The weaponisation of ideas is hardly new. But the almost limitless potential of cyberspace to spread ideas of hate remakes the scale of the potential threat.
In the wake of the Christchurch mosque massacre, which saw 49 men, women and children gunned down by an Australian right-wing extremist, Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess sent out a clarion call. He identified the risk of the radical right as ‘real and growing’, a threat fostered in clandestine online communities and “in suburbs around Australia [where] small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”
Burgess also warned of the international scale of this extremism, stating: “extreme right-wing online forums such as The Base proliferate on the Internet, and attract international memberships, including from Australians.”
Across the world, the spread of right-wing extremism is a sign that the ideas and institutions of liberal democracy are facing a crisis of confidence. While it was once hoped the axioms of liberal democracy were so ascendant and self-fuelling that they represented the end of history, today the resilience of authoritarian and illiberal regimes of ostensibly democratic countries have shown otherwise. And now it is the health of liberal democracy itself that is faltering.
Illiberal democratic states, which are described as democratic by virtue of their regular elections, are populist and majoritarian. The rule of law is applied selectively, minority groups are denied protection and, indeed, may be persecuted. For example, LGBTQ communities in Russia, refugees in Hungary and political opposition in any of them. By 2018, in their annual survey of global freedoms, Freedom House concluded that illiberal democracy had become ‘the new normal’.
The rise of relatively stable illiberal states signals clearly that the philosophies of liberal democracy – the rule of law, the separation of powers, pluralism and the protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and association – are not self-fulfilling. And we must heed this as a warning not just for the vitality of global society but for our own liberal democracies too.
Across Australia, the US, the UK and other ‘Western democracies’, public trust in democratic institutions and processes – the lifeblood of the liberal state – is being supplanted by mistrust and suspicion and by a new form of right-wing extremism.
This is a networked world of hate and violence. It connects like-minded individuals around the globe and is the symbiosis of non-state groups and large, well-resourced and motivated states, representing a new and dangerous hybridity of threats to liberal democracies.
In 2016, amid the Brexit referendum campaign, Jo Cox MP was murdered by a right-wing extremist. In the wake of her death, the UK government banned the far-right group National Action, and more recently added Sonnenkrieg Division and Feuerkrieg Division to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations.
The implications, indeed, the threats, to liberal democracy, of right-wing extremism are manifold. Right-wing extremist groups not only advocate violence against ethnic minorities, they call for a ‘race war’ and accuse their white opponents of being ‘race traitors’. They reject wholesale the notion of pluralism and minority rights, they condemn non-heterosexual relationships, and they reject migration (almost always with exceptions for majority-white countries).
Views of this sort have almost always been present but only as a relative minority in these countries. The extremism that spurs from right-wing nationalism is really a reanimation of the same tropes about immigration, whiteness and nationalism pedalled by Sir Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, Enoch Powell in the 1960s, Britain First in the 2000s and many others besides. So, what is changing now?
Certainly, the 2016 Brexit referendum set the platform for a revival of such views.
Most of the debate was conducted in good faith, with views for the UK’s exit from the EU expressed, if contested, across the political spectrum and eventually winning the referendum. Yet amid the debate, others took a jingoist tack: billboards were erected depicting the mass migration of refugees into the UK and dire warnings were made of the exploitation of Britain’s welfare system by immigrants. Amid this heated rancour was another influence – Brexit presented a rare opportunity for foreign antagonists to attempt to shape the outcome of a vote of momentous geopolitical dimensions.
The UK Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee recently published its long-delayed Russia Report in which it raises the prospect of state-sponsored extremism. The Russian Government, it claims, is actively seeking to meddle in the political fabric of the UK’s domestic polity and demonstrably attempted to do so during the Brexit referendum. Drawing on evidence submitted in the course of its investigation into Russia’s activities in the UK during and after the referendum, the committee found Russia to be complicit in a “general poisoning of the political narrative in the west by fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’, and by the ‘astroturfing’ of western public opinion.”
It scarcely needs to be said but given the committee found the UK government has ‘badly underestimated’ this risk, we should say it unambiguously – state-sponsored right-wing extremism is one of the greatest threats liberal democracy faces today.
Belief in the legitimacy of liberal ideas and institutions has become the synecdoche- a part that defines the whole- of liberal democracy. It is because of the belief in the rule of law and in the fairness of the political system that the public accepts the outcomes of elections as legitimate, even when their preferred candidates fail.
Today, the quest for legitimacy is the prize in a high-stakes contest that is quietly playing-out amid our elections, social movements, and referendums.