This is a two-parts conversation with Emmi Bevensee. They’re a data journalist who utilizes a data storytelling approach to make complexity understandable.
We spoke about so many things that I can only write them down as categories. Transcript available below.
Part 1, out on January 30th (Patreon supporters) and January 31st (General Public).
First section: Complex Warfare; Disinformation Warfare; Drones; 3D-printed Guns; Houthis and Saudi Arabia; Asymmetrical Warfare; Surveillance; Anti-authoritarian communities; Open-source intelligence (OSINT); Katehon; Russia; Complexity Dynamics; Pandemics and Viral Spreads; Ukraine/Russia/Syria.
Second section: 8kun; 8chan; 4chan; Gamergate; Gab; Parler; January 6 Coup Attempt; Jim Watkins; Ron Atkins; QAnon; Child sexual abuse (not in detail, just in the context of the Watkins family’s role in the online hate scene); Swarm tactics; BBC Eye investigations; Shabbiha; Mexican government, paramilitary troops and the Zapatistas; role of governments in conspiracies like QAnon; Kraken; Dominion Conspiracy; Trump; ‘Stop The Steal’; Cults; Hezbollah; “Q Clearance: Unmasking QAnon” podcast with Jake Hanrahan;
Third Section: Syncretism; Fascist entryism; Alt-Imperialism; Legacy of 2003 Invasion of Iraq on Campism; Boomer socialism; Answer coalition; Stop The War in the UK; Anti-semitism; Assadists; Hong Kong; Dugin and Duginism; Ajamu Baraka and the US Green Party; Code Pink.
Fourth Section: Syria; Living on the Turkey-Syria Border; No Fly Zone; Syrian Refugee Crisis; Lessons from the Syrian experience for anti-authoritarians; Syrian-related disinformation and authoritarianism; Libya; London Syria scene.
Part 2, out on February 6th (Patreon supporters) and February 7th (General Public)
Fifth Section: Eco-Fascism; the ‘Thanos’ tendency; Climate grief; Climate anxiety; Climate denialism; Manipulative algorithms; Network effects; Peer-to-peer technology; Gab; Alt-right echo chambers; Machine learning vs human moderation; Leftism in the 21st century; Anarchism; Post-leftism; Internationalism; Anti-authoritarianism;
Sixth Section: Mutualism; Currency; Capitalism; Economic Coordination; Iroquois Longhouse Systems; Tragedy of the commons (disproving it); Revealed vs Stated Preference; Reading authoritarian literature; Prioritising and Strategising within activism.
Seventh Section: Emotional Anarchism; Recommended books.
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Music by Tarabeat.
Transcript of the full conversation!
A big thanks to the amazing people who did Part 1 on Otter.ai. Friends at Antidote Zine edited it for readability, and added Part 2 in 2023.
The Fire These Times is always looking for help with transcribing so if this something you’d like to do please reach out to me on our About page, or to Antidote Zine who are coordinating this work as of 2023 (follow the link above). Or just do it and let us know! It’s just to avoid people doing the same episode twice.
As people develop more autonomy and power, states are going to double down on what they can do to stop that. But a lot of this is very hard to stop.
Emmi Bevensee: 2020 was supposed to be the year that I cut out all my projects and just focused on one! Instead, I still had a lot of things going on. I’m a data scientist; my background is mostly in researching fascist groups, and weird forms of fascist creep on the left, and stuff like that. But I’m involved in a million things.
I was helping run this project (that we hope to turn into a book) about the role of feelings work in activist communities, called Emotional Anarchism. I ran a symposium about decentralization and economic coordination, where we had a big conversation basically about how central planning is bad but also capitalism is bad, so how do we do economies? I wrote a paper about ecofascism. I just had a big article where we analyzed these QAnon email server logs–the people at the center of QAnon basically set up their email server wrong and made the logs of everyone they email public. So we archived it and did a bunch of data analysis on it.
I don’t know. I’m all over the place, Joey.
Joey Ayoub: I muted myself because I was laughing too much. But you’re basically like me, you have no idea how to summarize what you do.
You have a piece entitled “It Takes a Network To Defeat A Network: Anti-Fascism and the Future of Complex Warfare.” What is it about? Walk us through some of the main arguments?
EB: The premise is–there’s this thing that’s been bothering me and some friends for a while: the vast majority of leftist theory has not really been updated with the advancements of complexity theory, information theory, the modern technically interconnected world, cybernetics, or all these things that have happened since the industrial revolution. We started thinking about how we could use these frameworks to create better paths for resistance, and make predictions that are grounded in emergent trends in these spaces that we think would better serve a wide range of resistance movements.
We settled on a few specific topics that make it easy to show this thing. One of the first ones we started talking about was conflict more generally, but also war specifically. Not just violent warfare, but hybrid or “grayzone” warfare–below the threshold of violence; information warfare and stuff like that. Those fields make this stuff really obvious. We highlight that there are emergent trends towards individual super-empowerment. What we mean by that is, one person (or a very small cluster of people) can do a lot of damage, have a lot of impact.
8chan was a joke in the old days. It was extremely niche. I tried to pitch articles about it all the time, and people said, This is way too niche. And then obviously: Christchurch. And now we have QAnon storming the US capitol. Very niche things, because of the internet and the complexity of our modern system, can have these huge impacts. That’s the information side of it. And there are all these weird disinfo actors: they can be state backed, they can be grassroots, and they interact in complicated ways. On the warfare side, I’m interested in 3D-printed guns and drone warfare–not because I’m excited about the concept, but because there’s a one hundred percent chance they’re going to become an increasingly large part of our future, so I think we should understand the implications of them. And the implications are weird: they favor asymmetric actors. Houthis set up a hobby drone, and used it to attack an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.
That’s huge. Let’s talk about the politics of a non-state actor using a $25 toy, and rigging it to destroy massive infrastructure in one of the most powerful states in the world. It raises historical questions. The invention of the AK-47, in some ways, facilitated the decolonization of Africa. There are serious, complicated arguments to be made about that. All kinds of other fucked up stuff happened, and guns are guns. But these types of asymmetric developments have really complicated implications for the structure of different forces in conflict with each other.
We predict that, as people develop more autonomy and power, states are going to double down on what they can do to stop that. But a lot of this is very hard to stop. You could make 3D printers illegal, but you can still make 3D printers. There’s only so much you can do to stop any of this. So it begs the question about what states are going to do–probably adopt a Chinese surveillance model in some ways. So that stuff’s pretty scary.
But there are some kind of exciting trends about the general structure of interconnectedness favoring asymmetric actors. Communities that are already good at networks, like anti-authoritarian communities for example, have an advantage in this terrain in terms of carving out spaces. Antifascists have been pioneering networks. One interesting tactic is OSINT (open source intelligence), which is using information that’s available on the internet–it’s like really high-tech googling. Antifascist communities have pioneered this technique of having a small, highly trusted group that’s very private and works together but also utilizes huge swarms of people. Those used to be pretty niche techniques, but they’ve already hugely expanded.
Now with the B-level coup attempt on the US capitol, there are liberals getting in on this tactic. They’re not very good at it–actually, they’re pretty irresponsible at it. A lot of antifascists are kind of mad about that. But it’s become understood in the mainstream that we can work in crowds of ten thousand to identify a dude who brought full-on tactical gear to kidnap people in congress.
Ideally, these anti-authoritarian left communities are inherently good at internationalism. The vulgar, anti-internationalist, tankie movement is a mutation. We should be acting in solidarity with people instead of states, because their conflicts are nested. They’re going to have conflicts with an imperialist over here, and they’re going to have local conflicts with power actors there. I think most people understand that, and that comes from us, contrary to fascists, wanting to believe in an open society (to throw a little Soros buzzword in there). We want to believe in empathy. We’re not naive, but we recognize that our problems are interconnected.
Another example of this weird complexity theory of conflict is states engaging in information warfare–but it’s not the Cold War anymore, and there’s the internet. It’s extremely chaotic. There’s this outlet called Katehon, pretty transparently run by Russian intelligence. They were propagating a lot of conspiracies about how 5G causes Coronavirus and stuff like that–but now Russia has some of the worst infection rates in in the world. In the Cold War, it would have been advantageous for them to try to fuck up the United States by getting a lot of us to die in a pandemic (when obviously we can do that very well on our own), but now because of the internet, and the complexity era (pandemics are the quintessential example of complexity dynamics, because viral spread is a complex phenomenon), they’re fucked by Coronavirus too. And now there’s QAnon shit. The information warfare of the old era is just insanely short-sighted at this point.
