If we are to critically evaluate the state of fascism in the UK today, we must look at the role played by ‘anti-fascist’ groups. Functionaries of united opposition against fascism serve their capacity in a purely performative sense. In this way, as far as groups such as UAF represent the antithesis to the EDL, BNP and no doubt the newly formed British Freedom Party, they are more rightly termed ‘counter-fascist’ than ‘anti-fascist’ as this is the role that they in fact perform. The primary activities of the UAF, and those with a more militant critique, are composed of reactive responses to fascist demonstrations (though some acknowledge the inherently reactive nature of their tactic). The fascists move first, and the allied opposition move to counter. In a very real sense, like a match day scrap between rival firms, they meet their enemies in the streets to perform a duel, a battle that has been played out many a time before, and each time, just as the last, is merely a battle re-enactment that both sides know well.
No re-enactment would be complete without the appropriate regalia. The aesthetic of modern day fascists, just as that of their historical predecessors, is a caricature; whilst the trope of the past may have been jackboots, fascist costume of today (at least in terms of the EDL et al) is very different, but equally recognisable. Yet, this is a highly naïve form of recognition where class prejudices betray themselves: the ‘Chav’ is demonized far beyond what Owen Jones may imagine. Tracksuit bottoms, a football shirt, the St George’s flag and, above all, the white working class stereotype become the new black shirt. Not only is this popular perception of the modern fascist naïve in its plain prejudice, but also in its failure to recognise a true popular fascism of our time. Nevertheless the aesthetic is there and conceptualised as stated.
The various counter-fascisms have their uniforms too. Some recall the radical history of scuffles between anarchists and fascists and employ the Black Bloc look, while others wear items such as keffiyehs, appropriating the cultural symbols of prominent targets of fascism out of a sense of solidarity. Other costumes are less antagonistic, attempting to present a ‘respectable’ face of anti-fascism – one which reduces it to bland, non-confrontational sloganeering, concerned more with absolving oneself than genuinely tackling fascism.
Beyond the literal costumes of counter-fascists, there is a wider issue of presentation. Counter-fascism is presented as a broad coalition of everyone who is not part of a recognised fascist group; a coalition ranging from the ultra-left to David Cameron (whom UAF can count amongst their founding signatories). This presentation is useful to certain actors within counter-fascism, as it allows the belief that fascism is an aberration, the practice of a small group that can be neatly contained within a police cordon, and not something that permeates into respectable society.
Presented with the costume, stage and protagonists, we of course cannot help but chose sides in this narrative, and of course the only true option is to appoint the counter-fascists as our hero – one we see the flaws in, but nevertheless, the hero. This leaves the fascists with only the role of villain to play. And what a sinister sort they are too. But, it still remains that in this performance, just as in any other, we see the humanity in our villain. Even as it tries to destroy everything that is popularly held to be human, we recognise something that is worthy of understanding – never worthy of a modicum of compassion, but understanding nonetheless. We try to understand why such evil came to be because we must, if only for our own sake, but perhaps also in the hope that a morsel of understanding may rub off onto our villain.
Yet, we have the sense that this performance is now simply a script being animated from memory, never diverging from an extremely formulaic narrative. As each encounter comes and goes we know that only a third protagonist, the state, represented in the performance by the police, continues to gain anything from the rehearsals and re-rehearsals. Whilst encounters between fascists and counter-fascists simply serve to negate one another, for the state each new meeting is a purely creative force that provides the necessary conditions for a continuing extension of its power. When the much anticipated meeting between the EDL and UAF in Tower Hamlets provided Theresa May the pretext to ban protest marches in five London boroughs for an entire month, we saw that the state’s ability to intervene does not represent a victory for either side, nor in fact the communities that counter-fascists suggest they are protecting. Similarly, street mobilisation gives the police their own pretext to extend their power on the ground: the Tower Hamlets protests provided the Met with the opportunity to employ a prefigurative Total Policing, and more historically the Battle of Cable Street lead to the introduction of the Public Order Act 1936.
With this understanding our task becomes abundantly clear: to break out from a iterative process that simply reflects a cyclical exchange of performances and no real victory for combating fascism; to stage a coup de théâtre where a true anti-fascism that recognises that fascism does not manifest itself in the entirely predictable form currently being rehearsed can be developed. We shall not see another Cable Street, a situation where fascism can be defeated on the street, and so there is little point in returning to this physicality that is stuck in its time – beyond the immediate protection of communities.