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The Great Subcultural Convergence: How Illiberalism is Whipping Up a Storm

The Great Subcultural Convergence: How Illiberalism is Whipping Up a Storm
17th August 2021 Dr. Chamila Liyanage
In Insights

What are the extremist threats being incubated thanks to the technological advantages of the Internet? We could easily answer this question at face value: Islamist extremism and far-right extremism. However, in farther reaches of the deep web a much wider movement is lurking, absorbing illiberal ideological dispositions to organise an all-out assault against neo-liberalism and liberal democracy. Have you ever wondered how people are increasingly becoming cynical about ‘the establishment’, a code word for Western liberal democracy, curating the post-World War II rules-based international order? Could we brand all those ‘anons’, the anonymous online activists who produce swarms of memes, as far-right? How and why do once-shunned conspiracy theorists come out in their thousands to protest in major cities, insisting that the pandemic is a ‘plandemic’? For example, during the Capitol Hill riots on 6 January 2021, the most striking image was the QAnon Shaman, posing inside the Senate chamber. In Sydney, Australia, just last month, a yoga teacher twirled and breathed fire to entertain anti-vax and anti-lockdown protesters. None of this happens in a vacuum. No, it is not the context of the pandemic, which produces all these troubling and even bizarre indicators; it is deeper than that. Movements do not form without mobilisation. Radicalisation could not happen without organised movements, even in their most rudimentary forms. How do unlikely alliances form, bringing different people together to fight ‘the establishment’?

This Insight argues that a wider subcultural convergence of an anti-democratic disposition has already taken shape online and is now manifesting frequently in the real world. What is the target of the diverse subcultures converging online? The sole target is liberal democracy, exemplified as ‘the establishment’ to portray something malevolent and secret in nature. Suspiciously, it is liberal democracy, characterised in such a negative light, but not any authoritarian, illiberal regimes, or ideologies.

It is easy to generalise the online anti-democratic movements, which now often appear in the real world, protesting the ‘establishment’, as far-right or conspiracy theorists. Can all these people, who fill city centres across the world from the US to Europe and Australia, be downplayed as far-right, or mere conspiracy theorists? Can all these people be ignored as ‘covidiots’, a catchphrase often used by confused media, who are trying to figure out how 5G conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers come to share a common platform with New Agers and UFO cults. Different ideological movements with subcultures do not come together automatically. Jules Evans, recognising the phenomenon, uses the term ‘conspirituality’ to denote what he calls the ‘overlap’ between New Age and conspiracy beliefs. He goes further, suggesting that there are common personality traits between spirituality and conspiracy thinking, such as ‘mystical/schizotypal/magical/dream thinking’. Of course, this can be true, but what brings them to the streets in protest of the ‘establishment’?

The old problem of terrorism studies is now recurring against a far more complex background of subcultures converging against neo-liberalism and liberal democracy. Terrorism studies have left no stone unturned in their efforts to find psychological mechanisms behind radicalisation and extremism, dissecting the ‘agent’ or the individual psychology, and producing massive datasets, theories, and approaches on the psychology of terrorism. However, psychology alone does not form movements; individual psychology does not explain how history produced violent extremist movements. As Mark Sedgwick notes, “The anarchist terrorism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century […] could not have occurred without there being an anarchist movement in the first place.” If so, what is the movement that forces green warriors and no-nonsense anti-globalists to rally with conspiracy theorists and New Age spiritualists? Do they share a common psychology? Are all these people driven by insanity? Are they all far-right? For example, how does Piers Corbyn come to share a platform with reptilian-obsessed David Icke in London, protesting the ‘establishment?’ None of them are far-right figures. This shows something much broader is at work.

The UK Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), in their recent call for proposals, placed the focus elsewhere, insisting “CREST is interested in understanding the overlap in, and interplay between, extremist belief and conspiratorial belief.” Conspiracy beliefs and extremist beliefs may overlap but they do not form movements without mobilisation. The problem is not the overlap of different ideologies but how they form movements. Intersecting ideologies may sit side by side without producing any impact if there is no mechanism to mobilise them. Therefore, we must ask how current anti-establishment movements form. Evidence matters in critical times like these. It is bad enough that a storm is brewing; even worse, it is happening in the context of a pandemic, a looming climate emergency, an avalanche of international organised crime, and above all, grey zone warfare of authoritarian regimes, mobilising on multiple fronts against Western liberal democracy and the post-World War II rules-based international order.

