable might – within limits – be the perfect starting point for our resistance.

Oren Etzioni of the Open AI institute came up with three rules for any artificial intelligence acting on human beings: that it should be subject to all human laws; it should reveal its artificial nature; and that it should not retain our data without our permission.[3]

These are good principles but will never become operational without resistance. What if the human law is the constitution of the People’s Republic of China? What if the business models of the top eight companies in the world rely on the algorithm not revealing itself? What if the only way a self-driving automobile can feel its way around the street is to record and store the minutae of human behaviours and identities in its surroundings without our express permission?

#3. Optimism towards the future

A third reflex I want to nurture is to optimism towards the future. The Italian philosopher Franco Berardi noticed that, from the dawn of the freemarket era, all concepts of the future had become subject to “slow cancellation”. For 30 years everything stayed the same, only at lightning speed. Fatalism took hold among us not just because the great thinkers of the era said history was over, but because shlock neuroscience and systems theory combined to squeeze all belief in agency out of thinking.

If you have read the manifesto of the neofascist killer in Christchurch, you will see he has a very clear vision of the future. The new far right believe they are “seeing through the lies of history” and resisting the degeneration of civilisation.

But liberal centrism often comes over as a defence of the world as it is: the immutable present system, augmented by more and more debt and a smartphone upgrade every 24 months.  The victims of neoliberal stagnation can see no future in the current social arrangements but centrism offers no believable story about how things will get better.

Strong optimistic change-statements are effective. There are flaws in the Ocasio-Cortez-Markey bill proposing a Green New Deal to the US Congress – but its historic nature lies in its quality of belief: that American cars could become petrol free within a decade; that every American could have access to healthcare; that America, just like China and Japan, could have bullet trains if only people actually began to believe change is possible.

A comprehensive vision of a post-work, pro-human society based on universal rights and automation is not hard to imagine. But the anti-utopian reflexes drilled into postwar generations by structuralism and postmodernism need to be overcome. Optimism is simply prudent Utopianism, and we need to revive it.

#4. Refuse to feel their pain

A fourth reflex, being inculcated by necessity among those of us resisting the right, and evading control by Silicon Valley, is toughness. In the neoliberal era mental toughness meant being prepared to question everything, being dissatisfied with “good enough” solutions, cutting through bullshit. Today, in addition to the these attributes we need to add an extra layer of refusal to care about the alleged sufferings of people inclined to fascism. 

Once you have appeared on BBC Question Time, and seen a red-faced audience that’s been handpicked by the producers to shout you down, you become aware that your instinct to reason them, to “feel their pain”, to deflect their anger towards a better goal is not going to work. The only sympathy that’s going to work with the mass followers of Trump, Bolsanaro and Wilders is a harsh one based on logic, science, rationality and the rule of law.

In all social conflicts since 2011 I’ve noticed that the people who achieve the most are people who wake up every day expecting to confront death threats, doxxing, abuse, gaslighting and illogic, and who then think: what am I going to do to drown them out and carry on.

The aim of the authoritarian right is to push its adherents beyond reason and empathy. The echo chamber of the "alt-lite" media is producing  – at the extreme – politicised zombies, their minds always prepared to retreat from truism to truism in order to escape the proposal that the climate is changing, or that women are entitled to reproductive rights. These are not stupid people: they are choosing a form of calculated and learned ignorance to innoculate their brains from reasoned argument. The only thing that’s going to convince them they are wrong is to see the illusions shattered by the decisive actions of their opponents. 

#5. Be audacious

So as we take the actions required, a fifth reflex that should be useful is audacity. Once you embrace a long-term goal, such as stopping climate change, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals or the transition beyond a market economy, you begin to understand the time value of audacity in a way that two-dimensional market agents do not.

For Extinction Rebellion, seizing London’s Waterloo Bridge and annoying the commuters, in order to force the government to speed up carbon reduction measures, has a time-value way beyond the few days and weeks in which it dominates the news. The value of this early and unpredictable action will last centuries.

