Antifa—the strategy of direct physical and verbal confrontation with extreme right groups, in person and online—understands itself and its tactics as radical, in opposition to the liberalism of the mainstream. Adherents of antifa believe that the mainstream, with its embrace of such liberal values as freedom of speech, has too soft a response to the existential threat presented by the far right. Liberals don’t understand the zero-tolerance approach that is required to defeat neo-Nazi and other fascist or “alt right” groups. In fact, the criticism one will most often hear the antifa adherent leverage is, quite simply: “Liberal!”
That is why it is ironic that antifa, in its current manifestation, is liberalism. “Liberalism” is that political outlook which sees society as a collection of individuals. Its original proponents, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, argued that society is not something organic, not some kind of fundamental relationship of interdependence, but is made up of the individual behaviors of individual people.
Liberalism thus stands in contrast to an approach that looks at how society is structured, and to whose benefit. Such an approach would take stock of societal institutions and their functioning, to examine how this deploys relationships of power between different social groups….
Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones. Contrary to antifa’s self-understanding, it is not distinct from liberalism but another form of it, one that has merely taken on a more radical veneer.
—Marianne Garneau, “Antifa is Liberalism”
None of You are Free from Liberalism
By far the most common condemnation of the left against itself is the charge of liberalism. And very frequently, there is little consideration that our entire political context from Locke to Trump has essentially been a contest between factions of a liberal milieu.
When we talk about conditions where ‘liberalism’ can be hurled as an insult, the issue is easily is that overripe capitalist development feels regressed, rotted, and decayed, tending to turn on itself in hopes of ending its stagnation. You can call almost anything liberal in America and Western Europe and, despite the appearance and reality of conflict and opposition, be correct that it is liberal. Everyone is a liberal, and thus the sting of liberalism sticks to all and no one.
Let us look at one example of this trend and extrapolate a few general points through critique. Ritual Magazine has returned with Marianne Garneau’s attack on Antifa. Surely, in our age of clickbait, this one will be most effective. After all, liberalism is the leftist slur du jour. Antifa, in our current accelerated spectacle, was at once nearly universally praised on both the liberal and radical lefts, and almost immediately condemned for both its liberal and illiberal tendencies. Garneau makes many sound points about the over-focus on individual and not systemic action, and yet we find her framework problematic.
The way this liberal / non-liberal binary operates, to use the old Marxist canard, is undialectical. Her typology ignores the established tendency, at least since the late 1960s, for liberalism to appeal to structural factors and diminish the importance of individual behavior. Liberalism in the 2010s certainly considers structural determinism to be a starting gun in the wokeness marathon. The turn back towards individual agency in anglophone political philosophy represented by John Rawls is an exception to the recent rule, even if more in line with some classical sources.
Liberal aims were not enough for liberatory society or even to suppress “fascistic” urges, but Garneau’s states that “society is not something organic but is made of the individual behaviors of individual people”. She also strongly implies that a radical perspective does look at the structures as they emerge organically. While Locke’s notions of property do tend to treat the individual as sui generis and the individual role in that is primary, Hobbes does take this a step further. For Garneau to collapse them together does damage not just to liberal thought, but also to socialist thought.
Hobbes does start with the individual, but not for the same reasons or in the same way as most liberals. We at emancipation disagree over whether Hobbes is a liberal: he is either a reactionary liberal or not a liberal at all. Some of us would say that Hobbes starts with liberal assertions for profoundly illiberal ends. In any case, conflating Hobbes and Locke on agency and structure demonstrates how misleading Garneau’s charge of ‘liberalism’ is. This passage of Leviathan could not be written by someone who ignores the way emergent social dynamics determine individual choice:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes, like Marx and unlike Locke, thinks history only begins beyond the individual, but his answer is that it has been manifested in an individual or entity—a sovereign. Even if this is a reactionary solution, this negative example moves us to the fundamental truth: systems are composed of social relationships. To counterpose this against some radical holist notion of an organically emergent system forgets that people are not just made by the system, but also make it:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The only added element is historical, it is not “organic interdependence.” Even in Marx, history is the aggregate of individuals who can manifest interests as classes, not some kind of unified and organic whole. One’s interests as an individual are limited by the material relations hidden in the structures of society; to say that individual movements within these structures do not matter is to reify the structural abstractions as more real than the relationships that undergird (and undermine) them.
