Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life was published by Verso Books on April 30, 2019, and has been hailed, by Malcolm Harris, as “the left’s answer to post-truth.” The collection extends and brings together in thematic unity many of Natasha Lennard’s best essays on topics such as digital unfreedom, “free speech,” rioting, queer sex, Standing Rock, and suicide. Throughout Being Numerous, Lennard torques and deconstructs—without ever stepping out of the fray of struggle—the political forms presented to us as “democracy,” in order to concentrate on the elusive, omnipresent set of practices and possibilities she calls “anti-fascisting.” In the following interview, Sophie Lewis (author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family) converses with the author about antiblackness, death, “visa marriage,” Chelsea Manning, and environmentalism.
Sophie Lewis.— One of the many things I received from your book was a dynamic and plural framework for grasping what we (don’t) talk about when we talk about fascism. In your hands, it’s impossible not to appreciate that that which is fascist is not reducible to willingness to throw a Sieg Heil—in fact, it does not only inhabit singular human personalities at all but also seeps into the building blocks of culture and (as you suggest in Chapter 10, “Being Numerous”) structures planetary digital platforms and technologies. Throughout Being Numerous, you weave together stories about combating avowed white nationalists on the streets and stories about more intimate, webbed, domestic, affective, subcultural fascisms—even “queer” ones. Living a non-fascist life becomes palpable as a horizon, or at least a trickier business than most of us would like to think. Could you talk more about the relationship between “non-fascist” and “anti-fascist”?
Natasha Lennard.— While I don’t have any sort of strict definitional divide between “non-fascist” and “anti-fascist,” the reference to “non-fascist life” is aimed to conjure an idea of fighting against fascism(s) in forms not only constituted by government regimes, militaries, or formal neo-Nazi, white-supremacist groupings. In his introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault used the term “non-fascist” to speak of the sort of intellectual, affective communal and emotional work needed to fight the “micro-fascisms,” the everyday fascisms, “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” There is a certain impossibility to “anti-fascist” as an identity, insofar as none of us are totally free from the micro-fascisms permeating life under capitalism, which (as we can well observe) make fruitful soil for more formal fascist assemblages to grow.
In the lead-up to Trump’s presidency, there seemed to be a mini media cottage industry devoted to debating whether Trump was or was not a fascist, whether he would or would not bring fascism to America. The entire conversation seemed premised on the idea that we could only talk about fascism in the present day as some aberration to the progress of liberal democracy, some wrong turn back to the early 20th century. But at the time I first read Anti-Oedipus, and discussed the idea of non-fascism and micro-fascisms in a radical left reading group in the lead-up to Occupy in New York, it was 2011. The idea of a President Trump was far from the horizon. We used the term fascism somewhat capaciously, as a recognizable but not only state-regime-constituted concept. It was useful then and it’s useful now.
At points in the book I talk about anti-fascist action in the way it is most popularly understood—as the tactics taken up under the banner “antifa.” I defend antifa tactics as both (regularly) effective and necessary acts of community defense against organized and organizing white supremacists. But it takes an understanding of how the desire for fascism works and gets collectively fostered to understand why antifa interventions, rather than civil debates with neo-Nazis, work. And that takes thinking about micro-fascism.
As you mention, most of the essays in the book aren’t about Sieg Heiling MAGA chuds and the antifa who shut them down (although these feature!). A number of the essays (from one about the racist necropolitics of how the media shows us corpses to one about the misuses and abuses of so-called radical sex) deal more with micro-fascistic hierarchies. There’s definitely some grim irony in the fact that the man who introduced me to Deleuze and with whom I first discussed micro-fascism is the very man (a serious ex) who used radical posturing and claims about liberatory sex to abusive, patriarchal ends. Reflecting on how a guy like that can take up anti-fascist action but fail to live a non-fascist life, we might just chalk it up to hypocrisy. But the book, I hope, explores how it’s not so simple.
Sophie Lewis.— At the time of this conversation, one figure associated with the once formidable network WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, remains incarcerated (though thankfully no longer in solitary confinement) for no reason other than to pressure her into testifying. Manning, for her part, has become increasingly radical in her political analysis over the past nine years. You’ve diligently covered her incarceration in your column at The Intercept—yet support for her is (I believe) decreasing internationally, at least in the media. Meanwhile, another pillar of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has been arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and looks set to become a linchpin within the new red-brown alliance in formation worldwide. What do you make of this?
