[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: An elusive threat

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John Gray: An elusive threat
The Times Literary Supplement, 3.2.21

    HOMELAND. Into a world of hate. By Nick Ryan. 319pp. Edinburgh:
    Mainstream. £15.99. - 1 84018 465 5

    If it is dangerous to forget the past, there is also a danger in
    relying on it to understand the present. The rise of the Far Right in
    Europe between the two World Wars was a part of a global crisis.
    Prosperity and democracy came under threat across the European
    continent chiefly through the impact of the Great Depression.

    No doubt the reparations exacted from Germany by the Allies played a
    part too, but it was mass unemployment and monetary collapse that
    enabled the Far Right to come to power. Against this background of
    economic crisis, the Nazis were able to challenge the legitimacy of
    the liberal Weimar regime. Using the resources of a party machine that
    mobilized millions of people, they overthrew democracy in Germany and
    established a totalitarian state. In some ways the Nazis were
    untypical of the Far Right elsewhere in Europe: they were more
    consistently hostile to Christianity, for example. Even so, the way
    they used the vast dislocation of the inter-war years to capture and
    overturn democratic regimes shapes our perception of the Far Right to
    this day.

    In shaping our thinking about the radical Right, the Nazis have at the
    same time clouded our vision. Circumstances are very different today -
    but so is the threat from the Far Right. The 1930s were years of
    economic collapse in Europe, while today - for the time being, at any
    rate - Europe is muddling through. Unemployment is high, but nowhere
    catastrophically so; though the welfare state has become somewhat
    frayed, the great majority remains affluent. At the same time,
    democracy is well entrenched; the revolutionary mass parties of the
    1930s are nowhere to be seen. Seen through the lens of inter-war
    history, Europe looks an inhospitable environment for the politics of
    hate. In fact, the Far Right has re-emerged as a key player in
    politics and government right across the European continent. Seeking
    support among groups whose position in society is threatened by
    economic change, it does not need mass unemployment to thrive. No
    longer seeking to overthrow democracy, instead it exploits democracy's
    weaknesses. Even where they are not in government, far-right parties
    are shaping the agenda of politics on issues of immigration and crime
    in nearly every European country.

    How and why this should have come about is an interesting question, as
    well as one on which a good deal hangs politically, but few answers
    are to be found in the standard social science literature, which
    remains stuck in intra-academic commentary on outdated theories. The
    literature of first-hand observation is a much better starting point.
    Homeland is reportage of the most illuminating kind - a vividly
    atmospheric narrative of Nick Ryan's six years exploring the far-right
    underworld across Europe and the United States. A television producer
    and investigative journalist, Ryan records his exposure to a wide
    spectrum of drifting sociopaths and calculating opportunists,
    white-power punks and political provocateurs, Satanist rock musicians
    and Christian fundamentalist conspiracy theorists. Patrick Buchanan
    and Jorg Haider jostle together along with a host of characters of
    whom most readers will never have heard. As he recounts his meetings
    with them, Ryan probes the psychology of people whose sense of their
    own identities seems to depend on stigmatizing the identities of
    others. The result is a fascinating and unsettling exploration of the
    dangerous nether reaches of contemporary culture and politics.

    Ryan makes few generalizations. The value of his book lies not in any
    attempt at theorizing but in its taut depiction of a new
    cultural-political landscape. Yet Homeland adds to our understanding
    of the new Far Right in several crucial respects. To begin with, it
    underscores the ways in which the Far Right has not changed. Today, as
    in the 1920s and 30s, it is driven by hatred of minorities - internal
    and external. Now, as then, the central place in its demonology is
    accorded to Jews, with Holocaust revisionism reproducing all the
    poisonous themes of inter-war anti-Semitic hate literature. As it was
    in the inter-war era, the Right today is deeply homophobic. These are
    continuities that recur continuously on the Far Right, expressing a
    syndrome that shows no signs of fading away. In some contexts it is
    actually intensifying, as far-right movements deploy the Internet to
    disseminate their ideas. A figure such as David Copeland, the
    nail-bomber who attacked the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three
    people and injuring over fifty, some seriously, was portrayed in the
    media as a deranged loner. That his mental state was unbalanced is not
    in doubt; but, as Ryan demonstrates, Copeland was no mere solitary. He
    had a history of contact with British far-right groups, whose ideas he
    had absorbed over a long period. Acting alone, he implemented a
    strategy of terror that had been incubating for many years.

    A valuable feature of Homeland is its description of the amorphous
    character of much of the new Far Right. Alongside its entry into the
    European political mainstream, it has a more shadowy side, in which it
    practises terrorist strategies of "leaderless resistance". Unlike the
    anti-liberal movements of the twentieth century, it is not organized
    in hierarchical structures, but in loose networks. In this regard the
    new Far Right mirrors other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda
    (which it seems to view with both trepidation and admiration). There
    is a lesson here. In the twentieth century the chief threat to liberal
    values came from revolutionary mass parties and totalitarian regimes.
    Today, the danger comes from elusive affinity groups, held together
    mainly by their shared hatreds, aiming not to capture the State but to
    disable or destroy it. The hate-filled extremists described by Ryan
    are often nondescript figures, who make full use of the anonymous
    freedom afforded by liberal societies. Curbing these networks means
    strengthening the State, a process in which core liberal freedoms
    could easily be compromised. Political thought has yet to catch up
    with this dilemma, but it seems destined to shape some of our most
    intractable conflicts.

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