[News] The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism

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Fri Nov 13 16:36:55 EST 2020


  The Long Shadow of Racial Fascism

Alberto Toscano - Oct 28, 2020

Recent debates have centered on whether it’s appropriate to compare 
Trump to European fascists. But radical Black thinkers have long argued 
that racial slavery created its own unique form of American fascism.

In the wake of the 2016 election, public intellectuals latched onto the 
new administration’s organic and ideological links with the alt- and far 
right. But a mass civic insurgency against racial terror—and the federal 
government’s authoritarian response 
pushed hitherto cloistered academic debates about fascism into the 
mainstream, with Peter E. Gordon 
Samuel Moyn 
and Sarah Churchwell 
taking to the pages of the /New York Review of Books/ to hash out 
whether it is historically apt or politically useful to call Trump a 
fascist. The F-word has also been making unusual forays into CNN, 
the/New York Times/, and mainstream discourse. The increasing prospect 
that any transfer of power will be fraught—Trump has hinted he will not 
accept the results 
if he loses—has further intensified the stakes, with even the dependable 
neoliberal cheerleader Thomas Friedman conjuring up specters of civil war.

Is it historically apt or politically useful to call Trump a fascist? 
The long history of Black radical thinking about fascism and 
anti-fascist resistance provides direction in this debate.

Notwithstanding the changing terrain, talk of fascism has generally 
stuck to the same groove, namely asking whether present phenomena are 
analogous to those familiar from interwar European dictatorships. 
Sceptics of comparison underscore the way in which the analogy of 
fascism can either treat the present moment as exceptional, papering 
over the history of distinctly American forms of authoritarianism, or, 
alternatively, be so broad as to fail to define what is unique about our 
current predicament. Analogy’s advocates point to the need to detect 
family resemblances with past despotisms before it’s too late, often 
making their case by advancing some ideal-typical checklist, whether in 
terms of the /elements/ of or the /steps toward /fascism. But what if 
our talk of fascism were not dominated by the question of analogy?

Attending to the long history of Black radical thinking about fascism 
and anti-fascist resistance—to what Cedric Robinson called a “Black 
construction of fascism” alternative to the “historical manufacture of 
fascism as a negation of Western /Geist/”—could serve to dislodge the 
debate about fascism from the deadlock of analogy, providing the 
resources to confront our volatile interregnum.

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Long before Nazi violence came to be conceived of as beyond analogy, 
Black radical thinkers sought to expand the historical and political 
imagination of an anti-fascist left. They detailed how what could seem, 
from a European or white vantage point, to be a radically new form of 
ideology and violence was, in fact, continuous with the history of 
colonial dispossession and racial slavery.

Black radical thinkers have long sought to expand the historical and 
political imagination of an anti-fascist left, revealing fascism as a 
continuation of colonial dispossession and racial slavery.

Pan-Africanist George Padmore, breaking with the Communist International 
over its failure to see the likenesses between “democratic” imperialism 
and fascism, would write in /How Britain Rules Africa /(1936) of 
settler-colonial racism as “the breeding-ground for the type of fascist 
mentality which is being let loose in Europe today.” He would go on to 
see in South Africa “/the world’s classic /Fascist state,” grounded on 
the “unity of race as against class.” Padmore’s “Colonial Fascism 
thus anticipated Aimé Césaire’s memorable description of fascism as the 
boomerang effect of European imperialist violence.

African American anti-fascists shared the anti-colonial analysis that 
the Atlantic world’s history of racial violence belied the novelty of 
intra-European fascism. Speaking in Paris at the Second International 
Writers Congress in 1937, Langston Hughes declared: “We Negroes in 
America do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know. Its 
theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been 
realities to us.” It was an insight that certainly would not have 
surprised any reader of W. E. B. Du Bois’s monumental reckoning with the 
history of U.S. racial capitalism, /Black Reconstruction in America 
/(1935). As Amiri Baraka would suggest much later 
<http://www.conjunctions.com/print/archive/conjunctions29>, building on 
Du Bois’s passing mentions of fascism, the overthrow of Reconstruction 
enacted a “racial fascism” that long predated Hitlerism in its use of 
racial terror, conscription of poor whites, and manipulation of (to 
quote the famous definition of fascism by Georgi Dimitrov) “the most 
reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist sector of finance 

In this view, a U.S. racial fascism could go unremarked because it 
operated on the other side of the color line, just as colonial fascism 
took place far from the imperial metropole. As Bill V. Mullen and 
Christopher Vials have suggested in their vital /The //US Antifascism 
Reader /(2020):

    For people of color at various historical moments, the experience of
    racialization within a liberal democracy could have the valence of
    fascism. That is to say, while a fascist state and a white
    supremacist democracy have very different mechanisms of power, the
    experience of racialized rightlessness within a liberal democracy
    can make the distinction between it and fascism murky at the level
    of lived experience. For those racially cast aside outside of
    liberal democracy’s system of rights, the word ‘fascism’ does not
    always conjure up a distant and alien social order.

