Riots vs. Totalitarianism: A Conversation with Benjamin Case

Riots vs. Totalitarianism: A Conversation with Benjamin Case

Part of the story of antifascism of the last decade is that it sits at the intersection not just of race, gender, identity, and oppression, but social movements themselves. The internal conversation between mass activist projects of different varieties is how modern antifascism is constantly evolving, thinking about what kinds of approaches, strategies, and, ultimately, tactics, make sense. This was the operative concept behind No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, to open up how we understand antifascism and to broaden our scope to glimpse  what the future could be of the fight against the far-right.

No contributor and writer has done more for this conversation than Benjamin Case. His chapter, “Antisemitism and the Origins of Totalitarianism,” re-evaluates Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the role of antisemitism in authoritarian reactionary ideologies, and how it motivates the far-right’s assault on reason and memory. Case’s work drives this discourse right to the heart of on-the-ground organizing: what does it mean to fight antisemitism from the left, and what role does that have in fighting fascism at large?

Shortly after No Pasaran was released, Case published his own book from AK Press that confronts the problematic way that activist approaches are framed. In Street Rebellion: Resistance Beyond Violence and Nonviolence, Case takes on the almost religious fervor adopted by advocates of “strategic nonviolence”  for their methodology, showing that much of the focus on the efficacy of nonviolence simply does not reflect the reality of social movements. Case looks at the role of rioting, something that became a central theme of the 2020 uprisings after the police murder of George Floyd, and he asks tough questions about how social movements differ from the prescriptions offered by scholars claiming authority on movement histories. This discourse intersects with our question of antifascist strategy, and what kinds of approaches will bring us into a post-Trump America where the threat of fascism will continue to loom.

I spoke with Case about both projects, No Pasaran and Street Rebellion, and about what kinds of lessons we can learn from this critical process of re-evaluation, especially within social movements themselves.

SB: You take an interesting approach to the question of antifascism by focusing on antisemitism in your essay in No Pasaran, an essential and often overlooked part of antifascist movements, and drawing on the work of scholar Hannah Arendt. What role does Arendt play in your thinking on this issue and how did it inform your chapter?

BC: When I really began really exploring the histories of antisemitism, I was working on an essay called "Decolonizing Jewishness,” and Arendt was one of the first thinkers that I turned to. Her work is really important in articulating the historical, social, and political functions of antisemitism for fascist politics. Part of what I admire about her is her intellectual diligence, her meticulous and structured thinking, particularly around a topic that is so convoluted. I had also noticed that her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was absolutely everywhere during the rise of Trump – everyone was talking and Tweeting about it, Amazon sold out of it and so forth – but it struck me that with all the talk, no one was discussing how that book is, in large part, about antisemitism.

SB: In this chapter, how do you formulate the connection between fighting antisemitism and antifascism?

BC: If we agree that you have to know your enemy to defeat them, then it is important to understand that antisemitism remains an organizing force on the fascist right. It is not always said out loud, and it is not present in every single place, but it remains central to fascist organizing logic. Whether or not you care about antisemitism specifically (and if you believe in political solidarity, then you should), to defeat fascism you must understand how they see the world and in many ways it hinges on antisemitism. Fascism requires a concealed ultimate enemy responsible for making the strong weak. It is the ultimate conspiracy theory, which is why a lot of the most popular conspiracy theories have an antisemitic architecture: the secret cabal behind the scenes running the show, bound by some evil, mystical lineage. The Russian Tsarist secret police wrote The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, the famous forgery of supposedly leaked meeting notes from the Jewish conspiracy, specifically to break revolutionary organizing. That myth metastasized into the political antisemitism we have until today. Now you have celebrities like Tucker Carlson talking about the antisemitic "Great Replacement" theory without needing to reference the antisemitism.

Antisemitism is complicated and has seemingly contradictory qualities. No matter how much we talk about it, it always seems to catch us off guard, such as the weird recent episode with (the rapper) Ye, and it just cycles back to the same problem of not understanding how antisemitism is intertwined with other historical systemic oppressions, in this case anti-Black racism. When these moments happen, I feel like the left ties itself in knots about what to do about it. I think some clarity about how the fascist worldview employs these ideas helps us to respond.

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SB: The approach you take in your piece “TK” from No Pasaran seems informed by your work in the Pittsburgh chapter of the pro-Palestinian group IfNotNow, which is to take a fully intersectional view of antisemitism. How do you understand antisemitism as a form of oppression and how does it intersect with other types of oppression, and resistance, that we talk about throughout the anthology?

BC: The way we built trainings in IfNotNow was to first historicize both antisemitism and white supremacy because their histories are intertwined, which is something a lot of the left doesn’t understand. Left conversations about antisemitism aren’t new, but I think people on the left in the U.S. have done a really bad job of maintaining our historical memory. We wanted to say that this was a long-standing dynamic and that the concept of white supremacy was developed very much in reference to Jewishness, and it's intertwined with the history of antisemitism in Europe. It's important to start there. We need to avoid going the way that people like Bari Weiss do where she suggests that if you're not against antisemitism as she defines it in all ways no matter what then your antiracism or other politics are just veiled antisemitism. This is the value of an actual intersectional framework, understanding that these forces of domination have developed together and allowing you to tease out the specifics.

