Conference Report: Inaugural Conference on Right-Wing Studies

On 25th – 27th April 2019, the inaugural conference of the Center for Right-Wing Studies took place at the University of California, Berkeley. This was a refreshing exchange between early career researchers and more established scholars that provided some international perspectives on right-wing movements: from conservatism to fascism, from the past to current developments.

Around 100 participants from four different continents convened to discuss their research on the rise of the right at the inaugural conference of the Center for Right-Wing Studies (CRWS) Scholars from such diverse backgrounds as political science, anthropology, theater studies, geography and history came together along with journalists and activists. The truly interdisciplinary experience that developed was in line with the organizers’ aim for the event: creating a fertile mélange of young and established academics in close dialogue with engaged practitioners and policy makers. The idea to engage in an exchange between academia and the public, and to respond to a sheer interest on the topic from both sides, was a priority for the conference organizers, as was underlined in the keynote panel that opened the event.

In his welcoming note, CRWS chair Lawrence Rosenthal addressed the urgent need for a committed study of the right in the context of its global rise and the need for appropriate responses from civil societies. Overall, his lecture focused on what he termed “the oxymoron of the international of the nationalists”: The seemingly well-coordinated politics beyond borders of the (far) right against common enemies and the transnational exchange of ideas and resources that took to a new level with the diffusion of social media. Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, underpinned this notion by giving insights into the monitoring of the increasingly global dissemination of hate groups and content on the internet. The panel was rounded up by some expert contributions that focused on the history of white supremacism in the US (by Joseph Lowndes), on authoritarian legacies in Brazil (by Ben Cowan) and, finally, a contextualization of far-right parties in Europe (by Alina Polyakova).

A further highlight of the conference was the screening of Documenting Hate: Charlottesville that sparked extensive discussion on the roots and consequences of the Alt-Right in the context of the “Unite the Right” event that went violent in August 2017. The PBS Frontline documentary presented an inside look into the various groupuscules that created a revival of white supremacism in its contemporary guise. Pete Simi, an expert on neo-Nazism in the US, commented with the filmmaker Karim Hajj on the production of the documentary and provided much-needed context on the changing dynamics on the fringe of such movements towards far-right terrorism.

Besides this, the 18 panels of the main conference programme presented original research of high quality. Although the focus ranged between topics as different as theoretical questions on normalization tendencies, methodological questions on ethnographic studies, and empirical evidence from multiple historical and contemporary case studies, three recurring core issues permeated the conference and indicate a direction for further research:

  1. Transnationalism: It was not by chance that right-wing actors acted very similarly when responding to (perceived) political opportunities. The history of the (far) right is marked by a surprisingly high degree of international networking and a transnational cross-fertilization of ideas and expertise. This feature was prominently discussed in a panel on the transnational networks in and between Latin America and Europe, which draws on a long legacy of transnational inspiration and mobilisation. In a similar way, a panel on far-right intellectuals highlighted the transnational scope of its leading figures and their theoretical bedrock. From Jean-Francois Thiriart’s post-war fascism to Steve Bannon’s Traditionalist leanings, the transnational flow of ideas, contacts and resources has been marked as a recurring feature of the far right; both in the past and present. This also applies to the apocalyptic visions and the rhetoric of scripted violence that Chip Berlet diagnosed as connecting authoritarian mindsets between far-right actors across the globe.
  2. Gender, Masculinity and Misogyny: A second urgent issue identified at the conference was the role of gender and sexuality within the far right. On the one hand, its masculinist vision of society has received renewed interest by scholars. Co-organizer Alex DiBranco underlined a notable rise of Alt-Right misogyny that lead to women in the far right being even more sidelined than before. Increased influence of the transgressive nature of far-right online cultures deteriorated the hate against women. New phenomena like the Incel movement call attention to the dangerous, violent nature of the male supremacy. On the other hand, notable studies shed light on biographies and activities of women in right-wing movements. Especially the French case shows that, in far-right contexts, a kind of ‘alternative-feminism’ can evolve that renegotiates the role of women with ambitions of national and ecological rebirth.
  3. Digital Platforms and Online Mobilizations: A third core topic of the conference has been the power of social media for and against the right. How do right-wing actors mobilize through digital platforms? Are the structures and functioning of social media especially beneficial for right-wing actors? What roles do emotions and collective imaginations play? And not least: How do online discourses translate into offline action? These central questions were discussed on a theoretical level and substantiated through illuminating case studies from Brazil, Canada, Germany and the US.

In conclusion, and given the recent developments, it was not surprising that the conference payed close attention to Brazil and the US. Both countries have been addressed through new perspectives on the role of religion, pedagogy, legacies and authoritarian personalities. Discussing the entanglements between street protests, online mobilization and institutional politics the two national cases showed revealing parallels but also fundamental differences. As the political circumstance also affect academic freedom, it is urgent to strengthen independent research. The Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies is the only academic research center in the United States dedicated to the study of the political right. For more than ten years, the CRWS has been working thanks to donations and volunteering. The possibility of similar successful events in the future relies on international support in order to address the above issues that are so pressing at this present time.

Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Research Associate at Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. See his profile here.

© Maik Fielitz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).