The New Paternalists
Conor Barnes - IdeoPunk (Centrism)
Antifa’s political claim: Some ideologies are too dangerous to be allowed space in public discourse and should be forcefully suppressed. This has been a common claim made by people opposed to free expression since liberalism’s inception, that some people are beyond rational convincing, will convince others if left alone, and therefore must be violently quashed. As Natasha Lennard writes in her defence of Antifa, “Liberal appeals to truth will not break through to a fascist epistemology of power and domination... And it is this aspect of fascism that needs to be grasped to understand the necessity of Antifa’s confrontational tactics.”
A thought experiment: Apply Antifa’s political claim to Antifa. It is a violent movement whose members largely aim for the overthrow of liberal democracy. They are opposed to the freedoms we hold dear and attack people with whom they disagree. Their purported self-defence includes setting fires and attacking professors. They recruit disillusioned youth and form mobs. Why do we suffer this movement to continue existing in civil society?
Legislators have already made this argument, that civil liberties must be curtailed in light of Antifa. Antifa will protest that they aren’t as bad as the far-right, but as Jonah Goldberg has said, “Fine, Antifa isn’t as bad as the KKK. Who cares? Since when is being less bad than the Klan a major moral accomplishment?”
Thankfully, we have an alternative to this proposal. And it is the same one that liberals have argued for in response to fascists--allow them to speak, and shut down protests only when they turn violent or when violence is imminently threatened. There is no denying that some ideologues are beyond rational convincing, but to reiterate the classical liberal argument, the expression of even abhorrent ideologies serves the public good. As J. S. Mill wrote,
"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
A resurrected Mill would be Antifa's best defender in our thought experiment. He would tell us that we benefit by hearing the arguments of Antifa, that we do ourselves a disservice by not grappling with the errors in their thought processes. Is truth robust? Then it will benefit from the challenge.
Or is truth fragile? If so, a free society is unsustainable, and we require guardians to shepherd citizens to correct opinions. Should Antifa be those guardians?
There is a curious and perilous irony in Antifa's self-appointment as the new paternalists, a vigilante immune system attempting to keep 'badthink' from infecting the populace. Antifa began as communist organizations in Weimar Germany and fascist Italy, but Antifa in 2019 is largely composed of anarchists or at least anarchist-leaning radicals. A fundamental belief of anarchists is that people are capable of self-government through more directly democratic institutions than we currently employ. While communists argue that a stateless society would eventually emerge from a “withering away” of a non-capitalist state, anarchists believe that people are capable in the here-and-now of organizing themselves collectively without the watchful eye of the state.
Yet if people are capable of self-governance, they must also be capable of choosing what opinions they hear, and what opinions they believe. If they can’t be trusted to parse nonsense, and antifa must take that responsibility upon themselves, then they are simply a new police force, accountable to no one and hostile to any documentation. Luckily for antifa, as Deleuze and Guattari once observed, “No one has ever died of contradictions.”
In this light, antifa appear less as plucky freedom fighters, and more as what they are: willfully blind totalitarians. Willfully blind because of their gap between ideology and practice, and also because of their lack of consideration for the second-order effects of their actions. If they are successful in shifting public opinion away toward curtailed speech, it will certainly not be in such a way that leaves antifa as its steward. It is likely that if antifa continue to attack regular conservatives, more and more of the Right will support a curtailing of everyone’s liberties for the sake of suppressing the threat that antifa represents. As the anarchist professor Noam Chomsky has warned, authoritarians in power are always itching for the excuse and public support to step over the prickly constraint of rule of law.
The far-right and the far-left are, perversely, each other’s best ally and propaganda. While the recent resurgence of each has their own exogenous causes, the threat of each fuels the rise of the other in a mounting feedback loop. As one grows in strength, the other can more easily sell the necessity of “pre-emptive self-defence” to rightists and leftists on the fence. This mutually-fulfilling prophecy is what Nick Land has referred to as “hyperstition”, “a positive feedback circuit including culture as a component… Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hyperstitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality.” The street fights between the far-left and the far-right should be seen for what they are: Not an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, but memetic warfare between two gangs, both angling to progressively seduce more bystanders, transforming society into a battlefield.
There is only one viable alternative to this feedback loop: the slow and unromantic unfolding of liberalism. We inoculate ourselves against the temptation to the hysterical violence of extremism by improving our civil institutions and by continuing to cultivate and teach the virtues necessary for a free society of individuals, such as intellectual humility and rationality. These are starkly opposed to the collectivism and fanatic certainty of antifa. Antifa is correct that our hard-won freedoms and rights must be defended, but their form of defence is merely the instatement of themselves as new guardians. We obviate the need for guardians by giving people the tools to consider and discard ideology (and “fake news”) on their own. In the end, this is the only process that can be honestly called “anti-fascism”.
Conor Barnes is a writer, poet, and student based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in Quillette Magazine, Areo Magazine, and the Mantle.