Above Photo: Photo by Jeanne Menjoulet | CC BY 2.0
As antifa has burst into the mainstream in recent weeks, suddenly the efficacy of confronting Nazis in the streets is being debated on the national stage. Antifa is not one particular group, but a term used to describe anti-fascists committed to stamping out fascism before it can rise to power. The debate around antifa tends to stay narrowly focused on the use of physical self-defense in public spaces. What’s received less attention is the anti-capitalist politics of antifa, and how some anti-fascists and are putting these politics into practice through workplace organizing.
When workers at the New York City feminist sex toy shop Babeland participated in a workplace action this past spring, it was the first time that every single NYC Babeland worker unanimously agreed on something: the company needed more diversity in its hiring practices. The Babeland workers, who in 2016 unionized with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), had negotiated language into their contract requiring their employer to seek diverse candidates when filling positions. When it became clear the company was violating this, the workers at Babeland all signed onto a letter called on the company to hire more workers of color and more trans workers. “To me, the most significant thing about that was that we had every single New York City employee sign,” says Phoenix V., a Babeland worker and Shop Steward.
When Tiffany S. started working at the Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op in Takoma Park, MD, she encountered disrespectful management and no way to address it. Tiffany recalls feeling disempowered at the time: “You couldn’t do anything because you might get fired.” The co-op board eventually terminated the manager, but workers were left feeling like they had little voice in that process. “Workers still don’t know if they’re safe,” says fellow co-op worker Kenny Y. “If the next general manager comes and does the same thing, they don’t know if it would be any better.” Tiffany, Kenny, and the rest of their coworkers voted to unionize with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in August, and are preparing to enter into contract negotiations with the co-op.
Phoenix, Tiffany, and Kenny all identify as anti-capitalists and anti-fascists. They see combating fascism, racism, sexism, and capitalism as inextricably linked. “They’re inseparable, they are the pillars of white supremacy,” says Phoenix. “They can’t exist without each other.” Tiffany frames the connection between capitalism and other forms of oppression as being rooted in our material reality. “When I think about the connections between capital and white supremacy, I think- who owns what, and how did they come to own it? Slaves were working the land, producing cotton, or tobacco, or sugar. Where did that money go, and what does that mean?” For Tiffany, using concrete material conditions of workers’ lives as a starting point is the easiest way of making connections between systems of capitalism and white supremacy.
In his new book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Mark Bray places current antifa struggles within a larger political ideology that is explicitly anti-capitalist. He notes that antifa has historically brought together broad segments of the left, including anarchists, communists, and socialists. “Many anti-fascists will argue that you can’t really be an anti-fascist without being an anti-capitalist, because they argue that capitalism breeds the conditions for fascism,” says Bray.
While anti-fascists have differing opinions about how fascism takes roots and grows, “what they agree on is that you can’t take fascism as a blemish on capitalist society, but instead as a key part of it.” Bray identifies this anti-capitalist analysis as a key distinction between militant anti-fascism in Europe and post-World War II modern European governments, noting that these states grew out of World War II and then juxtaposed themselves against fascism. An integral part of antifa’s politics is understanding that these states “didn’t actually thoroughly uproot traces of nazism and fascism, and by virtue of being capitalist states are still contributing to the root causes of fascism. In that sense, anti-capitalism is a key defining feature of what separates those two perspectives on what anti-fascism means.”
In the wake of the horrors of Charlottesville, elected officials from both major parties were falling over themselves to denounce “hate,” “evil,” and other seemingly apolitical concepts. These statements, divorced from any historical or political analysis, posit “hate” as an abstract concept, as if it just fell from the sky.
By putting forth a decidedly anti-capitalist set of politics, antifa challenges this notion. Instead, we find that hate is not an isolated occurrence, detached from the rest of society, but very much a symptom of a system built on exploitation. Viewed within this political framework, attempts to break down our social systems should be viewed as an affront to our inherent right to live in community with one another and to fully participate in the social and political mechanisms of society.
Destroying structures for collective organization is the first step on the road towards fascism. It tends to be the places with the weakest civic institutions that succumb to fascism first. It’s no coincidence, as the famous quote begins, that “first they came for the trade unionists.”
From this perspective, mass incarceration, voter suppression, anti-immigrant legislation, and the continued assault on labor, should be viewed as what they are: attempts to undermine our basic right to reach our fullest potential by living in community with one another. Many of the politicians decrying hate are the same ones whose policies have stripped away the most basic aspects of our social beings, depriving us of the right to engage fully in society by taking away our unions, our public schools, our libraries, and our public spaces.
