Can we understand the dynamics of far-right extremism without understanding far-right extremists? Probably not; it seems clear we need to have a much more "micro" understanding of the actors than we currently have if we are to understand these movements so antithetical to the values of liberal democracy. And yet there isn't much of a literature on this subject.
An important exception is a 2007 special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, curated by Kathleen Blee (link). This volume brings together several ethnographic studies of extremist groups, and it makes for very interesting reading. Kathleen Blee is a pioneer in this field and is the author of Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement (2002). She writes in Inside Organized Racism:
Intense, activist racism typically does not arise on its own; it is learned in racist groups. These groups promote ideas radically different from the racist attitudes held by many whites. They teach a complex and contradictory mix of hatred for enemies, belief in conspiracies, and allegiance to an imaginary unified race of "Aryans." (3)
One of Blee's key contributions has been to highlight the increasingly important and independent role played by women in right-wing extremist movements in the United States and Europe.The JCE issue includes valuable studies of right-wing extremist groups in India, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. And each of the essays is well worth reading, including especially Blee's good introduction. Here is the table of contents:
Key questions concerning the mechanisms of mobilization arise in almost all the essays. What are the mechanisms through which new adherents are recruited? What psychological and emotional mechanisms are in play that keep loyalists involved in the movement? Contributors to this volume find a highly heterogeneous set of circumstances leading to extremist activism. Blee argues that an internalist approach is needed to allow us to have a more nuanced understanding of the social and personal dynamics of extremist movements. What she means by externalist here is the idea that there are societal forces and "risk factors" that contribute to the emergence of hate and racism within a population, and that these factors can be studied in a general way. An internalist approach, by contrast, aims at discovering the motives and causes of extremist engagement through study of the actors themselves, within specific social circumstances.
But it is problematic to use data garnered in externalist studies to draw conclusions about micromobilization since it is not possible to infer the motivations of activists from the external conditions in which the group emerged. Because people are drawn to far-right movements for a variety of reasons that have little connection to political ideology (Blee 2002)—including a search for community, affirmation of masculinity, and personal loyalties— what motivates someone to join an anti-immigrant group, for example, might—or might not—be animus toward immigrants. (120)Based on interviews, participant-observation, and life-history methods, contributors find a mix of factors leading to the choice of extremist involvement: adolescent hyper-masculinity, a desire to belong, a history of bullying and abuse, as well as social exposure to adult hate activists. But this work is more difficult than many other kinds of ethnographic research because of the secrecy, suspiciousness, and danger associated with these kinds of activism:
Close-up or “internalist” studies of far-right movements can provide a better understanding of the workings of far-right groups and the beliefs and motivations of their activists and supporters, but such studies are rare because data from interviews with members, observations of group activities, and internal documents are difficult to obtain.... Few scholars want to invest the considerable time or to establish the rapport necessary for close-up studies of those they regard as inexplicable and repugnant, in addition to dangerous and difficult. Yet, as the articles in this volume demonstrate, internalist studies of the far right can reveal otherwise obscured and important features of extreme rightist political mobilization. (121-122)A few snippets will give some flavor of the volume. Here is Michael Kimmel's description of some of the young men and boys attracted to the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden:
Insecure and lonely at twelve years old, Edward started hanging out with skinheads because he “moved to a new town, knew nobody, and needed friends.” Equally lonely and utterly alienated from his distant father, Pelle met an older skinhead who took him under his wing and became a sort of mentor. Pelle was a “street hooligan” hanging out in street gangs, brawling and drinking with other gangs. “My group actually looked down on the neo-Nazis,” he says, because “they weren’t real fighters.” “All the guys had an insecure role as a man,” says Robert. “They were all asking ‘who am I?’” ...
Already feeling marginalized and often targeted, the boys and men described themselves as “searchers” or “seekers,” kids looking for a group with which to identify and where they would feel they belonged. “When you enter puberty, it’s like you have to choose a branch,” said one ex-Nazi. “You have to choose between being a Nazi, anti-Nazi, punk or hip- hopper—in today’s society, you just can’t choose to be neutral” (cited in Wahlstrom 2001, 13-14). ...