Yet Garmeu seems to realize the limits of this kind of critique, which is maybe why she does not condemn Antifa. As she says,
none of this is meant to argue that no one should ever punch or doxx a Nazi, or that counter-demonstrations against alt right groups should not take place. It is merely an argument that those tactics, as well as the analysis that undergirds them, are liberal.
To this, one can only respond: so what? What is your alternative to liberalism?
Finally, many proponents of Antifa will read this piece and agree with the limitations of the tactics mentioned but declare their embrace of a “both-and” approach: we should build organs of working-class power (unions, block associations, tenant groups), while also confronting individual fascists and fascist groups. Such a “both-and” approach is not necessarily objectionable. Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones.
While the concessions Garneau makes at the end of her essay might be thought of as a cop-out from her provocative thesis, we find them refreshingly honest: Antifa is liberalism and I’m not necessarily opposed to liberalism. Even these concessions don’t adequately confront the apparent obsolescence of traditional left strategies to build prole class power. The author should have anticipated this critique since the antifascists in her organization (the Industrial Workers of the World) must have thrown it in her face repeatedly when making their case.
Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interest. Focusing on the systemic alone not only makes the individual locus of struggle a problem, it makes all intermediate stages, whether workplace organizing or organizing at a level of national or even transnational polities insufficient to fight a system. Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interests. Look at any locus of struggle within capitalist modernity and the logic can be applied. Let’s start with this chestnut:
Antifa is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses racism in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the racist (say, the neo-Nazi), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.
One merely has to change a few words:
[Labor organizing] is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses [capitalism] in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the [capitalist] (say, the [boss]), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.
This is explicitly not what Garneau intends, but the structure of the argument is recognizable to anyone familiar with anti-union marxism, from the most vulgar Socialist Equality Party tract to the most erudite communizer dissertation. At least Lenin’s accusations of “tred–iunionizm” (usually translated as “trade-union consciousness”) didn’t condemn individual action in context because it doesn’t fully supplant the totality of capital. This substitution shows how this kind of thinking can cut against Garneau’s politics, and yet comes from the same sectors of Left Communism that also have historically critiqued Antifascism on the same grounds Garneau has supposed. We will return to implications of some of these parallels later.
From here, we see ‘liberalism’ in Garneau’s hands become an analytical panacea, as she seems to have collapsed the dialectical tension within liberalism itself into a simple, exclusive binary of individual vs. systemic. That even a reactionary early modern thinker like Hobbes could have seen the relationship says enough. From social contract theory to the return of a materialist conception of politics, this is by no means an alien insight to liberal thinking itself. Garneau’s conflations get more totalizing when trying to offer a systemic answer to this problem, she asserts,
[Antifa] identifies the harm of racism with an odious individual prick spewing genocidal ideas, rather than the systemic impoverishment and arbitrary criminalization of people of color—which are, it bears repeating, not the brainchild policies of individual racists but built into the very infrastructure of capitalism and American democracy.
The problem with this statement is that infrastructure of capitalism is equated as the same as American democracy and that she treats them as emergent beyond any individual. This conflation is not just rendering the totality of the capitalist system as an adjunct or, at a minimum, on parity to its particular development in the US, but it also seems to pretend that totalities were not actual policy and developmental choices made by actual individuals for both individual and class interests. In short, the move to systemic analysis serves to evade guilt but also doesn’t discuss the granular micro-development of how oppressive totalities emerged.
This World We Can’t Leave
Liberalism—the school of thought which seeks to establish or justify individualistsocial and economic orders, concerned with a separation secular and religious spheres, and largely concerned with free labor and free trade which emerge out of the European Enlightenment—births Marxism, most anarchism, Enlightened despotism, Bourgeois Democracy’s various ideologies, and French absolutism alike. The various schools of liberal and post-liberal thought historically emerge as contrary trends within Enlightenment thinking and, if one is not careful, can trip into pure anti-modernity.