A swarm can have grassroots dynamics, or it can be manipulated by a state’s warfare. In my opinion, there’s very probably state actor involvement at high levels in QAnon.
JA: I’ve been thinking a lot about the disinformation problem. I’ve had both Eliot Higgins and Peter Pomerantsev on the show, and a few other folks who either focus on Russia/Ukraine or on Syria, sometimes both. I will say there’s been a lot of missed opportunities between Ukrainians and Syrians to link up. I’ll try and do an episode on that.
You mentioned the 8kun/8chan shit that’s been happening recently, especially since the coup, and you’ve recently published a scoop on Bellingcat. These are very niche sections of the internet where very weird shit happens. Can you start by summarizing what the fuck happened on January 6? The online dynamic of it anyway.
EB: Yeah. I’m a data journalist; I like to scrape far right websites, analyze what they’re up to, and then publish articles about them (which seems to make them mad for some reason). I’ve been paying attention to 8chan and the chan-world for a long time. We had the whole GamerGate thing–which is an example of where complex swarm tactics emerged on the right: We can have these anonymous message boards–they’re just forums where you post a picture and then say a racist thing!–and we can use them to coordinate large-scale doxxing and harassment campaigns against female journalists and female gamers!
So they found their power, and that’s basically how the alt right started. Then 4chan (slightly) cracked down on the most genocide-prone aspects of their user base, the most hardcore neo-Nazi LARPers, so those people moved to this platform called 8chan. 8chan was the super-racist version of the racist site 4chan. They were brutal in the way they would attack people. A lot of us who were active in those scenes developed a very thick skin for their style of attacking you. I won’t go into that, because it’s just depressing.
8chan was run by this pig farmer in the Philippines named Jim Watkins, who got his start running child sexual abuse websites and trying to circumvent Japanese pornography laws using these message boards. Jim’s a creep. He’s cartoonishly evil. He’s too on the nose. He’s like Erik Prince of Blackwater. He’s too evil to be real. Anyway, he has a son named Ron Watkins, and together they became the center of QAnon. Q-drops had used to happen on 4chan, but they started happening on 8chan. There are a lot of arguments about whether Jim, or Ron, or both, are Q themselves. (I got blocked by Jim Watkins a while ago for asking about inconsistencies in the verification system that they have for the Q-drops called “tripcodes.” He just blocked me for asking about that.)
So aside from inspiring multiple mass shootings by being a concentrated force for hardcore white supremacy and these swarm tactics, they also became the center of QAnon, because they were hosting the Q-drops. QAnon, obviously, built the the energy for everything that came to happen with “Stop the Steal” and ultimately the march on the capitol.
JA: What exactly are swarm tactics? What happens when they do that?
EB: Antifascists and fascists do this tactic differently, but there are some similarities. Fascists have no ethics of warfare. I’ll doxx your grandma. I’ll call your child’s school. They’re just trolls, they come out of the worst part of old Anonymous culture. They want to be maximally edgy and they don’t really stand for anything. Whereas antifascists tend to try to be careful, and don’t do civilian-casualty-equivalents. If they do, they get seriously harassed by the community; they get blacklisted, basically.
Basically, the swarm tactic is trying to use the internet to leverage tons of people acting at the same time for a common purpose. There’s some real advantages to having large numbers: you know, someone will just recognize their neighbor from the capitol breach, or recognize a mountain range in sub-Saharan Africa in a picture because it’s near a friend’s village. There are advantages to having a huge number of eyes on a problem, because you can cover more ground–especially if you’re working in a semi-coordinated way. It’s very powerful. If you’ve tried to do OSINT research alone (there are things that are better to do alone or in a small group), the hardest part about it is having so much information to go through that it’s really hard to parse, without your brain melting out of your ears. That’s the advantage of these swarm tactics.
But there’s a lot of different forms of it. Fascists also like to do “brigading.” They’ll have a Telegram group where they’ll say, Okay, this antifascist account is getting too effective. I want everyone in this Telegram channel to report them, and try to get that person’s Twitter removed.
JA: Amazingly similar to pro-government trolls in the Arab world: that happens quite a lot as well. They seem to be just as organized, often, or they mix in with bots and sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart, to be honest.
EB: Yeah, there’s also some parallel with shabiha organizations, the way a state can leverage paramilitary forces in a hands-on/hands-off kind of way. This also happens in Latin America: whenever the Mexican government wants to attack the Zapatista autonomous zones, they can’t do it “legally” with the Mexican army, so they have to use these patriotically-named paramilitary groups. Or it’s like Donald Trump: Yeah, I don’t hate the Proud Boys. It sure wouldn’t be too bad if they beat up all of my political rivals. That’d be kind of funny. But anyways, don’t do it.
JA: There’s a lot of affect in the way he does things. In the middle of the attempted coup, what did he say? You’re very special, I care about you. That’s some very Cult 101 shit. I’ve seen this in Lebanon with Hezbollah crap.
EB: Yeah. There are aspects of that where a centralized actor can leverage a swarm. A swarm can have grassroots dynamics, or it can be manipulated by a state’s warfare. In my opinion, there’s very probably state actor involvement at high levels in QAnon–or I would be embarrassed by the Kremlin if there isn’t. The US does this shit everywhere, all over the world; the Kremlin does this shit everywhere, all over the world. They’re all incompetent, but they’re also very powerful. So I’d be shocked if there weren’t some involvement. But swarms are complicated: states can’t control them. You can’t control the entire QAnon movement. It’s way too big, it’s way too chaotic. You can do a Q-drop, but then if it gets too weird, people will just come up with a new conspiracy.
We had a big scoop with 8kun where they didn’t update their email server for like five years, and it made everyone who they were emailing visible. And their emails were pretty interesting. Ron Watkins was the admin. He stepped down from being admin to grift full-time on Stop the Steal. He’s largely responsible for the Dominion conspiracy. He was cited in the Kraken brief by Sidney Powell. And he was cited and retweeted extensively by Donald Trump, and he went on OANN. He got a really powerful grift going for Stop the Steal. And he was admin of 8kun (and 8chan previously) during all this, so we got all his emails. It’s probably his fault. He was saying, I’m a network security analyst. I’m the best in the world–and he had an email server that was exposing all their traffic, their IP addresses, the entire structure of their databases, and everything else on their fucking website.
There were really interesting email contacts. Jim was actively coordinating with high level QAnon celebrities like Neon Revolt. Jim was also extensively emailing a woman who was a senior contract specialist at a US army base in Alabama. We can’t know the exact content of their messages, but we know that she’s who he emailed most. Not that I think that she’s Q–I don’t. I think she’s a really weird conspiracy Boomer, maybe his e-girlfriend or something. But it’s still really wild that he was connecting her with all these QAnon celebrities and talking with her so much, and she probably has some clearance level.
We sent Jim and Ron right-of-reply, of course. Ron did not respond. Jim responded six times. He was like, ‘It’s not like I was emailing the FBI!’ which I think is a message to his QAnon followers saying, Don’t worry, I’m not in the deep state. But what was funny about the email logs is he literally was emailing the FBI.
Tankies control a lot of left infrastructure in the US. They’re often able to mobilize old white socialists, get people on the streets, have tons of signs printed. There’s a sense that if you challenge them, then you’re pro-war. But Joey, these people are so ridiculous.
JA: At what point would the masses of QAnon followers turn on the high-level influencers within the conspiracy? This is kind of a side question, but as you mentioned before, there is no actual way of controlling these things (though I think it is important to mention that people can be changed on these things. Not everyone probably, but a lot of them). What happens when the people who believe, the numbers behind the movement, turn on the ones that are its main influencers? At what point do they create a post-QAnon thing?
