American fascist exceptionalism?: “What’s Left?” September 2019 (MRR #436)

If you can’t tell the difference between glorification and ridicule—does it matter?

—Spencer Sunshine

I read recently that San Francisco’s Financial District, called “Wall Street West,” is being downgraded. The district is both downsizing economically and shrinking physically. Financial services are moving online and it’s just too damned expensive for employees in downtown banking and financial companies to live in the city anymore, thanks to the booming tech industry’s gentrifying impact on San Francisco. I remember back fondly to Sunday, February 16, 2003, when a quarter of a million people protesting Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq shut down the Financial District and briefly the Bay Bridge. Mass anti-war protests continued to disrupt “business as usual” in Wall Street West for weeks to come.

I’d forged my leftist politics and love for street action during the ’70s, but America’s steady rightward reaction and the sudden international collapse of the Soviet bloc over the next two decades depressed the hell out of me. The resurgence of Left activism with the Iraq War was quite heartening. I wanted to be in the thick of those demonstrations despite having fractured the big toe and one of the sesamoid bones in my right foot in an accident several months before. I was hobbling around in great pain but nevertheless elated to be experiencing popular street politics once again, exhilarated to be roaming the city with a small group of friends demonstrating, blockading traffic, participating in impromptu sit-ins, engaging in general vandalism and mayhem, etc. I had my black bloc gear in hand, but I was in no shape to participate in those tactics.

Then, out of the swirling chaos, an odd vision materialized. Tony marched along Market Street at the head of a one-man parade. I’d known Tony from San Diego where he’d played in hardcore punk bands and belonged to an infamous Maoist communist party. We met again when we both moved to the Bay Area, when Tony was a postmodern Leftist studying at UC Berkeley and in post-hardcore bands. Now, he was dressed in a pure black Army combat uniform, shouting anti-war slogans. Black combat boots, black trousers with black tactical belt, black jacket over black t-shirt, black patrol cap, black megaphone. “1, 2, 3, 4; We Don’t Want Your Fucking War! 5, 6, 7, 8; Organize To Smash The State!” So why the all-black getup? Was it parody or was Tony serious? Had Tony gone full anarchist and was this a militarized black bloc outfit? Was it some homage to Third World socialist revolution, paying tribute to the VietCong and the EZLN? Had Tony joined the Army or the police and was he now a Special Forces or SWAT recruit? Had Tony perhaps gone rightwing fascist and was he aping the Falange or SS wardrobes? Or was this all camp, an elaborate, theatrical performance piece? My signals were getting crossed.

I was simultaneously intrigued and bewildered, befuddled by the semiotic mixed messages.

I’m in the middle of a three-part series on Third Positionism, a type of “red/brown” politics that claims to “go beyond Left and Right.” Those politics are dead serious about mixing far left and far right elements into a confusing new type of Fascism that, in the case of Perónism for instance, attempted to fuse extreme nationalism with pro-working class initiatives. Third Positionism might prove as baffling as my reaction to Tony, but it’s nevertheless genuine. Let’s talk instead about deliberate obfuscation by the far right in throwing up ambiguous slogans, symbols, memes, texts, ideas, etc., calculated to muddy any political or social discourse.

In Spencer Sunshine’s unpublished piece “Industrial Nazi Camouflage,”* he discusses the evolution of the industrial music scene, noted for its fascination with the taboo and transgressive. Warning that it’s never a good idea to play with Nazi imagery because you can’t control how such imagery is interpreted, Sunshine is intent on figuring out who in the industrial music scene was innocently flirting and who loved Nazism, who was being ironic and who was offering a sophisticated critique, who was obsessed and who was willing to commit, who believed in fascism theoretically and who was engaged in fascist activism. He periodizes that scene into a time when individuals and bands were fascinated with but not yet committed to Nazism, to active Nazi participation between 1986 to 1996, and finally to lying profusely about those involvements back in the day as well as their current fascist commitments. Ultimately, Sunshine suggests that if you can’t tell whether something is genuine or a joke, or someone is being upfront or engaged in camouflage, does it really matter?

