Natasha Lennard on How to Avoid a Fascist Future
In the introduction to her new book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, Natasha Lennard, an activist and a contributing writer at The Intercept, introduces the late Paul Virilio, a French cultural theorist, and his concept of the accident. In Virilio’s formulation, the accident is something written into the fabric of progress itself: “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck,” and so on. From here, Lennard extrapolates: “If the current growth of fascism is an accident … it is not because it is a diversion antithetical to liberal capitalism. The accident was baked into the concept.”
This idea runs through Being Numerous, a collection of essays that seek to demonstrate and enact a means of non-fascist thinking. Lennard approaches a range of subjects as part of this project, from the controversy over someone punching Richard Spencer, to representations of dead bodies in media, to suicide. Each essay is rooted in Lennard’s foundational argument that “liberal, capitalist ideology … fails to address its own potential accidents and limitations.”
The first essay, “We, Anti-Fascists,” is a forceful piece in favor of anti-fascist organizing and thinking. Lennard opens the essay with an endorsement of the on-the-ground counter-violence of Antifa, and makes a convincing case for the necessity of such violence when traditional institutions cannot be trusted to protect counter-protesters. She also argues against the overreaction to Antifa by mainstream American media after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, after which, Lennard says, newspapers spent more page-space condemning anti-fascists than they did the white nationalists who had murdered the civil-rights activist Heather Heyer.
This defense of Antifa is perhaps the part of the essay that will grab most readers’ attention, but Lennard’s subsequent exploration of what she calls “fascistic habit” is its liveliest and most engaging section. Lennard refers to Michel Foucault’s introduction to Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus, where Foucault asserts that there is “fascism in us all … fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” This is a distressing idea, but it’s made more palatable by Lennard’s analysis. Fascism, she argues, is a developed tendency, and the minority of people who become neo-Nazis do so through “fascist practice, fascist habit; a nurturance and constant reaffirmation of that fascistic desire to oppress and live in an oppressive world.” Turning the component parts of fascistic habit, like power-seeking, into active fascistic behavior requires a place where that habit can be developed among peers. In recent years, such behavior has taken place everywhere from fringe message boards to blue-check Twitter accounts.
What strategies, then, might be effective countermeasures against rising fascism? Lennard acknowledges the stories of therapy turning white nationalists away from their ideology, but emphasizes that such transformations are rare and impractical on a large scale. Rather, Lennard writes, “our interventions must instead make the entertainment and maintenance of fascist living intolerable.” Such efforts include the work of Antifa, but also extend to creating “non-hierarchical ways of living, working to undo our own privileges and desires for power.” One can analyze and alter everything, from career to familial dynamics, through this egalitarian lens. Lennard encourages readers to learn to approach every aspect of their lives without self-interest at the top of their mind. Individual action is not, of course, a substitute for changing the system itself, but the system requires participants.
After laying this groundwork in the rigorous introduction and opening essay, Lennard turns to more theoretical territory. “Ghost Stories,” the collection’s most evocative and surprising essay, recalls when, as a seven-year-old, Lennard saw a ghost in her childhood home, and uses the episode to explore the virtues of contradictory thinking in building a political program capable of imagining a better world than the rotten one of today. “I want to insist upon my ghost’s presence as a substantive reminder to believe and disbelieve differently—to believe and disbelieve simultaneously, with a commitment that goes beyond a jump in the night.”
“In affirming my ghost, I’m asking that we not be boring assholes about what gets too exist and how,” Lennard explains. “The ghost invites an ethical consideration, not just an ontological one; he is indicative of inexplicable possibilities, which get ruled out as empirically impossible. We act better, I believe, when we don’t fold every unusual phenomenon into a pre-existing dogma. It’s a political imperative to believe (impossibly) that another world is possible, while necessarily being unable to explain that world from the confines of this one.”
Aside from the aesthetic thrill of the proximity of “assholes” and “ontological,” Lennard’s writing here clarifies a knotty way of seeing the world (things are impossibly bad) while also trying to open the door for more imaginative and therefore more hopeful thinking about the future (not every “impossible” solution is impossible).
In the reported essays “Making Felons” and “Still Fighting at Standing Rock,” Lennard writes about the difficulties of defending in court those who were arrested at the J20 protest and at Standing Rock, respectively. In both instances, the government sought to bring enough charges against enough people to coerce plea deals. The subsequent essay, “Know Your Rights,” concerns the increased efforts to criminalize protest, as well as the de-platforming measures that people working against fascism can take, instead of looking to the state or other institutions to shut fascism down. These essays are an effective triptych: Through the stories of a handful of people affected, Lennard illustrates how a state apparatus mobilizes against those it seeks to crush.
Lennard also makes herself vulnerable to the reader, writing frankly about some of her past romantic relationships and her two suicide attempts. These essays, which are moving in their own right, are also situated within a personal-political construct that, Lennard argues, operates on a systemic level:
The personal is not political because personal choices are necessarily political choices, but because the very terrain of what gets to be a choice and what types of persons get to be choosers—what types of persons get to be—is shaped by political power.
Even when she is sharing difficult details about herself, Lennard is also providing a tool that readers can use to understand their own experiences.
Being Numerous takes its title from “Of Being Numerous,” a poem by George Oppen, who volunteered for the United States Armed Forces to fight fascism in World War II, and was exiled in Mexico upon his return for his past affiliation with the Communist Party. The poem’s 22nd section reads: “Clarity / In the sense of transparence / I don’t mean that much can be explained / Clarity in the sense of silence.” Lennard’s clarities include transparence and silence, but she makes a crucial addition: clarity of thinking. The title of the book itself is a reference to mass political action, and Being Numerous demonstrates Lennard’s thoughtful clarity through an impressive range of subjects and styles. Watching Lennard apply a clean analytic framework that uses narrative evidence to describe systemic problems is both satisfying and instructive. Approaching all these social problems is a tricky task for Lennard and readers alike, but Being Numerous suggests a persuasive scheme for how to process the world as it grows ever more fascist, and how to conceive of a better future—even or especially when something better might seem inconceivable.
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