Or, as French writer Jean Genet observed on May 1, 1970, at a rally in 
New Haven 
for the liberation of Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale: “Another 
thing worries me: fascism. We often hear the Black Panther Party speak 
of fascism, and whites have difficulty accepting the word. That’s 
because whites have to make a great effort of imagination to understand 
that blacks live under an oppressive fascist regime.”

It was largely thanks to the Panthers that the term “fascism” returned 
to the forefront of radical discourse and activism in the late 1960s and 
early 1970s. The United Front Against Fascism conference 
held in Oakland in 1969 brought together a wide swathe of the Old and 
New Lefts, as well as Asian American, Chicano, Puerto Rican (Young 
Lords), and white Appalachian (Young Patriots Organization) activists 
who had developed their own perspectives on U.S. fascism—for instance, 
by foregrounding the experience of Japanese internment during World War 
II. In a striking indication of the peculiarities and continuities of 
U.S. anti-fascist traditions, among the chief planks of the conference 
was the notionally reformist demand for community or decentralized 
remove racist white officers from Black neighborhoods and exert local 
checks on law enforcement.

Political prisoners close to the Panthers theorized specifically about 
what we could call “late fascism 
<http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/notes-late-fascism>” (by 
analogy with “late capitalism”) in the United States. At the same time 
that debates about “new fascisms” were polarizing radical debate across 
Europe, the writing and correspondence of Angela Y. Davis and George 
Jackson generated a theory of fascism from the lived experience of the 
violent nexus between the carceral state and racial capitalism. Davis, 
the Black Marxist and feminist scholar, needs little introduction, her 
1970 imprisonment on trumped-up conspiracy charges having rocketed her 
to the status of household name in the United States and an icon of 
solidarity worldwide. Fewer remember that the conspiracy charge against 
Davis arose from an armed courtroom attack by her seventeen-year-old 
bodyguard, Jonathan Jackson, with the goal of forcing the release of the 
Soledad Brothers, three African American prisoners facing the death 
penalty for the killing of a white prison guard. Among them was 
Jonathan’s older brother, the incarcerated Black revolutionary George 
Jackson, with whom Davis corresponded extensively. Jackson was killed by 
a prison sniper during an escape attempt on August, 21, 1971, a few days 
before the Soledad Brothers were to be tried.

In one of his prison letters on fascism, posthumously collected in 
/Blood in My Eye /(1972), Jackson offered the following reflection:

    When I am being interviewed by a member of the old guard and point
    to the concrete and steel, the tiny electronic listening device
    concealed in the vent, the phalanx of goons peeping in at us, his
    barely functional plastic tape-recorder that cost him a week’s
    labor, and point out that these are all manifestations of fascism,
    he will invariably attempt to refute me by defining fascism simply
    as an economic geo-political affair where only one party is allowed
    to exist aboveground and no opposition political activity is allowed.

Jackson encourages us to consider what happens to our conceptions of 
fascism if we take our bearings not from analogies with the European 
interwar scene, but instead from the materiality of the 
prison-industrial complex, from the “concrete and steel,” from the 
devices and personnel of surveillance and repression.

In their writing and correspondence, marked by interpretive differences 
alongside profound comradeship, Davis and Jackson identify the U.S. 
state as the site for a recombinant or even consummate form of fascism. 
Much of their writing is threaded through Marxist debates on the nature 
of monopoly capitalism, imperialism and capitalist crises, as well as, 
in Jackson’s case, an effort to revisit the classical historiography on 
fascism. On these grounds, Jackson and Davis stress the disanalogies 
between present forms of domination and European exemplars, but both 
assert the privileged vantage point provided by the view /from within/ a 
prison-judicial system that could accurately be described as a racial 
state of terror.

Angela Y. Davis and George Jackson saw the U.S. state—the carceral state 
and racial capitalism—as the site of fascism. This fascism originated 
from liberal democracy itself.

