The surge of popular interest in the United States in antifa (antifacism) in the past year has been disconcerting to me. Perhaps other researchers who became familiar with antifa in European contexts feel the same.
I haven’t yet thought through what the arrival of the antifa specter to my homeland means, but in the meantime I wanted to share a small piece from my dissertation that, I think, expresses why — despite personally holding more or less pacifist views — I sympathize to a great degree with those for whom antifa militancy feels like the only correct response to a rising white supremacist movement.
P.S. It is ahn-tee-FAH, maybe AHN-tee-fah, not an-TEE-fuh.
The state’s role in making repression possible
State-sanctioned mob violence has been identified as a feature of fascist and right- wing regimes, often accompanied by a quasi-military aesthetic and rhetoric related to family, kinship, and traditional culture under threat (Connor 2003; Ohnuki-Tierney 2002). […] The possibility of this violence, highlighted by its occasional practice, underlies the “cultural elaboration of fear” (Taussig 1987: 8, cited in Bowie 1997: 3) that undermines the capacity for action in the population at large. […]
Resulting from the diffusion of repressive power away from the state itself, the
unpredictability of violence and the uncertain nature of its source is an important affective component of the authoritarian landscape. The sense that violence could spring forth at any moment is frightening and has a powerfully discouraging effect on mass participation in the kinds of public activities subjected to intermittent attacks. When outbreaks of violence are unpredictable, how can one decide which events to attend?
Even approval of an event by the city government turns out to be no guarantee of safety, despite that the acquisition of an event permit ostensibly means that the city takes responsibility for the safety of participants in a rally or march. This was amply demonstrated to me when I attended a city-approved “Rally Against Fascism” in November 2012, meeting up ahead of time with other participants in the nearest metro station in order to walk together to the rally. From my fieldnotes:
An angry roaring noise filled the hall. We all looked toward the noise. Suddenly a group of some 30 young men swarmed down the stairs into the station, hooded and disguised with black bandanas and powder-blue surgical masks. Reflexively following the person closest to me, I turned and ran. But we had nowhere to go: the station had only one entrance and exit. A few of us ducked around pillars, perhaps hoping to hide on the platform side. The masked men ran through, flowing past me toward the far end of the station. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting. Nobody, it seemed, knew what to do. A few people near me peered futilely down the hall, where the mob seemed to have disappeared. I stood petrified, wanting to help somehow, not wanting to be seen. Angry echoes floated in the air, then coalesced into a chant as the men collected back into a single mass, then ran back up the stairs and out of sight.
Several minutes passed as we took account of ourselves. Igor and another activist had been beaten; a third had been thrown onto the tracks but rescued before the next train arrived. They were escorted out and taken to a nearby hospital.
And then the police appeared, first a pair, and soon a dozen. They were interrogating the activists, rather than taking witness testimony. An official statement released later claimed that “a conflict occurred between two groups of people: two people from one side and three from the other. The conflict escalated into a brawl as a result of which one person was injured.” When we returned from the rally, many of the activists made note—sounding utterly unsurprised and more than a bit cynical—that the entire station and entryway, which had been strangely empty of security hours earlier, were now filled with police in full riot gear.
This sense of living in an unpredictably violent world is an important part of the experience of authoritarian power, and one which is made possible by the shifting of power away from official agents of the state. In other words, the fractal or diffused structures of repressive power are a key part of the operation and experience of authoritarianism.