Right-wing nationalism, populism and protests going global

by | Jul 3, 2018 | Protest and repression, Racism/Xenphobia | 0 comments

post by Amy-Louise Edwards

The sociological discourse surrounding protest movements and activism frequently centres on politically left-leaning campaigns, such as the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Left-wing activism has certainly maintained its popularity, particularly on university campuses, for example with the third-wave feminist movement ‘Reclaim the Night’. However, in recent years, the global north has seen a significant resurgence of far-right movements. The proportion and membership of Neo-Nazi groups in the USA is reportedly on the rise since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Here in the UK, post-Brexit sentiments have apparently caused a similar surge in alliance with the far-right.

What could possibly be behind this revival of right-wing activism?

The far-right is an umbrella term which refers to many distinct ideological groups, which hold extremely right-wing views. These include Neo-Nazism, for example, Greece’s political party Golden Dawn who came third in their September 2015 election. Non-Nazi neo-fascist groups, such as the British National Party. And right-wing religious extremist groups, such as clerical fascists the Slovak People’s Party (1939-1945). The majority of far-right movements in the UK are also ultra-nationalist and populist.

The English Defence League (EDL), formed in Luton, UK in 2009, are just one example of such a protest movement- opposing what they refer to as ‘global Islamification’. The organisation claims to be a proponent of free-speech and rejects “politically correct depictions of Islam in Britain”. Whilst the EDL themselves reject the far-right label, there appears to be a tension between their claims online and their actions during protests.

The media they produce is socially and culturally conservative; advocating for the preservation of a British national identity and shared culture, sometimes viewing social progressions as a threat to society’s values. The EDL is nationalistic, believing in British patriotism and superiority, and calls for stricter regulations on border controls. Publicly, they are known for their vocal anti-Islam views; their rhetoric centres around criticising Sharia law, the prophet Mohammed and Islamic institutions in the UK. These are all features commonly associated with politically far-right movements, so even though the EDL refute it, they are usually categorised as far-right. Their online presence is carefully moderated, claiming they are against violence and racism, however, their demonstrations which attract attendees in the thousands tell a different story. At one demonstration posters read phrases such as “Nonviolent- not racist, not far-right- not far wrong”, however, prominent speaker Ian Crossland stated, “We should send them back to the sandpit they all came from” (not doing a good job at sounding ‘not racist’, 0/10 for effort).

The EDL, like many activist organisations, promote a populist stance. Aslanidis describes populism as a ‘discursive frame’, i.e. a series of cultural ideas that inform the practices of a social movement, which typically creates a rivalry between a corrupt elite class and the everyday people (Aslanidis, 2015, p. 88). The EDL pits the everyday Brit against careless elite politicians and complaisant journalists who neglect border controls and overlook Muslim immigrants/descendants of immigrants who are complicit in ‘rape jihad’ (in their own buzzwords, not mine). Their sensationalism over the threat of illegal immigrants and Muslim criminal activity, at times, evokes a tone of conspiracy theory. The EDL’s theory is that the government will soon allow Sharia law to be officially implemented, forming a British caliphate. As Britain is one of the more secular societies globally, the likelihood of this occurring is slim.

It is a commonly-held assumption on the left that those who support far-right populist groups like the EDL must be uneducated and dissatisfied with their economic position. However, Goodwin has shown “supporters of such groups are not necessarily young, uneducated, economically insecure or politically apathetic… but [they are] xenophobic and profoundly hostile towards immigration.” (Goodwin, 2013, p. 1). Indeed, the xenophobic, racist attitudes of the group’s members have been widely publicised. The ‘non-violent’, ‘anti-racist’ EDL chants overheard at demonstrations include “If you all hate P***s clap your hands” and “We’ll burn it [a mosque] down.”
So, if the issue is not necessarily a lack of education and xenophobia is not exclusive to a social class, what is the defining factor that has led to the rise of these far-right movements? It is unlikely that there is some single catch-all reason why far-right protest movements have had so much relative success in recent years. The combination of the social, political and economic positions that we have reached has led to an overall societal dissatisfaction with mainstream moderate and centrist politics in the global north.

Oaten suggests that the EDL’s defining characteristic is the collective sense of victimhood of its members (Oaten, 2014, p. 331). If a group feels so victimised that they adopt victimhood as an element of their social identity, this could contribute to an adoption of extreme political views. If one’s instinctual reaction towards immigration is fear; a fear of change, a fear of losing national identity, a fear of multiculturalism; then it would make sense to conjure up a scapegoat or ‘folk devil’ to direct your anger and distress towards. Presenting yourself and your community as ‘victims’ and the scapegoat as ‘assailants’; all social issues occurring in your community can be attributed to the faults and differences of the scapegoat (immigrants).

Major events in the past few decades have set a certain social climate, allowing far-right movements to thrive. The rise in Islamist terrorism, wars in the Middle East and the sensational media coverage post-9/11 has created a climate of fear and suspicion towards the Islamic community. The EDL and similar groups have formed as a reactionary force in a misguided attempt to gain some sense of security. When combined with political disillusionment and economic crisis- after all, the EDL formed in the wake of the 2008 economic crash- the EDL can frame itself as a patriotic movement defending British identity.

Periods of political upheaval, coupled with terrorism, wars and tragedies occurring globally, can dictate social behaviour. When a community is affected by such changes, once reasonable, well-adjusted human beings become subject to mass hysteria. Terrorist activity has been on the rise in Europe, but you are more likely to be killed by lightening than by terrorism. Yet communities become hysterical with fear over the potential of being a victim, or feel as though their community already are victims- even when they are not. This can lead people down the route of far-right activism, as a means of expressing their xenophobic attitudes and subsequently to find catharsis for the tragedies they have witnessed, experienced, or simply live in fear of.

Further reading

Aslanidis, P. (2015). ‘Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective’, Political Studies 64(1), pp. 88-104, SAGE Publications via University of Manchester Library [Online]. Available online (Accessed: 24-04-2018)

Goodwin, M. (2013). The Roots of Extremism: The English Defence League and the Counter-Jihad Challenge, Chatham House.  Available online (Accessed: 25-04-2018)

Oaten, A. (2014). ‘The cult of the victim: an analysis of the collective identity of the English Defence League’, Patterns of Prejudice 48(4), pp. 331-349, Taylor & Francis Online via University of Manchester Library [Online]. Available online (Accessed: 25-04-2018)


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