The brutal so-called austerity policies of the last decade are not only a direct form of violence against working people, but a dangerous recipe for the rise of fascism and racism. This is evidenced by the rise of white nationalist and anti-immigrant parties and militias across both Europe and the United States.
Kenny sees the rigid top-down structures of the capitalist workplace as a microcosm of the anti-democratic structures of fascism. What tyrannical bosses and anti-worker legislation accomplish in the workplace is what fascists attempt to accomplish in our political system: to exert total control over its subjects, and to divide them from one another. He and his coworkers are using workplace organizing to both assert their rights on the job and educate their coworkers on the reality of capitalism.
Phoenix sees collective action as the most effective way to bring about change. “In light of recent events, all I can think about is collective action. I think that it’s the only way to make any sort of significant change.”
Indeed, building strong, bottom-up structures that bring people together in their workplaces and communities are what create the conditions to build a broad-based movement against the rise of fascism.
At Babeland, where a majority of the workforce is queer and many are trans, the job protections that come along with a unionized workplace are especially needed. “People in those communities historically face violence in the workplace,” says Phoenix. For them, having workplace protections are just as much a matter of survival as being physically protected from fascists in the street.
Collective action creates a vehicle to not only challenge external sources of power, but to challenge privilege among peers. Babeland worker Stella C. has found that the solidarity that they and their coworkers have built through workplace organizing has better positioned them to hold each other accountable. “Without the union I might not be able to talk to my coworkers about their privilege. With the bond of solidarity, I’m able to talk to them.”
In addition to carrying out actions around larger issues such as safety, job security, and hiring practices, Stella carries out small acts of solidarity in the shop whenever they can, such as covering a shift for a coworker of color who was dealing with trauma the week after the violence in Charlottesville. After having been through the experience of organizing their workplace, Stella also feels they have more tools and knowledge for combatting other forms of oppression.
Anti-fascists see the debate between confronting fascists in the streets and engaging in organizing and education on a day-to-day basis as a false dichotomy. “I’m glad we are growing a militant anti-fascist resistance movement, including the black bloc,” says Tiffany. “But is that all we need? No, of course not. To me the future of anti-fascist organizing is bringing all these groups together and building something… It takes political education, it takes getting out there and connecting with various communities.”
“I would like to see more discussion not just about ‘Is violence good or is violence bad?’” says Phoenix. “It’s a very binary way of thinking of things, and as queer people we know that binaries are constructed. I would like to see more historical analysis about how violence and pacifism have existed in the same struggle and how they’re not actually antagonistic towards each other. Approaching a problem on different levels and from different sides is really important.”
Stella sees tactics less as an all-or-nothing decision, but rather taking stock of one’s resources and abilities and “fighting however you can with whatever tools you have. However you can fight white supremacy or fascism, do it. Not everyone has access to the same tools. For me, the best way I have to fight is to make space for people of color in my workplace, and the best way to do that is through my union.”
It’s worth noting that few of today’s unions openly embrace anti-capitalist politics. Anti-capitalist workers who are unionizing their jobs see workplace organizing as one step in a process that leads towards not just better lives within capitalism but in a more equitable way of structuring society. For Tiffany, the goals of organizing include both bread and butter issues and a vision for a just society. “For now I am fighting for $15 an hour and I am fighting for health care, because I have bills to pay and I need to live. But that can’t be all that it’s about.”
The labor movement can and should play a critical role in resisting the forces of racism and white supremacy. Even though organized labor is historically weak in the US, it still represents over 14 million workers. Much smaller amounts of people have effected significant change at different points in history.
What if ICE agents collectively decided to stop deportations? What if all the scientists and civil servants working in the federal government, many of whom are members of the American Federation of Government Employees, instead of engaging in public resignations, joined collectively across agencies and used their collective power to resist?
While these propositions currently feel eons away from becoming reality, our power comes from our ability to build mass movements and to harness that power in key moments. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)’s recent organizing against fascism in San Francisco is just one recent example of the possibilities. Those of us on the left can continue to push labor by engaging in our unions, to use our collective power to both resist the current racism re-gaining momentum, and to build strong organizations on the ground to move us forward.
Says Tiffany, “When we come together as workers, we are taking power from those who own it. We are taking ownership. It’s the most fundamental thing that we can do together as people who are exploited under this system.”