Book Review: 'Why We Fight'

A review of an anthology of essays about contemporary fascism in USA.

Submitted by LAMA on August 1, 2021

Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse
Shane Burley (Author); Natasha Lennard (Foreword)

Publisher: AK Press
Format: Book
Binding: pb
Pages: 340
Released: April 13, 2021
ISBN-13: 9781849354066

Fascism is a slippery concept. Academics have spent decades trying to pin it down and no individual has defined it adequately. Thats nobody’s fault. Self-identified fascists have existed as a movement for slightly over a century, which isn’t long in political terms. In addition and ironically for a totalitarian ideology, it had dissparate sources during its formative period. This has lead to various factions, internal tensions and contradictory impulses. It is both reactionary and modern, pro-technology and primitivist, religious and pagan, pro-capitalist and rhetorically anti-capitalist, etc. This eclecticism adds to the difficulty of definitional analysis for opponents. Likewise its consequent adaptability has allowed it to survive. Even its conclusive defeat in a World War never managed to entirely innoculate the world from fascism as a social plague.

Due to its internal ideological instability and myriad forms of organisation, any survey of fascism’s current manifestations must be broad. Shane Burley has written a collection of essays that meets this criterion. He looks at many aspects of it. This survey goes from its instrumental use of violence, types of parties and movements, gender attitudes, cultural propaganda related to book publishing and music, the role of anti-semitism, to a lot more.

His geographical area of focus is the USA. This could allow somebody elsewhere to avoid dealing with the phenomena he discusses. It might be convenient to build a mental wall around Trumpist Amerikkka and say “Yeah, that’s a problem for them, but nothing to do with me”. Burley shows awareness of and makes enough scattered references to movements and events elsewhere, including Europe, India, Aotearoa, and of course on the internet, to avoid that isolationist urge. In another irony, the ubiquity of people claiming particularism for themselves, means the rest of us have no excuses. We have to deal with this, no matter where we are.

In his introduction, Burley outlines what he sees as the unifying thread of his essays, some previously published, some new to this collection. That commonality is “…that they attempt to stay in the moment we are living through and they feel what it means to fight like we have no choice” (p. 33). This sense of desperate self-defence by those of us seeking equality, genuine democracy and freedom is seen by Shane as a reaction to a deeply American tradition of imminent apocalyptic doom that has been ramped up even more lately. He says “The U.S. was founded by fundamentalist fanatics” (p. 8) and “The U.S. has always been obssessed with the coming apocalypse” (p.7). This foundation has been added to by an accelerationist trend on the Right that wants to speed up the decline of the status quo in favour of their dystopian agenda. Add to this the idea that “The dominant feature of the far-right in the Trump era is not the uniformity of ideology…but its commitment to the propaganda of the attack” (p.13) and in literal, physical attacks on opponents. Its a powerful poison.

So with things going so badly, are we, as an academic might phrase it, all just fucked? Should we give up? Its a dangerous trap to fall into and understandable if you become too immersed in looking solely at the Rightist response to contemporary decay. However, the author highlights counter trends based on basic mutual aid. As he expresses it “The future of our survival depends on our ability to come together in community and social bonds, and in doing so we will undermine the entire complex that is crumbling around us” (p.34). So, unlike a liberal response that might either deny things are that bad or posits a solution based around maintaining their own position in the status quo, the writer buys into the apocalyptic scenario, while offering a radically divergent answer to that of the Right. He is also, not silly enough to promise ultimate victory in this struggle. By offering his essays, he does provide an understanding of our opponents and that is an important starting point in combatting them and possibly beating them.

The 17 chapters that make up the anthology vary in length. Some are no more than 3-4 pages but it would be a mistake to dismiss them on that basis. For example, an early chapter argues convincingly that law suits may have some positive effect as an anti-fascist tactic. They have been used against the Klan, Aryan Nations and others, but are insufficient. The reliance of the tactic upon the temporary intervention of an outside expert only gives short term benefits since they dont align with “…real grassroots community engagement” (p. 52). This is a valuable insight for those tempted to stick within the establishment-based approach to anti-fascism. Another ultra-short piece later in the book looks at the strange practice of white people dressing in ‘blackface’. Burley frames this around a series of personal anecdotes encountering acquaintances painting themselves black. None of those involved in the behaviour were fascist in any explicit sense. However, his account addresses a behaviour that normalises fascist and racist discourse and actions through a spurious ‘post-racial’ irony. It provides a breeding ground for the fully blown varieties to thrive. Its inclusion as a topic is testament to the writer’s value in looking at the broadness of the book’s subject.