EB: QAnon is a cult, in my mind, but it’s a different type of cult, because it’s much more decentralized than the cults that we’re used to. There are Q-drops, which is a point of centralization. But the Q-drops, if you ever read them, are more vague than astrology readings. They’re like, Watch the waters. -Q. So everyone thinks, Oh, this must be about watermarks on ballots, and then they retroactively make up a whole mythos about it. But it’s just bullshit. So because it’s a decentralized cult, it’s much harder to control–but it’s also much more adaptive. People can justify anything that happens.
They did turn on Pence. They were all like, We have to hang Pence! In data that we have from Parler, before it shut down, we found tons of people who were talking about trying to kidnap Pence. So it can turn on people, but also it can just morph. There is going to be some critical mass of people who will fall off once Biden becomes president, if Trump doesn’t do some last-ditch, epic battle against the deep state or whatever.
JA: I follow this stuff as much as my mental health can afford, and it does seem like the image they have of Donald Trump is not Donald Trump. It’s absolutely not the person. It’s a much more impressive creature than the person of Donald Trump. It’s very obvious if you’re not in the cult. But what happens when reality hits? A lot of them have gone into this very deeply, and they’ve cut off ties with their own family members. There are very depressing stories that have come out of this. In the UK as well: there was a BBC podcast about a woman who’s one of the leaders of QAnon in the UK, and her son has been so disaffected by her that he doesn’t even consider her his mother anymore. There have been horrifying deaths and suicides.
So my question doesn’t really have an answer, I suppose. I’m thinking out loud on this. Sometimes we use the word cult a bit haphazardly; I agree in this case it’s definitely a cult. But I also call Hezbollah a cult, and in many ways it is, but it’s also much more centralized. And there is an internal logic to what they do. With any kind of extremist movement or cult, there is an internal logic and they won’t turn on the “dear leader.” Hassan Nasrallah is sacrosanct. They never insult him. But they can go against lower ranks. They might say that the party is corrupt, but not him, or the other MPs are corrupt, but not him.
So there’s always a “but,” but that in itself allows more flexibility. You can talk to most of them (not all of them; I’ve tried and failed many times). But you can talk to a lot of them. With QAnoners–there’s a podcast by Jake Hanrahan on QAnon, and he did interview someone who was becoming a bit skeptical of QAnon but was still within that world. So you can talk to them, and many of them “mean well,” or are just seriously misinformed or brainwashed–
EB: The deep state is pretty fucked up! If these guys were doing critiques of the CIA and the FBI, there’s a long left history that they could dive into and capitalize upon. There’s plenty of valid things to critique. It’s not as if I like the deep state. There’s just something different between, I think the FBI is bad because they do bad things and I think the FBI is zealous sycophants. It’s a slight distinction, but I think an important one.
JA: This is a perfect transition. Based on previous episodes and listener feedback, there seems to be a lot of awareness among listeners when it comes to how fascism develops and how it takes over. But I’ve been very bad at explaining one aspect of it, because it’s been vague in my mind for a long time: how they can actually live comfortably within leftwing circles as well; the syncretic nature of fascism and the entryist forms of it. What’s your understanding of how this functions?
You’ve focused on Grayzone and that sort of shit. It appeals to a lot of people who I would describe as “tankie-lite.” Like, they’re not on the “left.” And they wouldn’t go read Stalin’s autobiography, it’s not that kind of dedication. But it does revolve around binary logic–campism, essentially. The episode I recorded just before this one was with Rohini Hensman. She wrote a book called Indefensible about how the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is so easily used by people who I would describe as “alt-imperialist” or “psuedo anti-imperialist” or–
EB: Or straight-up neo-Nazis.
JA: Yeah, absolutely. There is such a thing as fascist anti-imperialism, it does exist. So being anti-imperialist in itself does not make you progressive or anti-authoritarian. Someone who is “good” on domestic issues in the US can be horrifically bad on anything that’s not related to the US. They jump to the other extreme, and they become completely identical, from my standpoint, to someone on the far right.
How would you understand that phenomenon? In your view, what are some of the similarities between this and what we would understand as entryism and the syncretic nature of fascism? And can you also define them briefly for those who don’t know?
EB: This is eight books’ worth of topics, and it’s very complex, and there’s a lot of dynamics at play. So take anything I say right now as an invitation, or as a set of questions, rather than as the final word on this. I have my views on these issues, but I encourage people to challenge them, and complexify them, and make them into better, stronger things that are more accurate.
There are a few big dynamics at play. A lot of this shit comes from the US and the UK particularly, but obviously it’s in other places. And we, particularly my generation, grew up knowing that the US and the UK lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq. We grew up with a very visceral understanding that our government lies to everyone in order to justify war. And that became the cornerstone of Boomer socialist organizing–antiwar organizing in particular. In the US, there are old antiwar infrastructure organizations like the ANSWER coalition which are horrible on Syria. They’re indistinguishable from the [neo-Nazi] Syrian Social Nationalist Party [SSNP] at points. They mingle with hardcore antisemitic organizations (and I’m not conflating critiques of Israel with antisemitism; I’m talking about actually antisemitic organizations). And they control a lot of infrastructure in the US, so whenever there’s a call to war, they’re often able to mobilize a bunch of old white socialists, get a few people on the streets, have tons of signs printed, and stuff like that.
There’s a sense that if you challenge them, then you’re pro-war. But Joey, these people are so ridiculous. Where I live, there’s a huge Syrian population. A lot of these people are from east Aleppo. Our antiwar, “left” Boomers wanted to welcome these people and show their support to them, so they bought regime flags. They bought regime flags to welcome Syrian refugees of aerial bombings. They’re so disconnected. They have no concept of people’s lived realities and traumas, or of the geopolitics. Even if you have a critique of Islamic fundamentalism, you don’t bring the flag of someone who just barrel bombed people to those refugees. It’s just wildly inconsiderate, and re-traumatizing. And that kind of stuff is pretty common.
A lot of the world has seen what plays out when you allow your movement to ally with the far right. Your movement gets destroyed. Just because you share one goal doesn’t mean you share any values. It’s seen as “practical,” but it’s not practical at all. It’s sabotage.
I used to live and work on the Syrian border, on the Turkish side, for like a year–I was working with Syrians for two or three years in total, in a dedicated way. So when I came back to the US and I met a lot of my old leftist friends, even good-faith ones who aren’t tankies, like anarchists…because of the infrastructure that these “tankie-lites” hold, not just on the streets, but also in media organizations, there was just a very extreme amount of disinformation, to the point where I would get in physical confrontations with people at demos. I would be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I have all of these people’s stories in my head, the types of things that are not even questions of debate among Syrians. The Overton window is so far from the actual things that are considered questions among Syrians, it was just baffling to me. It felt like being gaslit in this really intense way.
And I’m white. My trauma is vicarious. It’s nothing compared to the people whose stories I heard. But still, it was so baffling to me. That was kind of how I started getting interested in this phenomenon. I mentioned there’s this old infrastructure, not updated since the Iraq war. How do you parse information when it’s coming from somewhere that you don’t live and you don’t understand the culture? And meanwhile you’re getting spoonfed really elaborate disinformation operations from multiple state and state-backed actors, and it’s pretty hard. I’ll give sympathy that it’s hard to know what’s going on. When I first started making friends with more people from Hong Kong, I couldn’t quite get a sense of what was going on until I had more friends and there were more media outlets that I ran into.
So I’m sympathetic to that for sure. But there’s a fundamentalism to the way it works, at least in the West. I can’t organize with a lot of the socialists here, unfortunately, because their politics are so bad on the Middle East that I can’t even be around them. They’re like, We need to stage a vigil for Soleimani! But why though? Have you ever considered not? So there’s that level. The other level, and something that I wanted to talk to you about, is the tension of populism. There’s the Duginist view, pure red-brown (red-brown meaning leftist aesthetics and fascist politics blended together).
Dugin is this wacky Russian philosopher, but he has held some degree of power in the Russian state at various times. He was very influential in the Russian military, like with Gerasimov, who was the chief of staff for the Russian military–but he’s also viewed as a wacky figure, and he’s losing influence to the pure Russian nationalist chauvinists. But he has this vision of a hard-left and far-right populist alliance against liberalism. Most leftists would not get behind something like that when it’s stated that clearly. If I say, “Hey, liberalism is bad, right?” they’re like, “Yeah!” And then I say, “So you wanna ally with neo-Nazis about it?” They’d be like, “Wait, what?”
