Shane Burley Talks About Antiracism, Antifascism, Antisemitism, and Reasons for Hope

Agency recently had the opportunity to preview Shane Burley’s excellent new book “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving The Apocalypse”, and interview him about the subject matter. Despite what one might imagine of a book about such weighty topics, “Why We Fight” is beautifully grounded in hope, and is a powerful reminder of how impactful antifascist and antiracist organizing is. At times it is a startling reminder of everything we’ve collectively been through these past few years, but it also holds up a mirror that reflects just how engaged we already are in building a new world in the crumbling wreckage of capitalism.

Agency: Through our media monitoring work here at Agency we see your name pop up all the time in the media. You are one of the main voices out there today speaking about fascism and anti-fascist resistance. With everything that’s been going on—between the siege on the Capitol, the inauguration, and ongoing resistance efforts despite the changing political climate with Biden in office—you must have a lot on your plate. What’s been taking up most of your time so far this year?

Shane Burley: Writing about antisemitism is taking most of my time right now, partially because I’m preparing for a book on antisemitism and also because the barely-coded, barely even a dog whistle antisemitism of the American right is in full force. Traditionally, in post-war America, antisemitism is evidence of ideological sophistication because antisemitism requires a level of ideation, world building, and consciousness about their racism. What’s happening now is that antisemitic conspiracy theories are being embedded into even mainline GOP (Republican Party) circles – and, unfortunately, some spaces in the left as well – and motivating the far-right, nativist, populist shift. So I think antisemitism has been less thoroughly covered because we have had a natural focus on white nationalism’s connection to imperialism on the Southern border, police and vigilante killings of BIPOC folks, and other forms of direct violence, but we will also need to wrangle with antisemitism beyond just the frightening acts of killing that we saw like the Tree of Life killings at Or L’Simcha.

I am also spending a great deal of time looking at the organizations, people, and movements that exist as the weigh station between the open fascist right and the GOP, which is a widening space that is actually working its way into formal GOP spaces (such as the election of Marjorie Taylor Greene). These make up militia groups, Proud Boys, what has been called the “alt light,” and other groups that are built on conspiracy theories and whose praxis is centered on violence. This is the diffuse social network that was on the ground at the Capitol siege on January 6, but also at regional events and who are often leading the charge to attack antifascists, Black Lives Matter activists, and marginalized communities. The alt right and white nationalist groups are rebuilding as well and a new stage is starting to emerge from places like Telegram. So I am also focusing on established white nationalist projects and looking specifically at how they are shifting so as to go unnoticed by antifascists while remaining accessible to potential recruits. In general, the far-right in America is in a state of flux, so there are a lot of unanswered questions we have to figure out if we are to effectively confront it.

Agency: Your new book “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse” is coming out soon through AK Press. Can you tell us a bit about it and what readers can expect?

Shane Burley: It is a series of essays, about half of which are new, that look at a few elements of the last few years. Obviously fascism and antifascism are at the front of this, but there is a deeper well of social discontent to reckon with as well as tough choices about what direction to go in. What binds them together is the sense of social dread that we have, the feeling that we are entering an apocalyptic stage of global ecological, social, and economic collapse (which very well might be accurate). So the essays dovetail with these ideas, and looks at folk and religious traditions, thinks about the lived experience of organizers on the ground, and thinks about the bigger questions of identity, meta-culture, and our future that the fascist insurgency has tried to exploit. Specifically, there are substantial essays on the “intoxicating masculinity” of the Wolves of Vinland, why antisemitism continues to be a popular answer for our revolt against modern commerce, and how cultural struggle plays a role in antifascism.

Agency:  There is a strong theme throughout the book relating to “End Times” or apocalypse narratives. How do you think this shapes the way people are responding to crises across the political spectrum?

Shane Burley: I think there are a couple of conflicting ways that people respond to this. On the one hand, desperation does not lead inevitably to action, there is no reason to think that dire conditions will lead to a revolt. Historically, it is actually a pathway of success–little victories–that lead to a cascade of action. But material conditions of deprivation do help create the energy and impetus for a movement if it is channeled, organized, and agitated.

