2015 saw the rise of extremism – political, religious, violent, pacifist or some combination. What could possibly connect these apparent polar opposites? The search for a cause to believe in, to fight for. In a world otherwise shorn of principles these extreme world views offer something new and radical while being at the same time based on an attraction as old as any – an identity and something bigger than yourself to believe in.
In many ways 2015 was a strange year, almost inexplicable. How exactly did a poorly dressed geography teacher become leader of the UK Labour party? How did a man with a dead squirrel on his head become front runner for the US Republican presidential nomination? How did the French Front Nationale score such electoral success? How did a medieval death cult attract educated Westerners to give up their comfortable lives in favour of a desert existence of poverty and probable death?
The stock explanation to many if not all of these of these otherwise bizarre phenomena is that many are disillusioned with today’s society and are looking to extremes for answers.
We apparently hate our identikit chrome-plated slippery politicians, our baseless immoral society, the waves of immigrants changing our once green and pleasant land… etc etc.. We apparently long for something new, something that can restore some lost land of plenty, “making America great again”, something that isn’t the visionless menu of mostly irrelevant empty soundbites.
In fact the reason for the rise of these extreme factions is common and is not new. It is as old as any for humanity – the search for an identity, moral affirmation and something to believe in.
Those attracted to IS, to Trump and to Corbyn (being careful not to equate their actions of course) are driven by a search for something bigger, something to believe in, a purpose to shape their identity.
Politics 2015 – what’s the point?
In 1945 Britain booted Winston Churchill out of office in a General Election in favour of the largely untested Labour party. How could we have been so ungrateful to our heroic war leader, the man recently voted the greatest Briton ever?
Because we wanted something new. We lost so much during the war that we were entitled to ask why. Did we really lose all those sons, husbands and fathers just to continue with the pre-war status quo? When put this way it’s obvious. We fought for a better world, for something new, something big, something worth all the sacrifice.
Although not on the same scale, there are parallels today. It’s been 8 years since the financial crash and we have been through some tough times. We bailed the bankers out, plunging ourselves and our future generations into tremendous debt and why? Did we do all of that so things could continue just as before?
There have been changes for sure, but nothing visionary, just tweaks, a few little changes here and there. Our capitalist system remains much as before. Financial markets are more or less the same. Few bankers went to jail. Record fines have been handed out, but to what effect. Banks are just as big and unstable as before.
So what was the point of it all?
This anger and disillusionment fuels much of the popularity of the political extremists gaining ground today. For the Corbynistas in the UK it’s about changing our capitalist system in favour of something better, something fairer and more equitable. The search for power was not enough anymore.
Littered among the writings in support of Corbyn you find the same refrain. Neal Lawson sums it up thus;
“Should we largely stick to current orthodoxies, hope to fall over the line first at the next election and make a now rampant global capitalism slightly more humane, i.e. continue the New Labour project plus or minus a bit? Or do we need to radically reframe the debate in the search for a good society?“
For him the answer is the latter and the answer is Corbyn.
In Greece they were ahead of the curve, elected Syriza in search of “something better” and have been let down. In Spain, Podemos have stalled recently but their surge in last year or so is rooted in similar concerns.
Importantly, this radical “new” outlook is not based on individual prosperity, rather in the collective. In something bigger than the individual. The Blairite view of build coalitions based on appealing to individualist notions of aspiration is gone, replaced by a “principled” vision for the country.
Illuminatingly, the most common question asked of candidates in the Labour leadership debates was not about policy or values at all. It was;
“What is your vision for the country?”
That’s the view from the left, but the view from the right is similar in that it is not based on individualism but collective notions of racial and social identity and of national pride and security. Clearly in matters of detail these world views are entirely different, polar opposites in many ways.
To Donald Trump’s supporters he is a vision of America at its best. Bold, brash, uncompromising but ultimately successful. He offers a vision, a world where America takes a lead again, regains its pre-eminent status in the world it has given up under Obama. In some ways it’s similar to Reagan’s appeal post-Carter. A weary country angry at being second best, in Iraq, against China economically, against Russia diplomatically is looking for a bold leader, someone who will take risks but knows how to win.
It also offers him the opportunity to take actions on immigration abhorrent to many but striking a chord with many on both sides of the Atlantic. An interesting fact. The petition calling for Trump to be banned from the UK on the basis of his Muslim comments has fewer signatories than that calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the UK.
His world view requires Americans to sign up to being American with all that means to him. If you don’t, you don’t get in. Simple.
This is the view of Ukip in the UK, the Front Nationale in France and many leaders in Eastern Europe struggling under the weight of the migrant crisis none of them started.
Underpinning this is a now unfashionable notion of national pride, in Trump’s case of American exceptionalism. To not hold this view as an American politician would be heretical but Trump takes this as his starting point. America must lead, it must be the best and it would be the best were it not for career politicians.
This is the identity he offers to his supporters – Americanism.
The identity of Islamic State
Corbyn, Trump, Le Pen and Farage all offer something big. They offer a world-view, a vision and an identity to those in support of them. These are all of course as nothing as that offered by Islamic State. Most incredible of all the phenomena of 2015 was the rise of this violent cult and its ability to attract Western converts to its cause with apparently as many as 4,000 joining IS from the West.
As I’ve said before, Islamic State is not about Islam. Many converts travelling to take up arms for the caliphate know little or nothing about Islam. British Jihadis bought “Islam for dummies” just days before travelling to Syria. According to research at Oxford University, only 5% of radicalisation occurs in Mosques.
So why take up arms? Why trade in all the luxuries of the West for war and death?
It’s not about Islam alone. It’s not about naivety or poor education. A study by London’s Queen Mary College found no link to “social inequalities or poor education”; most were highly educated young people from comfortable families who spoke English at home. Radicalisation’s not structured and doesn’t follow a pattern, unlike brainwashing.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer who worked with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, is now a distinguished academic and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments puts it like this;
“The notion that there is any serious process called ‘radicalisation’ is a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas – but it’s a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend.”
One thing does come through again and again in the stories of Mohamed Emwazi aka Jihadi John, or the 3 schoolgirls from Tower Hamlets. They are driven by the same thing as people have been through the ages and the same thing (in a more extreme form) as that driving support for Corbyn and Trump – the search for a cause and identity.
According to John Horgan, a psychologist University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, said. “Because of what terrorists do, we assume that can be explained via the pathology of those people, but trying to explain terrorism as mental illness is misleading.”
He concludes they are driven to join ISIS by the need to “belong to something special.”
“They want to find something meaningful for their life… Some are thrill seeking, some are seeking redemption.”
Further, Fathali Moghaddam, a professor at Georgetown University, has theorized a stepwise process he calls “The Staircase to Terrorism.”
“The central theme in ‘The Staircase to Terrorism’ is identity… A number of (young people) have problems in the West because they don’t feel they belong to important groups. No identities are satisfying for them.”
The death of “belongingness”
Of course, even if you agree that the need for identity and purpose is the root cause for the rise of extreme views in politics and society in general, there is of course no additional link between those supporters of Corbyn or Trump and Jihadis of Islamic State. The actions of Jihadis are in no way connected or comparable to those of the Corbynistas or Trump supporters in the US.
However, it is worth considering the lack of identity and purpose at the core of these views. What is it about our society today that offers no identity to young Muslims, or young people more generally? Why it is that people are so disillusioned with today’s society that they look to the extremes for answers?
To get to the bottom of this dilemma we must answer the question asked of labour candidates – what is our vision for the country and the world more generally?
From this we can begin to understand why Americans and the French are seeing something rotten in their societies. In the UK we would understand why we are going through austerity and what was the point of the sacrifices made over the last decade.
Until then, we’ll continue to be faced with extreme world-views reaching out to the a public weary of soundbites unprincipled, opportunistic leaders.