Alternative epistemologies of the radical right: how grand narratives and the quest for truth offer recognition and a sense of belonging 

In early 2019, during ethnographic fieldwork on radical right movements in Australia, I attended a far-right rally against allegedly “African gang crimes” in Melbourne. I spoke to a young man in his 20s about his reasons for taking part in the protest. In response he alluded that the problem was much bigger than the criminal behaviour of some African kids, but he was reluctant to explain his ominous insinuations: ‘I can’t tell you. You have to find out yourself. You just have to read the right things.’ He appeared very proud of having found the ‘right’ sources and discovered the truth independently and on his own accord. The “truth” needed to be earned, he seemed to believe, it can’t simply be passed on. There was a sense of superiority in his words as he had traveled this arduous path towards his red-pill enlightenment, and he was now sending me on my own journey to discover this truth.

This experience stayed with me, but I was unable to make deeper sense of it until, almost one year later, I interviewed a group of people who had participated in anti-Islam protests and other far-right rallies for several years. During our conversation they also spoke at length about their long way of ‘educating themselves’ and ‘doing their own research’ gradually leading them to the “truth”. They were convinced that a secretive globalist cabal directly controls local council and governments to ‘break’ society and implement the New World Order (NWO). Such NWO claims are among the most popular conspiratorial myths within radical right milieus in Australia and globally. In general, and also within this specific group, they serve as a grand narrative that ties a range of beliefs around unrelated issue – from immigration, Islam and anti-Semitism (absent in my interviews) to climate change, gender identity, vaccination and government actions – into a seemingly coherent system.

Leaving aside the sometimes obscure and contradictory nature of the arguments put forward by the people in this group, what became clear is that their personal quest for the truth was a process with complex psychological and social implications. Again, there was this strong sense of pride in their claimed capacity to look behind ‘fake news’ in mainstream media and deliberate indoctrination attempts by the government and its education system. Although they all shared the same convictions around NWO, none of the interviewed individuals wanted to appear as if they had simply adopted the views of others (not even of those in their own group). Instead, they all insisted on having done their own independent ‘research’, but simply arrived at the same truth from different angles, which was further proof that their convictions were true. They felt empowered and a sense of recognition and self-worth as a result of their personal quest, but these processes have also strengthened their collective identity and belonging to a community (in-group) with supposedly superior knowledge.

The vast literature on radical political movement (Jasper 2011) and violent extremism (Mirahmadi 2016; Vergani et al. 2018) has highlighted that such psychological and social factor are often pivot in explaining the appeal of far-right ideologies and groups. The analysis of these interviews underscores this and demonstrates the interplay between these factors and the specific ideological narratives. The people in this group have found recognition, respect and social connectedness through their radical right activism and their pursuit of the truth.

There were also other social dynamics at play. Whilst emphasizing their individual autodidactic efforts, the interviewed individuals also stated that, once they have done their own research, they come together and share with each other. This was described by one person as ‘ripple effect’, and another one stated: ‘As we learned more, we developed…and we all come back together, it’s about networking too. We all share. [Person X] may find out more information to do with Islam and Christians, [person Z] may find out something about Communism…we all learn from each other’. Through these processes of information sharing and mutual exchange of personal experiences, they ‘often find common ground’. This is how initially unrelated fear and concerns around issues such as Islam, vaccination and marriage equality are continuously solidified, expanded and successively bundled together under a coherent grand narrative – in this case, the conspiracy theory of the NWO. The accounts of several members of this group highlighted these processes: ‘When we first came together it was just about Islam, but it is about so much more now’.

These process of ‘doing my own research’ and sharing it within a group of likeminded others, as well as the outcome of these processes, i.e. the belief in an ideological meta-narrative that identifies a secrete global elite and their ‘puppets’ in government as being responsible for all social ills, form an alternative system of knowledge. Similar to dogmatic interpretation of religious belief systems, it offers morally charged, simplistic answers to highly complex questions. This quasi-religious epistemology, whilst rooted in a combination of ultra-nationalistic and aggressively anti-egalitarian tropes, draws heavily on conspiratorial thinking. It is positioned in explicit opposition to the established ‘mainstream’ epistemology, based on reason, science and provable facts, and controlled by the very same elites allegedly responsible for the demise of society. As such, this conspiracy theory driven knowledge system reinforces boundaries between in-group and out-group, whereby strengthening internal solidarity and belonging and discrediting the others who are considered to be part of the establishment – local council, government, university and mainstream media. Any attempt by these ‘elite’ agencies to challenge the in-group’s convictions, for instance through rational arguments or counternarratives, may backfire as it can be regarded as a deliberate manipulation attempt by the out-group and hence ‘perpetuate the original conspiracy theories’, as Holbrook (2020) argues.

The alternative epistemologies within the radical right are powerful and difficult to refute from outside, also because they often serve a deeper psychological purpose for the individual. They offer something that people who feel disenfranchised may seek and feel they deserve but society has denied them: a sense of recognition, control and power in a social environment, both locally and globally, that is complexly interconnected, constantly changing and characterised by uncertainty and ambiguity.

Dr Mario Peucker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. See full profile here.

© Mario Peucker. 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).