As activists have publicly challenged an emboldened white-nationalist movement across the country, the idea of anti-fascism has circulated broadly but vaguely—seeming sometimes to unsettle mainstream commentators more than expressions of fascism itself.

In her new book, On Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, the essayist Natasha Lennard considers the meaning and the fearful reception of anti-fascist organizing today. In meditations on riots and surveillance, sex radicalism and First Amendment controversies, Lennard—who moved to the United States from London a decade ago and is now one of the most astute thinkers to emerge from the Occupy movement—offers a crystalline vision of how fascism can be fought without reliance on the state and why it must be.

—Marissa Brostoff

Marissa Brostoff: The press often treats anti-fascist organizing merely as a spectacle—the image of white men in black blocs circulates, but neither the meaning of those tactics nor a broader vision of anti-fascist movements seems to register. What is anti-fascism, and how has it been misunderstood?

Natasha Lennard: “Anti-fascist” is a troublesome term. To state one’s political position as anti-fascist after 1945 is, in a sense, close to meaningless: Most everyone claims to be anti-fascist, so long as they agree that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were baddies. A better conception of fascism, which sees its expression not only in historic state regimes but in aspects of daily life under capitalism, entails a more nuanced understanding of anti-fascism, too. I’m more interested in talking about anti-fascist tactics or practices, since as an identity “anti-fascist” is somewhat impossible.

In the simplest, most popular sense, anti-fascist organizing—often known as antifa—is a militant, no-tolerance approach to far-right, racist nationalism. As a practice taken up by the far left, socialist and anarchist alike, antifa is an illiberal intervention that does not rely on the state, the justice system, or any liberal institution to resist fascism. It finds organization online, in the streets, on campuses—wherever fascism is to be found. Much antifa work today involves exposing white supremacists online and taking action to shut down spaces where fascistic desires get fostered, fueled, and legitimized. Sometimes this involves physical, confrontational tactics.

What the media tends to get wrong is what undergirds these tactics and why they’re necessary and effective. The mainstream press often calls for “civility” and reasoned debate. The problem is, fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone. So anti-fascist interventions instead must make the entertainment and maintenance of fascist organizing intolerable. The use of anti-fascist violence is thus far from foolish thuggery: its goal is to create consequences for fascist organizing. For the most part it’s based on a better philosophical understanding of how fascism proliferates than is held by most liberal centrists demanding civil debate.

MB: A lot of your work in this book and elsewhere is about violence. “The problem we face,” you write, “is not so much that of necessary violence as it is one of impossible nonviolence.” What does that mean?

NL: To be clear from the outset, while I do use this idea to defend, say, riotous protest against racist police killings or the punching of neo-Nazis, my point is not to deny the importance and historic success of movements who have used strategic and principled nonviolent protest. Rather, my point is that there is never, in any of these situations, really such a thing as nonviolence. The question is, where do we locate the violence in narratives about events like antifa activists fighting white supremacists in Charlottesville or Ferguson residents rising up after Mike Brown’s execution?

A categorical error is made in any media narrative resting on the idea that protests “turn” violent, or counterprotesters instigate violence in these circumstances. The error exists in the tacit suggestion that there was a situation of nonviolence, or peace, from which to turn. Any circumstance in which cops take black life with impunity, any context in which it is still necessary to state that Black Lives Matter, any situation where neo-Nazis march and murder, is a background state of constant violence. Yet the media consistently attributes the act of turning to violence to people who literally cannot turn from it, whose lives and deaths are organized by it. In the book, I cite the late philosopher Bernard Williams who wrote, “To say peace where there is no peace is to say nothing.”

MB: One essay in Being Numerous has the provocative title “Riots for Black Life.” Is rioting a kind of anti-fascist action? How is anti-fascism racialized?

