A new form of demagoguery has emerged in reaction to the burgeoning antifascist movement. Enter: NIMPE (Not In My Present Era). Much like its NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) colleague, the NIMPE will not claim to be a pacifist, will oppose US imperialism, and will glorify combative anti-fascism in other eras and other countries. But as soon as any kind of disturbance will occur in their time, the NIMPE will categorically denounce any kind of self-defense, fighting, or denial of platform to contemporary fascists. In the process, the NIMPE will adopt and build on top of the argumentation of the far right. Because of the NIMPE’s left wing or liberal appeal, it will be used by the far right to claim mainstream legitimacy for its racist goals.
A model example of the new NIMPE is Diana Johnstone with her recent CounterPunch publication “Antifa in Theory and in Practice.” In the litany of articles equating antifascists with fascists (a comparison akin to equating firefighters with the fire they intend to extinguishi), Diana Johnstone attempts a historical analysis that is as convoluted as it is conceited. In a series of historically removed and contradictory claims, Johnstone goes so far as denying the existence of contemporary fascism altogether, while justifying anti-immigrant efforts. In her alternate reality, the resurgence of anti-fascism is a response to “political incorrectness,” not to fascism. Much in the same way that her early ’00s pseudo-historical denial of the massacre in Srebrenica worked to embolden Serbian nationalists, her present analysis can embolden white supremacists.
The extreme violence enacted by the far right is invisible to Johnstone, as in her NIMPE outlook, fascism is a thing of the past. Despite white nationalism marching on from Charlottesville to Dresden, Johnstone claims off-handedly that “historic fascism no longer exists.” We have a US president endorsed by the KKK, white supremacists show the Nazi salute meters from the White House to celebrate his election, self-declared white nationalists and Nazis are marching en masse chanting “Jews will not replace us,” a wave of hate crimes, killings, killings and killings, strikes across America as police departments turn a blind eye or cooperate with neo-Nazis (in some cases arresting the survivors), and Johnstone denies that historic fascism exists. From her privileged position, Johnstone is more likely to be inconvenienced by accusations of “political incorrectness,” than she is of being a target of fascist violence. Much like alt-right commentators, she sharpens her pen not against those who call for and take action towards genocide, but in order to disarm those who stand up in self-defense. We—the targets of fascism due to our ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality, gender, ideology, etc.—have everything to lose if she succeeds.
While accusing antifascists of being “totally ahistorical,” a myriad of her own claims fail the test of historiography. Her assertion that “street violence…. failed even more decisively [than reason and debate],” is demonstrably false. For example, countries that had a robust and combative grassroots response to rising fascism in the early 1930s, such as England or Scotland, were not swept away with it, while others, such as Germany, in which “socialists and communists were too preoccupied with each other to recognize that the Nazis were not simply a new variant of traditional counterrevolution” (Bray 2017, 41), saw the left resulting to a futile armed struggle when it had already been too late. By attempting to alienate antifascists from a base of popular support, articles such as Johnstone’s may create a more dangerous terrain for those of us committed to fight the rising fascist creep. Perhaps if she had attempted a more thorough reading of Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, the book she attempts to critique, she would’ve avoided these dangerous errors.
