Liam Duffy, an advisor to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) based in London
Last summer, Right-wing mobs took to the streets of London to attack public property and symbols they associated with progressive politics. At the same time across the Atlantic, Right-wing protestors sealed off several blocks of a major city in the American South, declaring it sovereign territory. To the horror of the press, the city’s Republican Mayor recognised the “legitimate grievances” of the demonstrators. In response, the countering extremism field kicked into gear. New funding was announced, conferences, roundtables and counter-narrative campaigns ensued.
Except, that’s not what happened.
Of course we’ve had plenty of Right-wing political violence, but the protestors, activists and rioters described above were not Right-wing, instead falling on the Left of the political spectrum, broadly conceived. It was not Mandela attacked, but Churchill, the Cenotaph and Whitehall police officers. The autonomous zone carved out of a downtown was not a Right-wing militia in the American interior, nor a fawning Republican Mayor, but self-proclaimed anti-fascists, indulged by city authorities in the progressive, enlightened coastal tech hub of Seattle.
And there was no such reaction from the archipelago of individuals, NGOs and institutions usually on hair trigger alert for signs of hate and extremism. In fact, they were maddeningly, deafeningly silent. Or in some cases, explaining “why Left-wing violence doesn’t actually count”. Even the perception of such a blind-spot will destroy trust in analysis of extremism.
Former Downing Street adviser Nick Timothy recently described how key institutions are dominated by a liberal-Left to progressive consensus, even if they don’t realise it. He is right. And this dynamic is especially dangerous when it comes to political violence and extremism, as it influences the capability to analyse, understand and counter the various anti-democratic and violent currents with the clarity so urgently required.
Instead of cool-headed analysis proportionate to threats, what we saw was a highly flammable double standard emerge. A hierarchy of political violence whereby disorder, intimidation and destruction from the Left was denied or clumsily downplayed, perhaps regrettable but ultimately committed for “good”, emancipatory reasons. Violence and disorder from the Right, in contrast: morally reprehensible, to be condemned in the harshest terms or even radically inflated, with dire warnings of nationwide insurgencies and speculation over their potential nuclear capabilities.
“Actions are held to be good or bad”, wrote George Orwell back in 1945, “not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage (.) which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”
In many ways, it’s a ball achingly familiar “my violence is better than your violence”, but as domestic political stakes have raised, the dynamic Orwell described has been all around us of late. Just as the Right-wing media ecosystem enters apocalypse mode over violence from the Left, liberal and progressive institutions have been guilty of downplaying, denying and pandering to that same violence, even when on the receiving end of it.
Sections of the media initially reported on the autonomous CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle as though a cross between a farmer’s market and the summer of love, rather than the perilous breakdown of the rule of law that it was. This narrative was quickly but quietly ditched when—depressingly predictably—people were murdered by the unelected, unaccountable “authorities” inside the zone.
Over the self-declared anti-fascists of ANTIFA, the commentary was extraordinary. The Trump administration incorrectly and hysterically labelled the group domestic terrorists, helpfully indicating to Trump opponents that not only are ANTIFA not terrorists, they must therefore be a force for good. After all, they’re anti-fascist—it’s literally in the name.
That “anti-fascist” definitions of fascism are so promiscuous they seem to include small business owners and bona fide progressive politicians didn’t seem to factor. And so the ground between ANTIFA as existential terror threat to America and ludicrous comparisons to the D-Day landings was swallowed whole by the moronic inferno of the culture wars.
On this side of the pond, things aren’t quite at the same fever pitch but we are not immune. Around the same time as the attacks on Churchill and the Cenotaph—watched on helplessly by millions who hold these symbols dear—the statue of a slaver was tossed into the sea by a crowd in Bristol with all the frenzy of a blasphemy mob burning The Satanic Verses. An elected MP for a party committed to parliamentary democracy greeted this as an “act of resistance”—peddling the violence-enticing illusion that life in Britain is a tyrannical nightmare.
