• Oxford Hayek Society

John Meadowcroft: The Logic of Far-Right Activism

Updated: Jan 6

This summary was written by Matteo Baccaglini, President.

On Thursday 14 November 2019, we were delighted to welcome Dr. John Meadowcroft, Reader in Public Policy at King’s College London, to speak to the Oxford Hayek Society at Merton College on the subject of: ‘The Logic of Far-Right Activism’.

You can find a YouTube video of John's presentation below.

The Problem of Collective Action

In his fascinating and thought-provoking talk, John presented his recent ethnographic research, which finds that the decision of individuals to join far-right organisations can be rationalised in terms of the personal benefits that accrue to them exceeding the personal costs that they incur.

In two previous studies, John and his colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Morrow, investigated the rise and fall of the English Defence League and the reasons why individuals joined it.

John is now applying their findings from the latter study to earlier far-right parties, specifically the National Front and the British National Party. He finds that previously-accepted explanations - regarding their performative aspect and ideological appeal - for why individuals became activists for these groups ignore the difficulties of the collective action problem expounded in Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action (1965).

The problem is that the benefits of actions like political activism are widely-dispersed, rather than shared only among the actors who undertake it - so rationally, each individual should free-ride on the political activism of others, rather than become political activists themselves.

Viewed through this prism, it seems implausible and irrational for individuals to become far-right activists on the back of the mysterious performative aspect or ideological appeal of the Far Right, especially given the high personal costs incurred by activists, such as stigmatisation and marginalisation.

The Selective Incentives of Far-Right Activism

From his colossal review of previous studies of the NF and the BNP, John concludes that, rather than these documented explanations, a more convincing explanation is that the personal benefits that accrue to far-right activists, which the literature has overlooked and understated, exceed their personal costs.

From the evidence, he identifies three mutually-reinforcing selective incentives that explain why individuals joined the NF and the BNP:

  1. group solidarity (the feeling of community);

  2. increased self-esteem (the feeling of being part of a cause);

  3. access to violence.

To exacerbate these personal benefits, the parties' leaders imposed high personal costs on activists, such as frequent mandatory meetings and self-funding requirements for local branches. These meant that party members became absorbed in their activism and became reliant on the group for friendship and sense of cause.

Thus, John argues that far-right activists deemed that these personal benefits of their activism exceeded their personal costs. In this sense, their activism was entirely rational; this is what John calls 'the logic of far-right activism'.

In the question-and-answer session, John predicted that these findings could be replicated for activist groups more generally, including antifascist and far-left organisations. After all, the selective incentives he identifies are not unique to the Far Right. In his research, he met far-right activists that had previously been members of other activist outfits, campaigning on issues like animal welfare and nuclear dismantlement.

Which Came First, the Activism or the Ideology?

Arguably, the extremist views of far-right activists mask their underlying rationality, leading to the pitfall of thinking that only irrational, radicalised and ideologically-committed individuals join the Far Right, in which case the collective action problem doesn't apply.

John thinks that this is likely only to be the case for the groups' leaders, who constructed the apparatus to recruit more activists that were susceptible to the aforementioned personal benefits of joining but certainly not initially ideologically-committed.

Indeed, John found that many far-right activists were not radicalised from the outset. Both the NF and the BNP campaigned on a popular, mainstream public platform to end non-white immigration, establish stronger law-and-order policies and reintroduce capital punishment. In areas where the BNP was electorally-successful, it was on the back of unextraordinary pledges like better bin collections.

Instead, it was only once members joined these groups that they were socialised into the real, private, esoteric ideology of the Far Right, including its biological racism and belief in a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. Both parties featured a high turnover of members because activists became gradually more exposed to these private views and subsequently left.

On a similar note, John suggested that the BNP's demise came after it publicly revealed too much of its esoteric ideology, epitomised in Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance in October 2009, and that the Internet has meant that these esoteric views can be exposed more widely.

In all, John concludes that far-right activists were committed to activism before they became committed to the ideology of the Far Right.

Other Thoughts

Having now researched several successive far-right organisations over the course of multiple decades, John suggested that government attempts to ban far-right groups would be ineffective: the vacuum for far-right activism left by one group's collapse would only ever be filled by another far-right organisation.

One talking point in the question-and-answer session was whether Islamophobia had supplanted the esoteric belief in a Jewish conspiracy. John suggested that it has not: far-right leaders privately continue to hold these antisemitic beliefs.

Asked why he had chosen to research the Far Right, marking a departure from his previous research, John remarked that libertarians are too dismissive of the threats from extremism. While postwar social democracy has preserved key rights and institutions conducive to limited government, these are the very liberties and principles under attack by far-right activists.

John also noted how far-right activism had laid the foundations for Western European radical-right parties that are now electorally-successful. More broadly, he is interested in the question of why people become interested in politics, hold the political views that they hold, and engage in politics in the way that they do.

The event made for an entertaining and fascinating evening, with plenty of fascinating, transferable insights into a weighty issue of possibly-ceaseless topical interest. We thank John for coming to visit us and sharing his research!

Dr. John Meadowcroft is Reader in Public Policy in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. Prior to joining KCL, he worked as a parliamentary assistant and at a Westminster thinktank, before teaching at Queen Mary, University of London. In his investigation of the concepts of liberty and power, he has written extensively on leading liberal philosophers, including James Buchanan and Robert Nozick. Presently, John is designing an empirical test of the origins of totalitarianism set out in F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944).

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