But a lot of people are just straight-up about it now. It’s becoming more and more of a thing. There are all these conferences and stuff. I might get cancelled for this, but a lot of figures on the “left,” people on the periphery of The Grayzone, but also people like Ajamu Baraka, who was the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party–
JA: And who visited Damascus.
EB: Yeah, he went on junket tours. He went twice to this conference, and was a speaker at this conference in Iran, an explicitly red-brown conference–like, out-and-out tankie spies who work with Syrian and Russian intelligence alongside this dude who was involved in a false-flag bombing of a Hungarian cultural center for the AfD (which is a fascist political party in Germany). David Duke went to this conference one time. A bunch of CODEPINK people went one time, though Medea Benjamin and Gareth Porter said that it was a mistake. Pepe Escobar said it was a mistake too–I had no idea!–but then he kept going back every year after that. So there are people who are explicitly doing this thing.
But in the more reasonable spectrum, there’s diluted forms of it that happen. That’s a product of shared goals. Like, there are a lot of people who think Israel is bad, and not all of those people have the same politics, suffice to say. A lot of people think liberalism is bad, and those people can have really different politics than each other. There’s this idea in left culture of, We need to build a big movement with as many people as possible, and in order to do that, we have to have populist rhetoric. Antifascists used to be very unpopular in the US because they were always critical of this kind of populism.
They would make very controversial statements. In the Cascadia movement in the Pacific Northwest in the US, there was a conference at one point, and an Indigenous speaker was going to speak there–and Rose City Antifa said, No, you guys cannot have this speaker, and everybody was like, What are you talking about? This dude’s Indigenous. How can you, a cluster of shadowy figures, say that we can’t have this speaker? And Rose City Antifa’s anwer was, Well, that guy explicitly allies with Neo-traditionalist revisionism that’s hugely anti-queer, and he does speaking tours with neo-Nazi circles, because he wants to build this patchwork nationalism, and we don’t think that you guys should ally with this person. Things like that were really controversial at the time. But now a lot of the world has seen what plays out when you allow your movement to ally with the far right. Your movement gets destroyed. Just because you share one goal doesn’t mean you share any values. It’s seen as “practical,” but it’s not practical at all. It’s sabotage.
JA: I have two questions that are not directly related. The first one goes back a bit to Syria. You can share as much as you want on this, but can you talk a bit about your time on the Syrian-Turkish border, and how that informed your own view of Syria-related politics? Especially the sort of narratives that once upon a time I used to really obsess about: the tankies and their influence, especially in America and in the UK, and the de facto influence that means for the rest of the world. Any differences in your own politics before that trip and after? Do you see any contrasts there that you think are worth pointing out?
EB: Yeah. I guess I was always somewhat anarchist. Maybe more than somewhat. But my mentors were mostly old-school PoC socialists. I was really into post-colonial theory and subaltern theory, and I grew up in the Iraq War era, too. So I held a lot of those views, but I believed–I have to be careful about how I say this. Obviously the US is a horrifying actor in international politics. However, when I was younger, I had an overly simple view of the enemies of the US, and the internal struggles that people have in other places. So one of the most challenging things for me, once I started having a really robust Syrian community, was people saying, “We want a no-fly zone.” Everyone I knew wanted a no-fly zone. Literally no Syrian I knew thought that was a bad idea.
And I’m like, Oh, well, um, don’t you know that the US is imperialist? If you get our boots on the ground, it’s game over. And they’re like, Are you fucking kidding me? Yes, we know (I had a bunch of Iraqi friends too, and they also said, Yes, we know). But you need to understand what Russia is doing and what Russia is going to do, and what’s actually happening in the situation. There are no beautiful clear-cut choices that we have here.’ None of these people were stupid. None of them lacked an anti-imperialist understanding of the world. It’s in their experience. It’s in their familial memory. It’s not some abstract theoretical thing like it is for my USian ass. So actually my anti-imperialism was a form of chauvinism. It was a form of paternalism. That was confusing for me to deal with. And I’m not talking just about “liberals.” I’m talking about hardcore Marxists and anarchists too–a wide range of people. Some of these friends I had were Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, but were anti-Assadist, and were tortured. So yeah. That really changed my perspective a lot.
The other thing that really impacted me was getting really into open-borders work. Now I live on the US-Mexico border. Definitely the lessons I learned from the Syrian refugee crisis, and what we would call “hospitality” here–there’s a lot of felonies around this topic, so I’m just gonna leave it alone. But yeah, I learned a lot about hospitality culture.
I also think Syria is what got me into antifascism. Because the reason I started working with Syrians–probably there’s weird white people stuff in there, but in my heart of hearts, I honestly believed that our struggles were interconnected and that I needed to follow the leadership of the Arab Spring, because they were pioneering new technologies of revolt and rebuilding their societies. It was a very exciting time.
Climate change is the quintessential example of a complex problem that transcends nationalism and sectarianism and everything. Because if we fuck up, we all die.
And however different Syria and the US are, I believed there were a lot of similarities. We have complex religious issues in a similar way. We have paramilitary issues. We have a rural side and a city side. We have a lot of similar deep structures. So my sense was that I could learn something, and possibly contribute some skills. One of the things that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about at that time, but became really clear to me, was how fascists can coup good-faith social movements. A lot of my friends were very brave, but they weren’t people who had fought in multiple wars. They were very powerful organizers, but when groups came in who had huge amounts of war experience, they were able to take over the village because they could protect it better. So I realized, Oh, that’s how fast it happens. That was a lesson I needed to learn about the US as well. So I got really interested in antifascism from that.
By the time I came back to the US, it was 2015–so I was there during the height of the refugee crisis, and I came back to the US, and at that point I was already studying fascist currents in the US, and I thought, Oh, this is going to happen here. It’s not going to be the same, because we have stronger institutions in the US, for one. We have civil society, and we’re a capitalist imperialist country–there are some obvious differences. But I saw these things that my friends told me stories about, and thought, It’s happening. So that’s how I got into antifascist research and why I became concerned about entryism. I’ve never talked to anyone about this, because people don’t really understand.
JA: I unfortunately do. I moved to the UK in 2015 from Lebanon. Between 2015 and 2016 is when I really started getting more active in Syria stuff than I was before. When I was still in Lebanon, it was largely just Arab Spring and supporting refugee rights, and very low-level. But 2015-16 is when I started noticing stuff on Facebook, how far-right shit was being replicated on the left. Obviously, this is the year before the fall of Aleppo. So there was a lot of intensification of conflict, more barrel bombs, more chemical warfare. And I started seeing very obvious–it felt like a very open secret, how the far right and left were basically identical. I developed this obsession with tracking (which I should have done a better job at documenting in retrospect) who would go to Damascus, in terms of Westerners and foreigners, on the invitation of Assad and the regime. Sixty or seventy percent of them would be on the far right, and thirty percent would be on the “left,” like Ajamu Baraka and many others.
The Stop the War movement in the UK–as the name suggests, it came out of the months preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in 2016, one of their guys published an article against the no-fly zone in Syria (which was barely being discussed anyway in the UK; it was never going to happen), with this amazing sentence: “Ask Libyans about no-fly zones.” The problem is: in that piece, there were no Libyans quoted. And all of the Libyans that have been asked (polls have been done on these things), it’s pretty clear a lot of them are like, Well, it’s not our first option, but there are no other options. Indeed, the majority did somewhat support it, if not happily, but with a lukewarm response. That’s miles away from the sort of reactions that I used to see–if there were protests on the streets of London you would see the ready-made signs of the Stop the War movement. At almost anything (to go back to the established infrastructure that you mentioned before)! It could be a demo to stop student tuition hikes, and you would see these signs by the Stop the War movement.
But there was not even a fraction of those protests when it came to actual barrel bombs. There were proposals at the UK parliament at the time, not even to have a no-fly zone, but to drop food over besieged cities–even that got no real support on the British left, nothing whatsoever. Then whenever I would go to protests against Bashar Al Assad, 95% of the people there were Syrians. At these protests by the Stop the War movement, there would be like one or two Syrians, and that’s about it. You were more likely to see a flag of Hezbollah.
