What Does It Mean to Live a Non-Fascist Life?

Natasha Lennard's new book, "Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life," examines the day-to-day considerations of practicing anti-fascism.

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Apr 9 2019, 2:09pm

Verso Books

In the Trump era, everyone is both fixated on the word "fascist" and afraid to use it. Over the course of the 2016 election, countless outlets ran articles and columns wondering if Trump should be dubbed a fascist, chastising those who employed the label liberally, or calling on experts in hopes of reaching a consensus. Once Trump took office, the general uneasiness about the term translated to skepticism (if not outright condemnation of) individuals and groups who believed the Trump administration and the actions of its emboldened supporters demanded an anti-fascist response.

Natasha Lennard, the author of the new book Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, which will be published by Verso Books on April 30, has grown tired of arguing over the term and frustrated with the reductive way in which it's discussed. In our impoverished discourse, fascism and antifascism are binary poles, eliminating the possibility of acknowledging the great expanse in between where many of us live our lives. Building on the philosophies of Wilhelm Reich, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, Lennard doesn't shy away from telling us the uncomfortable truth: Within each of us, she says, there lies a love of power, authority, and social hierarchy we must work to undo every day to live a non-fascist life.

Lennard's own non-fascist existence has included black bloc protests, arguing for the merits of punching neo-Nazis, and reporting on J20, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fight at Standing Rock. Her work has also meant personally reckoning with how our current political frameworks can limit the possibilities of our lives and dictate the narratives that get applied to them.

Lennard named her book for poet George Oppen's work "Of Being Numerous." When he writes, "We are pressed, pressed on each other, / We will be told at once / Of anything that happens," Lennard is reminded of the night of Trump's election, and the mandate of collective action—pressing together—she believes his presidency demands.

She spoke to Broadly about fascism, anti-fascism, and the future we can create together. (Full disclosure: Lennard was once a staff writer at VICE.)

BROADLY: There seem to be two modes of thinking that developed on the left post-Trump: The first is that Trump’s election represents a gross perversion of democratic norm, and if we could just re-establish those norms, everything would be basically fine. The second, which you’re more sympathetic to in the book, is that our current political environment isn’t a “baffling mistake” or “accident,” as you write, but more or less the logical conclusion of liberal capitalism. Can you talk about how those opposing viewpoints have shaped our discourse in the Trump era?

NATASHA LENNARD: What happened certainly immediately after Trump’s election was a quite understandable amount of horror and shock. But I think we saw that get funneled from a more centrist liberal point of view, which perpetuated the idea that just because it was shocking and awful it was therefore an aberration—somehow, history had just taken a wrong turn. I wouldn’t want to suggest there was anything determined about there being a president Trump—there certainly wasn’t—but my concern is that the liberal discourse seems to long for that halcyon day, November 7, 2016. That means years of organizing around the horror that is Trump, rather than around so many of the mass structural violences that preceded him. And that’s also true of the way the media has focused on this presidency.

You’re very straightforward about calling different expressions of structural violence “fascism.” What’s the use of that word for you, and how do you use it in the book?

When Trump’s campaign was gaining traction, the mainstream publications went wild for articles that asked: “Is Trump a fascist?” “Is fascism coming back?” A lot of people treat the term as if it hasn’t been applicable since World War II. That’s not the case for people who organize against police violence and white supremacy—we didn’t need Trump to bring that word back into the vernacular. Just like any other political concept, there’s no single definition of fascism we can apply and know that everything we call “fascism” will fall under it; [Ludwig] Wittgenstein made this point about the word “game,” and Umberto Eco later made a good argument for applying that idea to the term "fascism." There’s such a thing as an official fascist regime, but that’s just one way of framing fascism. I suppose you can argue back and forth about whether this government constitutes that, but then we risk missing the opportunity to fight something really pernicious that holds fascistic tendencies. Better off to call it fascism and then fight it appropriately.

It seems like debate over the term “fascism” has translated to debate over what kinds of behaviors, groups, and individuals warrant an anti-fascist response. In the beginning of Being Numerous, you argue that it’s also led to a biased portrayal of anti-fascist organizing in the mainstream media. What are some of the harmful assumptions the media employs to prop up those portrayals?