#6. Tell meaningful stories

A sixth reflex I think we’re going to have to revive is to tell each other meaningful stories. During the freemarket era something weird happened to the dynamics of the narratives that engulf us: they became inconsequential. In the first phase of the neoliberal downswing, after the dotcom crash, Hollywood was flooded with stories suggesting that the reality we perceive is an illusion: The Matrix, Inception, Avatar each tell stories of a character trying to escape the illusion. 

But in the crisis phase we have moved on from “reality as illusion” to the phase of the “story without an ending” – the perpetually unresolved drama serials of Netflix and HBO, whose characters are trapped in a fate they cannot escape at all. Carrie Mathieson in Homeland, doomed by bi-polar disease to save the world while destroying herself; the black kids of Baltimore, whose struggles to break out of criminalisation in The Wire always lead to the renewal of the criminal system; above all, Game of Thrones, whose characters are moved to kill, maim and rape simply by the forces of fate. 

By contrast, what is noticeable about the movies of the 1930s and early war years, is that in response to fascism they moved from themes of fatalism to redemption. But stories of redemption are always only a microcosm the teleology prevalent in the society that creates them. Bogart in Casablanca is redeemed of cynicism so that all of America can fight the anti-fascist war. Fonda in Grapes of Wrath is redeemed of fear so that he turns the fruit-pickers’ resistance to their bosses into a force that will rebuild America.

All virtue systems – and that’s really what I am describing here – are of course socially constructed. Aristotle’s system was written for the just but warlike elites of city states. St Francis of Salles’ system was the product of Catholic life lived on the violent frontier of the Protestant reformation. Foucault’s parody of it was conceived amid the death of the 20th century left’s utopias. Ours will have to last us until we have defeated the new, networked anti-humanism of the right.

For us, the equivalent of “faith” might simply have to be the belief that we can win. It’s hard to tell stories with a beginning, middle and end if you believe we are trapped in the unending present of freemarket capitalism. It’s hard to resist algorithmic control if you have swallowed the fatalism of the airport bookshelves, believing yourself already to be an algorithm, your fate predetermined by randomness and DNA.

#7. Become morally intelligent

For these reasons the left, the liberal centre and the corporate world each has to develop the capacity for something that will seem utterly bizarre, indeed offensive to some: think morally. That's the seventh virtue: not everyone can become a moral philosopher - but we can all become intelligent clients for moral philosophy.

Marx was in the habit of laughing out loud whenever people mentioned moral philosophy. Later Marxists, like Trotsky in Their Morals and Ours, simply adopted a version of Jesuitism: the end justifies the means, though certain ends preclude certain means. But Marxism’s failure to produce a moral or ethical code stands in sharp contradiction to the actions of the working class, which continually tried to do so. In fact, the whole process of becoming a class ‘for itself’ – which, Marx said, the workers must do to achieve socialism – was in practice a moral project, based on exactly the kind of relationship between ends and means implied in virtue ethics. 

When labour movement cultures were strong, there was a conscious attempt to build a community, in which possessing virtues – like solidarity, generosity and the capacity for self-sacrifice – was as important as the ‘end’ itself (whether it be winning a strike or overthrowing a government). ‘Since we want to survive within capitalism, educate ourselves and expand our control within the workplace’, workers told each other, ‘this is how we have to behave’. 

That culture was smashed at the outset of neoliberalism, along with the manual, industrial working class society that produced it. For me, as I outlined in Postcapitalism, the historical subject is no longer “the proletariat” as conceived by Marx, but a more diffuse demographic comprising everybody exploited by capital, through the multiple channels of work, consumption, finance and domestic labour - and everybody who cannot live with the consequences of the control, surveillance and arbitrary power produced by the new authoritarianism.

Just like our grandparents, as we find each other and act, and begin to conceive the future in terms of an overall goal, we will be forced to collaboratively demonstrate in struggle what living a good life means.

* A shorter version of this essay was published in German in the newspaper Freitag in May 2019. This is its first complete English publication. The arguments outlined here are explored in my new book Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being

[1] Arendt H, Approaches to the German Problem, Partisan Review, XlIII, Winter 1945. 106

[2] Foucault M, Preface, in Deleuze G and Guattari F, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis 1983, p xiii