For casual observers, journalists and researchers alike, the small, impassioned worlds generated by the extreme right can seem, to say the least, deeply unappealing. The agendas of such extremists are often hopelessly unlikely to succeed, and the views expressed by activists render them beyond the pale for most of society. Yet many people give large sections of their adult lives to movements and parties that, for generation after generation, have been more marginalised than successful. How can we really understand this appeal?
Moreover, despite media narration of the extreme right as dangerous and exciting, the activities of such movements is not as sensational, nor clandestine, as often portrayed. As Kathleen Blee’s highlights in her book Democracy in the Making, the minutia of day-to-day activism at a grassroots level is typified by stretches of time that are in fact quite boring. When I read through the monthly ‘action reports’ of a British ‘accelerationist’ group, National Action for piece of research, what came through was that most of the activities of this deeply concerning group were actually quite dull and mundane. A typical day of ‘action’ included, for example: walking in the hills, and then giving out some leaflets to people while waiting on the train to go home.
The answers perhaps can be found through better development of qualitative datasets that convey the affective aspect of such activism, the types of material often but not always minimised by quantitative, policy-focused focused approaches. In particular, mood and emotion are central to the ways in which far-right politics makes sense to those drawn into it. Yet, while often acknowledged as important, for the most part not enough attention is given to how an affective dimension shapes such politics.
One notable area of departure here is the work of ethnographers, who often talk about emotion in their studies. Many who work on the extreme right highlight that mood and emotion are crucial to why people find an attraction in such fringe politics and extremism. Sometimes these emotive aspects are found in the cultural worlds created by the movement, other times the ideas of the movement are less appealing but emotive aspects of shared engagement in something plays a crucial role in holding activism together.
Echoing Emile Durkheim’s notion of the crowd creating a sense of ‘collective effervescence’, influential researchers such as Fabian Virchow have stressed that phenomena such as neo-Nazi marches should be seen as ‘politico-emotional events’. The intangible sense of atmosphere is crucial to seeing why these spaces may appeal to those drawn to them. Given their public nature, considering demonstrations and marches as ‘affective occasions’ is, perhaps, among the most noticeable arenas for reflecting on the politics of emotion within the extreme right.
Emotions are found throughout the movement, as they are in all aspects of life. When activists’ emotions have been discussed through interviews, research can sometimes focus on common and at times narrow emotional dynamics of activists. Matthew Goodwin’s use of interviews in his book New British Fascism, for example, allowed him to explore a range of activists from the British National Party in the 2000s, at its height. He highlighted that the party was driven by the attitudes of often angry white men, and that such anger was a unifying emotion. Such work also helped to show that people were attracted to the movement in the 2000s despite the supposed aura of Nick Griffin, and instead often saw their local community groups as giving their activism a sense of purpose.
The work of Hillary Pilkington, featuring interviews with grass roots activists within the English Defence League, has been able to present at a similar but broader sense of the emotional repertoires of political activism. Her excellent book Loud and Proud featured interviewees who often expressed more than anger; they spoke of pride, and passion as their activism allowed them to overcome a feeling of disempowerment. Often, these positive, affirming emotional aspects of engagement could not be sustained leading to a decline in engagement.
Mehr Latif has considered this issue as well. She was lead author on another fascinating article for Humanity and Society titled ‘How Emotional Dynamics Maintain and Destroy White Supremacist Groups’. This analysis examined how the study of emotions provides an analytical bridge between individual cognition among activists and wider group structures. As the title suggests, better assessment of emotions can help establish an understanding how specific extreme-right groups stabilise and destabilise over time.
Such focus on the role of emotions within the extreme right, among some researchers at least, also raises the important question of what is an emotion? Most people are very aware they have ‘feelings’, and can relate these to seemingly similar feelings expressed by others, but emotions themselves are difficult to fully define. There is a vast historical, philosophical and scientific literature exploring the nature of emotions, whether they are biological phenomena or constructed through cultural practice, and this short article cannot do justice to these debates. Yet these debates are relevant to researchers focused on the extreme right.
For example, if I believe in an ideology that proposes that society could be ‘purer’ and ‘better’ somehow, and I also believe that there are forces such as corrupt elites guiding phenomena such as immigration to actively prevent this better society from existing, at the very least I am likely to feel a profound sense of dissatisfaction. For philosopher Michael Brady, emotions such as disappointment often involve six elements: perception, evaluation, bodily change and expression, awareness of a ‘feeling’, motivation to act and deeper thinking. As such, the emotive dimension of far-right narratives can provoke visceral responses and a desire to engage in activism.
With this in mind, whatever else emotions are, they are a human phenomenon that link ways of interpreting the world to bodily perceptions and behaviours. Emotions are also phenomena that are shared through cultures, and specific sub-cultures develop particular emotive contexts. As many ethnographers have drawn out, extreme-right activism can allow people to feel a shared sense of emotional community in such milieus, something they do not find elsewhere.
Therefore, thinking about the ways that emotions are developed by and impact on extreme-right activists, and indeed often become crucial in shaping their perceptions of the very purpose of activism, ought to be providing richer pathways for research. Where ethnography, primarily, has demonstrated the importance of emotions, other areas, such as data analyses of extreme-right social media, historical analysis of past groups, and studies of the dynamics of extreme-right terrorism and violence, should pay more attention to the emotional contexts and how these inform the activism of those who are navigating through the emotional spaces of the extreme right.
In sum, scholars of the extreme right should seize on the ‘affective turn’ in the humanities and social sciences in order to gain richer insights into both the positive and negative life worlds of extreme right movements and activism.
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Professor of History and looks after the renowned Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
© Paul Jackson. 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).