One only needs to look at the example of former Bordigist turned into a scion of primitivism, Jacques Camatte. In “Against Domestication”, Camatte asserts that:
human beings have, strictly speaking, been outstripped by the movement of capital which they are no longer able to control. This explains why some people think that the only solution is flight into the past, as with the fashionable preoccupation with mysticism, zen, yoga and tantraism in the U.S. Others would rather take refuge in the old myths which reject the total and all-pervading tyranny of science and technology. (Often this is all combined with the use of some drug which gives the illusion of the rapid arrival of a world different from the horror we are now living through.) On the other hand, there are people who say that only science and technology can be relied upon to provide the answers — which would explain why certain women in the feminist movement are able to envisage their emancipation through parthenogenesis or by the production of babies in incubators. [quelle horreur!]
There are others who believe they can fight against violence by putting forward remedies against aggressiveness, and so on. These people all subscribe, in a general way, to the proposition that each problem presupposes its own particular scientific solution. They are therefore essentially passive, since they take the view that the human being is a simple object to be manipulated. They are also completely unequipped to create new interhuman relationships (which is something they have in common with the adversaries of science); they are unable to see that a scientific solution is a capitalist solution, because it eliminates humans and lays open the prospect of a totally controlled society.
For Camatte, accelerating Horkheimer and Adorno’s conclusions in Dialectic of Enlightenment, there is no out to the systems of capital and individualism. Human liberation has inverted into a society of total control.
Since any modular fight against an element of capital is destined to be subsumed into its systemic logics, there is no way to battle capitalism because nothing can enact the necessary “radical break.” It is all liberal or delusional; all is vanity. There is no way through, but only out: an individual out. Thus Camatte takes the systemic critique to a reductio ad absurdum: individual anti-modernism—what isometric far-right tendencies call “riding the tiger”—becomes the only out. Thus this anti-liberalism leads to an even more regressed individualism than anything liberal concerns produce.
Furthermore, if one is to look at Camatte’s development of Bordigist thought, this totalizing tendency to collapse a priori distinctions matters. In a 1988 “Dialogue with Bordiga”, while he defending his development of Bordigism into proto-primitivism as consistent with Bordiga’s skepticism of democracy, Camatte states:
…we do not reject the contributions of [Holocaust deniers] Rassinier, Faurisson or Guillaume. For us, as we have said thousands of times, questioning the ideology that justified the Second World War, and therefore denouncing the propaganda of the Allies concerning the Jewish “holocaust”, basically goes without saying and cannot be a subject of dispute. The main thing—which is not found in the works of the authors cited above—is to try to understand why we have witnessed such a powerful resurgence of this nauseating ideology with its timid questioning and, certainly, to the degree that the West really integrates its recent history, to that same degree will it use the existential myth that replaces the various founding representations absorbed by capital.
Camatte equates discussions of the Holocaust as liberal propaganda. We understand that the legacy of the Holocaust can be abused, as has been a theme of radical liberal scholars such as Norman Finkelstein, but Camatte’s citations cannot honestly be read as ending there. Denying the Holocaust is said to be radical because the reality of Auschwitz supports liberalism and therefore capitalism. In search of the radical break with capitalist modernity, the post-Bordigist circle around Invariance compounds their namesake’s “Italian disease” with the anti-anti-fascism of Vichy contrarians.
This is not to equate Bordigism, ultra-leftism, or most specifically Garneau’s thought with Camatte, but to grease the slippery slope of anti-liberalism and consider where collapsing all analysis into this categorical imperative may take us. While Garneau is right about problems of Antifa’s tactics and ways of thinking, she makes an enormous error of omission: contemporary Antifa does not limit itself to liberal justifications against incitement to shut down free speech and association but has made a show of attacking the principles themselves as inherently oppressive. What is the value of framing this as a critique of liberalism, other than the irony of Antifa also being derived from the same totalizing political sphere?
Antifa is liberal, so what? This will get clicks on social media surely, but it leads to other problems if one really works through the logic with any consistency. That isn’t really the crux of the problem. If everyone is liberal in some sense, it hardly matters. More importantly, these critiques will be ignored by the actors involved. Antifa will claim victory for the Alt-Right’s overall incompetence and will not combat their liberalism. How one gets beyond it becomes far more crucial question, and cannot be reduced to the taint of liberalism or even bad tactics.
The problem isn’t that Antifa is liberal. Almost everything is liberal in modern capitalist society including almost all leftism, and Antifa is arguably the loudest anti-liberal voice on the left despite its essentially liberal assumptions. The real problem with Antifa is their seeming unawareness of the way their assumptions conflict with their goals: something they share with Garneau.