This both echoes and departs from the Black radical theories of fascism, 
such as Padmore’s or Césaire’s, which emerged from the experience of the 
colonized. The new, U.S. fascism that Jackson and Davis strive to 
delineate is not an unwanted return from the “other scene” of colonial 
violence, but originates from liberal democracy itself. Indeed, it was a 
sense of the disavowed bonds between liberal and fascist forms of the 
state which, for Davis, was one of the great lessons passed on by 
Herbert Marcuse, whose grasp of this nexus in 1930s Germany allowed him 
to discern the fascist tendencies in the United States of his exile.

Both Davis and Jackson also stress the necessity to grasp fascism not as 
a static form but as a process, inflected by its political and economic 
contexts and conjunctures. Checklists, analogies, or ideal-types cannot 
do justice to the concrete history of fascism. Jackson writes of “the 
defects of trying to analyze a movement outside of its process and its 
sequential relationships. You gain only a discolored glimpse of a dead 
past.” He remarks that fascism “developed from nation to nation out of 
/differing /levels of traditionalist capitalism’s dilapidation.”

Where Jackson and Davis echo their European counterparts is in the idea 
that “new” fascisms cannot be understood without seeing them as 
responses to the insurgencies of the 1960s and early 1970s. For Jackson, 
fascism is fundamentally a counterrevolutionary form, as evidenced by 
the violence with which it represses any consequential threat to the 
state. But fascism does not react immediately against an ascendant 
revolutionary force; it is a kind of delayed counterrevolution, 
parasitic on the weakness or defeat of the anti-capitalist left, “the 
result of a revolutionary thrust that was weak and miscarried—a 
consciousness that was compromised.” Jackson argues that U.S.-style 
fascism is a kind of perfected form—all the more insidiously hegemonic 
because of the marriage of monopoly capital with the (racialized) 
trappings of liberal democracy. As he declared:

    Fascism has established itself in a most disguised and efficient
    manner in this country. It feels so secure that the leaders allow us
    the luxury of a faint protest. Take protest too far, however, and
    they will show their other face. Doors will be kicked down in the
    night and machine-gun fire and buckshot will become the medium of

In Davis’s concurrent theorizing, the carceral, liberationist 
perspective on fascism has a different inflection. For Davis, fascism in 
the United States takes a /preventive /and /incipient /form. The 
terminology is adapted from Marcuse, who remarked, in an interview from 
“In the last ten to twenty years we’ve experienced a preventative 
counterrevolution to defend us against a feared revolution, which, 
however, has not taken place and doesn’t stand on the agenda at the 
moment.” Some of the elements of Marcuse’s analysis still resonate 
(particularly poignant, in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder by 
police, is his mention of no-knock warrants):

    The question is whether fascism is taking over in the United States.
    If by that we understand the gradual or rapid abolition of the
    remnants of the constitutional state, the organization of
    paramilitary troops such as the Minutemen, and granting the police
    extraordinary legal powers such as the notorious no-knock law which
    does away with the inviolability of the home; if one looks at the
    court decisions of recent years; if one knows that special
    troops—so-called counterinsurgency corps—are being trained in the
    United States for possible civil war; if one looks at the almost
    direct censorship of the press, television and radio: then, as far
    as I’m concerned, one can speak with complete justification of an
    incipient fascism. . . . American fascism will probably be the first
    which comes to power by democratic means and with democratic support.

Davis was drawn to Marcuse’s contention that “fascism is the preventive 
counter-revolution to the socialist transformation of society” because 
of how it resonated with racialized communities and activists. In the 
experience of many Black radicals, the aspect of their revolutionary 
politics that most threatened the state was not the endorsement of armed 
struggle, but rather the “survival programs,” those enclaves of 
autonomous social reproduction facilitated by the Panthers and more 
broadly practiced by Black movements. While nominally mobilized against 
the threat of armed insurrection, the ultimate target of 
counterinsurgency were these experiments with social life outside and 
against the racial state—especially when they edged toward what Huey P. 
Newton named “revolutionary intercommunalism.”

Race, gender, and class determine how fascist the country might seem to 
any given individual.

What can be gleaned from Davis’s account 
<https://www.versobooks.com/books/2325-if-they-come-in-the-morning> is 
the way that fascism and democracy can be experienced very differently 
by different segments of the population. In this regard, Davis is 
attuned to the ways in which race and gender, alongside class, can 
determine how fascist the country seems to any given individual. As 
Davis puts it, fascism is “primarily restricted to the use of the 
law-enforcement-judicial-penal apparatus to arrest the overt and latent 
revolutionary trends among nationally oppressed people, tomorrow it may 
attack the working class en masse and eventually even moderate 
democrats.” But the latter are unlikely to fully perceive this 
phenomenon because of the manufactured invisibility of the /site /of the 
state’s maximally fascist presentation, namely, prisons with their 
“totalitarian aspirations.”