Natasha Lennard.– I’ve written about Chelsea’s current, vile incarceration in my Intercept column and have consistently made the point that we need have no love for the monstrous Assange to support Manning’s brave resistance. She’s refusing to testify in front of the grand jury (which is investigating Assange) because she knows, and has stated, that federal grand juries are historic tools of oppression, long used against activist communities—from the late 19th century labor movements, to the Puerto Rican Independence Movement and black liberationists of the last century, to environmentalists, anarchists, and indigenous-rights fighters more recently. No doubt Chelsea’s radical, antiauthoritarian, anti-fascist politics have lost her some liberal supporters, who like their whistle-blowers milquetoast, speaking Truth to Power rather than wanting to fight and dismantle the powers that be. Not to mention the cesspool of transphobes. Which is why Chelsea needs our support more than ever.
We should stand against the Trump administration’s prosecution of Assange, not because Assange is a hero (he’s despicable), but because it sets disturbing, First Amendment–violating precedent. Our enemy’s enemy is not necessarily our friend. I don’t talk about either Chelsea or Assange in the book, but I do address a tension raised in your question: What are the limits and values of a strategic defense of individual rights? So, we defend Assange’s (and thus our own) First Amendment rights in this instance, because the state is threatening them, with perilous consequences for dissent. But this defense of our rights, while in interlocution with the state, should not be conflated into a political defense of Assange. Our struggle for social justice should include disavowing figures like Assange, but not on the state’s terms. In this case, as in so many, we see how fighting for individual rights is thus necessary and strategic but a deeply limited political end.
Sophie Lewis.— When the word “democracy” comes up in your book, it’s most often because you’re exposing democracy’s impossible, fictitious, or at the very least hitherto unrealized character—that is, you’re helping your reader reject the myths of liberal democracy. Or else, it’s when you discuss Ben Tarnoff’s (of Logic magazine) proposal for data socialization “under the template of democratic resource nationalism.” As long as Big Data remains undemocratized, you argue, it makes no sense to talk of a democratic tech culture (except, you imply, as a horizon). Your stance, as such, seems to be close to Astra Taylor’s book title, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. But is “democratizing” (as opposed to “democratic”) an adequate synonym for the anti-fascist horizon you insist on for the condition of “being numerous”? Anti-fascist action has often had to be antidemocratic.
Natasha Lennard.— I’m glad you bring up Astra’s book, since we’ve been in discussions with each other about our work recently, which I’ve loved, and are doing an event together for both our books! I don’t think “democratizing” and “anti-fascisting” can work as synonyms, per se, because they’re both capacious ideas, filled with tensions and sometimes contradictions. The terms fascism and anti-fascism are highly useful, but because I can’t give you a strict and unchanging definition (as I can’t for many useful words), I also can’t give you one synonym that would be perfectly coextensive. Democracy works the same way. Astra makes this clear when she delineates how a truly democratic project is impossible—it is undergirded by contradictions (e.g. conflict versus consensus; inclusion versus exclusion). And so democratizing is never pure, and can include anti-democratic aspects to it. For example, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it was anti-democratic in the extreme, and a popular vote would never have led to it. Yet it was a most democratizing act. I feel like anti-fascism can strive to work the same way, with the understanding that none of us, under capitalism, can claim to be wholly free of fascism. I see democratizing and anti-fascisting as thus two interrelated, mutually reinforcing, messy, difficult, and necessary efforts.
Sophie Lewis.— On Being Numerous begins and ends with an encounter with death, each of which speaks, in its way, to the questions of senselessness and contingency. Your first essay opens with the agentless killing of Clark, flung from a car on the road to Standing Rock in 2016, and your closing essay is titled “Of Suicide,” the fact of your having “tried to die, both meaningfully and without really meaning it.” As your close friend, I am obviously extraordinarily grateful that you did not, as it happened, die. Your last words evoke—without sentimentality—a desire, at least, a desire that you felt in a given moment, to keep on being, keep on striving at non-fascism: “I rested two fingers against my throat to feel my own pulse.” Can you tell me more of what you know about not being fascist in relation to death?
