Anti-Fascism Today: New Threats and New Tactics

Joe Mulhall - 18 05 23

As recently as 2017, over one billion, nine hundred and seventy-one million people lived in countries with radical or far right governments. This included three of the five most populous countries on Earth –  the United States under Donald Trump, Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro and India under Narendra Modi. In Europe today, the Law and Justice Party governs Poland, Hungary is ruled by Prime Minister Victor Orbàn of Fidesz and Italy by Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy.

Meanwhile, the far and radical right has been in parliamentary chambers across Europe, including in Bulgaria, Estonia and Slovakia. Parties including the Swedish Democrats, the Austrian Freedom Party, Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, Vox in Spain and The Finns in Finland have all achieved success at the ballot box.

In the UK, while the far-right scene is small and splintered, their ideology and rhetoric increasingly emanates from mainstream politicians and the media. There has been an increasing convergence between the far and Conservative right, especially around so-called ‘culture war’ issues and opposition to ‘woke’ politics, particularly transgender rights, a certain conception of ‘free speech’ and multiculturalism.

Perhaps the biggest change for anti-fascists across the globe is that we increasingly oppose those who are in power. While some anti-fascists have retreated to targeting often marginal extra-parliamentary groups, using traditional tactics, our movement risks irrelevance if we do not also find ways to modernise and expand to better oppose more mainstream and powerful manifestations of the far right.

The causes of the return of the far right are complex. In part, it is due to the negative effects of globalisation and neoliberal economics which have stratified communities and created ever more unequal societies. It is also the fault of political elites around the world, who ignored commonplace concerns in the belief that voters had nowhere else to go, until many eventually turned to the radical and far right.

Perhaps the biggest change for anti-fascists across the globe is that we increasingly oppose those who are in power.  

Worryingly, the pillars of liberal/progressive democracy continue to wobble across the globe. While the electoral defeats of Trump and Bolsonaro are welcome victories, there is no time for complacency. New challenges look set to compound existing ones, chief among them being climate change.

While most of the far right has spent decades denying climate change and pushing against effective transnational efforts to deal with the problem, we are likely to increasingly see far-right individuals and parties attempt to co-opt environmental issues for their own aims. There has always been a strand of the far right that has placed environmentalism at the core of their politics, often expanding their definition to include the preservation of traditional societies as well as ecology. Looking forward, however, the far right would not just seek to block effective action against climate change in the short term, but will also be in the best position to exploit its negative effects in the medium to long term with calls to close borders, reject climate refugees and hoard natural resources.

However, perhaps the most pressing issue for our movement is the decline of the “anti-fascist consensus”, the belief that opposition to fascism in light of the horrors of the Holocaust is an obvious, even default, societal position. Worryingly, this consensus has begun to crumble across the globe in recent decades.

As the historian Dan Stone has argued, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the political project of social democracy in the West and communism in the East “went hand in hand with the death of antifascism, hence the reappearance of ideas and values which had long been assumed to be dead, or at best marginal and lunatic.” A fundamental challenge for modern anti-fascism is how to rebuild that consensus.  

Don’t Call Us Fascists

Another challenge we face is that the modernisation of sections of the international far right, in particular since the 1980s, has increasingly meant that many of the groups and individuals we oppose now vehemently reject that they are indeed fascists. While the most extreme elements of the far right continue to self-identify as such, the majority of the movement do not, some tactically, others sincerely.

Much of the far right genuinely regard themselves not as extreme or fringe, but rather as ordinary, normal exemplars of ‘the people’, standing against ‘oppression’, publicly eschewing fascism and Nazism, sometimes conceptualising themselves as the victims of totalitarianism or even victims of ‘fascism’. 

Far-right figures such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) have been unironically compared by his supporters to the suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, something unimaginable for far-right groupings in previous decades.

It is easy to scoff at the ridiculous comparison of Lennon to Mandela, but it is necessary to understand that there is an internal logic at play here. They genuinely believe in their own victimhood and oppression at the hands of a powerful left-wing or liberal elite, meaning that those who oppose such a system can be viewed within a civil rights or freedom fighting tradition.

What may seem a ludicrous inversion to us is not always a duplicitous tactic but can be a sincerely held belief, a fact that has tactical repercussions. Being seen to shout ‘nazi’ at a far-right activist with a Winston Churchill tattoo is likely to be greeted with bemusement by many of those we want on our side.

Anti-Fascism in the Digital Age

The rise of the far right in the past quarter century has coincided with, and partly relied on, the ubiquity of the internet and social media. For most of the postwar period, far-right activists were actively marginalised from mainstream discourse, making it difficult for extremists to reach large audiences. For this reason, the far right were enthusiastic early adopters of the internet, quickly spying an opportunity to disseminate their ideas without the gatekeepers of the mainstream media.

While attempts to create alternative spaces online for the benefit of the far right are nothing new, a series of recent developments means that the intensity and focus of this trend has increased. The advent of social media has afforded them opportunities that were previously unimaginable, with online platforms allowing not just the dissemination of information to huge new audiences but also a way to network within a movement and across ideological and national boundaries.

For most of the post-war period, ‘getting active’ required finding a party, joining, canvassing, knocking on doors, dishing out leaflets and attending meetings. Now, from the comfort and safety of their own homes, far-right activists can engage in politics by watching YouTube videos, visiting far right websites, networking on forums, speaking on voice chat services like Discord and trying to convert ‘normies’ on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The fact that this can all be done anonymously hugely lowers the social cost of activism.

This online form of far-right activism is a challenge to the traditional anti-fascist tactic of ‘no platform.’ It is no longer practical to try and remove fascists from contributing to public debate as it once was. The internet and social media makes this an impossibility. While the deplatforming (removing the accounts) of harmful actors from social media has been a fruitful pursuit, the last few years has seen the emergence of a far more viable alternative online space. Whether it is video sharing platforms such as Bitchute or Odysee, or Twitter clones like Gab or Gettr, the quality, reliability and user experience has increased dramatically on platforms on which public pressure and anti-fascist campaigning has no effect.

Meeting the Challenge

If we are to genuinely understand the changing nature of the threat, anti-fascism needs to merge our traditional means of gathering information offline with immersing ourselves in online networks and utilising open-source intelligence, big data and network analysis.

Simply put, anti-fascism has to continue to develop and modernise. Yes, we need to continue to mobilise at a street level and in communities. But to meet the modern threat we also need to understand the new digital landscape.

All this means that if we are to truly understand the contemporary far right, we must change our thinking. We live in a shrinking world. Be it in our own community, our own country, continent or globe, we are interconnected like never before.

Our ability to travel, communicate and cooperate across borders would have been inconceivable just a generation ago and while these opportunities are by no means distributed evenly, they have opened up previously impossible chances for progress and development.

Yet greater interconnectivity has also produced new challenges. The tools at our disposal to build a better, fairer, more united and collaborative world are also in the hands of those who are using them to sow division and hatred around the world. If we want to understand the dangers posed by the politics of hatred and division, we can no longer just look at our street, our community or even our country, we must think beyond political parties, beyond formal organisations all together and beyond national borders.


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