The spectre of extremism

A worry about extremism, whether political or economic, is causing worry for those invested in the current status quo.

The current head of the European Central Bank used to be a director at Goldman Sachs International [EPA]

As soon as people start talking in public about the excesses of the financial sector, accusations of extremism begin to fly. MJ Rosenberg has written for Al Jazeera about how some critics of Occupy Wall Street have tried to link it to anti-Semitism. This kind of thing has a long pedigree. Right-wing extremists have often railed against the banking system, so it isn’t hard to find similar rhetoric coming from principled critics of finance and from political entrepreneurs who peddle fantasies about a Jewish or Masonic plot to run the world. And of course it isn’t only the occupations that have faced accusations of bigotry. Tea Party activists ran into allegations of racism when most of them only wanted to challenge the federal government for its profligacy and unconstitutionality.

Something of a Catch-22 emerges. If you reject capitalism as a whole you are dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky idealist or a Stalinist. If you limit yourself to complaints about an over-mighty banking system, then you invite the observation that, in the words of Ed Rooksby, the ‘specific focus on “finance capital” as the root of all evil has an unsettling history – it’s long been a mark of right-wing populism’.

It’s almost as if any challenge to the status quo at the moment will be dismissed on the grounds of extremism. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the complaints about criminal practices on Wall Street or in the City of London aren’t coded references to Jewish or Masonic conspiracies. They are complaints about criminal practices. Similarly, most people who want to end capitalism do not wish to replace it with rule by an all-knowing Central Committee. But extremism is a useful stick with which to beat critics of the established order.

Talk of conspiracy theories often serves a similar purpose. Back in 2003 Mark Strauss wrote in Foreign Policy about ‘anti-globalism’s Jewish problem’. Strauss acknowledged that the anti-globalisation movement wasn’t ‘inherently anti-Semitic’ but it was, he claimed, ‘partly culpable’ because it enabled anti-Semitism ‘by peddling conspiracy theories’. According to Strauss, those who opposed globalisation didn’t see it as a ‘process’ but as ‘a plot hatched behind closed doors by a handful of unaccountable bureaucrats and corporations’. This in turn gave created hospitable conditions for other conspiracy theorists, including anti-Semites.

Shaping the discourse

Let’s take a moment to think about what’s going on here. If you notice that particular individuals and groups are trying to frame laws, regulations and treaties in their interest you become a peddler of conspiracy theories and an enabler of extremism. In an environment where these kinds of arguments are considered acceptable it isn’t a good idea to point out that these same individuals and groups are working, with considerable success, to shape both media coverage and academic discussion of the issues that affect them. And your reputation for sanity and good sense will be in serious danger the moment you mention the names of the organisations that coordinate these efforts. If you want an easy life, you’re better off talking vaguely about ‘processes’ and ‘forces’ and ignoring who does what, with whom, and why. The price of respectability is a kind of disciplined idiocy.

A great of attention is paid to paranoia and extremism among those outside the political and economic establishment. Yet the powerful have a long history of encouraging extremist nonsense in the unwary and succumbing to it themselves – a process known in another context as ‘getting high on your own supply’. During the Cold War, for example, the CIA energetically promoted conspiracy theories that were then used by their domestic critics as evidence of complacency about the Soviet threat.

More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 led to all kinds of wild talk in the political and media mainstream about ‘civilisational’ conflict between Islam and the West. The extreme right has been quick to adopt this language to promote tensions between citizens in a number of countries, including Britain. And those who sought to secure popular support for the American invasion of Iraq were happy to promote conspiracy theories about Saddam Hussein’s links with Al Qaeda when they weren’t talking about his non-existent doomsday weapons.

‘Bankruptcy of the intellectuals’

Elected representatives, government officials, corporate executives and prestigious academics have a poor record on extremism in other respects. The economic orthodoxy of the last generation – the stock of things that you had to believe if you wanted to be taken seriously, to be considered ‘smart’ – now stands exposed for what it always was, a crankery-with-footnotes that bears comparison with the effusions of the John Birch society. Yet, despite the bankruptcy of both the intellectual consensus and the financial sector, those who profited from this nonsense remain startlingly impervious to reality.

If we are serious about extremism and the paranoia that fuels it there are some things we can do. The powerful can stop being paranoid and extremist, for a start. They can also stop funding violent extremism. At the moment groups on the far left and the far right often operate on a kind of joint venture basis with the security services. Anyone who has been on a protest in Britain recently will have wondered about the easy relations between the police and some of the more theatrically disruptive elements in the crowd.

The powerful can also stop trying to discredit those who no longer believe the absurdities that underlie economics and politics. The occupations-and-assemblies movement is not extremist or paranoid. The people involved are trying to figure how best to secure a more equal and more truly prosperous society and they are doing so in a spirit of mutual respect.

As the authors of a recent study on populism note, the best way to drain support away from violent and paranoid groups is to create opportunities for peaceful political engagement. The occupations are providing just such an opportunity. Citizens and civil society organisations that sincerely want to promote a moderate and democratic response to the economic crisis need to be clear-eyed about the sources of extremism and its nature. A moderate response to the crisis will seem extreme to many powerful groups. But these same groups have often been responsible for peddling extremism themselves and they are scarcely in touch with reality at this point. The assemblies are venues in which a revived public can discover itself. Those tasked with promoting democracy and liberal values should give this movement as much material support as possible, as soon as possible. If they don’t they are in no position to wring their hands about the political effectiveness of the conservative and populist right.

The economic crisis is causing growing anxiety about extremism. Many are worried that, as the BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman puts it, ‘the extremes capitalise when there is no obviously democratically legitimate government in a country’. But the extremism that should worry us isn’t to be found in the occupations. It isn’t even to be found among the violent agitators attacking the occupations. A former employee of Goldman Sachs has just become the new head of the European Central Bank. Technocrats with intriguing resumes are being installed as the Prime Ministers of Greece and Italy to steady the nerves of bankers and rich investors. In such circumstances we can’t afford to fall for comforting stories, in which extremists only ever feature as an easily identifiable external menace to a political and economic order that is essentially sound.

So far, the extremists who have capitalised most from this crisis have been the same extremists who allowed it to happen.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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