Devin Zane Shaw, Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020; 149 pages. 978-1786615589.
Reviewed by Robert Luzecky, Purdue University.
Devin Zane Shaw’s Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy could not be a timelier contribution to an underdeveloped aspect of contemporary political philosophy. This essential text comes during a time of strife in Western democracies, a period which has witnessed the ignominious ascendency of racially-motivated hatred, police brutality, as well as the Catholic Church’s complicity in the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. Shaw’s text is a philosophical defense to the wonderfully public 2017 beatdown of Richard Spencer — the self-declared spokesperson of the newly ascendent alt-right, which Shaw mentions at key moments of his argument. Throughout five chapters, Shaw situates his rigorous argument in a rich tradition of radical thought, which includes luminaries like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Rancière, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Marx. One might also observe that Shaw’s admirable text functions as a philosophical cry of indignation, which is all the more important after the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 murdered indigenous children on the grounds of Kamloops Residential School. Upon the publication of the first volume of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Michel Foucault observed that scarcely had a more important text on ethics been written in the 20th century. We would not be remiss to repeat this claim with some modification: in the 21st century, in a North American context, there is scarcely a more important text for political philosophy than Philosophy of Antifascism.
In the first chapter, Shaw elaborates on the nature and scope of antifascism through reference to a complex schema of a three-way fight among the competing interests of antifascism, fascism, and liberalism. Here Shaw observes that antifascism and liberalism involve an opposition to fascism, but for different reasons. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shaw’s development of this schema is the explicit claim that antifascism is incompatible with liberalism (in either of its classical — Lockean — or more contemporary, but no less troubling — Rawlsian— guises). Though liberal antifascists tend to temper their resistance to fascism through reference to the existing institutional forms of Western liberal democracy, militant antifascists recognize that contemporary Western democratic institutions tend to offer only the means for tepid responses to fascistic aspects of the populous. Shaw further observes that in terms of praxis and ideological commitments, liberalism tends to be intertwined with advancement of capitalist interests. Antifascism, on the other hand, tends to be associated with a much more radically egalitarian model than those typically afforded by Western capitalist interests. The substance of Shaw’s text elaborates on the tensions implicit in this three-way fight through detailed elaborations of the existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, and (to a lesser extent) Frantz Fanon, as well as the political philosophy of Rancière.
Shaw develops the tensions among antifascists and liberals — who tend to be complicit with the interests of fascism— through reference to the French existentialists and Fanon. The first premise of the argument of Shaw’s second chapter could hardly be less ambiguous: “Existentialism is an antifascism.” (23) Here, Shaw carefully observes that fascism tends to involve the bad-faith choice to immiserate the other. In this sense, fascism is the oppressive viewpoint held by persons “who, when given the means to choose, have made the deliberate choice to re-entrench the public and psychological wages of whiteness, heteropatriarchy, ableism and settler-colonialism, and that to do so that entails the harassment, intimidation, and oppression of others.” (40) Shaw astutely avoids the textual ambiguity associated with Sartrean freedom by echoing Beauvoir’s distinction between ontological and moral species of freedom. Here, the claim is that while we may indeed have the ontological freedom to do anything whatsoever — a maximal sense of freedom that involves absolute licence; the sort of freedom associated with juveniles, active shooters, angry white males who drive pick-up trucks into families, and other sociopaths — a moral sense of freedom tends to yield the maxim that one should perhaps violently oppose any (and all) persons or institutions involved in the oppression or further immiseration of the other. Elaborating on Beauvoir’s analyses of the sub-man in The Ethics of Ambiguity as well as her response to the Brasillach affair, Shaw observes that Beauvoir suggests that the oppressed enjoy a right to seek vengeance on their oppressors — even when this vengeance is in the form of emancipatory political violence directed at complicit, State-sponsored agents and institutions. Robert Brasillach was a Nazi collaborator whose odious contribution to the history of thought was the publication of the names and addresses of Jewish members of the French Resistance. Brasillach was sentenced to death by a French court on 19 January 1945. Though many French intellectuals signed a petition demanding that De Gaulle pardon Brasillach, Beauvoir refused. In “An Eye for an Eye,” Beauvoir provides an elegant philosophical defense of why fascists should be put to death. (PW, 245–60) Shaw suggests that Beauvoir’s argument yields a moral defense of the right of the victim to authentically reclaim their human dignity by engaging in acts of violent retribution, i.e., emancipatory violence as a morally justified means of actualizing human freedom.