To drive that point home, there was a protest in London in 2015 or early 2016. It was about Syria, I can’t remember what exactly. I went there with a Palestinian friend, and there was this guy who had this Hezbollah flag in the middle of the protest. He was the only one. And we went up to him, assuming that he was an Arab, some Lebanese weirdo or something (because they do exist, they’re everywhere). And I got really pissed: it was not even a white guy, he was Pakistani judging from his accent. But he was given the flag by a random Lebanese guy and told to wave it, and he did it because he thought this was the anti-imperialist thing to do. He genuinely meant well–he had no fucking idea what Hezbollah was or what they did, and he didn’t even know they were in Syria. He had no idea. Then the Lebanese guy came up, and basically dismissed me and my Palestinian friend as “imperialist,” you know, the usual crap. All of this is to say it’s extremely complex, and it gets even more complex when you start entering into the sub-categories of identities.
Joey Ayoub: I mentioned before I had two questions, so this is the second one, also about entryism: I’ve been increasingly having a morbid curiosity with ecofascism, of the Avengers/Thanos variety. I remember reading something about Thanos being a complicated character who had good intentions–that was enough to trigger an alarm in my head. I understand where it comes from, and I don’t think that people who are worried about vague things they don’t understand, like overpopulation–I understand the claustrophobic feeling of being on a finite planet; I get where it comes from.
But you’ve studied ecofascism more than I have. I’ll preface this question with a brief story: at the end of 2019, in the middle of the protest movement in Beirut, I was taking a workshop on permaculture and sustainable economies, and within ten minutes someone brought up overpopulation in Africa. There was no context; no one was talking about population in the first place.
Emmi Bevensee: We all know that Africa is the continent that’s really stealing the resources…
JA: That was my response. I mentioned the disproportionate consumption of not just the richer nations but the richer people within those richer nations, and the corporations. Many people listening already know this. But that position that this person stated–I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as ecofascist, but it flirts with it. It’s under the surface; it’s very easy to make the jump and become ideological. That misconception and misunderstanding of how resources actually are extracted, and the disproportionate impact of smaller but richer nations–those things aren’t well understood, and I want to be kinder to the people who engage in these things.
But that’s one section of the tendency; then there is the darker shit. And in between the naive ones and the extremists, there are all these things that are pretty mainstream. It’s pretty mainstream to have “concerns” about overpopulation that are not based on any sound science. You know what I’m talking about.
Peer-to-peer technology asks us to solve these problems ourselves rather than outsourcing it to some central body, just trusting Twitter to decide our discourse for us and to protect us from traumatic content.
EB: The thing with ecofascism is that climate change is this depressing reality that “our” communities understand, broadly speaking, and recognize as existing, and it’s pretty hard for us to emotionally process, as a species, because it’s the quintessential example of a complex problem that transcends nationalism and sectarianism and everything. Because if we fuck up, we all die.
It’s hard. It’s emotional. Historically, the right and syncretic fascist movements have fetishized nature, and whiteness as dominion over nature–but historically have denied climate change. Tankies have done this to a degree too; there’s some crossover there. But it’s mostly a far-right thing. It’s culturally more of a far-right thing to deny climate change. However, you cannot deny climate change forever, so eventually, if you’re a fascist, you have to wrap some sort of fascist ideology around the increasing reality of climate change.
They do that a lot of ways: they say it’s not human caused but it exists; they say it exists but it’s caused by China. The Atomwaffen accelerationist thing is to say it exists but it’s good because it’ll destroy civilization and we strong white people will survive (I’ve always found this idea kind of humorous, that all these basement-dwelling alt right edgelords are somehow going to survive the apocalypse and seed a new society of Übermenschen). There are a lot of angles they can take.
But because green movements are leftwing, broadly, they have to appropriate a lot of aesthetics and lot of histories. If you go into ecofascist Telegram chats, they will be posting propaganda from the Earth Liberation Front, or from Earth First!, and they will claim that as their heritage. But even those organizations (I’ll talk a little bit about Earth First!) have some problematic history. In the early days, it was a populist thing: We’re all united against civilization – It’s a post-political problem. They had these “buckaroos” who were far-right people who recognized climate change but were racist and anti-queer. That’s how we got the hardcore TERFy greens like Derek Jensen and Deep Green Resistance, who were social conservatives who believed in climate change. Now Derek Jensen is beloved by Andrew Anglin and The Daily Stormer: “I like this guy! He hates civilization and queers! We’ve got a lot in common.”
But Earth First!, to it’s credit, was like, This sucks. And they started organizing, as a green organization, against the Klan. They started developing more nuance about environmental racism, the way these issues are disproportionate and racialized–it’s not just a political issue. It follows with other analyses of power that we have, is interconnected with all these things. So they started cutting people out. But now there is an increasing movement of this “green-brown” thing.
JA: When we talk about the media landscape, and how these fascist movements and far-right ideologies organize, part of the problem isn’t just how “free speech” is used and exploited by people on the far right, but the algorithms on websites like Facebook and YouTube are what I’ve become concerned with–they tend to encourage (to put it mildly) certain extremist behaviors, because that is most likely to keep people online.
EB: There are a lot of battles. Just like geopolitics isn’t just this binary of two countries opposing each other, but is all kinds of corporate, political, and grassroots interests interacting in networks, there’s also this dynamic in the battles that are happening around this super-empowered harmful internet content. There are many different fronts of this conflict.
One of the fronts that I’m interested in, that is not that popular or well-understood yet but that I think is really important, has to do with peer-to-peer technology, which is a more decentralized model of computers communicating. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer technology, but there’s also social media and texting platforms, server hosting. As fascists and conspiracy websites–usually the order of events is they get kicked off of US infrastructure and move to Russian infrastructure; if they get kicked off of Russian infrastructure or it’s too sketchy or unstable, then they start to entertain peer-to-peer technology. It’s a last resort, because a lot of the technology isn’t as streamlined as they’re used to. But it’s way more resilient.
Every fascist website now, you can donate in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency. But groups like Atomwaffen and The Base started using peer-to-peer texting platforms. The Christchurch attacker’s manifesto kept getting taken down, so people started uploading it to IPFS, which is a peer-to-peer file hosting system. But the most famous example was the platform Gab, which is an alt right echo chamber, a big “free speech” social media platform. They were connected to a mass shooting, so they got booted from all this infrastructure, so they switched to this technology called Mastodon. I’m not going to explain how servers work right now, but suffice to say, instead of having one big server that hosts your website, there is a whole network of servers that work together to host your website and you host it as peers in the community. They moved to this technology and they’ve been running fine on it since.
With Parler being deplatformed, there was a question for a while of whether they’ll move to Mastodon as well–which they might still. It seems like they might get hosted by Epic, which is an alt right, white supremacist web hosting thing.
The peer-to-peer thing is interesting to me, because it takes a lot of the central issues of algorithms and censorship, “free speech,” and puts it in a new domain that’s much more complicated and that we’re not used to at all. Something I want folks to understand: obviously we should hold Twitter accountable for platforming fascists, but also, at the scale that Twitter exists, moderation is an extremely non-trivial problem. I’m not giving them a free pass. They don’t do nearly enough. But we can only do human moderation so much, and at a certain point all that human moderation is going to be paying people in the Global South to view a lot of very harmful or traumatic content. So even if that’s your solution, you’re still outsourcing your trauma to predominately poor people.
But if you want them to do machine learning–the way that marginalized communities use a term and the way the communities that hate them use a term are deeply contextual. I don’t want to get banned for using the word queer, but I would also think it was funny if a fascist got banned for calling me a queer. We have very different usage. Machine learning can learn a lot about context, but it’s not that good at it. And it gets even more complicated when you get into questions that different marginalized groups disagree on among themselves. In order to write a machine learning algorithm, you have to create training data; in order to create training data you have to make rules for what is considered harmful content.
I worked on a project at my university: they were studying toxicity in communication online and were creating training data. They were just studying “rude” or “mean” content online, and I was trying to explain to them that calling someone an “illegal,” as a noun, is specifically a hate term. And they were like, No, we’re STEM bros, that’s a technical term. I was like, You have no context of the communities that you’re building algorithms for! So now you’re going to kick me out of the project because I made everyone uncomfortable. That kind of shit is the reality. Why don’t they just create machine learning? They can. They put huge effort into machine learning ISIS content, but even that auto-moderates evidence of war crimes in Syria and starts flagging Muslims doing things as Al Qaeda.