In this context, how do subcultures converge and what is the evidence for it? Subcultural convergence is evident, as many subcultures come to share a platform opposing the vilified ‘establishment’. We can categorise these subcultures as conspiracy circles, New Age/cult believers in ascension, new earth, and paradigm shift; green lifestyles/alternative lifestyles/wellness/healing communities; eco-warriors, anti-globalists, far-left, far-right, authoritarians, ultra-nationalists; climate sceptics, anti-vaxxers, traditionalists; apocalyptic cults, believers in millenarianism; UFO cults such as the Disclosure Movement, revolutionary conservatives, and anti-Western thought movements. These ideological dispositions increasingly share deep web image boards and are now out in the open in freedom rallies across the world. For example, in a freedom rally held in Sydney, Australia, on 24 July 2021, ‘#New Earth’, ‘5G’, ‘NWO’, ‘No Jab’ and ‘Unmask’ placards were showing how religious beliefs converge with 5G, conspiracy and anti-vax/anti-lockdown movements. I use the term ‘movements’ as these are now not just ideologies/beliefs, interest groups or subcultures, but clearly mobilising movements. They find a common opposition against democracy only because there is a mobilisation to do so.

To understand the observable subcultural convergence against democracy, we must examine the context of this phenomenon. This is the charged context of the pandemic, which makes it easy to blame ‘the establishment’. It is also the charged context of international organised crime, where smugglers breach the legality of borders of the nation-states, especially the Western ones, bringing a flood of human cargo to Europe and the United States. Rising crimes and drugs in major cities thanks to the crime syndicates, and the media coverage of endless dinghies, carrying desperate people, all these unsettle suburban communities, putting blame on the ‘establishment’. With all these micro contexts which enable anti-democratic movements, the unmissable macro context is the global rise of authoritarianism. A context, like a high wind, can help, but a context cannot form movements without an active nucleus. A high wind may help sail the ship, but someone must build the ship, then deliberately steer it forward.

Categories of Subcultures

We can divide the ideologies, beliefs and interests of the subcultures converging against democracy which we have identified into three main categories. The first category is cultural and religious. It includes cultural and revolutionary traditionalists, intellectuals (traditionalist school, integral traditionalism or perennialism), gnostic, esoteric, or mystical movements that have existed for thousands of years, such as the Sufi movement, theosophy; mystical versions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, gnostic Christian sects, millenarianism and messianism; anti-modernists, and anti-Western thought movements. This population, for various reasons, hold onto anti-modernist beliefs and ideologies. Some expect the end of the corrupt current aeon to usher in a renewal on earth with a new golden age. Many of these beliefs are part of religious traditions that are thousands of years old and are integral to cultural consciousness all over the world. Cultural and revolutionary traditionalists are taking advantage of rising opposition against neo-liberalism. However, despite frequent religious references both online and offline, a gnostic or mystical mobilisation against Western liberal democracy is still at an insignificant stage, although not uncommon as suggestions in freedom rallies.

The second category visible in the subcultural convergence is social/spiritual/imaginary in disposition. It includes the New Age movement/cult believers of ascension, new earth, and paradigm shift, and popular conspiracy circles, which are now under mobilisation. They join with wellness/healing/alternative lifestyles circles; some adherents of apocalyptic cults, pseudo-science-based groups such as climate sceptics, anti-vaxxers, and 5G believers; and UFO subcultures such as the Disclosure Movement.

The third pole is the nerve centre, or the driver’s seat, where mobilisation against liberal democracy happens. This category shows the real and pragmatic reasons for why democracy is under fire. Unlikely the other two categories, which confuse the analysis, this category reveals not just the tip but the true depth of the iceberg. This third category is political in its disposition and strategic in its dynamics. It includes the ideological adherents of the European New Right (ENR), the far-right, far-left, populists, ultra-nationalists; Neo-Eurasians, anti-globalists; revolutionary conservatives, and above all the fully deployed grey zone capabilities of the authoritarian regimes and their rapidly forming alliances around the world. 

Political elements in the third pole deploy a metapolitical strategy to attack Western liberal democracy, utilising the domain of culture. As part of this strategy, social/cultural/religious/spiritual subcultures and movements that exist alongside Western liberal democracy, suddenly find themselves at odds with the liberal democratic establishment, which is now symbolised as the root of all evil. It is a cultural battle, forged for political reasons, manipulating social, cultural, and even religious/spiritual movements, not as a means to achieve any otherworldly end, but aiming for a purely pragmatic authoritarian revival.