We need to understand the far right if we are to combat it. Rowan Fortune reviews one of the tools we can use to get that understanding, the podcast I Don't Speak German.
15 August 2020.
Over the last half-decade the far right has become a subject of intense focus. Extreme right-wing populist governments have spawned and spread across the world, and we have become familiar with the obscene men at their helm (Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, and Jair Bolsonaro are examples). Even before this wave, however, there had been a series of far right terrorist attacks all over the world, from the massacre in 2011 of 69 Workers' Youth League members in Norway to the two mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Neil Faulkner, Samir Death, Phil Hearse and Seema Syeda’s coauthored book Creeping Fascism and Walden Bello’s Counterrevolution expertly document the former, highlighting numerous examples and explaining why particular expressions take shape in certain ways in different places and contexts—always with a keen eye to the class composition that empowers such toxic regimes. The latter phenomenon, however, deserves as much attention, not least because these two sides of fascism share a distinct feedback loop, reinforcing and heralding one another in ways that can be explicit or implicit.
The especially online far right poses many problems to the researcher because of the very medium in which in flourishes; fascists have utilised this communication sphere with troubling alacrity, and it is deeply connected to the aforementioned atrocities. One of the best sources for its goings on currently, however, is the podcast I Don’t Speak German, which helps make sense of the confusing and dimly understood environs in which such reactionaries regularly talk to one another. The show uses an interview format to dissect and understand what is going on among the far right; to borrow their own description:
Daniel Harper is a researcher into the far-right who goes where few others can bear to go: he listens to what the white nationalists, white supremacists, and nazis (and all the rest) say to each other in their huge online subculture of podcasts, etc. In this timely, popular, shocking but (hopefully) accessible and entertaining anti-fascist podcast, Daniel tells his buddy Jack Graham all about what he learned from listening to what the terrible people of the far-right say to each other in *their* safe spaces. You don't want to listen... but you need to know. Daniel listened so you don't have to, and now he's back with his report.
Harper draws his understanding both from extensive first-hand research, as well as a wider reading. He references the online texts, streamed videos, social media presences (in addition to the podcasts) of the far right microcelebrities themselves, but he also and often draws from broader research on the history of his subject-matter. For example, from Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, which outlines the clandestine and more overtly violent structures (the separation between ‘mainstreamers’ and ‘vanguardists’) within which the far right in the US has historically operated.
Graham, meanwhile, as the interviewer, adds a sophisticated understanding of the recurring social origins of fascism, as well as the broader history of left and Marxist theories on such formations. His insights as a theorist, but also his ability to keep the conversation accessible and relevant, contributes immensely to the series, grounding it in a thorough analysis of what it is that fascists seek to accomplish. There is also much to be said for the US-UK pairing of these two (Daniel is American while Graham is British), as both countries’ fascisms have many points of overlap as well as divergences.
Together, they do justice to the horror of this murky world of bigotry and genocidal fantasy that attracts the atomised, decaying layers of (all too often) the children of the white petite bourgeoisie. They also capture the vapid, quite horrifying banality of this culture, the thought processes involved and much of the psychology that takes people to a point where their humanity is so debased that the holocaust is rendered a bad joke, and heartless massacres seem a perfectly everyday response to ‘concerns’ about immigration.
As Harper puts it, understanding the complexities and ambivalences of the people who make up the far right, ‘seeing them as a person rather than a villain,’ helps us to perceive their authentic threat with a greater clarity, as well as to see through their merely temporary shows of humanity. As Graham observes, ‘if you understand them as humans you can understand how pathetic they are.’ Like the demagogues to whom this movement maintains a complex relationship, they are not demonic, machiavellians of fiction, but deeply broken and troubled ruins who are all the more capable of violence (or, at the very least, the advocacy and goading of violence) for that reason.
While the alt-right make frequent appearances, it is (if not a useless designation) a term that just as often obscures the diversity of factions within contemporary fascism, and therefore used cautiously; overplaying such terms can mean missing the fractures, but also the alarming versatility, of the contemporary far right. I Don’t Speak German allows listeners to gain a fairly quick purchase of the many amorphous distinctions to be found amongst this self-important and always fractious milieu. For anybody seeking to comprehend such a strange movement, or even to just guard against infiltration, it is a tremendously useful service.
Even just one subcategory of the far right can have numerous and divergent offshoots, all of which pose subtly different if similar threats. Take the highly misogynistic manosphere (a cluster of anti-feminists) as a single instance, where you can encounter (as outlined by the show’s guest, and ethnologist of the far right, Samantha Kutner) MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way), PUAs (Pick Up Artists), Incels (Involuntary Celibates), and RadTrads (Radical Traditionalists).
When you start expanding from understanding just one such subgrouping to other subgroups too, it can become increasingly hard to keep up to date or coherent; from the conspiratorial QAnon to the elitist, reactionary pessimistic current that has ludicrously named itself the Dark Enlightenment, the online far right segments itself into smaller and smaller variants of the same basic formulas. In the words of one friend of the podcast, Elizabeth Sandifer, writing in her essay collection Neoreaction a Basilisk:
Milo Yiannopoulos e-mails Curtis Yarvin to have him check over his Breitbart article on the alt-right, who heads over to Peter Thiel’s house to watch election results. Mike Cernovich publishes a book with Vox Day before becoming Donald Trump Jr’s favorite conspiracy theorist. And of course, Milo wrote the introduction to SJWs Always Lie, and was bankrolled by Robert Mercer along with the rest of the Breitbart empire. There is no center here; not even the ruined, nameless thing within the Oval Office. There’s just a void—a historical calamity emanating out from nothing save for a morbid but systemic lust for its occurrence.
