In Being Numerous, the journalist and writer takes on disruptive topics – from punching Nazis and believing in ghosts, to Standing Rock protests and radical sex
Journalist Natasha Lennard’s Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life explores ghost worlds, the power politics of sex, and what it fully means to confront fascism beyond platitudes offered up today. A British-born journalist now based in New York, Lennard grapples with both American and British politics in her essays. She examines the implications of David Cameron deeming the 2011 London riots as “criminality, pure and simple”, as well as the day-to-day lives of protesters who set up at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in defiance of plans to build an oil pipeline. Then, there are pieces that expand our assumptions of what is – and is not – a political issue. Love, the supernatural, and the state are all explored with the same fervour, reflecting on toxic relationships, a childhood ghost, and how the process of getting an American Green Card drove home the uncomfortable ties between our bedrooms and the state.
Dazed caught up with Natasha to talk the meaning of “non fascism”, the politics of sex, and why we can both believe and also not-believe in ghosts at once.
You cover a lot of topics, from the ghost in your childhood room to the devaluation of black life, and finally to the intimacies of suicide. Is there a theme that unites them?
Natasha Lennard: At first glance, the essay collection might seem like a strange mix. As you say, it includes a philosophical defense of punching Nazis, a reflection on belief and disbelief in ghosts, an essay from Standing Rock, an essay on rights discourse, a critique of radical sex, a defense of riots, a reflection on suicide and individual intent, and more. I didn’t begin the majority of the essays with the intention of compiling them; some are new and revised, some are a number of years old. It takes looking back on a collection of work to see patterns emerge, a thread of consistent argument and politics. The thread that links them, as I see it, is a call for an anti-fascist politics as a set of habits or tendencies and a rejection of liberal centrism (both politically and philosophically) as an answer to the fascisms that permeate not only the Trump era, but everyday life under capitalism. In a sense, then, the essays are united by what they oppose, in that they all seek to disrupt the same worldviews and assumptions.
The subheading of your book is ‘living a non-fascist life’. What does being ‘non-fascist’ involve?
Natasha Lennard: I use the term ‘non-fascist’ as opposed to ‘anti-fascist’ but I don’t draw a strict distinction between the two. I did, however, want to indicate on the book’s cover that this isn’t a collection dedicated to ‘anti-fascism’ as it’s commonly used, as the radical tactics taken up under the banner ‘antifa’. Although I do dedicate time in the book defending antifa as both (regularly) effective and necessary acts of community defense against organised and organizing white supremacists.
Philosopher Michel Foucault used the term ‘non-fascist’ to speak of the sort of intellectual, affective communal and emotional work needed to fight ‘micro-fascisms’, the everyday fascisms. As Foucault described it, ‘the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’. If we understand fascism in this sense, there is a certain impossibility to ‘anti-fascist’ as an identity, insofar as none of us are totally free from the micro-fascisms permeating contemporary life. So ‘non-fascist’ gives a nod to Foucault as well as, hopefully, highlighting that defeating fascism is about far more than unseating the Trumps and Orbans of the world.
You also argue that we need to move away from seeing fascism as a uniquely evil, Nazi-era phenomenon. What do we lose when we only use this narrow definition?
Natasha Lennard: In the lead up to Trump’s presidency, there seemed to be a mini media cottage industry devoted to debating whether Trump was or was not a fascist, whether he would or would not bring fascism to America. The entire conversation seemed premised on the idea that we could only talk about fascism in the present day as some aberration to the progress of liberal democracy, some wrong turn back to the early 20th Century. The risk, then, is thinking that we can just debate or vote these perverted tendencies away. But fighting white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, and class inequality will take an arsenal of tactics beyond that.
I’m more interested in an expansive understanding of the term ‘fascism’ that enables us to see fascist tendencies, fascist habits (the love of oppressive power, hierarchy, racism, misogyny) and how the desire for them gets fostered and enabled to flourish. I’m interested, like many activists, in fighting fascistic tendencies through the understanding that they are not to be reasoned with. I want to take seriously the way a desire for fascism works.
“I fiercely reject the disavowal of riotous protests, which involves property damage, or physical confrontation with police, or neo-Nazis... is it not cruel to demand peace from those who are not permitted to live in it?” – Natasha Lennard
There are a lot of protests discussed in your book – the Standing Rock camps in North Dakota, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Women’s March. Are there ‘better’ – and ‘less good’ – ways of protesting? Is there such a thing as a ‘bad protest’?
Natasha Lennard: I don’t think there are per se good or bad protests, but I do think what counts as an effective protest needs to be problematised more. Let’s take the Women’s March – if the idea was just to bring vast numbers of people together, to feel a sense of community and solidarity in the shadow of Trump’s inauguration, then it was a success! But, of course, it was in itself no threat to the administration. I do think that, too often, very large protests get celebrated as something potent just because of their size, even if they function as no more than parades (albeit affirming ones). This partly comes from a nostalgia and a limited vision of what powerful protest looks like, which doesn’t pay attention to shifts in context. In the 1960s, bringing 100,000 people to a mass protest could function as a threat to the status quo insofar as it showed potential: if we can get 100,000 people together today, imagine what else we can do. Nowadays it’s far easier, thanks to social media, to organise big crowds. So a mass protest doesn’t show potential in the same way; indeed it can show the extent of organizing capacity! That’s not to say I think mass protests are a bad idea – they all people to find each other, they politicise people, and that’s crucial. But let’s not call it revolutionary!