For others, it was a sense of alienation from family and especially the desire to rebel against their fathers. “Grown-ups often forget an important component of Swedish racism, the emotional conviction,” says Jonas Hallen (2000). “If you have been beaten, threatened, and stolen from, you won’t listen to facts and numbers.”(209-210)Here is Meera Sehgal's description of far-right Hindu nationalist training camps for young girls in India:
The overall atmosphere of this camp and the Samiti’s camps in general was rigid and authoritarian, with a strong emphasis on discipline. ... A number of girls fell ill with diarrhea, exhaustion, and heat stroke. Every day at least five to ten girls could be seen crying, wanting to go home. They pleaded with their city’s local Samiti leaders, camp instructors, and organizers to be allowed to call their parents, but were not allowed to do so. ... Neither students nor instructors were allowed to get sufficient rest or decent food.And here is Fabian Virchow's description of the emotional power of music and spectacle at a neo-Nazi rally in Germany:
The training was at a frenetic pace in physically trying conditions. Participants were kept awake and physically and mentally engaged from dawn to late night. Approximately four hours a day were devoted to physical training; five hours to ideological indoctrination through lectures, group discussions, and rote memorization; and two hours to indoctrination through cultural programming like songs, stories, plays, jokes, and skits. Many girls and women were consequently soon physically exhausted, and yet were forced to continue. The systematic deprivation of adequate rest and food may have been a deliberate ploy of the camp organizers to reduce the chances of dissent since time, energy, initiative, and planning are needed to develop a collective sense of grievance.
Indoctrination, which was the Samiti’s first priority, ranged from classroom lectures and small and large group discussions led by different instructors, to nightly cultural programs where skits, storytelling, songs, and chants were taught by the instructors and seasoned activists, based on the lives of various “Hindu” women, both mythical and historical. (170)
Festivals are excellent opportunities for far-right groups to spread the word about their successes to like-minded activists and sympathizers, since visitors come from as far away as Italy to see White Power music bands. In the festival mentioned above, a folk-dance act in the afternoon attracted only some hundred spectators, but evening performances by the U.S. band Youngland drew a large crowd that pushed to the front of the stage, leaving only limited space for burly skinheads indulging in pogo dancing. The music created a ritual closeness and attachment among the audience, shaping the emotions and aggression of the like-minded crowd, initially in a playful way, but one that switched into brutality a few moments later.
The aggression of White Power music is evident in the messages of its songs, which are either confessing, demonstrating self-assertion against what is perceived as totally hostile surroundings, or requesting action (Meyer 1995). Using Heavy Metal or Oi Punk as its musical basis, White Power music not only attracts those who see themselves as part of the same political movement as the musicians, but also serves as one of the most important tools for recruiting new adherents to the politics of the far right (Dornbusch and Raabe 2002).
Since the festival I visited takes place only once a year, and because performances of White Power bands are organized clandestinely in most cases and are often disrupted by the police, the far-right movement needs additional events to shape and sustain its collective identity. As the far right and the NPD and neo-Nazi groupuscules in particular regard themselves as a “movement of action,” it is no surprise that rallies play an important role in this effort. (151)Each of these essays is based on first-hand observation and interaction, and they give some insight into the psychological forces playing on the participants as well as the mobilizational strategies used by the leaders of these kinds of movements. The articles published here offer a good cross-section of the ways in which ethnographic methods can be brought to bear on the phenomenon of extremist right-wing activism. And because the studies are drawn from five quite different national contexts (Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, India, France), it is intriguing to see some of the same mechanisms and dynamics in play in creating and sustaining an extremist movement. The importance of performance and music in eliciting loyal participation from young adherents comes up in the articles about Germany, Sweden, and India. Likewise the importance of the emotional needs of boys as they approach manhood, and the hyper-masculine themes of violence and brutality in the neo-Nazi organizations that appeal to them, recurs in several of the essays.
Along with KA Kreasap, Kathleen Blee is also the author of a 2010 review article on right-wing extremist movements in Annual Reviews of Sociology (link). These are the kinds of hate-based organizations and activists tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center (link), and that seem to be more visible than ever before during the current presidential campaign. The essay pays attention to the question of the motivations and "risk factors" that lead people to join right-wing movements. Blee and Kreasap argue that the motivations and circumstances of mobilization into right-wing organizations are substantially more heterogeneous than a simple story leading from racist attitudes to racist mobilization would suggest. They argue that antecedent racist ideology is indeed a factor, but that music, culture, social media, and continent social networks also play significant causal roles.