Nationalism and white supremacy developed in European nations as part of an imperial project to dominate other areas of the world, but that also required a narrative of struggle against an internal enemy that they defined themselves against, because that would allow them to overcome other cleavages within their own body politic: they needed something internal but external to define themselves against. There are a number of histories of this dynamic in Europe, but Jews became the most prominent because Jews were the people that lived in all these different countries in Europe but weren't "of them," instead tracing their history to somewhere else. Where they were allowed to become citizens, like in France, it came with the necessary rejection of any sort of lineage of Jewishess that could be understood as threatening to the larger nation they were nestled in, and it never did away with the perception that Jews were alien to the body politic. Any idea that this set-up could work was broken up in the 19th Century with events like the Dreyfus Affair, waking a lot of Jews up to the reality that assimilation was not fully possible. So essentially Jews functioned as a kind of "internal other" imperial European countries used to solidify themselves, and that didn't disappear even if Jews were granted legal citizenship.

That story developed over time and still exists in some form today. If movement building is about telling stories and understanding yourself as a character, the antisemitic story is fundamental to fascist politics because it allows you to consolidate your grievances around a vulnerable population that you can plausibly frame as the ultimate enemy to point to and attack. There are multiple tracts to right-wing politics, and there is one that builds by attacking the vulnerable and marginalized, allowing the nationalist to accrue a sense of worthiness or strength or twisted pride by punching down at vulnerable people. But that story does not explain to working people why they are struggling, and if you want to incorporate working people into a fascist movement and convince them that they are the bearers of some powerful mythic past, then you have to have someone to blame for their conditions, someone who can be made out to be more powerful, but in reality is vulnerable. In this story, it's not just that there are immigrants taking your jobs or whatever, it is that a group of people, the Jews, are making this happen on purpose to screw you over for their own power and control. It allows the fascists to co-opt a lot of powerful elements of the leftist story, which is that there are powerful people profiting from our alienation and labor and organizing society in a way that extracts our wealth and redistributes it upwards. It allows the right to take a version of that and repackage and direct it at a minority vulnerable population, the Jews.

By historicizing this narrative we can then get around the false antagonism between fighting antisemitism or fighting other forms of oppression. They are not competing for attention, they are all intertwined. Just because Jews are not the most visibly or materially targeted minority in the U.S. doesn’t mean that antisemitism isn’t an important part of the racial schema. And just because antisemitism is an essential part of the schema doesn’t mean Jews don’t benefit from aspects of white supremacy and don’t need to play the part of allies in fighting white supremacy alongside Black and brown communities. So we want to draw from that older story of solidarity, which a lot of antisemitic and nationalist narratives hope to sweep aside.

It’s also important for us to talk about how the antisemitic story explains the confusion of the world. The world seems to be moving faster and faster, and understanding transnational finance capitalism and post-colonialism is complicated. We are constantly being bombarded by all these different versions of stories about the world, and a lot of us are confused, but what we do know is that we are hurting, that we are being exploited and are increasingly vulnerable. Antisemitism allows you to explain that confusion, it gives you a seemingly plausible explanation for the culprit: the Jews are doing this from behind the scenes. This is part of the historic antisemitic narrative in sources like The Protocols, where Jews are portrayed as both communists and capitalists. Your confusion is just proof positive of the alleged work of the Jews, who want to confuse you so they can take what you have and accumulate their power.

SB: Your recent book Street Rebellion looks at the problem found in much of the literature on “strategic nonviolence,” which erroneously suggests that only strict nonviolence is the best strategy in social movements and also seems unable to consistently define what nonviolence even means. You contest this by looking at the lived experiences of protest movements, such as those that spread across 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd, and then offer a counter vision. Where did this idea come from for you?

BC: We were just talking about this recurring problem in conversations around antisemitism, which the left often struggles with and thus becomes this sticking point debate. The violence/nonviolence debate is one of these as well. The first time I became aware of the problematics of this argument was while I was occupying the Student Union at NYU, where I was a graduate student and was taking part in the Take Back NYU movement. We occupied the Student Union over a number of issues, such as divesting from war profiteers and Palestine solidarity.