Our institutions and public servants floundered. Other than Conservative MPs sounding more like drowning opposition than governing party, few in positions of power came out to condemn the destruction, for fear of the childish accusation that to do so was to defend slavery itself.
The only public comment on weeks of disorder from the independent Commission for Countering Extremism was a jarring warning that the far-Right could capitalise, as though in certain circles this was the only legitimate reason to oppose such lawlessness.
Right on cue the far-Right did of course capitalise, in a disgraceful display of thuggery and hooliganism under the guise of protecting statues. But anyone who knows anything about human beings could feel the crisis building a mile off. The Right capitalised not only on the disorder, but on the perception that liberal institutions were unable or unwilling to confront destruction and violence committed for ostensibly progressive causes.
Back to Orwell. Despite staunch opposition to colonialism and Nazism, his equally tenacious critiques of Stalinism meant he had committed a grave and unforgivable sin in the eyes of some on the Left: he had “given ammunition to the enemy”. The fear of giving ammunition to, or being in some ideological proximity to the Right mutes the response to illiberal and violent manifestations of Left-wing or progressive causes today. In reality, the conspicuous silence on progressive disorder provided more ammunition to the Right than any condemnation ever could. Who needs fake news?
This is not about terror, for which the threat from the Right far eclipses the Left. It’s a different kind of problem, which in Britain in the last couple of years has seen more incidents of street level political violence, intimidation and destruction for Left, environmental or progressive causes than any other.
To boot, Jewish organisations regularly warn Left-wing antisemitism isn’t taken seriously, Twitter Tankies spew anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in support of their preferred “anti-imperialists”, while conservative and heterodox non-white people face derogatory abuse and ugly accusations of racial treachery. Yet these are not the forms of hate the various funding streams and initiatives set up under combating extremism ever have in mind. I was even told by one countering extremism expert that people are simply “fighting for a better world”—as though this isn’t precisely what every illiberal or violent political movement in history has believed.
Then there is disinformation and conspiracy theories, over which something of a moral panic has rumbled since two rather memorable developments in 2016. But what is or isn’t labelled a conspiracy theory or disinformation seems more to do with the cultural status of the accusers and the peddlers. Mainly working-class boomers sharing lies on Facebook are endangering democracy, but the daily torrent of falsehoods from elite credentialed bluecheck millennials on Twitter doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
When progressive journalists were spreading hugely damaging and genuinely life-endangering fabrications about France’s supposed register of Muslim children and descent into fascism, Left-wing journalist Caroline Fourest had to point out that “a sector of the American elite was no more attached to truth than Trump was.”
Similarly, the relentless delegitimization of the Trump and Brexit votes by subscribers to the most feverish Russiagate conspiracies has spiralled polarisation out of control and dealt enormous damage to trust in democracy, yet there is no institutional urgency to tackle these “high status” conspiracy theories.
The corollary to this, therefore, is that current efforts to counter hate, disinformation and conspiracy theories are looking more like imposing ideological conformity than sincere efforts to prevent violence—a project inevitably destined to stoke the flames of conflict than reduce it.
In some ways it’s understandable to make a moral distinction between the far-Right and violence committed in the name of progressive causes. The far-Right is so far removed from the values we revere and repels in ways that the far-Left does not, but because of this, analysis of both has an air of moral disgust and moral cover rather than clear-eyed assessment.
Our perception of the moral worth of the causes is ultimately besides the point. A hierarchy of “good” and “bad” political violence cannot be allowed to stand. In a democracy there is only political violence, and it is against the rules of the game. The cause does not matter to the small business owner whose livelihood has been destroyed, and it certainly doesn’t matter to the public trust which will disintegrate if institutions are seen to be hopelessly politicised and indifferent to certain forms of violence.
Finally, providing moral or political cover, even inadvertently, will only increase the salience of violence as a tool in the eyes of all actors, exactly as we saw last summer when the far-Right descended on Central London. If we fail on these fundamental questions, we will see how fast our delicately balanced democracies can unravel. “How beautiful it is”, wrote Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie, “and how easily it can be broken”.
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.