When is it okay to punch a fascist?
The online revelling in the smacking of Richard Spencer is pretty tragic.
On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a masked anarchist punched white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer in the head and the film clip of it has gone viral. The alt-right spokesman was being filmed for a documentary, with the inauguration as a backdrop. Throughout the day, anarchists of the ‘black bloc’ had been trying to disrupt the inauguration, protesting, smashing windows and setting a limousine alight.
‘It was a sucker punch’, Spencer said shortly afterwards, brushing off the attack. Later, however, he seemed a bit shaken and put out a short video saying that the right must be prepared.
More telling, though, has been the reaction to the attack from those who are critical of Spencer and who fear that his brand of far-right politics has been emboldened by Trump’s election. The clip of Spencer getting thumped has been posted all over the internet. It has been set to music, for comic effect, turned into a gif, and made into scores of memes and cartoons.
The reproduction of the clip has lots of people on the left crowing over the thumping of the ‘fascist’ Spencer. Some more middle-of-the-road liberals have recoiled from the lauding of this violent act.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with punching fascists. The Spencer-bashers are right to point out that the left often fought hand-to-hand with fascist gangs in the 1930s, and they might well have done better if others on the left hadn’t been so squeamish about that.
Many libertarians consider the idea of beating up fascists to be a betrayal of the ideal of free speech. On the whole it is better to engage with people that you disagree with. The No Platform policies that students’ unions have adopted to silence people on the right have generally been counterproductive, promoting intolerance to contrasting ideas, and making right-wing ideas look more ‘edgy’ than they really are.
There are limits, though, to the goal of engaging opponents in the battle of ideas. Where organisations are actively mobilising to attack people physically, then it makes no sense to start up an interesting debate. It is all a question of proportionality. When someone comes at you with force, you should ideally be ready to meet him with force.
But whether this rushed thump of Spencer and the gleeful reproduction of the clip stand in the venerable tradition of workers’ self-defence is questionable.
Whatever the justice of the punch, the widespread reproduction of it across social media does not seem to be an expression of confidence or determination. It looks more like a load of inadequate laptop anarchists bravely clicking a mouse to reproduce a link. The bold Facebook statuses excoriating ‘liberals’ for their squeamishness about violence sound radical, but are mostly just compensating for a failure to make a bigger impact. Caught between the triumphant Trump and the mass, decidedly feminine anti-Trump protests, the more radical yearn for a knockout blow. But that yearning is itself a mark of the impotence of the radical point of view.
That is true, too, of the black bloc. Their protests at the inauguration were an anguished rejection of the large popular support that carried Trump to the White House. The way to build an opposition to Trump is to talk to the people who voted for him, and persuade them that they were wrong. But the task seems too enormous, too time-consuming, to the black bloc, who prefer dramatic, sometimes violent, action to underscore their frustration. How perfect it must have seemed to stumble across the right-wing bogeyman Spencer. Like Gavrilo Princip, surprised to see the Archduke Franz Ferdinand turning into the side-street he had hidden in, the anarchist took his shot.
Only Spencer is not the Archduke Ferdinand, and nor is he Adolf Hitler, neither literally nor figuratively. His ideas about the great threat to the white race are certainly idiotic. His supporters — who famously ‘Sieg Heiled’ the election of Trump — are tragic nobodies who, like the black bloc, are only acting the part of the master race to compensate for their own humdrum lives.
Though his white-nationalist whining is stupid, and not widely supported, Spencer himself is quite an effective propagandist, and an organiser. But his importance has been talked up by people who want to show that Trump is secretly planning a fascist takeover. The punching, and the endlessly repeated Richard-Spencer-being-punched clips, all make Spencer seem more important than he is. The pleasure you take from watching the clip of Spencer being punched is a sign of your own impotence, and a boon to Spencer himself.
James Heartfield is the author of The European Union and the End of Politics, published by ZER0 Books.