The kind of fascism diagnosed by Davis is a “protracted social process,” 
whose “growth and development are cancerous in nature.” We thus have the 
correlation in Davis’s analysis between, on the one hand, the prison as 
a racialized enclave or laboratory and, on the other, the fascist 
strategy of counterrevolution, which flow through society at large but 
are not experienced equally by everyone everywhere. As Davis has written 
more recently:

    The dangerous and indeed fascistic trend toward progressively
    greater numbers of hidden, incarcerated human populations is itself
    rendered invisible. All that matters is the elimination of crime—and
    you get rid of crime by getting rid of people who, according to the
    prevailing racial common sense, are the most likely people to whom
    criminal acts will be attributed.

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The lived experience of state violence by Black political prisoners 
such as Davis and Jackson grounded a theory of U.S. fascism and racial 
capitalism that interrupted what Robinson called the “euphonious recital 
of fascism” in mainstream political thought. It can still serve as an 
antidote to the lures and limits of the analogies that increasingly 
circulate in mainstream debate.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, the threat is not of 
a “return of the 1930s” but the ongoing fact of racialized state terror. 
This is the ever-present danger that animates present-day anti-fascist 
energies in the United States—and it cannot be boiled down to the 
necessary but insufficient task of confronting only those who 
self-identify as fascists.

Stuart Hall once castigated the British left for its passionate 
attachment to the frame of anti-fascism, for gravitating to the 
seemingly transparent battle against organized fascism while ignoring 
new modalities of authoritarianism. There were indeed fascists (the 
National Front), but Thatcherism was not a fascism. Conversely, Davis 
and Jackson glimpsed a fascist process that didn’t need fascists. 
Fascists without fascism, or fascism without fascists—do we have to choose?

The threat is not a return to the 1930s, but the ongoing fact of 
racialized terror. To this end, anti-fascism cannot confront only those 
who self-identify as fascists.

To bridge this antinomy, we need to reflect on the connection between 
the features of “incipient fascism”—in the U.S. case, the normalization 
of forms of racial terror and oppression—and the emergence of explicitly 
fascist movements and ideologies. We need to think about the links 
between the often extreme levels of classed and racialized violence that 
accompany actually-existing liberal democracies (think, for instance, of 
the anti-migrant militarization of the U.S. and E.U. borders) and the 
emergence of movements that espouse a host of extreme positions that 
invert this reality: these include the belief that the state and culture 
have been occupied by the “radical” left (by “Cultural Marxism,” by 
critical race theory), that racism is now meted out against formerly 
dominant ethnic majorities, and that deracinated elites have conspired 
with the wretched of the earth to destroy properly “national” 
populations that can only be rescued by a revanchist politics of 
security and protectionism.

Our “late” fascism is an ideology of crisis and decline. It depends, in 
the words of abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore 
<https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780203699997>, on enlisting 
supporters on the basis of “the idea and enactment of winning, of 
explicit domination set against the local reality of decreasing family 
wealth, fear of unemployment, threat of homelessness, and increased 
likelihood of early, painful death from capitalism’s many toxicities.” 
Its psychological wages and racial dividends do considerable political 
economic work, perpetuating a brutally unequal regime of accumulation by 
enlisting bodies and psyches into endless culture wars.

But what is this late fascism trying to prevent? Here is where the 
superstructure sometimes seems to overwhelm the base, as though forces 
and fantasies once functional to the reproduction of a dominant class 
and racial order have now attained a kind of autonomy. No imminent 
threat to the reproduction of capitalism is on the horizon (at least no 
/external/ one), so that contemporary fascist trends manifest the 
strange spectacle of what, in a variation on Davis and Marcuse, we could 
call a /preventive counterreform/. This politics is parasitic, among 
other things, on resuscitating the racialized anti-communism of a 
previous era, now weaponizing it against improbable targets such as 
Kamala Harris, while treating any mildly progressive policy as the 
harbinger of the imminent abolition of all things American, not least 
the suburbs.

But, drawing on the archive of Black radical theories of fascism, we can 
also start to see the present in a much longer historical arc, one 
marked by the periodic recurrence of racial fascism as the mode of 
reaction to any instance of what Du Bois once called “abolition 
democracy,” whether against the First Reconstruction, the Second 
Reconstruction, or what some have begun, hopefully, to identify as the 
Third <https://theintercept.com/2020/06/27/robin-dg-kelley-intercepted/>.

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