We occupied the Union for a couple of days, and at one point there was this major debate about whether or not we could break a lock on a door to access a balcony to speak to a support crowd outside – whether or not breaking the lock violated nonviolent discipline. I was on the wrong side of the argument at the time, arguing that we should not break the lock. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with using violence as part of struggle, but because we had publicly stated that we would be nonviolent. Anyway, someone eventually just left the conversation and broke the lock. It quickly became obvious that any power we actually ended up having was because we had access to the balcony and could communicate with the folks outside. In this situation, a majority in the group thought that strategic nonviolence would help us gain legitimacy (a view I supported in that debate), and believed that this might slow the university in responding hard to us and help us gather outside allies. In the end, none of that mattered. We needed the balcony, and our appearance of nonviolence never made a difference: they were going to call us violent no matter what we did. They lied to us so we’d let our guard down and came in and dragged us out of there and arrested and tried to expel us. Whether or not it was actually nonviolent was immaterial to the political action.

When I later thought back to the debate we were having about nonviolence, it was not actually about breaking the lock, but about the ethics and legacy of revolutionary armed struggle, basically issues that had nothing to do with the specifics at hand. That was just a microcosm. Everytime we have a major uprising, the same nonviolence/violence debates play out with these conceptual slippages. The argument is heated but murky, and no one is sure if we are really talking about history, strategy, or ethics, unless if you are a left-wing activist you may already have your opinion on this subject locked in, like a team you root for. When I began learning more about this debate, the ridiculous argument we had about breaking the lock had literally happened before. The Clamshell Alliance, part of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s had this incredibly destructive debate over whether or not to break a lock on a gate to access a nuclear construction site. This is an ongoing problem the left has–a failure to understand the actual dynamics of our struggle lost in these large binary concepts of violence/nonviolence that do little to capture the real world spectrum of contexts and actions.

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SB: One thing you locate in Street Rebellion is that we lack consensus definitions, so when it serves the advocates of non-violence’s reasoning they will call a particular movement nonviolent, while it is being used rhetorically to tarnish a different movement that was, by comparison, even less violent.

BC: One of the problems with the violence/nonviolence debate is that our conditions of struggle have changed over the past century, but the terms of the debate have not. In the 1960s-70s where a lot of the people who nonviolence advocates reference were popular, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Gene Sharp, or, on the other side of the debate, Che Guevara, the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, and others, the underlying debate was about armed struggle. There was this understanding that had come out of struggles like the Chinese Revolution, which is illustrative for its model of guerilla warfare, that if the left was going to take power it had to take power by force of arms, and there were a lot of examples of this (such as Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam). These were revolutionary groups who were taking control of their societies and forming a seeming bloc against imperialism and capitalism. Even in the US, when the Black Panthers were organizing, they were reading the theory of these groups and in some cases were in direct contact with these folks. That is the context in which they were operating.

The alternative to that seemed to be mass protests. There was a peace movement against the Vietnam war, which involved burning draft cards, obstructing recruitment offices, and peaceful mass demonstrations. Many people referenced the anti-imperialist movement in India led by Gandhi or even the monks self-immolating in South Vietnam as examples of nonviolent resistance, arguing for nonviolent struggle as an opposition to the force of arms.

But this debate became something else largely on the back of this scholar named Gene Sharp, who articulated the idea of “strategic nonviolence” in the early 1970s. In this argument, nonviolent struggle is materially more effective than violence. But the terms “violence” and “nonviolence” holding so many things has facilitated a shift to almost an extremist understanding of nonviolence, where anything that could be construed as violence is in a violence category, roping together things like throwing rocks at the police and bombing civilians despite those things being entirely different from one another. And then, on the other side, nonviolence is sitting in the street and not touching anybody. There is this “nonviolence industrial complex” that has formed around this purist, supposedly strategic definition that involves mistelling histories and citing historical examples of nonviolent success that simply weren’t nonviolent in today’s terms. One of the famous ones is the anti-Milosevich movement in Serbia, which the strategic nonviolence folks love to reference, where the Otpor! student movement did have nonviolence as a part of their principles. But there were other parts of that struggle and other tactics, such as labor strikes, people marching on the capitol with guns, and using hijacked bulldozers to smash through police lines and burn government buildings. Those elements get left out of the nonviolence story.

To use another example, Gene Sharp talks about the nonviolent power of the labor strike, because it is technically based on withdrawing labor, a seemingly nonviolent action, or even non-action. They leave out the fact that when the labor movement became a powerful force in industrial societies, it involved a lot of violent action, such as the Luddites in England who destroyed automation equipment, and even included moments that look like outright wars, such as the fights between striking West Virginia miners and the violent militias hired by the employers. Sabotage, fighting with strike breakers and scabs, all of this stuff is left out of the sanitized “nonviolent” version of collective power that makes it appear as though you can achieve everything those people did by following a code of strict nonviolence. More than this, nonviolence advocates argue that this is really the only way you can gain transformative power. They believe the empirical studies they have prove that nonviolence is more effective, but they essentially have to misread the evidence to come up with that thesis.

Ben and Shane will be joined in conversation by Margaret Killjoy in a digital event on February 15th at 4:00pm PST/ 7:00pm PST where they will discuss antifascism, rebellious action, and speculative fiction. Click here to RSVP for free.

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