You Ask, I Answer
This is the seventh mailbag post, which I was trying to do every month or so, but let lapse for a little while while on vacation. If you’re a paid subscriber, just respond to this email or leave a comment on a post and I’ll try my best to answer your questions. Indicate somewhere that it’s for the mailbag so I can find it. And remember: If I don’t answer, it doesn’t mean I thought your question was bad, just that I didn’t feel I had a thoughtful response.
Huge fan of your work. Wanted to send in a short question for the mailbag. Mainly I was curious for your thoughts on Adolph Reed's work? I have seen you reference him here and on twitter briefly, but I would love to hear your thoughts in a longer form. For context, I am a black guy who grew up with a lot of working class black immigrants in my family, but felt myself move toward the right as I entered more elite spaces for college and I really credit Reed for helping pull me back. However, other writers I admire seem to quibble with his stuff quite a bit, so it makes me wonder if I am missing something sometimes.
Anyways thanks so much for your time!
Thank you! Although I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I have a ton of admiration for Adolph Reed Jr., both as a thinker and as a public persona. I really appreciate his prickly, even irascible, attitude, which I think is a testament to real, intransigent strength of character than mere curmudgeonliness. I deeply appreciated his (very funny) rejection of the “populist” right intelligentsia’s attempted embrace of him. I recently read Reed’s memoir of growing up under segregation, The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, and was very impressed with it’s combination of personal reflection and analysis. With that being said, I think many people, including myself from time to time, believe Reed’s critiques of identity politics, racial justice rhetoric and “wokeness” to be a little less than fair and leavened too heavily with his irritable personality: It’s very clear he finds it all very exasperating. I have to say, though, I’m a little bit more receptive to Reed these days than I might have been a few years ago. I’m obviously very sympathetic to the idea we need to take class seriously as a central vector of political analysis, but I still think his total collapse of identity politics into neoliberalism and Professional-Managerial class politics is a bit reductionist at times, which is somewhat ironic for someone who himself complains about “race reductionism.” As others have pointed out, there’s a bit of a contradiction in his focus, too: he seems to be saying sometimes “this stuff is materially irrelevant” and also “this stuff is materially regressive.” So, is it fake and bad or real and bad? But his rhetoric and arguments are so strong that when I’m actually reading him, I tend to be at least partially persuaded. I actually think Reed is less reductionist in his own writing, but some people attempt to make use of Reed as a way to bash progressives without much of their own constructive critique. In n+1, Gabe Winant has an interesting response to the “PMC debate” that discusses Reed. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying: I think he’s a very important intellectual and well worth reading, even when one might disagree or, as you say, quibble.
I have two mailbag questions. You can pick one if you would prefer not to answer both.
Corey Robin once said that he could respect it when militant antifascists call Trump a fascist because they take the commensurate extraordinary measures that such a grave, extraordinary characterization would warrant. This is in stark contrast to his naysayer cohorts who dismiss them as alarmist, juvenile adventurists.
To briefly outline how I see the methodological divide between the two camps: the Marxist contrarians tend to focus on deterministic structural constraints and macro-dynamics that canalize a particular historical evolution ("the material conditions aren't ripe for fascism"); militant antifascists tend to focus on chaotic, rupture-potentiating situational contingencies and micro-dynamics that give the possibility of massively disproportionate impact to peripheral actors ("fascists don't care about your material conditions").
My first question is—what are your thoughts on militant antifascism, both its diagnostic strategy and tactical program?
Critics like Corey Robin often cite the absence of a cataclysmic event like World War I to generate a true fascist movement. However, a cluster of chronic events arguably fit the bill such as deindustrialization, perennial financial crisis, US imperial decline and the rise of China, etc.
I would like to zero in on how the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas, particularly to China, and the collapse of small-town industry is viewed by nationalistic workers in terms of a stab-in-the-back myth. These politically ambivalent yet fiercely patriotic workers lament the loss of a golden age of US industrial world dominance and national economic self-sufficiency (e.g. the obsession for "Made in America"). As they see it, US elites violated the postwar class compact, sabotaged the country's industrial capacity, and aided and abetted Chinese geopolitical ascendency, all in pursuit of globalization, a narrative which engenders feelings of betrayal, humiliation, and emasculation. Theirs is an economistic, folk class analysis based on real events and material forces but refracted through the paranoid style and pregnant with mobilizing passions.
My second question is—what are your thoughts on deindustrialization, rural decay, and US imperial decline being interpreted and functioning ideologically as a dolchstoßlegende for, in Marxist jargon, the settler-nationalist labor aristocracy?
