THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH, VOL.3, ISSUE#13, JUNE-AUG/2022
Devin Zane Shaw is a radical intellectual who teaches philosophy at a community college in British Columbia, and is the author of Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière (Bloomsbury, 2016) and a recent collaborative work entitled On Necrocapitalism: A Plague Journal (Kersplebedeb, 2021). He is co-editor of the Living Existentialism book series published by Rowman and Littlefield.
Brotherwise Dispatch – Although you “started writing this book for self-clarification”, there are times when the pen of the scholar is overwhelmed by history. As such, how would you characterize the way in which “a certain sociohistorical conjuncture would soon give concrete reality to” your own “conjectures”, even to the point of influencing the “current form” of your latest work, A Philosophy of Antifascism: On Punching Nazi’s and Fighting White Supremacy?
Devin Zane Shaw – When I start writing something, I’m almost always—if not always—interested in clarifying a problem or a situation. Philosophy allows us to consider many hypotheticals and possibilities, but writing demands that we make decisions about which of the many possibilities to pursue. Which side to take. How to clarify a position. For example, I participated in a project involving a group of six revolutionary anti-capitalists, and we chronicled our reactions to the pandemic as it played out between April 2020 and May 2021—it was a blog, but it’s now published as the book On Necrocapitalism—and this was a project of self-clarification. There were plenty of theorists who confused some of the most minimal attempts of the ruling class to shore up their political hegemony in a time of crisis with “socialism” or “communism” (Slavoj Žižek, to name one, is among them). We wanted to remind people that using state power to implement public health measures or redistribute resources is not equivalent to socialism. Pointing that out was one initial impetus for the project, but we subsequently chronicled the Uprising, the far-right reaction, the process of pacification that took place during the US election, and the vaccine rollout.
As for Philosophy of Antifascism, it started as a very different project; it was much more academic. The general theme was: what is the relationship between radical or revolutionary egalitarian thought and violence? We have a common-sense view that violence transgresses egalitarian principles, but that view is not held by egalitarian philosophers: existentialists, Jacques Rancière, Miguel Abensour, Pierre Clastres, and others (one figure I discovered via Abensour was Joseph Déjacque, a 19th century French utopian who, while in exile in the US, wrote a defense of John Brown!).
Anyway, as you can see, the early iteration of what became Philosophy of Antifascism was an academic survey, and one which followed up on some unresolved questions I had when I was completing my second book, Egalitarian Moments. Then, the historical conjuncture intervened. As you know, there was the rise of the alt-right as the public face of the far-right, coddled by mainstream journalists, and for a while the alt-right played an important role in organizing far-right currents into a coherent, street-level political force. Next Richard Spencer gets punched in the middle of a TV interview, and this event was followed by a disproportionate amount of handwringing about militant antifascism and civility. In response, there were numerous books published on contemporary militant antifascism, and many of them are good overviews, but I felt we needed an account of a philosophy of antifascism. As I suggested in the book, I think we still need a broader project of reassessing so-called continental philosophy along antifascist lines. Beauvoir, Sartre, and Fanon, just to name a few existentialists, hold up quite well.
BD – How would you describe the tension that brews “within academic philosophy, if not within broader academic circles” with regards to the relation between antifascist orientations of social struggle and the imperial mainstream-as-civil society?
DZS – Philosophy as a discipline projects its norms of disinterested, truth-seeking inquiry into the world at large. However, philosophy as a discipline tends to begin from the mainstream imperial normative gaze, and it speaks and argues from that position. One core assumption of that normative gaze is that the state possesses a monopoly on legitimate violence, legitimate because it draws its force from objective right. In that regard, the origins of this supposedly legitimate violence or force (in North America, state power as we know it emerged through a consolidation of the European settler-colonial project into two blocs, the United States and Canada) are occluded. Therefore, in mainstream philosophy, the violence which suffuses these societies—that violence which is necessary to maintain these systems of oppression—is seen as an accidental feature of society which can be reformed away. An antifascist orientation first challenges the claim that state violence is legitimate.
The second problem is that philosophy tends to treat revolutionary or antifascist violence as either introducing violence into a situation where violence does not exist and thus stifling the possibility for people to proffer political speech (Hannah Arendt) or willing a world of constantly escalating violence (Judith Butler). In some way, this type of philosophy has yet to catch up to Robert F. Williams, who argued that white vigilantism is carried out by “people who would like to do violence to others but want to have immunity from violence themselves.” Community self-defense, which I advocate in part on the basis of Williams’ approach (in Chapter 4 of the book), demonstrates to the vigilante that they do not have that immunity.
But, in general, in my work, I am to write from a position that rejects the mainstream imperial gaze, from a position which is informed and responsible to the struggles of the oppressed. As an academic, I recognize that this position is tenuous, as it draws from these struggles but also runs the risk of being perceived as speaking for these struggles. Thus an approach which draws from social struggle must also be responsible to those struggles as well. That constitutes a major difference between an antifascist orientation and mainstream philosophy as a discipline.
BD – According to your work, just what exactly constitutes the “three-way fight”, and in what sense might a working understanding of this “three-way fight” be of organizational assistance to a grassroots social activism that is often mired down in a liberal versus conservative binary imposed by the normative gaze of established power?
