Paul Spoonley: Returning to the front lines

Paul Spoonley: Returning to the front lines

Prof. Paul Spoonley is the go-to guy whenever the media wants comment on the far right in NZ. In June he announced he was stepping down from his role as pro Vice-Chancellor at Massey's College of Humanities and Social Sciences and returning to frontline research, with a new book on the far right in Aotearoa/NZ in the pipeline.

Paul, you have been NZ’s leading authority on the extreme right for decades — civil society owes you a lot. Your early work covered old-school fascists and the rise of neo-nazi skinheads. The alt-right and identitarian crowd today seem rather different. They’re more sly about their messaging, more manipulative with their talking points and branding. Can you suggest what underlies the differences between the old right and the alt right?
Thanks for those kind comments. I seem to have been researching these groups forever – and it is rather depressing to see the far right, and particularly ultra-nationalists and white supremacists, being reinvented as the Alt Right.

The old right is actually a very diverse  group. From neo-Nazi skinheads through conspiracy theorists about “big government” and the undermining of nationality through migration (rather like the US John Birch Society) to white supremacist gangs. When I worked on these groups through the 1980s and 1990s, there were still old school pro-British and pro-apartheid groups like the League of Empire Loyalists and what remained of the anti-Semitic Social Credit. But all this changed, and especially after 9/11. New groups and activists emerged that  supplemented anti-Semitism with Islamaphobia, they were much more skilled at using online options and they aligned with groups and communities that were strongly nationalist, strongly anti-multiculturalism and held strong beliefs about the influence (seen as corrosive and undermining of nationalist interests) of progressive groups and international agencies. There is overlap between the old and the new and, of course, they exist side-by-side. But the use of the (Renaud) Camus conspiracy theory about the “great replacement” tends to characterise the Alt Right but also to unify. It operates as a powerful ideological trigger. The Alt Right have been much more successful in influencing mainstream debate and political actors, as Trump has illustrated. And they have recast many of the traditional concerns about miscegenation or the “inferiority of certain races” in new and more “acceptable” ways. And they have been important influencers in debates such as free speech or “mass migration”.

Do you think social class is a factor?
In terms of traditional far right groups like Right Wing Resistance, it was clear that they appealed to a white working class, and especially in cities or towns such as Christchurch. To that extent, there is a constituency which is economically marginalised and which feels as though their economic and racial interests are being subverted by diversity and liberal elites: “They do not represent the white working class”. The Alt Right appeals to the same economically marginalised communities but they are more often likely to be middle class, or at least lower middle class. As inequality has risen and there is the disruption as we move away from the more traditional forms of capitalism to much more global and service-oriented forms, the middle class are as likely to be impoverished and to feel marginalised. That is a generalisation but when you look at the leaders of the Alt Right, especially in parts of Europe or the USA, they are likely to be university-qualified or to be middle class in their origins. In this sense, economic factors do encourage some constituencies to consider extreme political options.
I suppose this different economic base explains their fixation with image and messaging? ie If you’re an unemployed skinhead then doxing can’t hurt you much, but if you’re a member of the precariat, working in services, doxing could wreck your entire career. What are your thoughts about the ethics of doxing? Is it ever justifiable?
I am not convinced that the economic circumstances matter. There might be more to lose if you are a member of the precariat or have significant resources that could be put at jeopardy. But the little doxing that I am aware of has come from a range of activists – and some who just seem to do it for “fun” or to attack others. It is one of those issues that it would be good to know more about who does it and why.
Some people think the rejuvenation of the far right will run its course and come to an end pretty soon, perhaps with the ouster of Trump. Others fear that we’re just at the beginning, with increasingly ugly social confrontations ahead. What’s your pick? Do you think we’re facing a real threat, as a multicultural society?
I am very much in the camp that the tacit – and sometimes explicit – support for the Alt Right and others is actually not that significant. It is that combination of anger and anxiety about a world which is changing economically and in relation to the ethnic demography of both local and national communities. Yes, a leader who seems to agree with your views as an ultra-nationalist or an anti-immigrant/anti-diversity ideologue might give some satisfaction. But there is always a tension between the conspiracy world views held by these individuals and their desire to influence public debate and political leadership. Proximity to the very power that you are concerned about presents a range of paradoxes. You can see it in New Zealand when members of the local far right seek political power – only then to be ridiculed and attacked in much more public and unfriendly forums.

Thanks very much for your time and all the best with your return to the front lines. It’ll be great to see what you come up with!

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