Johnstone’s assertion that the analogy between contemporary fascism and that of the 1930s is decontextualized and “obstructs recognition of the monstrous tyranny of today,” in itself collapses as her thesis is built on examples from a contemporary European context that bears little resemblance with resistance to fascism in the US. A closer look at her sources reveals a framework that is ignorant at best and malicious at worst. She seems to be so fixated on trashing antifa—in France and elsewhere—that she even ascribes to it actions that it has no direct connection to.ii She dedicates 730 words (over 25% of her article) to a controversial and mysterious Le Monde Diplomatique intern by the name of Ornella Guyet “as prime example” (Johnstone’s words) to prove that antifa are “storm troopers of the neoliberal war party.” However, there is no indication whatsoever that Ornella Guyet had anything to do with antifa as an initiative, or with anti-fascism as an idea.iii None at all.iv
Johnstone’s torrent of unsupported claims takes a dark turn when she focuses her attention against immigration. In effect, she calls for the left to reconsider its pro-immigrant stance, because “a left whose principal cause is open borders will become increasingly unpopular.” This is a nationalist argument, suggesting that political opportunism is of more importance than the lives of refugees and immigrants. As was demonstrated by Peter Gelderloos in a 2007 article on fascism, anti-immigration is the first of six traits common to various forms of fascism.v If democracy allows a majority to keep asylum seekers locked out of the country in genocidal conditions, it goes without saying that only a fascistic left would tag along. Ironically, the only data that Johnstone bothers to cite (that 60% of Europeans believe that “immigration is bad for our country”)vi shows an increase in xenophobia, which is an indicator of a rising fascist tendency that she denies elsewhere. While demanding a more nuanced discussion on a “complex issue,” her poorly researched assertions suggest that Johnstone is committed to little more than vitriolic demagogy, all in the service of de-legitimizing contemporary anti-fascism. Resolve the double negative, and Johnstone is legitimizing fascism.
Those of us who take inspiration from past struggles in order to inform our present ones are fully aware of the fact that we are not actually in the 1930s. Despite the elections of authoritarian figures to positions of power, full-fledged fascism requires some structural shifts in democracy that are not presently desirable by the powers that be. In a political crisis, however, fascism is a tool that could be used by the elite to consolidate power and crush revolutionary efforts. Johnstone telling us that “the right to free speech and assembly” is “the one weapon still in the hands of the people,” comes off as fundamentally disempowering in that regard. As shown in Chapter 4 of Bray’s Antifascist Handbook, Mussolini and Hitler seized power legally, indicating “the fallibility of reasoned argument and parliamentary government to forestall fascism” (2017, 183). Democratic institutions are not going to save us, but on the contrary, attempt to draw us into their game, to bide time and pacify us in order to put the pieces in place for totalitarianism.
Johnstone fetishizes the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought against fascists in 1936 Spain, preaches against US imperialism, claims to be against neoliberalism, but if any effort at actually enacting change in the present might result in her own discomfort, she will be quick to slander it. By this she becomes a “not-in-my-era” ahistorical version of the NIMBY,vii destined to be relegated to a dubious footnote of history.viii But not all hope is lost for Johnstone. Some NIMBYs are not NIMBYs forever. Rebecca Solnit, for example, who has previously written an article against a diversity of tactics in the Occupy movement, okaying the use of force by Zapatistas, Syrians or Tibetans but denouncing it in a US context,ix has recently refused to denounce antifa. The same could be true for a NIMPE.
If Johnstone is really committed to the anti-neoliberal discourse that she shares in the final section of her article, a deeper look will show her that antifa is strategically well-poised to mobilize new swaths of the population against capitalism.x The abrupt media shift—presenting antifa as the heroes of Charlottesville and the following week equating them to the neo-Nazis they fight—shows that the liberal establishment recognizes this. The liberal capitalists know that unity with antifascists will ultimately backfire as more and more people will be fluent with the practice of self-defense and autonomy, and therefore better situated to upend economic inequality. The mediatic backlash against anti-fascism is a manifestation of the liberal establishment trying to take advantage of the current crisis of democracy in order to present itself as the only viable alternative to Trumpism. Like Johnstone, they don’t hesitate to use the fundamentally racist discourse of the alt-right on “free speech” as a means of de-legitimizing dissent.xi Our task is to dismantle this backlash in discourse, and to keep on building mass power on the streets, and in everyday life.xii The NIMPEs and their ilk can either join us, or rot in yet unwritten footnotes.
