The Ideology of Anti Extremism

Moderate or extreme? Rowan Fortune looks at the questionable assumptions behind the concept and framing of anti-extremism.

 

As detailed in Dave Kellaway’s article for A*CR, ‘Gove Plays the Extremism Card’, Rishi Sunak’s Tory government is enjoying a new political distraction; an intervention into the fraught arena of defining and combatting so-called extremism. As Kellaway notes, this plays into a general tendency, increasingly evident across the political spectrum but most manifest on the right, to use culture war talking points to alleviate the social contradictions thrown up by capitalist crisis.

Extremism, however, might prove a risky battlefield for Sunak’s threadbare band of political eccentrics, has-beens and opportunists. True, it answers a pressing need to agitate against the ongoing mass demonstrations opposed to genocide in Gaza. By cynically framing anti-extremism to cast Muslims, peace activists, the broader left and concerned protesters as beyond acceptability, even by merely using parliamentary privilege to safely snipe at organisations, there is an appearance of activity where human rights and equalities law inhibits far more authoritarian gestures.

The Tories are presently hounded on their right by Reform and a fractious voter base – a legacy of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s 2019 General Election campaign – that is more and more demanding a far-right regime with teeth. Having helped whip up a politics of hate and resentment, Sunak finds himself unable to channel it. This reactionary outlook is better championed within the Tory Party by recently deposed home secretary Suella Braverman.

Between the loss of Johnson and Braverman from the executive, as well as a (largely) false perception on the right that Sunak is more politically liberal, somehow compromised by a vaguely defined left establishment, it is hard to see how Sunak can advantageously position himself so close to facing his serious electoral test. By even intimating that he is less extreme than others on the right, he not only risks alienating backwards voters, but threatening them and demeaning their grievances.

Yes, this base will want the government to go further and faster in suppressing the Palestine solidarity movement (alongside other progressive forces in Britain), but such people are not utterly naïve and will be concerned that talk of ‘extremism’ is two-edged. Gove was careful to signal that little peril is posed to the right by highlighting only the most extreme and tiny white supremacist groups, alongside larger and more mainstream Muslim organisations. However, the far right is inherently paranoid and distrustful.

William Shawcross in a recent review of the anti-extremism government organisation Prevent also singled out Muslims, but socialists, communists, and anti-fascists too. That was unsurprising, given Shawcross is of the right and known for anti-Muslim biases. While he could not showcase any terrorist threat from the socialist left nearly comparable to that posed by the far right, he has nonetheless equivocated by keeping the debate in speculative terms on ideology. The logic being more about what a perspective could imaginably justify, rather than what it does. This slippery gambit also allows him to free associate about Muslim groups.

Since this focus on ideology in the most abstract terms provides a backdrop to Gove’s statements and provocations, we on the left ought to be attentive to how the government seeks not only to unjustly discredit Palestine solidarity and anti-Islamophobia work, but could go after other popular targets in the culture war, such as environmental and queer campaigners and charities. Extremism, whether it is applied left or rightward, is slippery, and it is likely such angles will play into any upcoming election campaign, with Tory attempts to paint the Labour Party as soft on law and order.

Moderate Extremes

A temptation of socialists might be to play into the predefined terms of this debate. Certainly, our politics, rooted in a broad basis of solidarity that seeks to combine liberation struggles into a unified class struggle will also oppose many forms of what could be called ‘extremism’. Indeed, we would be inclined to agree even with a cynical reactionary like Shawcross that anti-abortion groups are extremists in seeking to deny women bodily autonomy.

Socialists, at our best, seek to champion all of the oppressed. Naturally, reactionaries who seek to target such groups are regarded by us, justifiably, as extreme. Likewise, our humanism will lead us to conclude that wavering on the ecological crisis, never mind worsening it, is extreme too. We could go so far as to suggest that most of Westminster is forthrightly extreme. While tempting, this is not a good retort to Gove et al.

The problem here is that ‘extreme’ is a sensible word in colloquial usage, but offers little clarity and often obscures. Likewise, its political antonym ‘moderate’, is vague and ideologically charged. If one surveyed the current political consensus in Westminster, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that giving nearly blanket cover to the Israeli government’s war crimes and genocide in Gaza is ‘moderate’. Wavering on the ecological crisis, refusing to act to prevent untold future horrors as our world becomes uninhabitable, is definitely ‘moderate’ in such terms.

This is because moderate and extreme address only what is acceptable within existing political parameters. On a surface level, these terms seem to mean only ‘something that is good’ or ‘something that is bad’, but beneath that it is a way of reconceptualising what is already the case as good, and what is not yet the case as bad. It is a way of laundering conservativism.

Every Black person stopped by the police for humiliating searches because political moderacy sees their skin as criminally suspect; every disabled person warehoused and robbed of their basic freedoms; every Palestinian demanding the world stops a genocide only to be told, with robotic insensitivity, Israel has a right to defend itself, knows how this reframing works. It is the oppressed themselves who best perceive, in their daily existence, the extent to which these fabricated poles are nothing but a rhetorical device to maintain existing injustices.

It should be self-evident that when anything from mass slaughter to ecocide to casual racism can be moderate, the word has suspect associations. When marxists talk of ‘naturalisation’, we mean to interrogate the kinds of assumptions that can form the bedrock of such a moderacy, exposing those to a reasoned analysis that reveals that what is taken as natural, as pregiven, from race to nation to moderacy, is a historical accretion of forms of social organisation, ultimately of forms of economy.

