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9 December 2020

New Zealand’s report on far-right terrorism shows why politicians must no longer ignore the threat

By treating far-right extremism as a law enforcement issue, governments are failing to prevent its spread. 

By Paul Mason

In March 2019 a far-right terrorist killed 51 people at the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand. Last week, a few elderly boneheads at Millwall FC booed players taking the knee, only to be supported by rent-a-quote commentators claiming Black Lives Matter is “Marxist”. What’s the connection? The “Great Replacement” theory, the far-right thought-architecture it supports, and the structural racism it justifies. 

“The Great Replacement” was the title of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto – deleted online but translated by far-right activists into numerous languages within days. The theory has become the unifying mythology of the British right. It alleges that immigration constitutes a “white genocide” that can only be stopped through an ethnic civil war; that feminists are aiding it by depressing the birth rate; and that “cultural Marxists” have designed it in order to overthrow capitalism.

That narrative was not only central to the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto; it has, during the past decade, become the connective tissue linking the extreme, violent and terrorist right to the broader milieu of right-wing populists and, as we saw this week, parts of the conservative right.

The New Zealand Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting, published this week, called for a new anti-terror agency to be established after it concluded that the New Zealand intelligence service had almost exclusively focused on Islamism as a terrorist threat and that it had “only a limited understanding of right-wing extremism”. When commissioners talked to the Muslim community who were the victims of the atrocity, they heard a different set of concerns: “about racism, discrimination and experiences of being suspected of being, or treated as, terrorists, as well as their fear of being targets of hate speech, hate crime and terrorism”. 

While it is urgent that, both in New Zealand and across the world, intelligence agencies grasp the threats and the patterns of far-right terrorism, the Royal Commission report makes clear it would be a mistake to treat the extreme right as a terror threat only.

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[See also: The far right is outraged because it is being denied the “wages of whiteness”]

Far-right terror attacks (like their Islamist counterparts) are “stochastic” –  statistically predictable but individually random – because they are often triggered by pervasive incitement on anonymous internet bulletin boards, not by a direct chain of command. Below the level of mass shooting attempts or pipe bombs in the mail, the tsunami of online hate and fantasies of ethnic violence has produced a surge in violent racist attacks and harassment incidents.

In the UK, for example, reported hate crimes in 2017/18 increased by 123 per cent compared to five years earlier. Research conducted at Cardiff University shows that physical hate crimes in London not only correlate with high-profile trigger events (such as the 2017 attack on Finsbury Park mosque) but also with surges of racial abuse on social media. 

There is, say researchers, “a consistent positive association between Twitter hate speech targeting race and religion and offline racially and religiously aggravated offences in London… Were the number of hate tweets sent per month to increase dramatically in an area with a high BAME population, our predictions suggest much higher incidence rates.”

So we have to stop compartmentalising our response to hate speech, the routine violence it triggers and lethal terror attacks. Though the latter is the responsibility of the state’s anti-terror apparatus, and the former usually dealt with through criminal justice and reactive policing, the far-right surge has to be defeated politically and at a community level.

***

The Great Replacement theory was given its current form in 2010 by the French writer Renaud Camus: he divides European populations into three groups: the “replacers”: migrants, people of colour; “replacees”: the “indigenous white population”; and “replacists”: the pro-multicultural and feminist left and the liberal establishment. His solution is forced mass migration for the “occupiers” – though as with all promoters of genocide, it is never stated what should happen if those targeted for expulsion resist.

But the theory has much deeper roots, going back to the social Darwinist theories of the 19th century, and the work of the anti-Semitic British-German philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In Chamberlain’s case it was Jews who were seen as the invaders, but the inner logic was the same.

Hannah Arendt, in her discussion of the Nazi mass support base in the 1930s, described the mindset we are dealing with: “They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself.” 

The problem is this mindset is no longer limited to a minority of far-right activists and cranks. As I’ve argued repeatedly since 2008, with the collapse of the inner logic of neoliberalism, where the market is the elegant explanation for everything, large numbers of people have lost a coherent world-view.

According to the monitoring group the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the volume of tweets mentioning the Great Replacement theory “steadily increased in the seven years leading up to the Christchurch attack, with the number of tweets mentioning the theory nearly tripling in four years from just over 120,000 in 2014 to just over 330,000 in 2018”. 

And the Great Replacement is just one of many conspiracies sloshing around the internet: the “Plandemic”, QAnon and, now, “Great Reset” theories have each, this year, proliferated and merged together. The Plandemic theory suggests the Covid-19 outbreak was planned by Bill Gates and that vaccines weaken your immune system; QAnon claims the world is run by a secret cabal of Democrats and Hollywood stars who siphon children’s blood to achieve everlasting life; the Great Reset claims that the World Economic Forum is planning a state takeover of capitalism that will enforce – again – vaccinations and measures to reduce carbon emissions, against the will of the people.

[See also: The QAnon conspiracy theory is absurd but dangerous. Politicians must confront it

Let’s be frank about the problem this new, theorised and systematic far-right ideology creates. The “folk” racism and sexism we know all too well, from Ukip rallies, lower-league football terraces and the tabloid newspapers, could be seen, by liberals, as a hangover from the past: a bunch of imperial delusions and the residue of patriarchy, to be dispelled by successful black role models and sports stars, and advances in legal and civil equality.

The populist right – in Britain, the US and countries such as Australia, where the Christchurch shooter was from – has never really done “theory”, preferring to mobilise prejudices and use subtext.

But during the Trump years, with the US president himself a major global vector, this prejudice-based right-wing politics has been backfilled with theory that emanates very clearly from the so-called traditionalist thinkers who kept fascist philosophical thought alive after the Second World War. So we are dealing with an intense, combative form of folk-politics, spread via WhatsApp, Telegram and the closed Facebook group.

As the New Zealand Royal Commission report argues, you cannot simply treat this as a law enforcement problem at the sharp end, and a community integration problem at its base. Politics is the key to disarming and demobilising angry people who no longer care about facts and logic.

And that’s why the media reaction to the Millwall FC booing incident was so disgraceful. When a TV presenter such as Jeremy Vine gives a platform to someone to argue that Black Lives Matter is a “Marxist” movement, do they understand how that will be echoed in every small-town pub with a racist presence, together with the assertion that “masks” are Marxist, and that vaccines are a plot by the “New World Order”? When 28 Conservative MPs sign a letter using the term “cultural Marxism” –  labelled an anti-Semitic trope by the Jewish Board of Deputies – do they understand that this is a critical component of the modern justification for genocide? If not, they need educating fast.

Institutions such as the British Army have done excellent work, proactively identifying the threat after discovering a cell of the banned National Action group, and conducting a campaign against “RWX” (Right Wing Xtreme) across installations. Politicians, by contrast, generally want to ignore the problem.

Even among some Labour MPs there is reluctance to actively take apart the combined mythology of QAnon, Plandemic and “white genocide”. The unexpressed fear is that they will be accused of calling their constituents racist and that, after the 2016 murder of Jo Cox and some high-profile harassment campaigns, they too will become targets. But as New Zealanders found, ignoring the problem does not make it go away.

The Labour MP Margaret Hodge has called for an end to online anonymity and for social media platforms to be made responsible for the anonymous threats issued against high-profile individuals. The sad thing is that, even if this could be legislated (and I support the latter call), the genie is so far out of the bottle that it will take decades to put it back.

The mythology that is driving the new far right is powerful. Opposing it we have not just laws and surveillance systems but ethics, logic and facts – and everybody in public life needs to be on the right side, not issuing subtextual support messages to the wrong side.

[See also: How it feels to escape the far right]

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