The following is a segment from a presentation given at the Seattle Anarchist Bookfair this past summer, entitled Freedom Itself: An anti-state presentation and discussion on free speech and fascism.
As more than a few liberals continue to defend the “right” for fascists to organize (violence against our communities), the following excerpt continues to be relevant to our context here in the PNW and beyond.
Free speech and liberal complicity with fascist organizing
I want to address the liberal defense of fascist speech in particular, because I take it for granted that those of the right who defend their extremist counterparts, do so out of an affinity for what this speech represents. However I think its more complicated when people who identify with liberal values, defend these same speakers.
I am not trying to attack people in the name of some kind of ideological purity or political homogeneity. Instead I wish to highlight a particular tendency that I have recognized as prominent up to now, in the liberal response to the rise of the far-right. I believe that many well-meaning people have fallen into a counter-productive trap, by protecting the white supremacists and bigots to who they are stately in ideological opposition to.
This is something that I think is worth talking about here today. To contribute to this conversation, I’ll offer three propositions.
Those who defend the free speech of fascists, if they are not themselves fascists, must believe that words and ideas have no real world consequences. This is evident as a trend in the wave of denunciations leveled against the anti-fascists who fought the police to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech in Berkeley, in February. While on the right you have a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, who out right says society needs to defend “hate speech”, on the Left you have people like Jack Radey who is cited by the New York Times as being a veteran of of the UC Berkeley free speech movement, also defending Milo’s right to organize. Radey complains that people shut down the speech because they are too sensitive and just couldn’t handle being offended. Not because for instance, Milo was planning to expose the identities of and therefore physically endanger undocumented students. Or in another example you have the president of the Maryland College Democrats who wrote an article called “I’m a Liberal and I want Milo Yiannopoulos on my campus”. In this article the author echos the same cliche that these issues are simply about people being offended.
There’s a reoccurring theme in the public outrage to the antifascist response to people like Milo or Richard Spencer, and that theme is that antifascists are just too sensitive and fascist organizing attempts are just harmless words that will offend at worst. Of course this is utterly disconnected from the reality that we see unfolding around us.
The threat of allowing fascists a public platform is not that “someone might be offended,” the issue is that peoples lives are endangered. This is the age of Trump. Far-right influence is now driving policy at the highest levels of the state. Clean cut Neo-Nazis organize for ethnic cleansing while the state is openly demonizing and rounding up immigrants and attempting to ban Muslims. In return the fascists are further emboldened, following this rhetoric to its logical conclusion to terrorize and murder people.
There have been so many reported hate crimes since the election, that they’re almost impossible to keep track of. Fascist speech is not just about words. The idea that words have no real life consequences is a statist and a-historical logic which sees every citizen as equal under the neutral rule of law. This disregards the social realities of hierarchy and the ways that power and privilege are dispersed disproportionately. This also assumes that people do not and should not, have power outside of the state form.i
As anarchists we fundamentally disagree with this. The very core of the anarchist project is to build autonomous and horizontal power outside of and against the state.
Fascists and reactionaries are hiding behind the protection of democratic rhetoric, such as free-speech because they are still weak. While popular resistance to Trump and his far-right policies, is a sign that fascism’s grasp over society is still weak, fascists are taking advantage of what they have identified as a weakness in democracy, in order to undermine it. And so free-speech absolutists, if they are opposed to the fascist project, must either assume that somewhere deep down, fascists actually share a commitment to the democratic state, or that the perceived inherent goodness of liberal values will inevitably disarm the fascist agenda if given enough time and reasonable dialog, if shown enough tolerance and compassion. Yet it should be brutally clear that fascists do not want free speech, they do not practice tolerance and they will not give compassion.
Free speech is antithetical to fascism, but fascists take advantage of its protection as an opportunity to organize power, and with this power they oppress and kill people. History and contemporary events show this to be true. In cases where fascists have gained power, including through democratic processes, they discard of these liberal institutions at the first opportunity, in order to further consolidate their power. Allowing this process to go unchallenged is not going to save anyone.
To refuse to acknowledge this threat is recklessly naive but when liberals side with the fascists to denounce and even attempt to sabotage antifascist efforts, then this is nothing short of complicity. So, if the stabbing in Olympia, the shooting at UW, the double homicide in Portland and the car attack and murder in Charlottesville, were not enough to convince you of the dire need to shut down far-right organizing at every turn, then here is a question that you must ask yourself: Is your commitment to the democratic state stronger than your commitment to a free society? Because these two things are not the same.
To finish with another quote from Crimethinc’s “This Is Not a Dialogue”:
“You’re not in a dialogue. You’re in a power struggle. All that matters is how much force you can bring to bear on your adversaries to defend yourself from them. You can bet that if you succeed, they will accuse you of breaking off the dialogue, of violating their free speech. They will try to lure you back into conversation, playing for time until they need no more stratagems to keep you passive while they put the pieces in place for tyranny.”