Criticisms of anti-fascism and social justice movements are widespread and seemingly never-ending. The idea that “antifa” or other left-wing movements aren’t treated critically by the press is a popular right-wing talking point, but it’s not held up by evidence. Even in the month immediately after Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, a time when popular support for anti-fascism seemed to reach a peak, mainstream publications posted just as many articles condemning anti-fascism as they did condemning fascists. This “both sides” framework was also promoted by Donald Trump, helping to cement the belief that anti-fascism and fascism are morally equivalent.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that concerns about media bias are wrong. People are right to be suspicious of the mainstream media, as well as alternative media platforms that appear to have large amounts of money at their disposal, or that rely on advertisements and maximizing clicks as their primary source of revenue. The media is an industry, like any other, made up of businesses that are largely owned by rich investors and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. As businesses, they represent the interests of their owners and/or advertisers. If you’re a shareholder who’s invested billions in the oil industry, you’ll probably want to avoid spreading the idea that fossil fuels are connected to climate change and extreme weather events. Similarly, if you want to avoid poor and disenfranchised people from rioting in the streets, you aren’t going to focus on wealth inequality, or the destructive and violent actions of corporations (especially not the ones you own). Instead, you’ll try to direct that anger against other groups: perhaps Muslims, so you can justify the drone bombings in the Middle East, or immigrants, so you can continue to exploit them for cheap labour while threatening them with deportation if they try to resist. These dehumanizing narratives about “hordes of invading refugees” and “Sharia law” don’t just happen by accident, they emerge and spread because they serve the interests of the powerful, because that’s what’s “good for business.”
The people involved in shaping and spreading these stories don’t even need to be consciously aware of what they’re doing. When journalists and editors publish badly researched reports or one-sided narratives, it’s not because they’re following some grand scheme or explicit instructions from their high-ups. It may just be because they’re overworked and lack the resources to do their job properly, or because they sense, intuitively, that standing up for certain principles will likely get them fired. It has nothing to do with good or bad intentions. As with other systemic issues like gentrification, the steps that lead to biased media coverage aren’t just being made by one person, but rather a whole network of people whose actions are shaped by the institutions and organizations they occupy, material constraints, and the relations of power within those spaces.
The far right is growing in large part because their interests happen to align, at least for the moment, with people who hold most of the money and power in our society. The news that came out recently connecting alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopolous and Steve Bannon, and the billionaires who fund their platforms, to neo-Nazis and white supremacists isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. The rich are using fascist groups and ideas as a way to divide and conquer. While the poor are fighting one another, they won’t come after them. This strategy isn’t new, by any means, but it reaches its height in periods of crisis, when large parts of the population start to realize that the status quo isn’t working for them, and threaten to revolt. Rather than let these sentiments develop into a powerful anti-capitalist movement, the rich will participate in turning a slightly more privileged middle class against minorities or other vulnerable groups, encouraging people to punch down rather than up.
Opportunists like Milo Yiannopolous or Tomi Lahren are able to capitalize on the self-interests of the rich, gaining fame and fortune by tapping into the resentment of groups that feel overlooked and disenfranchised, but aren’t quite as badly off as the people they are taught to fear and hate. Whether or not these opportunists actually believe what they say about Muslims, or social justice warriors, or any other group is beside the point. The point is that they can make a killing at it if they play their cards right, and many liberals and centrists are willing to go along with it in exchange for a share of the pie.
Anti-capitalism, which has been a fundamental component of anti-fascist movements since the early 20th century, is not nearly as profitable (surprise!). Turns out capitalists, no matter what their stated politics are, don’t want to fund you when your long-term goal is to dismantle capitalism and other forms of exploitation. This is why the far-right conspiracy theories about anti-fascist and social justice movements being funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros are so hilarious to actual anti-fascists, who are known to chant things like “George Soros, where’s our paycheck?” at demonstrations just for kicks and giggles. The people who participate in anti-fascist actions aren’t attending parties on private yachts like Bannon and his gang, and unlike fascist groups, they don’t have the support of the police or other state institutions. Even universities, which are often seen as left-leaning, have sided with the far-right when subjected to pressure from some students and donors. And while it’s true that a few university professors (and many student groups) have been supportive of anti-fascists, most professors have been silent on the issue, refusing to take sides in such a “controversial,” and potentially career-threatening debate.
Without institutional backing, anti-fascists must rely entirely on grassroots support. As a result, the anti-fascist movement, as a whole, is fairly decentralized and composed of many different groups. Even if anti-fascists tend to agree that fascism is a force that must be confronted head on, and that violence is sometimes necessary in that struggle, they won’t necessarily see eye-to-eye when it comes to using specific tactics in specific situations. Internal disagreements and criticisms about when, how, and under what conditions violence should be used are bound to happen, in part because anti-fascists see the struggle they’re engaged in as a matter of long-term survival. Having seen what fascism is capable of, and learned from the ways it grew and developed in previous eras, they know the stakes of this battle are incredibly high, and that the odds are stacked against them. It’s not just their lives that are on the line, but also the lives of all the other people that are currently being targeted by far-right violence.
Anti-fascism may have emerged as a form of resistance to fascism, but ultimately it’s about much more than that. The end goal isn’t just to defeat fascism or fight ongoing forms of oppression like patriarchy and white supremacy, but to take back control from the billionaires and politicians that are screwing us over. Anti-fascism shouldn’t be seen as separate from other movements and struggles, including anti-colonialism, anti-racism, feminism, and so on. In fact, many of the same tactics and arguments that are being used to demonize anti-fascists are also being used against “social justice warriors,” feminists, anti-racists, and environmentalists, among others. Recognizing these tactics for what they are — a desperate attempt by the rich and powerful to keep us down — is an important step in building stronger movements that are actually able to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
The fact that the rich are pushing so hard to keep us divided is a reflection of the latent power of the working class—the people who work for a living and produce all the goods and services that keep capitalism running, and who can shut it down if they’re united and organized. For all their money and power, the rich are weak, because they don’t actually produce anything for themselves. They depend on us much more than we depend on them, and that dependence will be their undoing. General strikes, industrial sabotage, and disruptive protests are just some of the strategies that have been used to exert pressure on capitalists and the state, and win important reforms like the 8-hour work day, health care, and higher minimum wages. With the backing of a global movement, we could not only beat back fascism, but also overhaul the entire economic and political system to create a more democratic and egalitarian society. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism several hundred years ago, a crisis in the current system opens the possibility for a new one.
Mistakes will be made along the way — anti-fascists are only human, after all — but the best criticisms tend to come, in my experience, from the people who are actually organizing on the ground. If you have concerns about a movement and the direction it’s taking, but share the same goals overall, the best way to change it is to get involved. There are more than enough backseat drivers in the liberal media, pretending to show concern without ever lifting a finger to help or to try to change things for the better. Fascist movements are growing—anti-fascism needs to grow too. There will be lots of time to debate strategy and tactics at the next meeting.