The far-right and the political aesthetics of public violence

The extreme right are always on the margins but always at the heart of Western electoral democracy. For large periods of time, they dwindle in small factious and conspiratorial groupuscules. But, in specific moments, they seize the mainstream political agenda, generate major political crises, and get pervasive media attention in ways that often give the appearance that a major far-right insurgency or ‘revolution’ is imminent.

How is this possible and what does it mean for an anti-fascist agenda?

One thing that always strikes me about far-right political mobilisations is their thorough embedding in violence. I have attended anti-fascist protests and am always struck by the aesthetic and affective power of small groups of racists to create an immense sense of malevolence. Far-right demonstrations are a performance of power, just short of a goose-step. It can feel like a remarkable and disproportionate projection of power.

This political aesthetic is not accidental; it is built into the martial foundations of the ethno-nationalism of the far right. The ideals of military self-determination, set in a moral tale of oppression by ‘blacks’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘communism’ directly generate values of struggle, violence, and war for ‘survival’.

Within this worldview, political struggle and physical struggle are one and the same. One can see this very regularly in the profoundly depressing threads of social media that debate racially-motivated murders, terrorism, or ISIS. The debates themselves are interminable, unmediated, and bewildering. But, within the threads, I frequently find moments where far-right contributors simply demand to ‘finish this discussion face to face’, or some similar dark implication.

Both the performance of demonstration and the use of social media by the far-right rely heavily on the blurring of political debate with violent threat. It is pervasive in the crude rhetoric of far-right leaders: of taking back ‘our’ streets.

The far-right threatens to bring back the politics of street fighting. Starting with lawful public assemblies, a series of obscene public gestures – Nazi salutes and a variety of ugly goading – and statements – about Jews, Muslims, ‘blacks’ – agitate counter-demonstrators. That is their exact purpose. The build-up to fascist demonstrations is infused with threats against anti-fascists and boasts of a show of muscle, messages that also pervade far-right responses to anti-racist demonstrations themselves.

Far-right groups rely on an odd mixture of constitutional and police protection in order publically to be able to walk through public spaces like poisonous snakes, looking for a trigger that can allow them to claim self-defence when engaging in violence. In this context, it is easy to despair that the police are protecting racists. For many young black people the police are in some fashion part of a prevailing racist power structure that values lives differently according to ‘race’. Surely, in some fashion, the far-right groups trust to this as well: a general, even if slight, predisposition of police forces to their own ‘side’. This slender bias can easily manifest itself within the broad and permissive remit that police forces have to maintain public order in which quite often anti-racist activists seem to be treated with considerable violence by the police.

Thus, the far-right’s principal threat to electoral democracies is its use of freedom of expression and public assembly to create extremely provocative and frankly sickening political aesthetics, enclosed within a police-paramilitary cordon that will at least treat them equally and at most provide them with a kind of implicit reminder that Western states work through racially-determined conduits. Fear and threat of violence works where infantile and spurious politics and fragile support bases cannot.

 

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What does this mean for those who wish to challenge the far-right? There is a possibility that street fighting will become a more common phenomenon, as it did when the left fought fascists in Mussolini’s Italy. If far-right organisations become increasingly intimidating in public places, I cannot see any reason why this should be condemned. At the level of foundation politics, and to use the phrase of political historian Goran Therborn, politics is fought as well as thought. What value is a political value that does not potentially evoke action in pursuit of its protection?

But, the dissolving of politics into militias is hardly consonant with electoral democracy, and there is a well-trodden argument that to move into pitched battles is to have conceded the ground to the far right in any case. This is partly true. Violence and politics cannot be separated so easily; to believe that they can is to miss the point of what politics is. At some level, all politics is determined by relations of coercion, no matter how much discussion revolves around legitimacy, ‘soft power’, hegemony, and so on.

One political thinker and activist who addressed very centrally and honestly the relation of violence and political struggle was Frantz Fanon. (Google him.) He wrote about anti-colonial struggles against European empire in the 1950s. One provocative aspect of his writing focused on the liberating effects of violence. In a nutshell, if one’s oppressor appears symbolically powerful, invulnerable, and supreme, they have, in a sense already conquered the subjected. But, during an anti-colonial liberation war, to kill, capture, or imprison a ‘white’ person is to break down that racialised imagery of domination and invulnerability. It is to destabilise an aesthetic order.

It was part of the logic of colonial rule that black bodies were routinely brutalised, intimidated, and shamed by the colonial state. During rebellions against colonialism, there was a liberatory effect in discovering that captured Europeans also cry, plead, look vulnerable when stripped and so on. When tens of thousands of colonised African men that served in theatres of conflict during the Second World War, they witnessed Europeans injured and vulnerable, or perhaps simply peeling potatoes in the same manner that ‘houseboys’ might back in their home country. These experiences directly galvanised nationalist movements throughout Africa in the 1950s as Africans returned to colonies rule under a ‘whiteness’ that no longer enjoyed that symbolic sense of superordination.

So, although it might seem morally correct to reject all forms of violence against the far-right, we should consider some analogies here. If far-right public demonstrations grow, amplifying their sense of physical strength – the tattoos, the military-style dress, the salutes, the muscle – then we should consider the complex and not entirely negative effects of witnessing a fascist being knocked down and then shakily standing to his feet and running away. I have seen videos of this amongst the mass archive of online demo phone footage and can easily confess to finding it fantastic viewing. I cannot find any convincing reason to apologise for that feeling. It breaks the charm these people have over the physical spaces they occupy.

Nevertheless, there is more to explore in relation to the issue of far-right demonstrations and their pernicious political aesthetics. It is sometimes noted that far-right and alt-right political organisations have taken on the techniques and strategies of the new social movements that emerged in the 1990s, largely to mobilise against neoliberalism and war.

In the 1990s, research on social movements became interested in the aesthetics of protest: the importance of coining a campaign phrase, the strong basis of movements in affects and emotions, the creativity of coalition building and demonstration geography and pedagogy. A fundamental insight of this research is that there are myriad ways to occupy public spaces in ways that are politically impressive and indeed assertive.

Two examples. In June this year, the EDL held a demo in the gloriously Sun-hating city of Liverpool. The counter-demonstrations in Liverpool far outnumbered the small EDL contingent that gathered around the railway station. The force of hatred was such that the demonstration was immobilised, increasingly kettled by the police. And then, something remarkable and powerful happened. Someone started to play the Benny Hill theme tune loudly as the EDL contingent moved back to the train station to disassemble. It lent the counter-demonstration a boldly humorous self-confidence and it produced an outcome that left the EDL stripped of the kind of physical malice that is, after all, all that they actually have.

Also in 2017 far-right demonstrators were heavily outnumbered by counter-demonstrators who disrupted a planned march and at some point (frustratingly, I can no longer locate the video) a guy comes along with a mobile sound system and properly booms out Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’, generating a moment of powerfully assertive young urban hybridity and even (if I recollect properly) some dancing.

Both of these examples reveal conditions of possibility for the anti-fascist public presence in which political aesthetics of social movements can take the strength out of far right public manifestations through overwhelming numbers and the neutralisation of the physical threat that those demonstrations carry with them.This can involve of ridicule or the broadcast of ballsy (I use that word carefully) and contagious grime music. The secondary effect of this kind of challenge on the streets is that it provides very little for the far-right to take home. There is no battle narrative in being outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in the contestation of public space.

There must be endlessly creative ways of creating the same effect, variations on the themes of overpowering counter-aesthetics. Goodness knows the vibrant, hybrid, multiplex, and broad-ranging culture of the British people has the resources.

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