Natasha Lennard.— As I note in the book’s introduction, I didn’t begin almost any of the collection’s essays with the intention, or even the idea, of compiling them. That’s the nature of recounting—starting at the end, seeing patterns emerge. So it was not a shock but a delayed realization to notice how much the collection deals with haunting and death. In one sense, it seems obvious to me that to talk about politics and how it works to categorize and oppress, we need to talk about necropolitics: Which lives are organized so that they are perpetually exposed to death? These questions are dealt with in some of my more formally political essays, about the mattering of black and brown life, the fight at Standing Rock for water and life. And what the media representation of certain deaths and corpses can tell us about who gets humanized in life, or only through death.
When I talk about my own suicide attempts (in order to explore the gray areas of intentionality and agency that animate our seeming personal sovereignty), when I talk about the ghost that haunts my childhood bathroom (in order to talk about the ethics of believing and disbelieving in things at the same time), and when I conjure Clark’s words and memory (to honor his call for bold communal life)—these essays are all in service of exploring the need for unrigid thinking and communal world-making. A rejection of the idea that the world and our living in it are delivered to us in unchanging, metaphysical categories. These essays, as much as my more explicit anti-fascist arguments, take aim at the conservative liberal center and its fetishization of Enlightenment “reason” and the modernist religiosity around “progress.” In your beautiful book, Full Surrogacy Now, you submit that we must grasp “how morbidity is part of the mutuality of life’s work”—this mutuality is what I hope to elevate, too, and that is a call for non-fascist work.
Sophie Lewis.— Let’s talk intimate life and abolition. You write, in Being Numerous, that antifa is “one aspect of a broader abolitionist project, which would see all racist policing, prisons and oppressive hierarchies abolished.” You mention later that marriage is one of these oppressive hierarchies: “Marriage is a proprietary and abolition-worthy institution.”
As you know, I agree wholeheartedly. My main theoretical project has, in fact, lately become family abolition (where “family” refers to “blood” ideology and organized care scarcity: a kind of anti-queerness machine for shoring up race/class and producing binary-gendered workers). I’m trying to think through the slogan “abolish the family” with the help of Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, for whom the object of abolition is “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons . . . and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” This emphasis on building, not eliminating, strikes me as a potentially helpful approach.
You and I will, quite soon, have both been married twice. In fact, you recited Assata Shakur’s poem “Love” as part of the ceremony at my un-wedding (the precursor to the immigration-oriented contract with the American state it will be much harder for me to “queer,” even in my mind). “But you, me, and tomorrow hold hands and make vows / That struggle will multiply.” I know how delusional it sounds to claim that we were “founding a new society” that day. After all, like you on page 84, I was thinking: This is what I have to do to stay here as a noncitizen. “I will not let a border separate me from my current partner.” But perhaps, instead of “shrugging,” as you suggest you do when admitting you’re “looking forward” to your own wedding, we can insist—earnestly, messily, perhaps at times unconvincingly—on struggling in and against these institutions that (unlike prisons!) have a deep hold on our hearts. Surrogacy against Surrogacy™, comradely weddings against Marriage?
Natasha Lennard.— I think your framing of abolition is exactly what I want to advocate for, too. Firstly, I find it a patronizing (but perhaps understandable) response to calls for prison, police, border, and family-qua-property abolition that critics assume any of us think these thinks can just be torn down, vanished overnight and that all will be well. As if these institutions didn’t run so deep in society, as if they hadn’t permeated and overdetermined us, such that their power could be abolished simply by, I dunno, shuttering buildings. We have to be working on shaping the conditions for living such that these oppressive hierarchies start to feel obsolete while we fight them!
Marriage and family are tricky ones, and ones that folks are often uncomfortable including in abolitionist imaginaries—given the state’s practice of tearing families apart, or delegitimizing marriages. But, as you say—as you have lived—there is perhaps a nourishing and affirming way to do a marriage. The chance to share joy, and make ceremony of it, should be taken up at every opportunity!
Your point about surrogacy in Full Surrogacy Now is that we should all think of ourselves as surrogates in our mutual reproduction of life. If everyone is a surrogate, no one is, and no one is an “original” either; the idea becomes impossible! So if we were somehow all “married” to each other in different, supportive ways (which needn’t all be sexual or typically romantic) then no one is married—boom! Abolished! But of course, that’s utopian. That’s not what we get to mean by marriage right now. For now, state recognition is, for many, a matter of life and death. Having a marriage recognized for immigration purposes, medical access, childcare—these things remain painfully crucial and not to be dismissed. This also relates to my point in the book about rights: Defending our rights should not be the limit of our struggle for justice (rights always presume the state as interlocutor); when you’re forced to work within the state’s logic (say, in court) you’d be foolish not to speak the state’s language and appeal to your rights!