There are some hard problems there, and once we get into peer-to-peer land they get even harder because there is no central body that can just take something down. But what I like about the peer-to-peer side of it–I’m a huge peer-to-peer supporter, to be clear. I love the technology. But I mainly love it for us, for the exciting things it can do for us. Because our infrastructure is–we’re going to get censored too. Twitter is going to take down all of us. Queer sex workers been knowing about this.
Peer-to-peer technology asks us to solve these problems ourselves rather than outsourcing it to some central body, just trusting Twitter to decide our discourse for us and to protect us from traumatic content. Peer-to-peer is more human: Hey, you guys have to deal with this. Maybe that’s not the exact answer you wanted, but that’s how I’m thinking about those questions right now.
JA: Thanks for that. It’s still very much an unresolved issue in my mind as well.
In terms of disinformation, the algorithms that I mentioned are worth talking about but they’re not the entire story. Can you talk a bit about social media analysis? A lot more people are talking about it now, talking about the attempted coup in DC. Can you talk about what it is and how people can use it? And what is the ideology behind it?
Social media platforms, intelligence agencies, police, and corporations have really powerful analytics tools that they use for really sketchy things, and my belief is that we need to give way more people access to tools for making sense of our online conversations, as a means of overcoming information warfare.
EB: A long time ago, I started beefing with 8chan, and I came up with the idea that I would write some scrapers to scrape all the data from 8chan and analyze it and make a database. That sent me down a really long road: I started realizing all these researchers have these tools, these codes that they can use to analyze social media and do it fast. Information warfare happens so quickly that we have to be able to react. But most of the people who I was most interested in working with–activists, journalists, antifascists, researchers–didn’t have the technical capacity to run all these code pipelines. So I started thinking about how we could make it easier for people to visualize trends across a bunch of different social media platforms so that we can answer questions as they’re happening.
I started building these tools, and a co-op sprung up around me and we started building all this stuff. We built a thing called SMAT-app, an easy, free interface for looking up things like what links people are sharing with QAnon on 8chan or Twitter or Reddit, or when Stop the Steal became really popular. It’s interesting to see, Oh, this happened first on 4chan, we see it a day before it hit on Reddit. We were working on this with a lot of people, together with people in Mexico doing different cool projects, and we were chugging along–we started indexing Parler. We have a ton of data sources that we started indexing: Parler, 8kun, Gab (we have Reddit and Twitter Verified, but those aren’t ours).
Then the coup happened, and Parler went down, and all of the sudden every journalist was asking who has Parler data. And everyone was like, Emmi and Emmi’s friends have Parler data. So I went from this really niche nerd to fielding twelve mainstream media requests a day, and doing all these interviews. There was a heroic effort by others to archive all of Parler before it went down. In the Parler data, you can see people openly organizing–I don’t know what it is about the right committing felonies on livestream and social media, but they just love it. They’re just all about that self-incrimination life. Baked Alaska, this alt right fashy brawler dude, just livestreamed breaking shit in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Now he has a warrant for his arrest. That’s kind of on you, bro!
So we built all these tools–but they’re free. And we give away our data for free, and we work with journalists and activists. There are a lot of different ways to use the tools. But my ideology going into this is that social media platforms, intelligence agencies, police, and corporations have really powerful analytics tools that they use for really sketchy things, and my belief is that we need to give way more people access to tools for making sense of our online conversations, as a means of overcoming these information warfare things that we’ve been discussing.
I’ve run a bunch of OSINT trainings, and I usually teach SMAT when we run them. One time I had a person who is Kurdish in the training, and she was interested in Syria/OPCW stuff, and she started researching these OPCW and chemical weapons questions using SMAT, and started finding really interesting things. That’s the heart of what I’m into about it. It’s my ideological framework that we need more people working on problems, rather than some elite vanguard–whether it’s the CIA or the tankie vanguard. I don’t believe that’s how problems get solved, especially extremely complex ones.
People have interest and expertise; this person knows a lot about geopolitics in her country and region that I don’t know about, so she can investigate these specific questions. The Mexican researchers who I worked with are doing all this stuff about Mexican politics that I don’t even know about. That was my goal: to get more people able to do this research. But then we were the only ones with all this far-right data…
JA: One of my biggest regrets is not being able to do something similar when it comes to archiving or data collection in Lebanon. There are people who have done interesting things, but it’s largely at small-ish levels. With the pro-Assad shit that I saw expanding really quickly on Facebook, I’m almost certian there was a government hand behind a lot of it. This became a bit more well-known with Cambridge Analytica and Brexit shit, but when it comes to Syria I’m sure there were significant early influences–maybe people have already done that research. But when it was happening, I wish I knew how to collect the evidence.
EB: One thing I’ll pitch is for people to get the browser add-ons for archive.org and archive.today. It makes it so when you find a webpage, you just click a button and it’ll archive it. It is really useful for researchers later when webpages go down. You can go to archive.org or archive.today and just archive any webpage. But the browser add-ons make it way easier; you just have to press a button.
I did a three–part series on red-brown media ecosystems, where I looked at the far-right side of the spectrum, the pure red-brown side, and then the left-leaning side. For that research, having archives was extremely necessary, because these actors are so sketchy that they’re constantly deleting things and changing their story. Having archived proof was really helpful.
JA: I have three more slightly related questions. I’ll start with something I know we have in common: our difficult relationship with the term leftism. This is not a fully developed thought. I know there are such things as the post-left and I know that anarchism is there but not really there, and there are complicated things happening. But I do sometimes wonder if the binaries that were largely created in the nineteenth century post industrial revolution are still valid in today’s context, especially with the internet and with increasing global warming. I say this while recognizing that there are interesing frameworks that are useful. I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But one of my earliest experiences of disillusionment with the “left,” other than the Syria stuff that we’ve talked about a lot (and I can also cite Ukraine and Hong Kong more recently on that count), has been going through the history of Indigenous movements in China and the Soviet Union and parts of Latin America. In Latin America this is more well-known among people on the left, because the governments that did so much horrible shit tended to be rightwing and militaristic, and backed by the Americans. But the stuff that the Soviet Union used to do, and the stuff that the Chinese government used to do and is still doing–there isn’t an existing framework that is as clear as Israel-Palestine. This is very clear on the left, it is very easy to be pro-Palestine if you are on the left–but then you go to Xinjiang and Hong Kong and Belarus, and it becomes “more complicated.”
But those are things that for me are not complicated. They’re actually just as straighforward as Palestine. The experience of Indigenous communities in these countries (and more recently in Latin America now that “leftwing” governments there have dark stuff on their hands as well)–I still struggle with these terms. So I wanted to throw that at you, not to solve my existential crisis necessarily, but to talk about the fact that these things that are supposed to be clear are not clear. I’ve had so many conversations with people who are Marxists, and some anarchists as well, talking about what I’ve been calling “alt-imperialism” as the exception: It’s this weird thing and it happens a lot for some reason, but it’s always an exception.
At what point are the exceptions no longer the exception? I know people who have stopped calling themselves leftists, even though they have progressive views, due to these things.
“The left” is an entirely incoherent term. I use it as a shorthand on Twitter, because it’s very few characters, but I have very few values in common with a lot of people who consider themselves leftists.
EB: A lot of Indigenous movements I’ve drawn inspiration from definitely don’t identify with the left, because it’s founded on these white European views that are younger. There’s a great video called “Playing Indian,” about how most European theory was appropriated from Indigenous contexts, by creepy anthropologists who fetishized the Iroquois Confederation and so on, and how those weird contacts that were deep misunderstandings were very formative in early Marxist theory and anarchist theory as well. Meanwhile the Quakers were actually chilling with Indigenous people and trying to develop relationships (not that they were perfect), rather than doing this weird thing that white leftists were doing for a long time.
Even that’s a good example in and of itself. From the beginning, the Quakers were trying to build relationships and interact respectfully with sovereignty, while the leftists were trying to get clout through appropriation. That’s as old as European leftist history.
