In Praise of Chip Berlet

Berlet’s articulation of the syncretism across the right — in contrast to complacent “common sense” center vs. extremes, as well cruder Marxist assessments — is indeed a key observation. It better explains the current phase of American political economy. 


Guest post by Ian Wallace

Exposing the Right and Fighting for Democracy

Edited by Pam Chamberlain, Matthew Lyons, Abby Scher, and Spencer Sunshine

Published by Routledge Press, 2022

        I have no great understanding of academia or literary genres, so I had no idea of what a Festschrift is. Wikipedia tells me that a it’s a book that contains praise of a respected person’s work, (hopefully) when the subject is still alive. The word itself, Festschrift, sounds like a name for piece of Ikea furniture. This is now sort of an old joke, and only useful here by extending the metaphor: the book is best when ignoring the directions, and don’t sweat the handful of parts left over after assembly.

        The book is organized into four sections, a structure ill-suited to its constituent pieces, and I would advise against trying to understand the content according to these categories. It reads just fine, taking each chapter on its own merits. Some contributions are naturally stronger than others.

        Chip Berlet was born in 1949, and spent his young adult years in the New Left the 1960s. His trajectory from Christian youth culture into progressive activism is not unique, but perhaps underappreciated in leftist circles. He thankfully dropped out of university in 1971 and moved into journalism, including a stint at High Times. In the 1980’s, Chip turned his efforts towards researching the Far Right, a topic that has occupied his work since.

        We start with young Chip Berlet’s genesis in the disintegrating remnants of the post-war social compact. The world he and the New Left were building was the one I was born into in 1971, and reading about it here, I think I under-appreciated the civic intuitions that underpinned the rise of the New Left, its church groups and social infrastructure. The excitement of young minds being galvanized by the world organized against them comes across here, enough to overwhelm the inevitable nostalgia. (Not that we shouldn’t be allowed some nostalgia; it can help make sense of one’s life.)

        We then move along to the basis of Berlet’s analysis. Here I am at a deep disadvantage. I have never read any of Chip Berlet’s work. The anti-fascist work I have engaged in was mostly bound up in the subcultural context of the 80s, 90s, and oughts. That world was underdeveloped politically. Having spent more time in theory, now I see Chip’s fingerprints all over the place, and better yet, recognize some answers to questions I have had for a good bit of time.

        Berlet’s articulation of the syncretism across the right — in contrast to complacent “common sense” center vs. extremes, as well cruder Marxist assessments — is indeed a key observation. It better explains the current phase of American political economy. Most of this book was written before the farcical January 6thcoup, and that’s sort of a shame. It may have pushed some of the more liberal contributors here a bit harder, and allowed more pointed questions to be asked regarding the current state of decay within the US body politic.

        I spent a few weeks in Turkey in 2008. Recep Erdoğan’s AKP had won reelection the year before, and was then slowly chipping away at the official secularism of the Turkish state built over the prior eighty years or so. I was struck by the repeated conversations I had with Turkish men, about 9/11. If there was anything that the men of Turkey wanted an American tourist to know, it was that the Jews were definitely responsible for 9/11. As Erdoğan’s project moved forward, I have often wondered about the role of conspiracy theories in the rise of the right. I am glad to see the question front and center in Chip’s work, it seems to still be an underexplored element even as conspiratorial thinking grips the American right from top to bottom. The contention that conspiratorial thinking is intrinsically linked to right wing populism, and I would say, various fascisms should not be controversial at this point. The Trump administration has proven the political utility of such approaches. But it’s always lingered in the GOP’s intellectual hinterlands. It’s not going away any time soon.

        This dovetails I think well into the other feature Chip identifies as populist right markers, the scapegoating and apocalyptic narratives. These are well worn features, and probably well understood by most critics, especially as the right wing presents itself as the last defense against a Satan-worshiping pedophile cult that they believe operates the Democratic Party and it’s military apparatus ANTIFA.

        The last pillar of populist right politics is producerism, a framework that explains a lot, from the current GOP war on “woke” capital, to putting the “socialism” in National Socialism. Producerism holds that only those directly involved in productivity really deserve any agency in political matters. While this can resemble a superficial criticism of capitalism, it’s actually a cross class collaboration between bosses and certain sections of the working class. It is perhaps the most dangerous shoals leftists need to navigate, and is endemic in the common sense of working-class people — and not just white people, as a short conversation with either one of my neighbors will quickly illustrate.

        This brings us nicely to the right wooing the left. While we refuse to platform even other leftists at this point, the right’s parasitical opportunism allows it to avail itself of our forces, or more realistically, those we fantasize as our forces. It comes off as far more confident even in its batshit crazy perspectives than we do when we refuse to publicly defend our ideas against people that disagree with us. That would be most people, by the way.

        We might do well in assessing the negative features of populism that grows within our own side. We might wish that we were immune from scapegoating, apocalyptic thinking, and millennialism. While not usually at the front, rooting around in a variety of our corners, you can find them.

        While we are at it, we might also ponder that the political relationships between the far left and the Democratic Party are just as syncretic as on the right, like it or not. I don’t think we are as alienated from the liberal power brokers as we might like to be. I mean, if a radical turd like Stephen Miller can float to the top of the American state, there are those amongst the left that might do the same, perhaps for the better, but probably more often for the worse.

        The rest of Exposing the Right and Fighting for Democracy is mostly composed of a good number of researchers, journalists, academics, activists and friends commenting on their experiences working with Chip Berlet. This is all very nice, but does not really add up to more than some much deserved appreciation. If we can draw lessons about his life and work, it’s that decency and generosity are good qualities in our comrades. It’s a shame that we need to be reminded of this. But of course we do, so the inclusion of so many appreciative observations is a nice legacy indeed. We should all be so deserving.

        Ikea aside, a festschrift in a nice, humane gesture. It counts even more if you’re outside the academy, an educational void that no doubt informs Chip’s humility and egalitarian principles. The work Chip Berlet has done clearly deserves recognition of his peers, and those he has influenced. By all accounts he is generous with his time and knowledge. I would make the case that the best way to show respect for Chip Berlet is of course organizing, researching, and writing not only against the right, but for a better world.

        Also, I might just go read Right Wing Populism In America. I hear it’s quite good.

Ian Wallace is a marginally employed carpenter in the PNW, who, on occasion, tries to be useful in the project of liberatory communism.

Editor’s Note: Matthew Lyons, a contributor to Three Way Fight, is one of the editors of Exposing the Right and Fighting for Democracy, but recused himself from any role in soliciting or editing this review.

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