This problem (the absence of a distinguishable core) can be even worse than that observable amongst the manosphere. Take the apocalyptic, gun-obsessed, ideologically-incoherent Boogaloo, whose origins are vaguely outside of the run-of-the-mill fascist movement (despite being now encompassed by white supremacy). Such liminal cases, where the politics can be disguised for long periods, are a challenge to attempts to classify the far right in real time, and it is only by understanding this group's structural relation to society and especially to social crisis (as a faction that aims at a non-class based resistance to the state) that their threat can be clearly seen.
The far right can also be bound to particular regions in ways the internet unhelpfully obscures; I Don’t Speak German does pay heed to offline organisations too, when relevant. At the local level, complicating things still more, groups will reflect their own material concerns even in their fantasy politics (from water to land scarcity, from boomer conspiracies to millennial trolling) and histories (in the US context, rich kids from northern state suburbs might demonstrate the alienated dreams of violence typical of the middle strata, while for southern nationalists resentments tied to longer histories of racism are more important motive-forces).
Something else that becomes clear listening to this podcast is the futility of too many prominent approaches to combating the far right. It is nearly impossible to simply argue or ‘debate’ with sophists, and the far right are sophists to their core. As a movement it maintains a bewildering set of self-reinforcing rituals, stock arguments and underhand methods of engagement. Double-talk, moving goalposts, gish galloping, walls of content, if not just outright personal abuse, etc. etc. will be deployed against any interlocutor that attempts to engage such people in naive good faith.
‘Roll the dice, and the canned response comes out,’ notes Harper. ‘Whatever they’re accusing you of,’ Graham adds, ‘they’re doing it constantly.’ Even what’s implicit to their ironic meme culture serves to aptly defend their ideas against the slightest scrutiny; for instance, the notion of the 'red pill' (a motif stolen from the Matrix film series), which posits that they themselves are uniquely awakened to the politically incorrect reality to which the rest of us NPCs (non player characters) are not, presents a catch-22 to any would-be de-radicaliser. The process of de-radicalisation itself a complex and controversial one, but certainly not likely to occur in the unfriendly home-territory of the far right itself.
Beyond the prejudices they peddle, if there is anything consistent about the far right as depicted by the podcast, it is its very inconsistency. Even the coded slur terms they use are not static; as with a lot of overly online subcultures, the far right’s terms of reference evolve rapidly. The internet is at the heart of many of these groups—where algorithms favouring sensational content take ordinary if troubled young men (at least predominantly) and push them towards more and more extreme content, while encouraging content creators on increasingly reactionary paths in pursuit of instant, monetisable attention. YouTube in particular (although almost all social media in different ways) has been historically tolerant of far right content (including overt racism), which has helped it to ferment.
This is also connected to what are sometimes described as pipelines to fascism—in particular, the often overlapping early noughties sceptical atheism and libertarian movements (particularly notable names from this line include Christopher Cantwell and Stefan Molyneux). The highly reactionary (anti-migrant, anti-liberal) libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul ran one of the first primarily online political campaigns (in many ways a precursor to similar tactics from the left and right today). That presidential bid was an especially important part of this process of pushing edgy teenagers to even more extreme views; the infamous Richard Spencer’s political journey, for example, started with Ron Paul.
As mentioned, for the far right extreme bigotry enjoys a feedback loop with more mainstream, socially 'acceptable' bigotry. This extends beyond its direct electoral relationship with figures such as Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. As Harper explains, looking specifically at transphobia (but the example, sufficiently modified, is transferable), ‘moderate’ bigots can plead innocent by pointing to such fascists, saying something along the lines of ‘I’m not saying the doctors who perform this procedure should be executed the way those far right people are, I’m not telling the horrifying jokes, I just want us to put the breaks on,’ while, on the other hand, ’the Nazis will use people like that, saying you cannot even be a moderate, you cannot even ask questions like that before you become a Nazi in peoples’ minds.’ Moderate bigots get to play whataboutery, while Nazis benefit from the false idea that such bigotry is moderate and yet still beyond the pale—proving their disingenuous thesis about liberal society.
The point is not that the two are the same or even necessarily converging, but that they act as a buffer to each other; the marginal fascist strengthens the already empowered bigot, while the bigot gives cover to the fascist. This also, as Jack points out, ‘operates in reverse: when the bigots present themselves as the “reasonable” centre[… and] draw comparisons between people fighting for justice, fighting for radical change, and totalitarians and fascists.’ This is often ‘the fragility of privileged people equating freedom of speech with consequence free speech.’ It is this ability of the far right counterculture to thereby launder racism, transphobia and other oppressions, and to do so even when the far right remains on the margins, that makes them such a threat—especially to the oppressed.
Graham notes a strange quality you will experience when listening to fascists. Trying to take in their elaborate codes (e.g. Google as a stand-in for the N-word, Kayak as a stand in for Jews, etc.), bad faith disavowals or tolerance for what they claim to decry (from state genocide to mass murder), ‘it’s like they’re playing chicken with what they actually want to say.’ The disingenuousness is profound in how it intentionally disorientates their targets. And the proximity, the more disorientating they can become.
Paranoia and victimhood defines these movements, and a close evaluation quickly reveals them as superficially farcical. Nonetheless, the damage they can do, the ideas they can mainstream, and the horrors they can unleash, are as present today as ever before. At once silly and terrifying, to underestimate the far right's online activists is as unwise as underestimating Trump. It is the duty of every person to comprehend and guard against such evil, but especially of socialists whose vision is so diametrically opposed to that of the far right, who seek to see the self-emancipation of everyone where fascist’s only aspire to add new chains.
I Don’t Speak German is an important tool to the contemporary antifascist arsenal.
You can listen here and on most podcast platforms.
Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; his anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.