DZS – The three-way fight approach was formulated as a critique of the conventional leftist concept of fascism. According to this view, fascism is the political line of the most extreme faction(s) of capital—and, concomitantly, any attendant popular support for fascism is explained as a product of demagoguery and false consciousness of the masses. The orthodox Marxist presentation of this view can be found in Dimitrov’s essays outlining the popular front line for the Comintern in 1935.
The three-way fight begins from the position that far-right or fascist movements are potentially insurgent, system-oppositional mass movements. Therefore, militant antifascists struggle against both capitalism and fascist movements, but the forms of organization these struggles take are different. I’m sure you’re familiar with the radical position that far-right movements are mere epiphenomenon of imperialism, so we don’t need to meet these movements in the streets—the three-way fight rejects that view. It also helps to note that liberalism and conservatism are two approaches to managing the capitalist order. The far-right challenges how bourgeois cultural and political power is arranged within that order, and seeks to re-entrench the forms of oppression operative in that order on terms conducive to the members of the far-right movement—in North America that involves re-entrenching white supremacist settler-colonialism and capitalist exploitation on terms conducive to white (male) settlers.
On a side note, when I adopted the three-way fight position in my work, I didn’t have any connections to the folks who originally formulated the position or who run the Three-Way Fight blog. Since the publication of Philosophy of Antifascism, I’ve written a handful of pieces for them, and they’ve been great to work with.
BD – Within the context of your provocative claim that ‘existentialism is an antifascism’, how would you distinguish between antifascism and anti-racism?
DZS – The short answer is: I think they’re hard to distinguish! However, I think we must distinguish between single-issue anti-racism (where anti-racism is the sole line of struggle) and dialectical approaches (which connect various forms of oppression, patriarchy, race, settler colonialism, etc.). I don’t know if any good theory still operates along one axis. However, there are plenty of reformist movements that do. By contrast, militant-revolutionary forms of struggle must be dialectical.
BD – How do you define ‘whiteness’ and even ‘white supremacy’, and in what sense is it imperative for “a philosophy of antifascism” to refuse to “conflate the roles of liberalism and the white supremacy of the Far Right in settler-colonialism”?
DZS – There are many different definitions of “whiteness” and “white supremacy.” In general, I focus on ‘white settlerism,’ which I define as an ideological framework which privileges both white (male) entitlement to land (possession or dominion) over the colonized’s right to sovereignty and autonomy, and entitlements encapsulated in what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “public and psychological wage of whiteness.” (Incidentally, both planks of this definition can be found in Du Bois’s work: the former in Darkwater, the latter in Black Reconstruction).
I categorize both the United States and Canada as types of settler-state hegemony. Both historically and politically, their respective political systems have advanced capitalist exploitation and settler colonialism in a hegemonic form which mediates between bourgeois rule (embodied in the ideology of liberalism) and white settlerism. This institutional form of white supremacy advanced the interests of white settlers on the basis of anti-Black racism (slavery, segregation, and continued forms of anti-Black oppression) and Indigenous dispossession.
In one sense, then, white supremacy is institutional. But there are also white supremacists, drawn from the white petty bourgeoisie and white worker elite, who form the core—organizationally and ideologically—of far-right and fascist groups.
BD – How does this analysis of white settlerism shape your concept of fascism?
DZS – There are two issues here which I develop in more detail in a short essay, “Seven Theses on the Three-Way Fight.” There, first, I define fascism as a social movement that emerges within a broader far-right ecological niche. Fascism is “is a social movement involving a relatively autonomous and insurgent (potentially) mass base, driven by an authoritarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges bourgeois institutional and cultural power, while re-entrenching economic and social hierarchies.” This is a generic definition of fascism, even though all manifestations of fascism arise on the basis of concrete social conditions.
In North America, far-right and fascist movements arise as a response to both capitalist exploitation and settler-colonialism. Given that these movements draw from, and are ideologically oriented around, the white petty bourgeoisie and white worker elite, we can then understand far-right movements as anti-bourgeois but not anticapitalist—they want a form of capitalism where their social and economic status are upheld and not subject to political challenge or economic crisis. Hence in the Fifth Thesis of the “Seven Theses” I propose that “far-right movements are system-loyal when they perceive that the entitlements of white supremacy can be advanced within bourgeois or democratic institutions and they become insurgent when they perceive that these entitlements cannot.”
I wrote Philosophy of Antifascism to defend militant antifascism as a form of community self-defense that does not rely on state power. Militant antifascist organizing plays an important role in undermining and fragmenting insurgent far-right movements because it reclaims our streets and our communities. We fight them now, when they are weak or inchoate movements, so we don’t have to confront them when they have already become organizationally strong. However, far-right and fascist movements cannot be permanently defeated until we overthrow the conditions—capitalism, and in North America, settler-state hegemony—which make it possible.
BD – This has been another one of our BROTHERWISE FIVE interview series, during which THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH interrogates intellectuals, artists and activists with five probing questions to the delight of our readers.
On behalf of Devin Zane Shaw and THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH,
-A. Shahid Stover
(this interview of Devin Zane Shaw for THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH was conducted by A. Shahid Stover through email correspondence from March 23rd – April 16th 2022.)