Sophie Lewis.— My last question is long, inspired by the Christchurch shooter’s eco-fascist manifesto, and by your chapter on Standing Rock.
As a cause, “the environment” relies on a nonrelational, ahistoric concept of “nature” I think your book is well placed to unmask. In order to get beyond “environmentalism,” you have to understand that capitalism is a way of organizing nature, and jettison all notions of extra-economic innocence, be it the spurious “innocence” of indigenous populations or that of nonhuman ecosystems. Only by being “cyborg” in this sense can ecology become an anti-capitalism, a challenge to settler coloniality, to whiteness, to police power, and to the property relations it exists to protect. Reading your book side by side with Vicky Osterweil’s forthcoming one, In Defense of Looting, which you refer to in your chapter “Riots for Black Life,” I’ve been trying to further mull the interconnections between ecology and anti-fascism.
You and I both have ties to the U.K., where Black Lives Matter explicitly made the argument that “climate change is a racist crisis”—shutting down London City Airport—in 2016. This year, a massive movement has erupted there called “Extinction Rebellion,” whose leaders explicitly reject “intersectionality” and whose tactics for “forcing the government to act” on carbon emissions involve getting arrested en masse. As you know, I have a background in “climate camp” climate activism and I would like to support Extinction Rebellion. But XR’s current chosen symbols, and occasionally even its narratives, aren’t currently sitting quite right with me. A paranoid reading might even say they’re reminiscent of the far right’s discourse around “white genocide”: the essential message being that an unmarked “we” is “dying out.” I’m not at all suggesting the movement is fascist. But I suppose I’m proposing to you the prompt: How can it make sure it does anti-fascisting? What is ecological about anti-fascism?
Natasha Lennard.— I must say, I hadn’t followed Extinction Rebellion closely enough to know that they’ve eschewed intersectionality. From afar, I was pleased to see many young people take up disruptive tactics in central London and refuse to be ignored. But if they fail to see the interconnecting racism (indeed genocidal racism) and class politics of climate degradation, if they refuse to see it as a violence that will not hurt the planet’s inhabitants equally, at the same time, then that’s a troublingly impoverished understanding of the struggle at hand. Generalizing speech about saving “nature” and “the planet” fails to address that the racist genocidal capitalism behind climate change does not constitute us equally, and so does not devastate us equally. Dystopian movies about how rich Americans become climate refugees, having to knock on the doors of the poor countries they had devastated, distort how power works. It takes more than a big tidal wave to disrupt the system of all systems! And in this way, it would be an affront to call this a fight for “nature” or “natural resources.” The problem with environmental degradation is not that it is “unnatural”—as you say, the “natural”/“unnatural” binary has a most fascistic (unfinished) history. Blood and soil.
I see the same risk in a Green New Deal rhetoric, which fails to understand that we need more than just different energy sources fueling capitalist growth; we need to end capitalist growth and abolish borders. Which is not to say I’m against a Green New Deal; I just see its profound limitations.
In terms of tactics, if mass arrest is the main one, there’s a problem here, too: As anyone involved in militant protest should know, not everyone has the privilege of getting arrested and continuing life as normal afterward; not everyone can walk free, having made their point. If the primary tactic is arrest, those with criminal records and immigration backgrounds can be excluded from the primary tactic, or asked to take huge risks. More broadly, to rely on this sort of civil disobedience reminds me again of the nostalgia that seems to attend current models of protest; the spectacle of what worked in a certain way during the ’60s isn’t necessarily reiterable forever. It’s important to detach from an idea of “This is what protest looks like,” toward tactics of, “What would threaten and put pressure on the powers, governmental and corporate, who are the guiltiest parties here?”
While it’s the sad truth that the camps at Standing Rock were shuttered, and the pipeline completed, the Water Protectors put their bodies in front of the arteries at the heart of climate degradation. As I write in one essay in the book, and as the Water Protectors I spoke to made clear: This struggle was not just about oil, or poisoned water (although it was these things, too); this was a spiritual and material struggle against the unbroken history of white-supremacist extraction and exploitation. It was also more than a protest, in that it demonstrated ways of living with and for each other in a space of resistance, providing for each other, sharing knowledges: as you might say, carrying each other, being “watery” as such.