Among the many substantial chapters in this collection, there are a few that stand out. One is on the issue of Anti-Semitism. Although some may feel Islamophobia has supersceded hatred of Jews as a motivation on the Right, Shane Burley reminds us that it is still a key feature of their ideology. As he says “Antisemitism is an archetype that truly motivates people: always present if rarely discussed” (p.226).He opens the piece with an incident when a Nazi flag was unfurled during a Bernie Sanders rally. There follows a detailed look at Anti-Semitism informed by a close familiarity with its advocates and their views. This includes the likes of contemporaries such as Kevin MacDonald, to earlier and more esoteric adherents such as Savitri Devi, Julius Evola and Miguel Serrano. He also touches on common themes such as Jews being linked to a nebulous concept of ‘modernity’ and its perceived problems and how the elasticity of that concept, has kept anti-semitism alive. Its worth noting that he also does not shy away from looking at the issue as it related to Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK. Arguments and debates have been made around this latter point. Regardless of which side you finally fall upon in that discussion, what is more important is that the fascists don’t possess a monopoly on the problem. It shows that this is a social affliction that nobody should be complacent about.

Can Anti-Semitism be defeated? Shane correctly emphasises the faulty nature of the possibility offered by liberals. It is faulty because it is based on a kind of condescending logic. People believe this crap because they are ignorant, so if you just throw enough (presumably liberal?) education at them, the problem will evaporate.Their perspective fails to appreciate that “…antisemitism is, fundamentally, about the revolt against logic” (p.255) it is a standpoint ultimately rooted in emotion rather than rationality. Fascist anti-semites don’t especially value a materially anchored logic or rationality. They stress a mythos of emotional commitment to concepts such as ‘blood and soil’ and a-historical nordic or ‘aryan’ legends etc. In truth, the writer doesn’t offer an explicit in-depth alternative to the liberal prescription here. This is honest. To attempt more in a short text just wouldn’t do the subject justice. Some possibilities can be teased out implicitly or by contrast here and there but his purpose is more to inform us of the problem itself and lead the reader to begin a thought process on the question for herself.

Other chapters particularly worth checking out include one in which the essayist looks at the violence perpetrated by fascists and argues that it is an essential component of their ideology and another examining via gonzo style journalism, the femicidal and misogynistic tendencies among fascists who identify as men.

Burley opens his chapter on violence with a succinct declaration that even the normative functioning of the liberal consensus is structurally violent but in the case of the fascists, this is openly flaunted and hyped as an expression of identity. It is baked into their Manichean ‘winners versus losers’ view of the world, of how things are and should be. He then outlines a sad chronology of incidents from the Greensboro Massacre in 1979, the Oaklahoma Bombing of 1995, to Charlottesville in 2017, Christchurch, Kenosha and beyond. Regardless of their particular form of fascism from the KKK, Nazis such as the Atomwaffen Division, non-affiliated fascist individuals and the suit and tie thugs of the Alt Right, violence fuels their actions. It is always there. Again, this catalogue of activities could lead to dispair, but he notes that the fascists exist in a dialectical exchange with the liberatory forces of anti-fascism. The latter are “…the kernel of a new plurality defined compassion, mutual aid, and the willingness to disrupt the systems that never served us” (p. 208).

The piece on the fascist conception of masculinity is one in which the author delves into the dark world of mens’ groups centered on tribalist neo-pagan mythologies. It is a depressing sub-culture where excessive testosterone, brutal misogyny, the advocacy of inequality, violence as an intrinsic signifier and a twisted self-help philosophy intertwine. Shane’s experiences and investigations into this swamp are among the rawest and most personal in the collection. He talks about his relationship with his father and reflects on their relationship. He also details conversations with the heavy-hitters (literally and figuratively) of the movement he studies. Further details of this are best left to the reader to grapple with. Suffice it to say, it is well worth a look.

To conclude, Shane Burley’s volume is an important anthology of essays on a sadly, highly relevant topic. He casts an insightful eye on a comprehensive range of fascist activity, from its superstructural manifestations through to its physical insertions into the contemporary zeitgeist. Many of the subjects he covers are unpleasant. However, he makes a strong case that Fascism’s universal and ongoing threat to values of equality and freedom, mean this unpleasantness has to be faced squarely. Not just that, it has to be robustly opposed and done so contingently, without a false IOU that engagement will necessarily result in success. In the end, it will be up to all of us.