That all being said, for me “the left” is an entirely incoherent term. I use it as a shorthand on Twitter, because it’s very few characters, but I have very few values in common with a lot of people who consider themselves leftists. This one of the standard post-left critiques: there is no shared value system across the left. A lot of people who would consider themselves leftists–I try not to have enemies, but they would be my enemies if it came down to it. I would be really actively opposed to them. Tankies are among those: I would be absolutely opposed to central economic planning by a vanguard committee. I would oppose it with everything I could oppose it with, because it sucks. It sucks mathematically, it sucks humanly, it sucks politically.
You get into stupid, boring semantic debates: Is Stalinism even in the left? Or is authoritarianism on the right? Aw, man, I’m fucking up the quadrants so bad! I probably am a “post-leftist,” but the post-left sucks too, historically. Just really cringey.
I would like to believe in some kind of left internationalism, some kind of heart to these things that could be good. But I recognize that it’s on such watered-down terms that there’s pretty much a guarantee that me and the person I’m talking to are going to be missing each other in fundamental ways, having different conversations, even if we’re in similar in-groups. I try to be more clear about specific values or specific issues rather than specific political teams. The right talks a lot about “virtue signalling” on the left, and then they take it in this weird direction of vice-signalling: It’s cool that I’m a shitbag! But there’s a ton of virtue-signalling bullshit on the left, people who just see it as a sphere of social capital to build influence and build little micro-cults, and the left is really vulnerable to that because we “care about people” or something.
A lot of the weird geopolitical stuff looks like that. The thing that makes it work is: it’s easy. As a geopolitical view for people just getting into this stuff, the tankie view is, Look, we want to help the workers of the world against the bourgeoisie, and all you have to do is be a Marcyist. What does that mean? It means the US is the ultimate enemy, so anyone who is vaguely opposed to the US (even if they are working deeply with the CIA and Israel in all these ways, like Assad), as long as they say they are kind of anti-US, you have to support them, you can’t say anything bad about them or you’re literally in the CIA yourself.
They wouldn’t call it Marcyism, because that’s a Trotsky thing, but that’s what it historically is. But the ideology is so simple it’s really easy to get people behind. This is the point of our complexity thing. It’s really hard to set out complexity as a political program, because it’s hard to explain. I’m not going to tell you what you need to think about this geopolitical issue. I’m just going to tell you it’s complex, and you should look for these tensions, and you should look for the way those tensions move and change. It’s not easy for people to join a community like that, because the way you join a community is, You come in, you learn the language, you learn to virtue-signal, you get cool points, you make friends.
I realize it’s asking a lot of people to think beyond that, and the simpler version is easier.
JA: My concern over global warming, other than it’s horrible and we need to do something about it, is that it also accelerates a lot of the things that–if there were no climate change and if there were no immediate existential threats, I could see the way people react to refugees and migrants as something that might take some time. Usually what happens is there is some percentage of those refugees who are “better integrated,” they do something for the society (like those Turkish-Germans who discovered the COVID vaccine), and then there are thinkpieces and stuff about how we have to integrate refugees. Usually it takes a generation or two, and I can rationalize it that way. I don’t like that it takes so long, but I can rationalize it. When I weigh the pros and cons it doesn’t figure in my top ten things to be concerned about.
But then you have climate change, and it accelerates that. It’ll no longer be, Well, you might have one million refugees on your shores. It’ll be tens of millions now. For me this requires a way of thinking in order to respond to that crisis that just doesn’t follow the position of most leftists–for example in the UK, they just want to get Jeremy Corbyn elected and then he’ll be nice to refugees. Okay, I’m not going to get into that.
But I can rationalize certain things. Biden getting in? Better than Trump getting in. It doesn’t mean I’m happy about Biden, but at least I don’t need to worry about Trump in there. It becomes a calculation, and there’s a time component to it. It usually takes some time for effects to be implemented. But this is being accelerated now due to climate change. So this is the second of my three questions: the problem of scale is something that you understand much better than I do. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. There’s a lot of math involved.
I recently recorded an interview with Martin Parker and Thomas Swann, who co-edited a book called Anarchism, Organization, and Management: Critical Perspectives for Students. It’s a book for business students, which is provocative and interesting. They make the case–convincingly, in my opinion–that anarchists need to be learning some of the technical skills that are sometimes taught in business schools. Their audience is not anarchists. Their audience is business students. So the idea is to do it the other way around as well, and show that you can actually have organizations that are not top-down, you can have a decentralized and non-hierarchical way of doing things.
It’s pretty interesting. It has some flaws and limitations, as do all books. But based on some of the reactions to this from other people who would describe themselves as leftwing, or anarchists, I noticed that it is basically taboo to even suggest that those working “within capitalism” (as if it is a choice for most people in the first place) have anything good to offer. You can only read Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and that’s as good as it gets. Maybe you can include some things that happened in the sixties and seventies, but there’s nothing good happening now.
For me, that’s a very cynical take. That was a bit of a caricature, but this tendency does exist. There are some people within the system–even some people who work in marketing firms–who have some things to say. Most things they have to say are not interesting, and probably not valid, and maybe some of them are harmful. But it doesn’t mean it’s a hundred-percent thing. It does happen to be the case that because they are relatively comfortable, they have some time to think about certain things and they may stumble upon a good idea that could be useful to people who are anti-authoritarian and want to have a non-hierarchical way of doing things.
Anyway, you mentioned a piece that is not easy to read–I understood some of the math stuff, not as much as I want to. Can you talk about that piece (mention the website as well, because people might not know it), and some of the arguments you made there, and why?
People had been managing common resource problems for thousands of years before colonization. The “tragedy of the commons” is largely disproved. But once we get into scale, it becomes much more complicated.
EB: Probably my most unpopular affiliation on the left is that I’ve written for and worked a lot with a website called C4SS, the Center for a Stateless Society. They are unpopular because they’re not very sectarian about ideas. They’re nerdy and curious, so they’ll entertain a lot of ideas as long as they’re not fascist. They are an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian website, but they’ll deal with old capitalist works like Hayek and things like that, and ask questions like, How does this relate to our modern understanding of information theory? Is this true? How does it affect our social forms?
To me, those questions are really exciting. I used to be a very “red” leftist, but I started to have some nagging doubts about the program we were supposed to get behind. So I started reading some “heretical” literature. I’m more nerdy than I care about my social status, so I went through some transformations. One of them was that I became really interested in mutualism. The part that was really important to me was that people conflate the existence of exchange and mediums of exchange like currency with capitalism as it exists. What I began to realize is that economic coordination is an extremely difficult project. Lots of fascists and far-right people harp on the problems of central planning in Communism. Mises’s mentor was a fashy Austrian dude. Hayek supported Pinochet. All these horrible things. However, they weren’t one hundred percent wrong about the existence of coordination problems. This has been borne out by problems in the Soviet Union, but also in society–coordination problems are a whole field of math and computation, and they’re just really hard. The idea that we can just make “The People’s Walmart” or “The People’s Amazon” and produce and deliver everything a society needs through machine learning is just not real. It’s not a thing.
There’s an extent that we can do that. Computationally, there is an extent that we can. Even pre-computationally: Iroquois longhouse systems through matriarchal lineages were pretty good, at a small local level, at coordinating by need the different things that people brought in, and using complex social systems for managing the commons. People had been managing common resource problems for thousands of years before colonization. The “tragedy of the commons” is largely disproved. But once we get into scale, it becomes much more complicated.
Elinor Ostrom is credited with disproving the tragedy of the commons, but she she just disproved it by saying Indigenous people had solutions to these problems for a long time. Her work doesn’t tackle climate change, really, or anything that big. Markets are a taboo topic, because capitalism is horrible, but what I realized is that most market socialist models of coordinating economics rely on replicating price systems in some way, because price systems “prove” preferences. Our preferences are so complex that if I tried to tell you all my preferences, it would take a fucking long time–and also I would be wrong. My revealed preferences would be different. The way I explain real versus stated preference is that maybe on your Netflix you’re like, I’m going to watch five documentaries about all these interesting things–that’s your stated preference. Your revealed preference is you watch Adventuretime for eight hours.
