Dreaming an Anti-Fascist Politics of Pleasure

Originally published on the The Institute for Anarchist Studies website 12/9/2020
“And then Richard Spencer got punched in the face, right? Which was an amazing moment in comedic history…because, I don’t know if you know, Richard Spencer was being interviewed and in the interview he was asked about his Pepe the Frog badge. So he was trying to explain a meme and then out of nowhere, a hero came along…and punched him in the face, instantly turning him into a meme. It was like casting a spell.” 1 Aamer Rahman, comedian, “Is it really OK to punch Nazis?”
White nationalism is a serious and dangerous social movement, dedicated to the creation of a white nation-state. In many terrifying ways white nationalists are successfully organizing in a range of spaces and communities. In fact, many activists agree they are outorganizing our anti-fascist and anti-racist efforts. As Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, stated recently: “Sit with that for a second…we are totally being outorganized by the other side.” 2 It is critical not only to take the threat of white nationalism seriously, but also to calibrate our various forms of resistance to say NO to white nationalism in every way possible, and also to refuse how they are mobilizing and organizing. This piece focuses on how white nationalists are mobilizing through culture and pleasure, and argues that in addition to developing robust counterorganizing strategies, we must also cultivate our own forms of cultural and anti-fascist pleasure organizing.
If You Don’t They Will is a group that has been researching, supporting, and creating cultural organizing strategies to counter white nationalism for over two decades. This includes creating spaces to generate visions, desires, incantations, actions, memes, and dreams for the kinds of worlds we want to live in. In order to shape these kinds of spaces, people need to be more embodied and move into their physical, somatic, emotional, and affective perceptions and intelligences from which anti-fascist dreams and worldbuilding strategies are realized and made possible. If You Don’t They Will offers these sensibilities as an anti-fascist politics of pleasure.
In our years as cultural organizers, it has been an ongoing challenge to engage people in taking seriously how affect and feelings are politicizing for white nationalist social movement organizing. It has also been consistently difficult to get workshop participants to recognize the importance of centering feelings, bodies, and relationships in our own anti-racist and anti-fascist movement building. If You Don’t They Will recognizes that feelings, affective relationships, and emotive networks are political and politicizing for all social movements. As Brian Massumi suggests, “with affect, the political becomes directly felt”; this felt-sense is vital to fueling anti-fascist fantasies and present-day resistance efforts to strengthen our own movements.3 When we step back, listen to our bodies, connect to our political histories, and ask “What time is it?” 4 again and again, we return to the reality that we desperately need to feel an anti-fascist politics of pleasure.
“A power to affect and be affected is a potential to move, act, perceive, and think—in a word, powers of existence. The ‘to be affected’ part of the definition says that a body’s powers of existence are irreducibly relational […]Affect is fundamentally transindividual.” 5

Brian Massumi, ‘Histories of Violence: Affect, Power, Violence–the Political is Not Personal’
Our workshop offers a critical understanding of how white nationalism is a social movement that uses a diverse array of aesthetics, methods, discourses, and modes of perception, creating a multiplicity of access points for different people to join the movement. This social movement’s end goal is not simply “to spread hate,” but to take over the state with the dream of building a white homeland through a range of violent strategies including genocide.6
How do we begin this teaching? With imagination-instigating exercises that ask people to use their senses, intuitions, and assumptions to identify white nationalists in a series of images that feature people doing different activities. The purpose is to surface the misconceptions about the white nationalist movement that, we argue, leads to ineffective and problematic counterorganizing, and to then suggest a new (anti-fascist) framework. In every workshop participants have difficulty identifying white nationalists who are having fun or engaging in community-based pleasure activities such as running a marathon, BBQing at a family picnic, hosting knitting circles, playing music shows, making art, or doing crafts. Instead, participants’ primary mode of identifying white nationalists is by looking for “hate” and the activities/expressions/fashions associated with “hating.”
This affective association arises for a few reasons. The normative framework for recognizing a white nationalist or white nationalist activity and its violence tends to be based in the dangerous assumption that these are aberrant, uneducated, poor, rural, traumatized, “crazy” individual men whose primary motivation and agency is rooted solely in fear and hate (not crafts and craft cocktails). Thinking of white nationalism as only a handful of “hateful” individuals, and not as a social movement, makes for ineffective counterorganizing and stymies our anti-fascist worldbuilding visions. Further, the notion that all white nationalists are motivated solely or primarily by fear and hate ignores both the myriad access points through which people enter and engage the social movement, and the other powerful affective experiences offered through participation. An anti-fascist politics of pleasure expands our analysis and helps us develop a wider range of nuanced, nimble, and adaptable strategies for smashing white nationalism. At the same time, an anti-fascist politics of pleasure keeps our attention on dreaming anti-fascist futures.

“What concerns me is […] the very distinction between good and bad feelings that presumes that bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive.” 7

Sara Ahmed, ‘Happy Objects’

It is often inconceivable to workshop participants that feelings (other than fear and hate), affect, and relationship building are central components of white nationalist organizing. Reading Sara Ahmed’s quote in this context suggests white nationalism is seemingly on one end of the spectrum alongside hate, anger, fear, and rage, while pleasure, intimacy, connection, belonging, joy, and happiness are polarized on the other end, presumably associated with liberal, progressive, and/or radical movements. The assumption, then, is that good feelings, strong social relationships, and emotive networks are the terrain of “the Left.” This renders invisible all of the pleasure (that no one wants to acknowledge) that white nationalism mobilizes in politicizing ways.
Yes: fear, a sense of victimization, paranoid conspiracy theories based in anti-Semitism, and white entitlement are central feelings, powerful access points, and primary tenets for organizing and growing a fascist social movement. But just as on “the Left,” we suggest it is also pleasurable feelings that, in Massumi’s words, “overspill the individual” body to connect across bodies, creating ongoing commitments, sensibilities, and identities that cohere this movement.

In other words, pleasure is a binding agent for both “the Left” and “the Right.” Pleasure makes social movements grow and expand. It increases resiliency, curiosity, a sense of connection, wholeness, and togetherness. Pleasure is what makes visioning other worlds and the futures we want possible. Until we can wrap our heads around the fact that white nationalism also organizes bodies and affective relationships through pleasure, our counterstrategies that rely solely on debate, logic, and condescension will never be vibrant enough to reach and/or compete <sup>8</sup> for the communities white nationalists are targeting, nor with the narratives of belonging (and not belonging) they are peddling. Trickery, pranks, comedic mockery, playful sabotage, strategic and snarky shaming, and other forms of mischievous culture jamming are all a part of anti-fascist pleasure politics. These political practices are informed by sensibilities that interrupt the mainstreaming of white nationalism, amplify our worldbuilding imaginations, and reorient bodies towards a more somatic relationship to the worlds we are working to create.

“What concerns me is […] the very distinction between good and bad feelings that presumes that bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive.” 9

Emily Gorcenski, an anti-racist activist describing being attacked by white nationalists during the torchlight parade, in Documenting Hate: Charlottesville
While white nationalism certainly feeds on feelings of fear and hate, as well as the foundational feelings of victimization, psychological manipulation (by a fictional Jewish cabal), and superiority, there is also snark, joy, comedic mockery, and pleasure. There can be individual pleasure in these feelings themselves, but also a pleasure that grows emotive networks and affective relationships, strengthening the movement through the binding agent of different kinds of belongings. Some pleasure bonds are through feelings of being underdogs and participating in and growing countercultures. These affective connections are built and strengthened through a perceived shared state of being wronged by a “common enemy.”10 In other words, there can be pleasure in being wronged, hated, vilified, or being the outcast.
Some find pleasure in the strategy of electoral organizing or establishing businesses, starting schools, curating art galleries, and mainstreaming their particular version of white nationalism. Others find pleasure in teaching and mentoring, while others too find pleasure in cultural organizing such as planning music tours, spearheading events at county fairs, survivalist trainings, study groups, or hiking and gardening clubs. There is pleasure in being part of something secret and underground and there is pleasure in mainstreaming a cause. It bears repeating, white nationalism is a social movement that offers a variety of different, often pleasurable access points, whose affective binding agent is their fantasy of “who is American” (“white”) and what they want America to look like (a “white only” nation-state). 11
If we understand white nationalism as a social movement, we have to take seriously the depth and breadth of its cultural organizing. Cultural organizing creates integral spaces (physical, virtual, imaginary) where these social relationships are forged and strengthened through affective, emotional, and often pleasurable experiences that develop formative and politicizing connections and identities. White nationalists may also rely on fear and hate to forge solidarities and identities, sometimes simultaneously or interchangeably with pleasure. So, while fear and hate are the more obvious feelings white nationalists mobilize through, it would be a mistake not to also attend to the powerful role cultural organizing and pleasure play in recruiting, mainstreaming, and strengthening their efforts. We cannot forget that they too are intent on making their movement irresistible.
Their cultural organizing may or may not be obviously white nationalist, but will attend to the pleasures of connection, relationships, community building, belonging and family. People do not need to be hardcore white nationalists, believe in the rhetoric, or know all of the racist scientific “facts,” to be affected and feel connected to the larger white nationalist social movement. Sometimes, ideology follows affect where affected bodies become conduits to eventually “thinking” like a white nationalist.
It can be easy to dismiss fascist sewing circles, bowling parties, or dinner clubs. But these activities affectively move and politicize bodies in powerful ways that we must take seriously, as they are the relational and cultural glue for a dangerous and violent movement. We do this by recognizing and disrupting the various access points white nationalists mobilize in and through, by generating our own binding agents and emotive networks, and by centering fun and pleasure in our movement work. As long-time organizer and visionary Scot Nakagawa put it: “don’t let the haters steal your joy.” 12 Pleasure is the lifeline that sustains our resistances and makes our dreams possible. An anti-fascist politics of pleasure, then, refuses all iterations of white nationalist organizing in no uncertain terms, fiercely commits to our pleasure and joy, and more generally strengthens our abilities to fight white nationalism by making our organizing cultures irresistible, contagious, expansive, and generative. All of these aspects are vital to dreaming anti-fascist futures.

“[P]leasure evokes change—perhaps more than shame. More precisely, where shame makes us freeze and try to get really small and invisible, pleasure invites us to move, to open, to grow.” 13

Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

In the current political moment, pleasure can be dismissed as naive, indulgent, escapist, frivolous, and not “the real work.” It can be something to be suspicious of and tends to be associated with being compromised and/or undedicated. Pleasure, and the bodies that feel it, are then seen as things to manage, discipline, and master, and are often positioned as the opposite of political agency. For years, our motto and central organizing practice has been, “Have Fun! Fight Fascism!” And yet, though we work in a wide range of spaces with varied communities, organizations, and institutions, pushback on “fun” as critical to fighting fascism has been a recurring concern. To be clear, If You Don’t They Will in no way takes any white nationalist activity lightly. What we are committed to is an anti-fascist politics of pleasure that recognizes the importance of play, fun, humor, art, snark, and embodied practices that are essential to interrupting numbing, fear, and freezing. Anti-fascist worldbuilding requires not only our NOs, or what we are resisting, smashing, and contesting, but also requires a vision of our YESes–the kinds of relationships, communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, and family structures that we actually want to live and engage in. We need pleasure in order to develop creative, fierce and resilient NOs and YESes. Additionally, there is often a longing for a “quick fix” or a “checklist” of guaranteed effective strategies for countering white nationalism. Our anti-fascist politics of pleasure speaks back to and reorients away from both of these related tensions. An anti-fascist politics of pleasure is a sensibility. It is not a comprehensive list nor will it provide examples of specific tactics that guarantee immediate success, where pleasure then happens only after “the work.” It is an embodied political imaginary, a way of relating to the world and to each other; a mode of being curious, and a commitment to developing emotive relationships to past, present, and future anti-fascist struggles. An anti-fascist politics of pleasure resists the notion that “we can have fun after we win.” The reality is, we won’t win (and we aren’t winning) without pleasure.
It is through the senses that people are affected, politicized, and moved to do more traditionally recognized modes of political labor. To be clear, we are not just talking about a single pleasurable event or experience. Our idea of pleasure isn’t about always feeling good, being uncritically optimistic, or giving up our struggles against violence and oppression. Pleasure is about feeling more, in the present moment, while also powerfully connecting to the past and the future. Pleasure is expansive, allowing bodies to feel a wider range of emotions: from shame, bitterness, jealousy, and insecurity to joy, contentment, connection, and peacefulness. We need pleasure to sustain and connect us, for as adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy, “There is pleasure in community and interdependence. It feels good together.” 14
Pleasure is key to being fully present in the here and now, and is vital for dreaming and building anti-fascist futures. While we counter white nationalists’ affective (pleasure) organizing, we need to be growing our own. We are, in very critical ways, fighting for pleasure.
This essay is from the Imaginations issue of Perspectives (n.31) and is available from Powell’s Books here! and AK Press here!
  1. Aamer Rahman, “Is it really OK to punch Nazis?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKICKcMU3MU
  2. Interview with Alicia Garza. United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, Episode 2 Season 4,  “Not All White People” on CNN (May 5, 2019). https://www.cnn.com/shows/united-shades-of-america.
  3. “Histories of Violence: Affect, Power, Violence–The Political is Not Personal. Brad Evans Interviews Brian Massumi.” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 13, 2017). https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/histories-of-violence-affect-power-violence-the-political-is-not-personal/#!
  4. Many have written about how Grace Lee Boggs often began meetings with, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” emphasizing the necessity of ongoing critical reflection in our movement work, by integrating practices of interconnected self-consciousness. Scot Nakagawa and Tarso Ramos ask “what time is it?” in their important essay, “What Time Is It? Why We Can’t Ignore the Momentum of the Right.” Political Research Associates (July 14, 2016).  https://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/07/14/what-time-is-it-why-we-cant-ignore-the-momentum-of-the-right/
  5. “Histories of Violence: Affect, Power, Violence–The Political is Not Personal. Brad Evans Interviews Brian Massumi.” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 13, 2017).  https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/histories-of-violence-affect-power-violence-the-political-is-not-personal/#!
  6. “The goal of white nationalism is not to spread hate but to seize the State using bigotry to build mass movements and to build power and fear.” Eric K. Ward, Executive Director of Western States Center, quoted from his talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LODRhNDUEG8
  7. Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 50.
  8. If You Don’t They Will often encounters the (ineffective and at times condescending) strategy of “changing their individual hearts and minds,” which ignores and minimizes the reality that white nationalists are dedicated activists committed to their cause and social movement (just like we are). As Cristien Storm often says in our workshops: “They couldn’t ever change my mind or make me believe in white supremacy; why would we think we could change their minds? It is not always about facts and data, it’s emotional.”
  9. Emily Gorcenski, Documenting Hate: CharlottesvilleFrontlines, PBS Propublica Documentary, August 7, 2018.
  10. Anti-Semitism is a binding agent between the wide range of disparate white nationalist groups, in which Jews are the perceived “common enemy” responsible for manipulating the policies, social movements, and communities that supposedly victimize white nationalists. For more see Eric Ward’s “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White  Nationalism,” http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism/ and Scot Nakagawa’s “Antisemitism is Racism,” https://www.racefiles.com/2019/01/13/antisemitism-is-racism/
  11. As a white identity politics movement, white nationalists are working to continually redefine “whiteness” in contemporary contexts; anti-fascist and anti-racist organizers need to understand “whiteness” as a contested category and recognize the inextricable ways white supremacy is embedded in and gives meaning through other categories of social difference, including gender, sexuality, class, and religion. We need to contest “whiteness” in order to smash it.
  12. Scot Nakagawa, “Three people in the last week have complained about being harassed after pissing off potentially violent right wingers […] Here’s how I’ve made a joyful life in spite of the haters…” Facebook, January 10, 2019.
  13. adrienne maree brown, “Introduction,” in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Oakland: AK Press, 2017), 21. As this piece goes into its final stages of revision, we eagerly await adrienne maree brown’s new book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.
  14. brown, 22.