After Charlottesville, Trump talked about “very fine” people on both sides and doubled down on that language about [protest] rallies, [about which] he bellowed “antifa.” Instead of seeing the appalling bothsidesism in that, publications ran articles about “far-left violence,” as if it was the same thing as ethnonationalism. There’s a very common media trope of saying a protest “turned violent.” The “turn” toward violence is put on [the anti-fascist protesters]: If you’re organizing a group of neo-Nazis shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” that’s just a baseline state of violence. So anything acting to counter that gets referred to as “violent” tactics.

You talk a lot about the value of truly disruptive protest tactics, and you make some brief criticisms of organized mass protests that didn’t employ any. You write that the People’s Climate March, in 2017, amounted to little more than a “grand parade.” And you call the inaugural Women’s March, from that same year, “vast but placid.” Do you think these kinds of demonstrations serve a meaningful function?

Most people’s first foray into political activism probably came from joining one big march or another; for me, it was the Iraq war marches in London as a teenager. I’m not saying they shouldn’t happen, I just don’t think we judge their effectiveness very well. In the 60s, gathering half a million people in the National Mall posed a real political threat. John Berger made this point about mass protest being a way of saying, If we can do this together, imagine what else we can do. Now, getting a million people together may not be simple, but it’s far easier with technology. I worry that some mass demonstrations end up showing the extent of your capacity, and not the potential of it. They’re very congratulatory and celebratory, and often become “historic” just because they’re the biggest.

Right after the Women’s March, one female columnist said something like, “How incredible—so many people gathered, and yet there were no arrests.” Of course I was pleased no one got arrested, but if you’re congratulating yourself for that, you’re also tacitly condemning the people who got arrested en masse protesting on Inauguration Day. The desire to be a “good” protester is a dangerous game, because the government will decide who is or isn’t a good or bad protester. We’re better off not to throw each other under the bus because we have slightly different tactics.

There’s a fascinating essay called “Policing Desire” in the later half of the collection in which you rethink the common feminist refrain “the personal is the political,” which was popularized by a number of second-wave thinkers. You reassess it specifically within the context of a your own personal experience of being in a relationship with a partner who had a very specific idea of what it meant to have revolutionary sex. Do you think it’s possible to practice our politics in our sex lives without using other people for our own political development?

Since I wrote that essay, there’s been some really incredible work done around this question: Andrea Long Chu and Amia Srinivasan have both written about the idea that our personal choices and desires have been formed be a really problematic society, and so we no doubt embody those problematics, which are worth challenging. But how do you act toward better desires when you don’t already have them? In trying to answer that question, there’s a risk in choosing a partner because they seem like the ethical choice, and then are you not just using them as a tool for your own self-evolution? Experimentation can be ethical, but I don’t think we’ve been dealing well enough with how intractable this problem of desire seems to be. A better political scenario would produce different desires. If we didn’t focus on romantic desire as the first site of our political intervention, but rather focused on other crucial modes of liberation from racism, capitalism patriarchy, and nationalism, then we could see what sorts of desires emerge from that struggle.

In the final essay, you talk about attempting suicide. Why did you feel like it was something you wanted to include? How did you imagine it in conversation with the rest of the book?

The essay, which originally appeared in The New Inquiry, is a reflection on intent, and how we pathologize intent when it comes to suicidal acts. There were these gray areas I was inhabiting with regards to whether I meant to do it or not. It fits with the rest of the book as an interrogation of how we label things and pathologize different things, and the understandable societal desire to give clear determination and causality to a given event—especially an extreme one like suicide. I’m interested in general in how we categorize our experiences and who gets to do the categorizing, whether it’s medical establishments deciding whether we intended to end our lives or not, or governments deciding who counts as a terrorist. Certain modes of truth-making organize our lives, and we don’t often have an apparatus to think outside of them.

In an earlier essay, I write about giving room to believe in ghosts, and that ties in here, too: leaving room for ethical ambiguities. Doing so creates the conditions for us to do the tiresome work of looking at the existing apparatuses we have that create these categories we live under. We can’t just imagine that we can burst into a new world without interrogating and abolishing much of the current one.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.