The Antifascist Movement from a systems theory perspective

This post is related to a previous post on Charlottesville and morality.

There is an interesting article in The Atlantic by Peter Bienart titled “The Rise of the Violent Left.” The article poses the following question:

Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?

Beinhart offers a concise history of the antifascist movement, which from a social systems theory perspective we can call a protest movement. Protest movements typically arise when society loses faith in the political and/or legal system and conventional organizations.

Protest movements are a specific kind of social system. On this topic, Luhmann wrote,

Our point of departure is . . . the observation that protest movements are to be understood neither as organizational systems nor as interactive systems.

They are not organizations because they do not organize decisions, but motives, commitments, ties. They seek to bring into the system what an organization presupposes and mostly has to pay for: membership motivation. . . Unlike organizations, they have infinite need of personnel. If we were to understand protest movements as organizations (or as emerging organizations), they would display a long list of deficient characteristics: they are heterarchical not hierarchical, polycentric, structured as networks, and above all, they have no control over the process of their own change. . . .

The unity of the system of protest movement arises from its form, from protest. With the form of protest, it becomes apparent that, although participants seek political influence, they do not do so in normal ways. This eschewal of the normal channels of influence is also intended to show that the matter at issue is urgent, profound, and general, so that it cannot be processed in the usual fashion. Although protest movements proceed from within society–otherwise it would not be communication–it proceeds as if it were from without. It considers itself to be (the good) society, which does not, however, mean that it would protest against itself. It expresses itself from a sense of responsibility for society but against it. This does not, of course, hold true for all the concrete goals of these movements; but through the form of protest and the willingness to deploy stronger means if protest is not heeded, these movements differ from efforts at reform. (Theory of Society, vol. 2)

The antifascist moment, or “Antifa,” employs tactics such as shouting down conservative speakers, destroying Confederate monuments, disrupting businesses, etc. Antifascists, such as Direct Action Network (DAN), lump global capitalism, racism, sexism, etc., in with fascism, which shows a serious misunderstanding of fascism. Fascism becomes a catch-all term from the political or social right.

Those calling themselves antifascist do not trust “normal” politics to solve these problems because, rightly or wrongly, they see politics as serving the unjust economic system, and they see traditional organizations (e.g., The ACLU, etc.) as too slow and impotent, or unable to handle a true crisis; therefore, they take things into their own hands using improvised tactics.  In this sense, the movement may be classified as anarchic.

Anarchy is based on a rejection of normal politics (compare Kuhn’s “normal science“). It rejects the political system, seeing all political decision-making processes as inherently corrupt or just useless. For this movement, the ends justify the means. Thus, they are willing to break laws, as in rioting and physically assaulting their enemies. In this sense, they might be operating with the justice/law distinction. They break laws because they believe in a higher justice. All laws are contingent.

The Antifa movement and “white nationalists” (actually white supremacists, a.k.a. the “alt right”) have something in common in that they both distrust the political system and organized organizations; they both see society as rigged against them, and they attempt to take up a position outside of society. In this fantasy of innocence, they are the good people standing outside and observing the bad, fallen society. Obviously, the situation is explosive because if you take white supremacists who already feel under siege by globalism, feminism, multiculturalism, technological change, science, public education, etc., it doesn’t take much pressure from antifascists to push them over the edge, and we end up with street-level civil war with the police and politicians trying to control the chaos (or being complicit).

The key point, though, is that the Antifa movement is actually doing the white supremacists a favor by giving them a concrete enemy. Antifa serves as an irritant in the environment of the white supremacist movement, thus allowing this social system to continue its autopoiesis. It might be better to simply ignore the white nationalists as you would an insane person shouting about the End Times. When you do things like spontaneously tearing down Confederate statues rather going through the political or legal process of having them removed, you just give the white supremacists something else to fight against. They have a new communication to respond to, and the white nationalists’ system-autopoiesis continues. All of this implies that the alt right and Antifa are co-evolving protest movements.

From another perspective, if we look at white supremacy, capitalism, and whatever Antifa opposes as addictions, we can argue that confrontational tactics will never work. As Costanza et al. (“Overcoming societal addictions: What can we learn from individual therapies?” 2017) show, taking a moral approach and shaming someone into changing their self-destructive behavior typically has the opposite effect–the addict resists, denies, and digs in.

Update: In response to a friend’s comment,

I’m not saying that Antifa is right or wrong in not trusting the political system, but simply observing that they don’t. It’s not a moral issue. And I agree that politics, as it works in the US anyway, has come to serve the economic interests of an elite; it is tightly structurally coupled to the economic system (which prioritizes economic growth and stockholder returns over workers), and it’s also tightly coupled to the mass media.

The problem might be that Antifa takes a moral stance when morality, in the sense of universal values, no longer means much. Rather than working through the law or politics, they make moral gestures, a tactic of limited efficacy in contemporary, functionally differentiated society.

And doing things like randomly pulling down statues just makes the far right even more paranoid than they already are. It’s just counterproductive. This is a case of taking a moral stance, or making a moral gesture, without any tangible benefit, just like breaking Starbucks windows.


  1. Anti-fascist struggle is not limited to anarchist actions, and the idea that antifa could ever be more violent or the fact that even now, antifascist demonstrating is being looked upon as much more “violent” than even the Nazi or white supremacism is ridiculous. Antifa are shoved under the heal of the boot to at least push back against that force that threatens us all, and then yelled at for being there to stop the toe from stomping the rest of us. The idea that anarchists and antifascists are violent is interesting, obviously in comparison, I don’t think many of their actions are entirely unwarranted; of course, it is far better to solve issues within the system within the system, and reform is revolution. but at this point, with so much of this so far beyond the system and its protection (or whatever else) there is a real need for some sort of push back against that militant force that threatens our freedoms.


  2. “Anti-fascist struggle is not limited to anarchist actions”
    When I characterize Antifa as anarchic I mean that in terms of the structure of the social movement. There are no leaders or authorities in the movement; it’s a protest movement rather than an organization–a different kind of social system.


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