NL: The writer Raven Rakia made the point that the term “riot” is deeply racialized—white people get to protest, black protest is called “riot” to denigrate it as senseless and depoliticized. For this reason, I very much understand why some people refer to the riotous protests in Ferguson and Baltimore as uprisings, which they were. If we also want to hold on to the term “riot” as a politically useful word in its own right, that entails rejecting the white establishment’s efforts to depoliticize such protests, which involve black people damaging property, confronting cops, and sometimes looting.

When then–Prime Pinister David Cameron called the 2011 London riots “criminality, pure and simple,” it was a useful lie for a politician keen to brush away the racist devastation of his government’s austerity regime, like the many middle-class Britons who went into the street with brooms to clean up after the riots’ aftermath. Rioting is not senseless destruction; on the contrary, it is often a deeply political challenge to property and white supremacy—two concepts intractably entwined.

MB: You discuss the ways the US legal system has dangerously narrowed what counts as peaceful protest in recent years. But you also suggest that social movements shoot themselves in the foot when they accept the state’s authority to distinguish between “good” and “bad” forms of protest, period. When should activists fight for the right to protest, and when is this a losing battle?

NL: The Trump administration has made it clear that little from the left can count as permissible protest. I bring this issue up when writing about the mass arrest of protesters during the J20 inauguration protests. All the charges from this unjustified arrest were eventually dropped, but the government still hit people with felony charges for being part of a protest where property damage took place—a clear violation of First Amendment protections. We should take this as a goad to abolish the old good protester/bad protester canard altogether.

On a practical level, though, we often can’t help but accept the state’s authority to distinguish between “good” and “bad” forms of protest, because the state will enact its authority regardless. When you’re forced to work within the state’s logic—say, in court—you’d be foolish not to speak the state’s language, which means appealing to your rights! The J20 defendants were absolutely correct to do so. But I argue that when we focus too much on our rights to speak and assemble, our fight becomes atomized over the fact of assembly, rather than the reason for protest. And as we’ve seen, that leaves a lot of room for white-supremacist speech to gain purchase in a liberal defense of free speech rights, with scant regard for racial justice.

MB: As recently as the Occupy movement, you write, activists were deeply shaken by revelations about the portals to state surveillance that open every time we take out our smartphones at a protest. Today, you note, we take it for granted that we are perpetually being tracked by our phones. Do we need to resist the normalization of surveillance?

NL: It’s sad that it almost feels quaint to ask whether we can resist the normalization of surveillance. Too late! And it seems like a long time since Edward Snowden’s revelations produced shock. The essay in my book that deals with this question asks whether and how to talk about our complicity with this state of totalized surveillance, given that it informs so much of how we live today.

I’m interested in stepping away from narratives of resistance to surveillance that focus exclusively on privacy protections or transparency from tech leviathans. These interventions are reformist at best and do little to challenge the gargantuan power asymmetries undergirding contemporary mass surveillance. So I think more important questions involve democratizing technological life, like Ben Tarnoff’s calls to nationalize or communize data. Issues of privacy matter hugely; protection from corporate-government surveillance is a matter of life and death for some people. Amazon works with ICE in its violent deportation machine. No amount of best privacy practices or transparency rules will suffice; these companies need to be dismantled! As always, if we’re interesting in fighting capitalism, we have to think about property. Who owns our data? And who owns the means of the production that produce us as data? What could seizing this even look like?

MB: Your most personal essays in the collection, about ghosts and suicide, are also among the most philosophical, drawing on thinkers from David Hume to Ludwig Wittgenstein. How has your background in philosophy informed the way you approach political questions?

NL: My background was in pretty dry analytic philosophy, which was both an education in rigor and exposed me to the risk of hermetically sealed logical universes. I’m pleased to have seen the risks of pretending Enlightenment reason is free of ideology—a belief that haunts liberal discourse. I almost snorted wine through my nose when I saw the New York Times “Truth” ad campaign, which insisted, “Truth cannot be manufactured.”

Some of the most violent social and political hierarchies operate by treatment of what philosophers call ontological questions—what kind of persons get to be, and how do they get to be that way? So it takes philosophical work and political action together to undo violent hierarchies and the ideologies by which they are maintained and defended.