The other response is wrapped up in the question of what the apocalypse is. While it is often written as the “end of all things,” that is really a definitional anathema. Instead, it is just a profound end of society, current society with its boundaries on existence. A profound shift in civilization, one so profound it breaks the mold of everyday life, is an apocalypse of its own. So the question is, what is our world and what does it mean to end it? It could mean the collapse of our ecosystems and the “death of birth”—the mass extinction event prophesied. It could also mean an end to the defining features of our world: toil, exploitation, and oppression. In that way, revolutionaries are poised to bring the apocalypse, to end the rules of the old world by building a new one in its shell.

It may also be a sort of pernicious optimism, but we also need to see the times we are in through their opportunities. The state is, right now, failing to meet even its basic precepts, which was made abundantly clear as it fucked up the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual aid networks were absolutely necessary, not as some kind of ideological presentation, but for pure survival. In a way, we are literally building this new liberated society because we have to stay alive and the old world is now giving way to its excesses and false promises. As we build counter-institutions, both organizing for pressure and for mutual aid, we are doing so in the growing vacuum of capital and the state. I think that while these projects were often aspirational in years past, they can actually start to take on a more central function as they become more materially necessary.

All this is to say that we are living in some kind of apocalypse, partly  of our own making, partly by those in power, and partly by  those wielding guns in spectactular incidents of cruel white supremacist violence. There is nothing glorious about the crises we are in, but we are coming together in ways that make me think there is every reason to hope and dream. The fact that we are building things, big things with lofty ideals and a huge reach, in the midst of such chaos and profound loss, makes me think that we actually had this plan all along. We probably did. That’s what we have been doing for the last several centuries, creating a lineage of ancestral wisdom so that we were able to care for each other and fight back when it was necessary. And fuck is it ever necessary.

Agency: In Why We Fight you mention at one point that white supremacy and social hierarchy are implicit in class society, but fascism seeks to make it explicit. Now that Trump is no longer President, do you feel that we will see a return to less-explicit fascism and white supremacy? Or do you see signs that fascism will continue to be very much out in the daylight?

Shane Burley: I think it will be a more explicit fascism. Trump was a lot of things, but an open fascist was not one of them. I’m not giving Trump a pass on the fascism question, that is still a reasonable accusation, but what I’m saying is that he hardly offered open white nationalism. While it was barely coded rhetoric, it was still coded. What this did was create a language for white nationalism that allowed it to have reach into the larger GOP base on one hand and into the halls of governmental power on the other. This is what allowed the creation of Islamophobic policies, concentration camps, the war on trans folks, the mass attack on BIPOC communities and antifascist activists, and so on. The creation of a Trumpian dialect was a very serious part of this, and it’s what made them effective.

The role of this dialect in creating or moderating violence is complicated because it both spurs violence and neutralizes it at different times. In the short term, a movement like Trumpism (and really all national populist movements and far-right political parties) provides a pathway to power (or at least to activism) for the actual fascists. This moves them away from revolution and back towards reform since they now believe reform may be possible. It’s important to remember that, particularly since the 1980s, open white nationalism became increasingly revolutionary and set its sights on the federal government as well since they thought all had been lost for their cause (according to them, the state had been captured by the Zionist Occupation Government). But with Trump that shifted, and that means, at least on a shorter time frame, this could have the ability to lessen seemingly impulsive acts of violence, since those are typically desperate acts. And, because one of their own is in the White House, they are no longer desperate. That is still a mirage, though, because this new success allows them to grow their ranks, and growing their ranks leads more people into their ideologies, which inherently grows their capacity for violence. In the end, it may momentarily slow down the number of attacks, but this sort of success ramps them back up even more virulently. This is what we saw in the middle of Trump’s presidency with the string of alt-right murders and the creation of groups like Atomwaffen Division and The Base.

What a Biden administration does is return the feeling of desperation to the fascist insurrectionaries, but even more intensely than before. Trump has maintained the rhetoric of stolen elections and conspiracies, so much so that the belief is now pervasive that Democrats (and satanic pedophile Jews, or whatever) have captured the government and that only extra-legal action could possibly save the “innocents.” This means that you can take whatever desperate white nationalist violence has been typical of the movement and multiply it by several times. We are about to enter into a period of white nationalist and far-right terrorism on a scale that is hard to measure. But this is also tough to predict because we have never lived through this exact dynamic before. So I would expect the violence to continue unabated.