Love your work,
Okay, militant antifascism. Yes, I always thought the notion that Antifa were ‘cosplaying’ was a bit stupid considering they were actually were actually willing to put their money where their mouth is and act. On an emotional level, I think we all can understand that punching a Nazi in the mouth is a very gratifying idea. Politically, I’m not sure you can analyze the tactic in the abstract, but if I have to generalize I’d say it is not a very sound approach. Under some circumstances, do street confrontations “work” against fascists? Sure, but I actually think usually the sense of public unrest and street violence usually works in favor for the fascists politically. In both Italy and Germany, fascist gangs worked to create a sense of chaos and then the fascists presented themselves as the only possibility to restore public order. In Weimar Germany, there were militant antifascist groups which were actually armed—the logo of Antifa even comes from one of them. And just look how that worked out. It’s not for nothing that the far right in America tries to turn Antifa into a kind of bogey. So far, militant antifascists have mostly not taken the bait. Imagine if they turned up on Jan. 6 like they were supposed to in the right-wing fever dream?
In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci has some really interesting critiques of attempts to emulate squadrist tactics to fight fascists. He basically says it’s not that great of an idea:
It is stupid to believe that when one is confronted by illegal private action one can counterpose to it another similar action-in other words, combat commando tactics by means of commando tactics. It means believing that the State remains perpetually inert, which is never the case-quite apart from all the other conditions which differ. The class factor leads to a funda-mental difference: a class which has to work fixed hours every day cannot have permanent and specialised assault organisations-as can a class which has ample financial resources and all of whose members are not tied down by fixed work. At any hour of day or night, these by now professional organisations are able to strike decisive blows, and strike them unawares. Commando tactics cannot therefore have the same importance for some classes as for others. For certain classes a war of movement and manreuvre is necessary because it is the form of war which belongs to them; and this, in the case of political struggle, may include a valuable and perhaps indispensable use of commando tactics. But to fix one's mind on the military model is the mark o fa fool: politics, here too, must have priority over its military aspect, and only politics creates the possibility for manoeuvre and movement.
Now, obviously the class structure is a little different today in the United States, but it’s interesting to think about who has the time and means to join militias, etc. It’s a form of political organization open to certain types of people and in certain types of places. I think the Left in a developed democracy is better served with a united front strategy of “republican defense,” where they act as protectors and expanders of the democratic tradition, not as yet another threat to it. This was Piero Sraffa’s advice to Gramsci, which he didn’t take, and the Popular Front’s strategy in France, which was successful for a time. With that being said, Richard Spencer got smacked in the kisser pretty good and now he’s a Biden supporter, so who knows?
To your second question, I’ve long fought with critics like Corey Robin on these issues and don’t feel like rehashing my arguments, which you can find in the Substack’s “fascism debate” section. But my response to what you are saying is basically, “Yes.” To return to Gramsci for a moment, I also think it’s instructive to think about the model of warfare that’s dominant in a particular era. Sure, massive trench warfare is out in our day and age, but tactical special op-type warfare of the War on Terror is what’s emulated by the extreme right. The trench storm trooper is no longer the “utopian” image for fascists, it’s the tactical death squad operator. But yeah, what you are describing is essentially the argument of my book put in different terms: that these factors all add up to a national crisis that might not be quite as acute as post-World War I Europe, but are enough to generate these kinds of politics.
Do you foresee Dimes Square and the Thiel-funded arts scene having much impact in the long term? Apart from Red Scare, I don't think much of it is particularly popular - the insular New York vibe of the scene that doesn't really invite outsiders or look aspirational. Also, does dirtbag leftism still have any currency, or was it a scene of comedians and podcasters whose connections have now splintered?
I don’t really know. I’d also like to write things off I don’t like, but my history as trend forecaster is pretty spotty. The idea goes that these insular avant gardes eventually effectuate broader cultural changes and there’s certainly some evidence for that historically. It might not be appealing to you, but I’m not sure you are correct: I’ve met many people in foreign countries, mainly young women, who are aware of this stuff and have a fascination with it as what’s “going on in New York.” And it’s not mean to be the popular side of the appeal: it’s meant to look cutting edge. That’s the point I was trying to make: it’s putative exclusivity and insider-ness is precisely what makes it attractive to aspiring cultural elites. It’s modish: it provides an easy template for striking poses and attitudinizing, which is all most of these people want to do with their time anyway. But hitching one’s fortunes to fashion and good looks is, of course, a very risky proposition: these are two things that famously fade very fast. In fact, there might be less of a concerted political strategy going on here than an effort by older, Gen X elites to stave off the process of “social aging” by allying themselves to a (relatively) younger cohort. I have no doubt that massive dweebs like Thiel and Yarvin, who have never been and never will be cool, are happy to play Maecenas for people that appear to be. I’ll just say this: never underestimate the power of vanity. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. It is the motive, atomic force of society. As far as the dirtbag left goes: yeah, I think that’s kind of over.