Getty
Show Hide image

How Antifa uses no-platforming successfully to fight white supremacy

The left needs to figure out how to weigh its critiques of Antifa against the movement’s success.

After addressing a virtually empty performance hall at Michigan State University, the white nationalist Richard Spencer cancelled his college tour. The pathetic turnout was the work of Antifa and student organisers, who had blocked the entrances to the event.

This state of disarray is a familiar sight among white nationalist groups. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has all but dissolved after its leader was arrested for choking the group’s top spokesman, while organisers of Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally, Jason Kessler and Andrew Anglin, are facing a lawsuit for conspiracy to commit violence.

Even Milo Yiannopoulos, once a guest of American talk show host Bill Maher, has been reduced to hawking vitamin supplements on Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website. His fate is the perfect symbol of the fall of the alt-right, and, like much of their demise, can be largely attributed to the success of Antifa.

In 2017, little divided the American left more than Antifa. While some of the criticism was rather unhinged – like Robert Reich’s bizarre suggestion that Antifa was a false flag operation created by the right – much of it came from a place of sympathy. Noam Chomsky, for example, warned of the threat of escalating violence, branding disruptive tactics “a welcome gift to the far-right and the repressive forces of the state”.

Despite criticism from liberals and leftists, Antifa continued to grow; dealing significant blows to the alt-right throughout the year. This eventually culminated in the deadly clash in Charlottesville, from which the alt-right has been unable to recover.

The question is no longer whether Antifa’s tactics are a viable way to confront white nationalism, but how the left should weigh the critiques of Antifa against its success.

Philosophical or religious objections to violence aside, the left had two main issues with the movement. They argued that not only did its protests provide an excuse for young white guys to cause mayhem, but that the attention garnered in doing so actually boosted the alt-right by giving them notoriety – while increasing the possibility of violence against the left.

Although there were undeniably some young white men who appeared better motivated by the opportunity to smash windows than build solidarity, this criticism is superficial. It obscures the women, the people of colour, and participants from the LGBTQ+ community all of whom, in many cases, were not only members of Antifa, but actually lead the movement.

Masquerading as an intersectional perspective, the white-men-mayhem critique erased the contributions of people of colour in Antifa and mistakenly centred whiteness in the struggle against white supremacy.

Despite the tactics of the left, violence remains a distinct part of far-right practice, with frequent brutality seen by right-wing and white nationalists over the last year. From the shooting of a protester in Portland in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, to the seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it seemed the white supremacist movement did not need much excuse to enact violence.

Under these conditions, self-defence is becoming an unwanted but indispensable activity for left activism. As the academic Dr Cornel West said after Charlottesville, where he was present: without Antifa, he and the members of the clergy there “would have been crushed like cockroaches”.

Lamenting his inability to hold college tours, Richard Spencer commented on how the carnival-like atmosphere around their events was good for recruiting. According to Spencer, such controversy allowed the alt-right to “present ourselves as curiosities”, attracting people wondering “what are these crazy racist ideas I’ve been hearing about”.

While he benefits from a contained chaos, there comes a point where opposition becomes unmanageable. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask communities to tolerate white nationalism by ignoring it; we must instead build a determined opposition to its growth.

The student activists at MSU offer an example of how coordinated opposition can successfully prevent the alt-right from achieving their goals – containing the scourge of white supremacy.

Antifa was alarming to many because its radical tactics disrupted our lives. It is harrowing to look around and see you are surrounded by rot. But to build a better future, we must see the world as it is and to stand in solidarity with each other to make changes.

David Griscom is a contributing writer and researcher with The Michael Brooks Show, a left-wing podcast whose guests typically include figures from left media including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Chapo Trap House.

People protest Macron’s policies amid a rail strike and spreading student sit-ins. Credit: Getty
Show Hide image

How Emmanuel Macron may become France’s first president to defeat strikers in decades

Or, as has happened before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow him. 

Since his election almost exactly a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron has never ceased to surprise his compatriots and wrong-foot his political rivals. Two recent TV interviews, given a few days apart, provided another example of how he intends to disrupt the status quo to his advantage – both at home and on the international stage.