ii As an additional example, she insinuates that antifa attacked a rally called by electoral left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ignoring the fact that the September 23 event in Paris was a decidedly anti-capitalist initiative, not an antifascist one. While many of the anarchists in the lead are also antifascists, “antifa” is a broader umbrella term that allows formerly unaffiliated folks (like the sans-papiers migrant baker who makes Johnstone’s croissants) to participate in defense of their communities against neo-fascist intimidation. Johnstone writes that the protesters’ “unspoken message seemed to be that nobody is revolutionary enough for them.” In fact, there is nothing revolutionary about Mélenchon, and the protesters know it—Mélenchon justified the police killing of environmental activist Rémi Fraisse, one of their own. To use the protesters’ own words: “Mélenchon is an opportunist who will not hesitate to destroy everything in his path in order to pose as the only alternative.” (my translation) Mélenchon’s rally was a cynical effort at co-opting public outrage, and at pacifying and controlling the social movement that raged in 2016 against the new labor law, a phenomenon very familiar to researchers of social movements.
Mélenchon functions as part of the statist reaction, and the French anarchists are wise to stand up and expose him. Their combative tactics have effectively demonstrated that Mélenchon is part of hegemony, committed to repressing popular dissent, and not insoumise (French for “rebellious”) as he claims to be. By that they are reclaiming the narrative that their combative tactics had catapulted into the most influential social movement seen in France since 2006, politicizing thousands of youth.
iii Johnstone’s claim is that after Guyet was dismissed from Le Monde, Guyet pseudonymously published articles on “Antifa internet sites.” Johnstone provides no evidence. Guyet may have attempted to infiltrate antifa, and has posed as an “antifascist militant,” but from here to use her as an example that speaks for anti-fascism is like assuming that right wing trolls posing as antifa on Twitter are spokespeople for the movement.
iv Furthermore, she confuses grassroots antifascist de-platforming (such as the disruption of Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech at UC Berkeley or Charles Murray at Middlebury College) with the Zionist campaign to smear any critic of Israeli policies as an anti-Semite (I’ve been a minor subject of this campaign myself, despite my Judaism). These are two very different phenomena—one is led by marginalized anti-racist voices in defense of their communities, the other by a powerful government in defense of its apartheid regime. While antifascists deny a platform to figures with book deals and a large media presence (who still manage to victimize themselves on the basis of “free speech”), Israeli lobbyists push pro-Israeli governments to crackdown on Palestine solidarity activists worldwide. Since Israel and the alt-right show signs of alliance, Johnstone, again, finds herself on the oppressor’s side of history, as she obfuscates recognition of and effective resistance to what she calls “monstrous tyranny.”
v Gelderloos lists and explains the traits of fascism—“a: anti-immigration, b: racial purity, c: white supremacy, d: political empowerment through nationalism, e: the social Darwinist ideas of “survival of the fittest,” f: anti-Semitism”— as all “empty and incorrect.”
vi Seeing that Johnstone’s article is wrought with decontextualized assertions, I attempted to access “Où va la démocratie?,” the survey in question, via inter-library loans and online catalogs. Despite assistance of research librarians from two graduate institutions, I could not locate her source by the time of this publication. This is one case of several in which she bases her argument on francophone sources that her English-speaking audience has limited access to. Another cause for suspicion is that the author of the survey, Dominique Reynié, is a known supporter of immigration. However, other research suggests that the data she cites is probably not completely out of the blue, since rising anti-migrant sentiment is indicated by far right electoral achievements (in Europe as well as in the US).
vii For an exposé of the common NIMBY see Chapter 7, “Policing the Black Bloc, Disappearing the Ghetto” of Peter Gelderloos’s book The Failure of Nonviolence, 2013.
viii Some contemporary examples of NIMBYs are Chris Hedges, who characterized the black bloc as “the cancer in Occupy,” and spewed slanderous vitriol against antifa, or, as recently revealed, Noam Chomsky, who said that antifa is a gift to the right.
ix Solnit’s analysis on nonviolence in Occupy was effectively demolished by Peter Gelderloos in his book The Failure of Nonviolence, 2013, pp. 178-183.
xii For more on “everyday anti-fascism” I highly recommend Chapter 6 of Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, 2017.
This essay first appeared on CounterPunch: https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/10/16/the-nimpe-critique-of-antifa/