Rather than wade into this debate, we need an entirely new framework by which to discuss what motivations, psychologies and social processes result in the types of horrors – terrorist or state-sanctioned – we oppose. A framework that will offer a more useful set of prescriptions to an emancipatory politics. It is this framework, and its implications, that we need to draw on in the coming years as a ‘moderate’ politics of ‘anti-extremism’ sees every struggle for a human future equated with the most ghoulish far right death cults. As if change itself is inherently bad.

“Rather than wade into this debate, we need an entirely new framework by which to discuss what motivations, psychologies and social processes result in the types of horrors – terrorist or state-sanctioned – we oppose. A framework that will offer a more useful set of prescriptions to an emancipatory politics.”

Moralisms

That framework is provided by anti-moralism, which I have addressed elsewhere at length. At root, moralism substitutes analysis for condemnation by dividing the world into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. These condemnations may or may not be valid, but that is irrelevant. It does not seek to understand; it operates in the very failure of understanding. Moralism, then, is the dynamic shared by every religious terrorist, but also every government bureaucrat and politician acting to mobilise social forces against the oppressed. It is embedded in Gove’s perspective, that arbitrarily divides lines between acceptable and unacceptable opinion without a pretext.

The answer to moralism, to the hopeless conservativism of moderacy and extremism, is praxis. That is, the combination of theory and practice in the process of liberation. This puts things at a high level of abstraction; more specifically, take the example of the far right in the context of anti-racism. While it is undoubtedly the case that a neo-Nazi who beats up someone for being Black is extreme, this description tells us almost nothing about the neo-Nazi or – more significantly – how to stop them.

“The answer to moralism, to the hopeless conservativism of moderacy and extremism, is praxis. That is, the combination of theory and practice in the process of liberation.”

This neo-Nazi is acting out a set of social norms, embedded in an imperialist culture; these norms are reinforced by society, by how people are divided, by competitions inherent to the economy, by national lines with implicit hierarchies of race, by media tropes about Black people and white ‘normality’. True, in this instance, those influences are taken to an ‘extreme’, but it is the culmination of those everyday influences, combined with the vulnerability of the person the neo-Nazi attacks, that results in this brutal act.

The answer, then, is twofold. Foremost, to form autonomous anti-racist and solidarity movements to assure that Black people are not vulnerable to random attack, that they have powerful communities to protect them, and that they have the support of the wider progressive working class. Moreover, to assure that Black people are not perceived to be at the social margins, as of less importance, with less agency or inherent worth than anyone else.

Secondarily, but interrelatedly, socialists should work through the class to change the social conditions that bring about racism as an organic feature of class society, ultimately overturning those conditions entirely. That means not only challenging the racism of an extreme neo-Nazi, but the racism of a ‘moderate’ Tory or Labour MP. That also means seeing in the struggle to overcome racism the need to also overcome every other form of social oppression, to see in each struggle all other struggles in embryo.

Implicit even in the idea of treating racism as a free-floating problem of ‘extremes’ is to thereby naturalise racism, to treat it as a given, a predilection of certain wrongheaded people rather than a social-historical problem of power. That is why, even when this conceptual framework of anti-extremism appears to overlap with our concerns as socialists, we should perceive beyond that to the social essence. Anti-extremism does not challenge racism, it works to make racism seem an immutable fact of life. Nor does it challenge misogyny, disablism, homophobia or transphobia.

Likewise, the remedy offered by the anti-extremism ideology is laced with poison. As mentioned, we titularly agree with Shawcross about anti-abortion views, but does that entail that we then also agree with his prescriptions? It does not. As socialists we are in favour of zones of exclusion around abortion providers to shield vulnerable people seeking these vital services from harassment and intimidation, but we do not favour the blanket censorship of all reactionary opinion.

Instead, we robustly answer anti-choice groups wherever they appear, be that on the streets in counter-demos, in our workplaces through union activities, in our own daily lives by routinely challenging such ideas. We do not need the state to do this work on our behalf, first because this is the historic task of our movements not the selfsame structures of power that produce this problem initially.

But secondly, because the state’s approach, of driving forbidden views from public life through censorship, blacklisting, and police harassment, will cause said views to become subterranean and that much harder to challenge in the open. The social forces producing these views remain intact, such that this amounts to only treating the symptom of a disease while leaving the illness in place. Socialists do not fear the arguments of anti-choice misogynists, because they have no real case to make.

What we do and should fear is the state’s willingness to far more often turn the weapons of anti-extremism against the oppressed and, eventually, socialist politics, than against fascists, theocrats and bigots. If we cheerlead the state in developing such tools, we are arming it against our own cause and ability to politically operate.

The future we seek cannot be captured by blandishments like moderate and extreme; it is a human future, one fit for our diverse species universal flourishing in harmony with the planet. This vision could be variously called extreme or moderate, but for us it is merely necessary. No other future than one fit for all of humanity is acceptable, whether that is extreme or moderate is inconsequential. We challenge Gove and Shawcross to make the case for their inhuman present without appeals to generalities and clichés.

“The future we seek cannot be captured by blandishments like moderate and extreme; it is a human future, one fit for our diverse species universal flourishing in harmony with the planet. This vision could be variously called extreme or moderate, but for us it is merely necessary. No other future than one fit for all of humanity is acceptable, whether that is extreme or moderate is inconsequential.”

Main image by Steve Eason


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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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