Treat it all as fascism or fascist adjacent is what I say.

The otherwise insipid, reactionary, ahistorical critique of the alt-right offered by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies does get that the far right uses intentional obfuscation and ironic misdirection as deliberate tactics, as ways to maintain plausible deniability and camouflage their true intentions. They want normies to be confused about their true message, unable to know when to take them seriously and when to shrug them off. Gavin McInnes loves to make the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter in his sad career that includes a lackluster stint as a comedian. His internet “talk shows” often featured calls to violence as in “I want violence. I want punching in the face.” But when his critics lambasted him for promoting violence he invariably deflected such criticisms by demanding “Can’t you take a joke?” In one motion, McInnes and his ilk throw out threats of violence while simultaneously denying they are being threatening or violent, masking their intentions with crude humor or irony that they then claim their viewers simply don’t get. It’s the perfect ploy for the far right to seed confusion among people trying to suss them out.

The antifascist Left is neither confused nor amused however.

What then to make of some supposedly unique, if bewildering aspects of the far right in the US? Both antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine (“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right”*) and Matthew Lyons (“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment”) imply there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party pioneered the shift from white supremacy to white nationalism, allowing American fascists to parry Leftist calls for “Black Power/Black Separatism” with “White Power/White Separatism,” encouraging white nationalists to work with black nationalists along pro-segregation/anti-miscegenation lines, and developing the strategy of a white ethnostate that portended scenarios of side-by-side racialist nationalism. Drawing inspiration from American history, two ultra-patriotic movements arose opposed to the power of the Federal government; the Posse Comitatus Movement of the 1960s (from posse comitatus common law traditions) and the Militia Movement of the 1990s (from the colonial/Revolutionary War institution of the independent local militia). Both took the States’ Rights Movement further right. Deeply distrustful of government beyond the county level, Posse Comitatus proposed the county sheriff as the highest lawful authority whereas the Militia Movement insisted that any armed citizenry organized into decentralized militia groups was the highest civil authority. Given the various failures of the States’ Rights Movement, elements of these two movements within the Patriot Movement now propose extending white ethnonationalism down to county, municipal and individual levels, implying the possibility of an ethno-pluralism where decentralized racial nationalist enclaves can reside concurrently. Finally, there’s leaderless resistance as put forward by KKK member Louis Beam, which uses a decentralized, horizontal structure of small, independent cells to resist what is considered a tyrannical Federal government.

“[T]hese ethno-pluralist views can facilitate a politics that, on the surface at least, is not in conflict with the demands of oppressed groups,” according to Spencer Sunshine, who acknowledges it’s an “ethnic or racial pluralism that is opposed to multicultural and cosmopolitan societies.” Matthew Lyons argues that “[m]any of today’s fascists actually advocate breaking up political entities into smaller units, and exercising totalizing control [authoritarianism] through small-scale institutions such as local government, church congregations, or the patriarchal family.” Before declaring the US far right a unique American “wild west” Third Positionism however, consider that the alt-right’s flirtations with decentralization might be at the very least a purely defensive reaction to the exigencies of battling the Federal government. At most, it may be an outright deception designed to confuse and obfuscate. That the American far right on every level is enamored with the Führerprinzip leadership principle—from their own charismatic cult leaders to a president who governs by executive decree and routinely violates the Constitution—makes it likely in any case that the far right’s much vaunted decentralism will be the first thing abandoned come their fascist revolution.

I’ve talked about the libertarian-to-fascism/alt-right pipeline before, a process as disingenuous as the industrial music scene. For me, the far right’s appropriation of the Left’s aspirations for freedom and self-determination is the sly semiotic joke here. And thus our differences with them do matter.

* Spencer says: Both essays are available as special items for Patrons who give at least $2 a month to my Patreon. However, if you’re broke (and boy have I been there), drop me a line and I’ll send you copies: www.spencersunshine.com/contact.

 

Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

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