In his third chapter, Shaw elaborates on the immanent tensions of liberalism with respect to the nature of egalitarianism. Here, the particular subject matter of Shaw’s analysis is the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. Shaw suggests that Rancière’s distinction between “politics” and “policing” yields philosophical support for a radically emancipatory concept of egalitarianism — i.e., a robust concept of social equality, which may be marshalled to critique “status subordination” that tends to negatively affect labourers who identify as other than heteronormatively male. (77–78) The tension between policing and politics could hardly be more pronounced. Shaw observes that a Rancièrian concept of policing comprehends the multiplicity of modalities of social control that are expressed by governmental forces in civil society. The activity of policing is broader than the set of disciplinary practices of enforcement and regulation typically associated with police and paramilitary forces in Western societies. In this sense, policing is akin to the new paradigm power which Deleuze characterizes as social control — the monstrous amalgam of surveillance apparatuses, regulations, micro-aggressions, humiliations, and acts of State violence that functions to further immiserate the already marginalized. Shaw observes that Rancière’s concept of politics “is strictly egalitarian, a dynamic of subjectification that begins from the supposition of equality.” (80) Perhaps the most substantive implication of this distinction — between policing, which may be characterized as forceful societal control on steroids, and politics, characterized as participation of fundamentally equal members of a society in the ongoing creation of a shared sense of subjectivity — is that fascists are identified as parapolitical, explicitly white supremist, implicitly toxically masculine insurrectionary forces which are fundamentally hostile to the dynamically evolving concept of solidarity among members of society. In concrete terms, fascists aim to destroy political society. Shaw explicitly identifies the active politics of Black Lives Matter, the prison abolitionist movement, Idle No More, and pipeline protestors as viable means of safeguarding the robust sense of egalitarianism hinted at in Rancière’s concept of politics.
Though Shaw’s analyses of Beauvoir and Rancière make this an excellent companion piece to a thorough study of the substantive contributions to political thought of either of these authors, the principle aim of the text — a rigorous justification of militant antifascism — doesn’t take centre stage until the fourth chapter. Here, the concrete claim is that violence against fascists is not performed in bad faith. Stated positively, violence which is directed against fascists is axiologically valuable, in the sense that it protects human solidarity. Shaw compares Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s respective claims about the value of violence to make his argument. Sartre, it must be observed, explicitly eschews violence, as is evident in his characterization of the phenomenon as a modality of the world’s destruction that tends to be performed in bad faith. (122) Beauvoir, on the other hand, recognizes the laudatory aspects of violence, with her observation that instances of profound immiseration — e.g., torture, humiliation, forced servitude, or any of the multiplicity of species of hatred that function to diminish the human mitsein — should be understood as calls to violent action aimed at abrogating the freedom of the evildoer. The implication is that punching a Nazi is a viable form of community self-defence. In concrete terms, violence against fascists is an authentic form of emancipatory violence.
Shaw reserves what is perhaps the most revolutionary set of claims for ultimate chapter of his book. Here, Shaw suggests that the elaborate conceptual apparatus — which he has carefully constructed in the preceding chapters — be marshalled to critically assess the viability of the explicitly “settler-colonialist societies of the United States and Canada.” (156) Coupling the analyses of Du Bois, Fanon, and Marx, Shaw observes that the very facticity of being white affords one a heightened degree of socio-economic privilege in reference to that enjoyed by non-white members of the polis. Here, the enthymematic claim is that all lands of the North American continent — i.e., the entirety of Turtle Island — were colonized by entities which (at least tacitly, but more often than not, explicitly) harboured white supremacist ideologies and values. In a Canadian context, Crown land is land which was colonized by whites, in order create institutions in service of white supremacy and capitalism. This yields the suggestion that North America is a land upon which the ancestors of colonizers tend to flourish, and all non-whites tend to languish. Shaw’s ultimate suggestion is that the only way to defeat fascism in North America is to re-affirm a commitment to radical egalitarianism.
In this elegant book, Shaw does the seemingly impossible, in the sense that he elicits hope for a better political future, in which all of fascism, colonialism, white supremacy, and (indeed) capitalism are consigned to the dustbin of history. Philosophy of Antifascism is necessary reading for scholars in the area, students, and members of the public. This book should be on the required reading list of any class on socio-political philosophy taught in North America.
Additional Works Cited
Simone de Beauvoir (2004), “An Eye for an Eye” in Philosophical Writings, Margaret A Simons, Marybeth Timmermann, and Mary Beth Mader eds. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).