Two weeks into a three-month strike by the national rail network SNCF, called by the powerful, communist-led CGT trade union, Macron needed to convince the French public that his planned reform of the state railways was not an act of stealth privatisation but a necessary adjustment of an employment status dating back to 1920 (when train-driving was both physically strenuous and dangerous).

Today, around 150,000 rail workers in France benefit from a job for life, retirement at the age of 57 (compared to 62 nationally) and an array of benefits. Among these workers, train drivers are even better treated: they retire at 52 with free life travel or heavily discounted fares for their family and extended family (spouses, children and in-laws). Partly as a result, the state railways have amassed debts of €50bn. The French government is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for ending the existing employment terms for new workers (while maintaining them for current employees).

President Macron chose to give his first televised interview on the subject on 12 April at lunchtime in a primary school classroom in Normandy. Seven million viewers tuned in. The interviewer was polite, the exchange was civil and the unusual setting intrigued, amused and charmed the audience. Was Macron convincing? The strikes, which resumed later that evening, were not as well-attended as before. Are the unions already losing momentum?

Former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy sought previously to reform the state railways in 1995 and 2010. Both were forced to retreat after weeks of strikes paralysed the country (indeed, there has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959). They also capitulated because a majority of French voters, imbued with the spirit of the revolution, were unconditionally backing the trade unions.

 But today is different. Macron knows this. So do the unions. Ultimately, the French alone will decide with whom they side: their inner rebel or their inner reformer?

The stakes are high for both sides and for the country. A recent opinion poll found that France was almost perfectly divided: a slight majority (52 per cent) backing the reforms and a large minority (48 per cent) supporting the strikers. Macron, who won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, has faced no greater challenge to his domestic authority.

Yet as the centre-right Républicains and the enfeebled centre-left Parti Socialiste have all but left the political stage, the only loud adversaries of the French government are at the extremes.

Both the far right and the far left are deploying the same arguments against Macron’s reforms. Front National leader Marine Le Pen (the runner-up in last year’s presidential election) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who finished fourth, are accusing the government of planning the full privatisation of the railways at the behest of the EU. They are playing on fears, weaving conspiracy theories, so that their voters see in Macron’s reforms the end of the French welfare system.

France spends more on social security than any other EU country (34.3 per cent of GDP compared to the EU average of 28.7 per cent). Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany all trail behind. With good reason, the French are deeply attached to their welfare state: its dismantlement is not proposed by Macron.

The inconsistency of the president’s detractors was rarely more apparent than during his second TV interview on the evening of 15 April. Unique in its format, this three-hour affair, staged at the Palais de Chaillot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, was broadcast on private news channel BFMTV. For once, the president had not received the questions in advance – a revealing encounter lay ahead.

But Edwy Plenel, a Trotskyist activist and founder of the powerful news website Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a talk show host on the popular Radio Monte Carlo, resorted to gratuitously attacking Macron and talking over each other without once destabilising the president. The French had to endure the sorry spectacle of populist journalism à la française, while their head of state emerged unscathed. Once again, Macron had challenged the norm, and prevailed.

Strikers who invoke the May 1968 évènements, in an attempt to galvanise the French workforce, are unwise to do so. Talk of a mai chaud (a May simmering with social anger) is at best hasty and at worst delusional.

Some French universities have been occupied and blockaded by radical leftist and anarchist students (partly in protest at more selective entry requirements). They have demanded the resignation of Macron and for student work to be automatically marked ten out of 20, ensuring undergraduates pass their exams while striking. Yet their filmed “general assemblies”, available on YouTube, should reassure Macron’s supporters. The students’ incoherent political message poses little threat to the government.

As so often before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow Macron. But there is now the genuine possibility that he may become the first French president in decades to beat “the street”.

Should Macron succeed, it will be due to his personal conviction and to his now-legendary luck. But it will also be due to the French people, who will have decided finally to trust him – at least for the time being.

Agnès Poirier is the author of “Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950”

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge