Make Any Leftist a Fascist With This One Neat Trick!
On ideological abandonment, redrawn maps, and the "red-brown"
There is an American legal doctrine called “adverse possession” that allows a person to claim land owned by someone else if the original owner has abandoned the property, and the incumbent owner can document continued use of and care for the real estate in question. In recent years, something like this has occurred in the political realm. Throughout the Trump years, and especially during the pandemic, the left (Klein included) turned away from the critique of corporate and state power and applauded lockdowns, censorship, vaccine mandates, and firings of unvaccinated workers—ceding its old territory to whoever might want it.
The quote starting this essay is from Christian Parenti’s Compact review of Naomi Klein’s recent book, Doppelganger. I’ve not read Klein’s book yet — I had intended to, in order to propose a review of it for Compact. I’ve been a bit busy, though, and Parenti beat me to it, but that’s perfectly fine by me.
Christian Parenti is one of a long list of solidly leftist writers and journalists who, during most of the first decade of the 2000s, regularly appeared on Democracy Now! and similar programs. Others included Slavoj Zizek, Medea Benjamin, and also(who was a journalist and presenter for the show).
Back then, the breadth of voices was often quite inspiring, even if the production value never was. I don’t remember when this changed, but at some point many of the regularly-appearing people stopped appearing, and not just there. Increasingly, the views of certain leftists began to be quite unwelcome in leftist spaces, and soon you started hearing that they had never been true leftists at all, or, worse, had gone “red-brown.”
This red-brown thing is quite a fascinating smear. Though it has its roots in the temporary truce between Hitler and Stalin, it’s never invoked to describe actual geopolitical arrangements. Instead, it’s summoned whenever a leftist writes or says anything that is considered so outside the liberal consensus that the accuser would like to call it “fascist,” but is too aware of the history of actually-existing fascism to use that label.
I first started hearing it used often in the second year of Trump’s presidency, and it was part of a broader conspiracy theory. What was supposedly happening was that a lot of leftists were suddenly getting money from Russia, and you could tell this must be happening because some leftists were rejecting the idea that Clinton lost because of Russia.
A bit convoluted, yes, but let me try to explain this in as good faith a way as I can.
Many Democrats had become convinced that Putin was why Trump won. Previous to the election, there’d been accusations that Russia was using social media accounts to attempt to throw the election towards Trump by making third-party candidates or Democrat challengers to Clinton (such as Bernie Sanders) look more popular.
A primary reason this conspiracy theory was so deeply held after the election was because many had been absolutely certain Clinton was going to win. When the election occurred and she lost, it seemed for them that only an external demonic force could possibly have derailed the messianic march of progress. Since Russia was the only national force you could still call evil without sounding racist (China…), Putin seemed an obvious culprit.
Before getting much more into this, it’s worth noting that their certainty in Clinton’s ascendancy was always deeply misplaced. It wasn’t just their own blindness, however: major newspapers had been declaring that Trump would lose spectacularly for months before the election.
I was still in the United States during this time, and I remember being utterly baffled by all those predictions. On the night of the election, the New York Times had an animated graphic drawn like a pressure gauge, declaring the probability of who would be the winner. It started with Clinton at over 90%, and I shook my head when I saw that.
At that time, I was visiting my sister in Florida, and I didn’t meet a single person besides my family who wasn’t voting for Trump. The grocery store was full of everyday-looking people wearing those ridiculous MAGA hats, and so was the corner store, and so was every other place I went. At least in Orlando, it seemed pretty damn certain he would win.
I’d also been paying attention to the news before that, and particularly the rhetoric about “deplorables” that Clinton so condescendingly repeated. Smearing an entire section of the electorate for political points with your own base makes them angry and eager to vote against you. Also, while my social media feed at that time was mostly full of queer neopagan anarchists who told everyone to “suck it up” and vote for Hillary, I could read in their alarm that they suspected Trump would win, too.
Those who refused to believe otherwise, however, needed something to keep their fantasy alive after the election: the Russian interference theory was a ready-made way to sustain it. Even after federal and congressional investigations showed very little evidence of this, and even after evidence came out that Clinton’s campaign had crafted much of the conspiracy, many still are certain that Putin was the Great Satan behind Trump.
It was much easier for the faithful to believe this — much easier than to admit that Obama’s 8 years of neoliberal austerity and Clinton’s plan to do even more wasn’t really an attractive sell to people who couldn’t afford their rent.
As I said, it was during the second year of Trump’s presidency when I first encountered an expansion of this idea through the red-brown conspiracists. At that time, I was still regularly reading Antifa accounts, and two prominent organizers began pushing these claims quite often. Their assertion was that Russia had been filtering money into secret organizations who then filtered it to leftists, all towards the goal of destabilizing American political and military dominance.
If this feels a bit to you like the Congress for Cultural Freedom arrangement which I wrote about here, then you feel the same way I did when I first heard it. I did my best to read as much of the very convoluted evidence presented, but the more I read, the more it felt rather tenuous. Then, once one of these conspiracy theorists was found to be working with current and former CIA and DHS officials, I had a better idea of how seriously I should take the conspiracy (that is: not at all).
Of course, those revelations didn’t make the red-brown conspiracy go away. You can quite easily find scores of left-liberal sorts still invoking it against all manner of people. My friend Angie (of Angie Speaks) was accused of being red-brown, as was Adolph Reed, as was I, as were other leftists who were critical of the identitarian shift— including Christian Parenti, the author of that article I cited at the beginning.
At its root, the red-brown idea asserts “leftists work with fascists,” which on its face is a quite absurd scenario. It’s also sometimes invoked as part of the “horseshoe theory,” which proposes that the farther left you go, the more you have in common with the far right. Such a scenario only makes sense if we posit liberal democracy (capitalism with democratic aesthetics) as the center from which all other positions are extreme deviations.
You don’t really see many examples of such a thing actually happening in history. I like to remind people that it was the centrist liberals in Germany who turned Rosa Luxembourg (a communist) over to the Freikorps to be killed. That’s the sort of arrangement you see most often: liberals collaborating with fascists to fight off a threat to capitalism.
Fascism is best understood as capitalism’s emergency back-up plan. As Walter Benjamin (who lived during actually-existing fascism) explained, fascism offers to keep property relations (capitalism) unchanged, while also offering “expression” to the masses as a way of diverting their anti-capitalist anger.
Fascism is always a good deal for the capitalists, especially if they’re facing down a communist uprising of angry people who want to eat and pay rent. It diverts that seething rage against a scapegoat instead of the owning class, and also gives most of that class the chance to seize the wealth of a smaller part of that class (Jews in Germany, for example) and to have less competition. Then, once the emergency is over, the capitalists can pretend they were also innocent victims and no, they don’t know where all that stolen art went.
Anarchists and liberals alike prefer to forget that the first enemy of the Nazis were the communists, since they were the only force standing in the way of their larger project. Whatever one thinks of how effective those communists actually were (Gramsci spent much of his time thinking about this, and the entire Frankfurt School arose to try to answer that question), everyone was quite aware that the fascists needed to deal with the reds first.
You can then see why the red-brown smear makes little sense historically. However, ideologically, there’s a little more room to play with it, and this is where it was most pernicious.
COVID and the “Red-Brown”
One of the reasons you’d never see many of those earlier leftists appearing on Democracy Now! anymore, let alone other newer leftist journals and shows, is because what it means to be a leftist has itself changed. Slavoj Zizek is a great example of this, and one I’m quite familiar with: his writing, more than anyone else’s, first convinced me that leftism was still relevant in the world. Zizek’s main ideas haven’t changed since the early 2000s, but to hear social justice identitarians tell it, he went “full on fash” a few years ago. What really proved to them that he’d gone to the dark side was his analysis of COVID, which was also what made other solidly leftist thinkers like Giorgio Agamben get accused of being red-brown.
Quite famously during the first year of the pandemic, American journals were warning of a rising red-brown movement in Europe. This was based on several large protests in Germany especially, where Green party, Left party, and AfD politicians were seen marching in the same events against vaccine mandates and restrictive shutdowns.
What none of those journals ever seemed to mention was that the restrictions happening here in Europe far outstripped anything that occurred in the United States. I have on my wall a porcelain replica created by an artist friend of mine of the “attestation de déplacement” required in France during the lockdown, and I look at it often to remind myself how crazy things got here. You were only allowed to leave your home there for a small number of reasons, and you had to declare your reason for leaving on the form before even exiting your front door. Germany was even more restrictive, and Austria extremely so.
What they also failed to mention was the possibility that opposition to these restrictions might have been broad-based and not limited to political allegiance. Journalists reported that there were leftists, nationalists, hippies, and mechanics walking together on the street, and then concluded that there was a dangerous convergence of spirituality, fascism, leftism, and class anger rising in the world.
Again, I need to belabor this point. In Seattle during the WTO, there were neopagans, native Americans, anarchists, conservatives, environmentalists, and unionists marching together. Had that happened now, those same journalists might have called it a dangerous convergence of indigenous, anarchist, Christian, eco-socialist, unionized pagan fascists.
What was really happening was much more resistant to easy political categorization. I argue in Here Be Monsters that such moments should be seen as pre-political or anti-political mobilizations:
Initial resistance to these emergencies is often quite broad, and frequently what we might call “populist” or pre-political, but is later captured by political formations. One place we can see this quite clearly is in the recent accumulation of state power in response to the emergency of COVID-19. Early on, protests against government restrictions on movement, curfews, lockdowns, and vaccine mandates were quite widespread, and they were not immediately aligned with “left” or “right” political ideologies. However, quite soon this populist resistance was re-narrated as a right or extreme-right reactionary movement.
… we might have expected that the curfews and lockdowns would have been a target for leftist mobilization against the state. Instead, in the United States especially, but also in the United Kingdom and Europe, leftist journals and Antifa websites described those who opposed the lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations as reactionary, murderous, and most of all “fascist.” In places where large manifestations of resistance did occur, as in Germany, the political alignments of the participants were in reality quite mixed. Both far-right and far-left activists and political figures supported them and were present. This then led to panicked news articles and analyses suggesting they were signs of a “red-brown” insurgency.
There’s another way to see these moments, however. The resistance to these new state powers was based in a pre-political or anti-political desire to maintain the borders between bare life and the power of the state and capital over the lives of people.
By pre-political or anti-political, I’m referring to what Agamben called “bare life,” the part of our existence that actively resists state interference. That part is always being encroached upon by increasing politicization and commercialization of our lives, turning everything we do, think, say, and believe into a matter of economic or political importance.
For the simplest example of how the extreme lockdowns can be seen as an assault on bare life, consider how in Europe you couldn’t hold a funeral, a wedding, or a baptism; you could not go to a gym or a church, invite friends over for dinner, or even visit your sick relatives, but you could still go to work and conduct administrative business. That is, as long as the activity fed into the economy or the state, you were free to do it. But if the activity was in any way woven into the fabric of cultural life, kinship ties, religious belief, or personal well-being, it was verboten.
Again, the situation in Europe was much more restrictive than it ever was in the United States, but what we don’t see here afterwards was the kind of social strife which still characterizes America. You’d be hard pressed to find many Europeans accusing each other of being genocidal murderers for not still wearing masks in 2023, while I cannot open any social media site and not immediately be confronted by some American “leftist” doing exactly just that.
For such people, any leftist criticism of the official state narratives of COVID is immediately re-narrated as fascist or red-brown. Even still, despite US government admission that the lab-leak theory was worth investigating, suspecting anything else besides its initial transmission from a wet market half a kilometer away from a lab performing gain-of-function research on similar viruses means you are probably a fascist.
We don’t just see this problem related to COVID, however. Any leftist criticism of the 76.8 billion dollars thus far sent to the Ukraine by the United States means you’re probably a Putin stooge with fascist sympathies. Wondering aloud if maybe the current US rush to give puberty blockers to pre-teens — while much of Europe, with much longer experience in these treatments, has backed away from the practice — means you’re definitely a reactionary who wants to genocide all trans people.
At this rate, it won’t be very long before we hear that any leftist who votes for Dr. Cornel West instead of Biden is a white supremacist — if it hasn’t already been said.
That’s the neat trick of the red-brown smear. You can turn any leftist critique into its opposite by merely calling it so, and then find all manner of evidence to prove the matter later. All you need to do is move around the boundary markers of what constitutes “true” leftist analysis and rename everything outside the newly-drawn territory as evil.
In the quote from Christian Parenti that starts this article, he states that this process seems quite similar to the US law of “adverse possession,” which gives those who use property long abandoned by its owner a legal route to claiming ownership of it. This is much how I have also understood this problem: the left constantly cedes positions to “whoever might want it,” but that territory is never actually abandoned. There are still leftists living there, who, like Palestinians facing down soldiers with bulldozers proclaiming their ancestral land is now considered the property of someone else, suddenly learn the place they’ve always been is now considered “fascism.”
Some of us refuse to move, though, no matter the accusations, smears, cancellations, and threats of violence. It’s not an easy territory to hold, but deep roots go a long way towards keeping you from being swept away by whatever new storm arises. The soil is quite rich, and life-giving, and what else lives here is worth protecting. And someone needs to keep holding these positions for a time when the left finally remembers itself again.