It’s hard to get at revealed preference without some sort of exchange mechanism, and it’s especially hard to scale those complex problems. So I started asking a lot of questions about if there are ways to create equitable systems that can still solve complex problems at scale. I ran a mutual exchange at C4SS with a lot of people from across the anti-authoritarian political spectrum. There was one person arguing we could do cybernetic communism. I was arguing against that. We were all over the place on that issue. But that’s how we like to do it, is get those dissenting views.
JA: This is a funny, pointless story, but at some point I started reading a lot of John Maynard Keynes’s writing. It had a lot of wrong things. But I’m not comfortable saying that he was a “hack,” which is something I’ve seen some people on the left say: it’s just Keynes on one side and Marx on the other, and they are in the ring fighting it out. It’s such a boring point that I’m even annoyed making it: sometimes you should be reading people you don’t like. You need to do that. It’s important. Even the bad ones. Not because you will agree with them (and I’m absolutely not saying all opinions are valid–see how this can go?).
There’s something that happens in my mind that I’ve noticed over time. Maybe you can relate to this. I would read things that I know would provoke some thought in me. Even if it provokes a negative reaction: I would read something to oppose it in my mind. But because I would then be opposing it from a different angle, that gives me a different pathway towards something completely random. They could be arguing for something completely shitty, but they are doing so from a different standpoint that I’m not familiar with. So I would familiarize myself with that standpoint.
You can’t get that if all you’re fucking reading is Marx. No offense to Karl Marx. Lots of interesting stuff. Very smart dude. There’s just so much more than that. This relates to something you said before. There are lots of Marxists (and I have Marxist friends–it’s nothing personal) that tend to think it started with Marx and then better things came after. Feminism came after, and therefore it nuanced and improved Marx’s analysis, even contradicted some of it, but he’s the “founding father” in that way. What that does is erase everything that came before Marx, as if there was no history before the nineteenth century.
For me that’s very problematic. I got to the point that I would read things that are “mainstream,” like Utopia for Realists and Humankind, and I know that if I positively reviewed them on Twitter, I would get negative feedback, even though eighty or ninety percent of the things laid out in them are straightforward, basic things. One of the critiques of the author is that he could have gone further. But they’re the kind of books that say things like, “The tragedy of the commons is wrong, and here’s why. – The bystander effect is wrong, and here’s why. – The Stanford prison experiment was a hoax, and here’s why.” They are all valid points, and they actually need to be said because a lot of people take these things for granted.
I read these books because occasionally there will be something that I didn’t think about. I didn’t know the Stanford prison experiment was a fucking hoax. I had no idea. I then read about it–total fraud, completely dishonest scientific experiment. I didn’t know that people in psychology class right now also know that there are some issues with it, but it’s still being taught. Had I not read this book, which would not have belonged in my leftist reading group, I would not know these things.
You were part of a collective on the topic of Emotional Anarchism. What is it? Why did you get into it?
EB: Responding to what you were saying before, what resonated with me there was that there’s a question for people of, If there were a book that would completely change your core beliefs, would you read it? People are divided on this question. I fall on the side of, I would absolutely read it. I would be too curious not to. What is the argument that could change my core beliefs? Are you kidding me?
I read straight-up fascist literature. I’ve read a lot of it. I’m not advocating that. But it’s part of the reason I have a high tolerance. In reading fascist literature–this is going to sound so bad. I’m going to get so wrecked for this: I was even open to it. I was like, If this makes me a fascist, then so be it, I’ll become fascist I guess. I’m going to read this fucking book. But what happened was it just deepened and complexified my resistance to fascism. I learned more about what parts of me could be drawn to it, and therefore what is drawing others. What is, if anything, appealing about this to me? And how can I use memetic immunity to help other people get out of it?
A lot of the literature that I’ve read–not just fascist literature but other weird stuff–really just challenges my worldview. Like you said, it takes me on new surprising angles. I trust myself to still have values, and to have my values deepened by reading things that I’m “not supposed” to read.
Our emotional and interpersonal work really influences not just how effective we are as communities of troublemakers, but also how much joy we can bring into our spaces.
JA: That’s the main thing that I feel. Now that I look back at my early twenties (I’m 29 now), I remember actively not reading certain things that I knew subconsciously would make me uncomfortable. One obvious example is I didn’t read anything that had a remotely Zionist connotation. For a Lebanese person it doesn’t sound weird, maybe for a Western audience it sounds weird. I just didn’t. I pretty much just boycotted Israelis. I didn’t know anything about them; it didn’t matter. At the time, it was justified in my mind by what the Israel government does–this is part of BDS, even.
I feel that debate is too complicated to get into now. But when I did start reading actual Zionist literature, actual history (I did my Master’s at SOAS on Yiddish and Hebrew politics; I had a conversation with Molly Crabapple about it on this podcast), it actually made me more convinced why we need to move towards something better than what exists right now, that involves more of a parity between Jews and Palestinians in Israel-Palestine (or whatever it will be called). This did not in any way negate the fact that my own grandfather is from Haifa and fled the Nakba. It just complicated it. Complicating is not negation. I feel mature saying this. It took me a while to recognize that if I’m complicating something, it doesn’t mean I am approving it; it doesn’t mean I like it. In fact, I think I’m opposing Zionism more efficiently now.
In Lebanon, there was a big thing about focusing too much (in my opinion) on the movie Wonder Woman because the main actor served in the IDF. My main issue with it wasn’t that. I don’t give a shit if people don’t watch a movie. That’s your prerogative. My issue was the government censorship: they were asking the government to remove it. My other issue with it was: then what do we do with American actors who served in the US army? Those are fine, nobody boycotts those movies. All of this is to say that my issue with that at the time wasn’t the movie, wasn’t the cause, wasn’t BDS. It was a concern for energy: how much energy I was putting into one thing. Energy is so limited, and we need to be doing other things that are more urgent. That was my concern. I caught a lot of heat for that at the time.
I’ll shut up on that and ask you to comment on what Emotional Anarchism is. The thing I like about it is that you don’t actually need to be an anarchist to find it useful.
EB: I don’t even know if I identify as an anarchist. I just find it a useful ethical and analytical framework for thinking about goals. Basically, it’s the basic statement that our freedom is interdependent–I can’t be free without you being free–and we should try to maximize our interdependent freedom. That’s the framework for me, and that’s why I like anarchism and anarchist theory and anarchist communities. But it’s not a static thing in my mind, so I don’t really care if people identify that way. Lots of dickheads identify as anarchists.
The Emotional Anarchist project was basically the statement that our interpersonal work is a domain where we can be maximizing freedom. And even in a utilitarian way, it impacts our social movements. Anyone who has been around has watched many different movements get completely destroyed by sexual abuse, usually, and cover-ups, or has seen women, femmes, and queers doing a lot of emotional labor in these spaces and getting no credit for that. Only someone on the front line who fights is most militant–invisibilizing all the other work that goes into making community spaces work at all.
I started writing a lot of stuff–when I started the project I was probably coming out of a really deep depression for a while, so I was interested in projects where people were trying to build autonomy over mental and emotional health, and also over medicines. We were talking to a lot of groups who were trying to home-brew hormones to help trans women escape the oppressive, bureaucratic pharmaceutical pipeline.
We started thinking about emotional issues through these lenses of anarchist analysis. One of our premises that we came to was that self-help sucks because it ignores structural politics–it’s a form of gaslighting and victim-blaming. You can medicate all you want, but if cops are shooting you, an SSRI is only going to help so much. There’s the structural side, and there’s also the side in which our emotional and interpersonal work really influences not just how effective we are as communities of troublemakers, but also how much joy we can bring into our spaces.
We have a whole book written. There’s a blog, but there are many more essays in the book and we just haven’t found the right publisher yet. There’s an essay in the book about these activists who I know who love joy and fun–and are very militant and do a lot of amazing stuff, but also just do so much fun stuff for our community. We interviewed them about what joy means to their organizing models. We interviewed peer support groups dealing with mental health and substance abuse, and we also talked to people about the fun side of things as well.
JA: You have an essay called “Open Borders Are Our Only Hope.” I don’t think we have time to get into it, so I’m just going to plug it for listeners.
This has been a fascinating chat. It went longer than I initially planned. Thanks a lot for your time.
EB: Yeah! It’s super nice meeting you. Stay in touch!
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