That said, antifascism has grown considerably, and deplatforming has been effective at lessening the reach of white nationalist outlets. If there is any decline in white nationalist violence in the coming few years, it is the result of antifascists, not the government.

Agency: Related to this, in your book, you don’t just emphasize the need to fight fascism, but also remind us what in life is worth fighting for and how we need to be working together to build a more liberatory world for all. What do you feel we ought to be doing right now to continue fighting fascism and co-creating a more free society? What inspires you, personally, to be in this fight?

Shane Burley: There is way more that gives me hope now than doesn’t. We are seeing a mass insurgency of the labor movement, one that is unprecedented in the last seventy years, and I think that it is based on a combination of material conditions of deprivation and the pervasive notion that we can make it better if we come together and fight back. This includes the Amazon union organizing, the mass unionization that is happening in digital media and the nonprofit sector (which we don’t talk enough about), the really massive growth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in a range of shops and industries, the wildcat teachers strikes, and the hospital organizing drives. It really touches every part of the country in almost every industry.

The explosive growth of mutual aid is where I bank my most hope in that it is coming together organically, it is much more capable of offering real resources than in years earlier, and it is staying intersectional and coordinated with larger movements. Here in Portland, there was a big growth of mutual aid projects around the Coronavirus pandemic. Then, they pivoted to the 2020 anti-racist protests, creating a foundational infrastructure for the protests that allowed them to continue uninterrupted for well over 100 days amidst massive police repression and white vigilante attacks. They provided everything from food and water to street medics, transportation, and bail pooling, but then had the skills and infrastructure ready to pivot to support families affected by the 2020 West Coast wildfires. And this was just one place; this was happening in kind all around the country and the world. I think we have hit a place where mutual aid projects can really start to not just fill the gaps, but offer a totally alternative world based on direct action and solidarity.

Tenant organizing has also been really inspirational, particularly as most of the country becomes unlivable for anyone other than the super rich. And, of course, the BLM insurrection of 2020 is maybe the clearest example of what is possible and where we should be at. Equal parts long-term organizing and spontaneous explosion, this shows what it takes to have a really big revolutionary upsurge that does not simply peter out into paltry demands, but that keeps a real abolitionist vision into the long term. It won’t be the only uprising, and it isn’t over. It is just an example of how we are moving into a stage of permanent revolt as we see the structures of the old world fall apart. It is up to us how we are going to seize that moment and capture it for a culture of kindness, support, and transformation.

Agency: There’s been a lot of unfavorable media attention on the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon. Being based in the Portland area, do you have any recommendations for where people can go to hear or read voices on the ground?

Shane Burley: There has been a lot of conflicting reporting about the Portland protests, but that also comes from both right-wing media pundits and “fly in” coverage that often misunderstands the context of the city and its social movements. There were a lot of independent and staff journalists who I think we should be turning to, including Garrison Davis, Tuck Woodstock, 45th Absurdist Parallel, Laura Jedeed, Robert Evans, Sergio Olmos, Left Coast Right Watch, Alexander Reid Ross, Arun Gupta, Jason Wilson, Cory Elia, Alissa Azar, Griffin Malone, and so many others. I think that looking directly into the work of specific journalists is very helpful, especially if they are providing the larger context for the area and the issues involved in the protests.

Agency: Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on and would like to tell us about?

Shane Burley: I’m working on a book with a coauthor on antisemitism that is in the very early stages, and I’m editing an anthology of antifascist writing that should come out next year. There is not a lot of explicitly left-wing, antiracist writing that addresses antisemitism, and even less organizing, and so addressing that gap will be a major part of my work in the next couple of years. It is important to recapture this discourse from the right, who is unable and unwilling to actually address antisemitism in any fundamental way. I will also be writing even more about spiritual and cultural traditions and radical politics, the growth of mutual aid projects, and covering what I think is a fundamental shift of how we think of social formations and movements in the 21st Century.

Shane Burley is an author and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (AK Press, 2017), and “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse” (AK Press, 2021). His work has been featured in places like the NBC News, Independent, the Baffler, In These Times, Truthout, The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, Jacobin, Alternet, Protean Magazine, and Full stop.

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