In Sebastian Faulks’ novel Engleby, a pivotal scene occurs early, during a university interview. Its protagonist is the interview candidate, and he is asked to make a comparison between the writing of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. Engleby, an abrasive, arrogant young man, does not believe there is much to compare.
“I thought he must be joking”, he declares. “An American banker interested in the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy and a pitman’s son who wanted to escape from Nottingham[.] … Compare them? … I gave an answer about their use of verse forms, trying to make it sound as though it had been a reasonable question.”
Engleby himself resembles Lawrence, in a way. Both could be considered clever but also brutal, and in each could be found the desire to escape the material circumstances, and class background, of their birth.
“I can deal with reality as it is”, Engleby later declares. “Poor old Eliot thought humans couldn’t stand too much of it. But I can stand as much of it as you care to throw at me. As much as D.H. Lawrence anyway.”
In the novel, Engleby’s desire to confront reality leads him to treat his contemporaries with contempt, and later to shocking violence. Lawrence felt the same disdain for the people among whom he grew up. And his disdain brought his intimate thoughts, expressed in private language, close to fascism.
“I don’t believe either in liberty or democracy. I believe in actual, sacred, inspired authority”, Lawrence wrote to one correspondent. To another, he declared “Let us have done with this foolish form of government, and this idea of democratic control. Let us submit to the knowledge that there are aristocrats and plebians born, not made. Some amongst us are born fit to govern, and some are born only fit to be governed.”
Both Engleby and Lawrence were prickly characters whose intelligence led them to dislike, then to despise, those they lived among. Feelings of this sort can provide a potent resource for radicalisation. It is something those intent on propagating far-right perspectives know well.
One part of the picture is how extremists cloak their ideas in unearned grandeur. A style guide produced for the benefit of contributors to the Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi publication, suggested that there was “no such thing as too much hyperbole”.
“Even when a person can say to themselves ‘this is ridiculous,’ they are still affected by it on an emotional level,” the guide’s author suggests. It directs that writers must “Refer to teenagers who get arrested for racist Twitter posts as ‘eternally noble warriors bravely fighting for divine war to protect the blood heritage of our sacred ancestors’.” Even the self-evident absurdity of this phrasing attaches lustre to extreme activity which, when repeated sufficiently often, is intended to draw in those eager for a noble cause and a heroic mantle.
Correspondingly, far-right rhetoric and ideas can propagate while attached to feelings of pure self-improvement and self-education.
A recent New Yorker investigation of the British far-right group National Action provided evidence of the organisation’s pseudointellectual culture. Robbie Mullen, the piece’s subject, is described as a “bright” boy whose “education was truncated[;] and in our conversations he sometimes lacked the vocabulary to express complicated thoughts or feelings”. Mullen’s formal education was inconsistent, and he fell in with a crowd his mother considered unsuitable. Less than well-educated and lacking skills, he took unskilled work upon finishing school.
Mullen’s lack of formal education provided an opening for the radical group he eventually joined. Amid uninteresting surroundings and unchallenging relationships, the racist worldview of National Action is presented as a perverse education in itself, in which “[m]ore established N.A. members educated Mullen in what seemed to him a sophisticated world view” of racial resentment and political radicalism.
National Action’s methods of propagation included the mock-intellectual magazine Attack and its leaders described the core of their organisation not only residing in its membership, but also in “our ideas”. In “teaching” socially awkward and under-educated people such as Mullen, radical groups can indoctrinate under the guise of educating. While their overt politics provides a direct cause and their commitment to action provides the motivation, other, more subtle factors can draw in those who are bored or drawn to aggressive pseudointellectual politics.
Matthew Collins, who is now a figure in the anti-extremism organisation Hope not Hate, began his political involvement as a young man drawn to the far-right. “In high school, Collins became, in the words of his teachers, a ‘racist’ and a ‘bully’. At a library, he began to research the National Front and other fascist groups.” These researches led to a boy, later described in Collins’ memoir as “leaderless” and “bored”, to overt radicalism.
Boredom and the desire for challenge dovetail with another common theme: the desire for self-improvement in its most general sense. On forums and message boards, such as 4chan, which provide partial meeting places for opinions far from the mainstream, those who post are as likely to discuss improving one’s own or others” tastes in books and film, and improving the physique, than overtly radical material. The vast majority of the material shared on these websites is almost innocuous, if often strangely specific and generally odd. All, in other words, designed to escape boredom as much as any other objective.
But things can, and likely will, carry a strange undertone in these communities, which define as much by their edginess and vulgarity as anything else.
Discussions of fitness, for example, will not be entirely free of strange subtexts. Not only will some posters talk about wanting to improve their attractiveness; others, either ironically or sincerely, will talk about wanting to get into shape for the race war which they say is coming. Even these boards contain aspects of the spirit of the more politically extreme parts of the site, and serve as something of an annexe to wider pursuit of extreme politics.
On boards dedicated to literature, the Western canon is more likely to be recommended than the writings of the fascist intellectual Julius Evola. But nonetheless, in the pursuit of reading books, visitors are likely to be induced to read biographies of the British fascist Oswald Mosley, or Louisiana’s populist governor Huey Long, works which complement or supplement more radical talk about race and nation.
The desire for self-improvement and self-education can lead the untested down strange and uncommon paths, all born from a desire, as Engleby shows, to see life as it really is. This desire has unpleasant corollaries. It can lead some to seek perverse education in things far from the mainstream — in radical politics or hatreds. Its pursuit can cause others to hold their contemporaries in contempt, as Lawrence did, and to decide, after years of intellectual effort, that most people deserve to be ruled rather than to hold power themselves.
In many ways, given his desire to escape his provincial background amid knowledge of all kinds — intellectual and sensual — it is not surprising that Lawrence’s politics developed as they did. For him, an awkward and intelligent provincial working-class boy, it was easy to became contemptuous as Lawrence, in his own eyes, made himself better, but saw his contemporaries remaining much the same as he had left them.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.