Meanwhile, I fiercely reject the disavowal of riotous protests, which involves property damage, or physical confrontation with police, or neo-Nazis. These are not ‘bad protests’, and those who would throw those such protesters under the bus and outright reject all seemingly violent tactics have located violence in the wrong place! The uprising in Ferguson, for example, following the execution of Mike Brown by a cop, drew censure from so-called moderate voices who decried the kids in Ferguson for starting fires, damaging property, fighting riot cops. In a state of affairs of vicious inequality, mass incarceration, and institutionalised racism, the background condition for so many people is already violence. At a fascist rally, when neo-Nazis can gather in considerable numbers and chant “blood and soil”, the background state is violence. So any violent protests against these background violences must be considered counter-violences. The rioters in Ferguson didn’t instigate violence, antifa activists in Charlottesville didn’t instigate violence. The media consistently attributes the act of turning to violence to people who literally cannot turn from it; whose lives and deaths are organized by it. Why not end the cycle? A better question: is it not cruel to demand peace from those who are not permitted to live in it?
It’s easy to think about love as entirely separate from politics, particularly in progressive spaces. However, in one of your essays, Policing Desire, you draw on your own life to reflect on how even radical sexual politics can be used against people – often young women. What can this tell us about how power works in seemingly open-minded, liberated spaces?
Natasha Lennard: So this is a complicated one, because, yes of course love – what kinds of romantic and sexual configurations are allowed, legitimized or demonised and criminalised by society – is the stuff of politics. And so too are questions of sexual violence and consent. But I’m not interested in the sort of ‘personal is political’ discourse that sees every seemingly radical sexual act. Your queer experiment, your threesome, is not necessarily a bold political act! Especially in an age where that’s par for the course at Burning Man. Yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t treat desire as something we just have, as if centuries of power operations had not determined not only our desiring tendencies, but the very terrain of what gets to be a choice or a chooser. Who and how we desire deserves thinking about!
As I go into in one essay, I had a nasty time with a particular ex who insisted that certain sex—though not all sex, only “radical” sex—was a necessary rite of passage, without which no appropriate political radicalization was possible. He then proceeded to be all manners of manipulative and abusive, under the guise of, for want of a better term, being woker-than-thou. He was well known and liked in the anarchist scene in New York when I met him, and quite a bit older than me. Which goes to show that activist milieus, however committed to feminism, anti-racism and breaking down hierarchies, aren’t somehow cleansed of that which they seek to fight. To imagine they are would be to imagine that we can somehow just burst out of society’s worst codings because we want to. This takes work, non-fascist work, for all of us, and it takes collective work to identify and address these abuses in our own communities. Which isn’t easy.
“We act better when we don’t work to fold every unusual phenomenon into our pre-existing precepts” – Natasha Lennard
Your discussion of your childhood ghost struck me as now we're seeing a popular resurgence of interest in the occult and the mystical, as seen in renewed interest in astrology and witchcraft. What can your childhood ghost tell us about the value of believing the seemingly unbelievable?
Natasha Lennard: My ghost! So what’s important about this ghost is that I believe in it and don’t believe in it at the same time. I’ve felt its presence in my childhood bathroom for as long as I can remember. But I can explain it away scientifically, some posit of a sleep disorder and mental projection. I argue, though, that explaining the ghost away is the least interesting thing to do with the ghost. I use the ghost as a way to explore the ethics of allowing things into our lives that we could explain away, but choose not to. As I put it, Intimacy lives in those places we don’t reduce to the wholly explicable, even though we could.
What’s this got to do with non-fascism? Well, it’s in part a rejection of the closed minded thinking of ideologue atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – the worst of all ghostbusters. Their religious elevation of Enlightenment reasoning, aside from an excuse for Islamophobia, forgets that “truth” and “reason” are never pure and always have to do with power.
I’m not into astrology personally, and I have a particular dislike for trendy white girls pretending to be witches on Instagram, with a vast disregard for the colonial decimation of so many spiritual practices. But, I have some brilliant friends who use astrology as a heuristic, a tool by which to read the world and their lives, but not as some metaphysical, deterministic Truth. Making room for different scripts and stories, different openings for belief, be they mystical or whatever, can have real ethical value. We act better when we don’t work to fold every unusual phenomenon into our pre-existing precepts. It’s a political imperative to believe (impossibly) that another world is possible, while necessarily being unable to explain that world from the confines of this one. But I don’t include a #coven with a well-Instagrammed crystal collection in that.
You take the title of your book from a poetry collection from George Oppen, “Being Numerous”. What does it mean to be numerous?
Natasha Lennard: “Of Being Numerous” is an astounding poem by the late Oppen, which I’ve loved for many years. I have a line from it, ‘the force of days’, tattooed on my ribs (the whole line is ‘Having only the force/ Of days /Most Simple / Most Difficult’.) I can’t speak to what exactly Oppen meant when he wrote ‘Obsessed, bewildered / By the shipwreck / Of the singular /We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous’, but it’s struck me in a few, crucial ways, as I particularly explore in an essay about surveillance and how we live online (which, of course, Oppen couldn’t have anticipated when he wrote the poem half a century ago). We participate in the social order; we avoid the ‘shipwreck’ of our singular selves, with which we are nonetheless obsessed, but we have not yet (for now) chosen to be collective, or communized or united. We have chosen to be numerous, yet individuated: as online selves, we are enumerated as surveilled data points. Crucially, though, Oppen wrote that it was ‘the meaning’ of being numerous that we have chosen; and there is hope in the thought that we might choose differently, together, this meaning.
Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life by Natasha Lennard is out now on Verso Books