What explains far-right violence?
Jacob Aasland Ravndal and Johannes Due Enstad
- Extreme-right violence occurs in all corners of the world, is committed by different types of perpetrators, and is directed towards different target groups
- Extreme-right violence is often the product of inherently violent ideology and aesthetics, not only idealizing and normalizing violent behavior, but also attracting apolitical people who are drawn towards violence.
- Nearly all perpetrators of extreme-right violence are men, which seems related to how extreme right ideology views violence as well as men’s stronger biological inclination toward using violence compared to women.
The term “violence” carries different meanings, but generally refers to an act of physical force that causes or is intended to cause harm, in this case against people. Violence may be distinguished from aggression, a more general type of hostile behaviour that may be physical, verbal, or passive in nature. As such, extreme-right violence may be defined as any physical attack whose target selection is based on extreme-right beliefs.
Extreme-right violence occurs in all corners of the world, is committed by different types of perpetrators, and is directed towards different target groups. Most extreme-right violence relates to fundamental conflicts between the extreme right and two of its main enemies: people on the left and people perceived as foreigners, thereby also making leftists and ethnic minorities two of the most common target groups. Other common target groups include sexual minorities, religious minorities (most notably Jews and Muslims) and state or government representatives. In the United States, extreme-right violence has historically been associated with the Ku Klux Klan and their systematic attacks against African Americans since former confederate officers formed this group in the 1860s. In Latin America, extreme-right violence has been associated with state-sponsored death squads targeting political dissidents on behalf of right-wing military regimes during the 1970s and 1980s. Other non-European countries with notable experiences of extreme-right violence include India, Israel, Japan, and South Africa. Russia is recorded to be the country in the world with the highest rate of fatal extreme-right attacks per million inhabitants during the 2000s. Most of these attacks targeted immigrants and were carried out by neo-Nazi gangs. In Western Europe, left-wing activists constitute an important target group. Deadly extreme-right violence peaked in this region during the 1970s, as a result of continuous fighting between left- and right-wing militants. A second peak was recorded in the early 1990s, when immigrants became the primary target group in many countries, particularly in Northern Europe. Since then, levels of deadly extreme-right violence have decreased across Western Europe, but continue to be considerably higher in some countries than in others. Finally, unlike the group-based violence of the 1970s, lone actors carry out most of today’s fatal attacks.
Prominent variants of extreme-right ideology, most notably National Socialism and Fascism, are inherently violent, seeing violence as a natural feature of all living organisms, including human beings, and therefore as a valuable resource that can be used legitimately for the survival of the fittest. A key factor for explaining extreme-right violence is therefore this inherently violent nature of extreme-right ideology and aesthetics, not only idealizing and normalizing violent behavior, but also attracting people generally interested in or naturally drawn towards violence.
However, most people holding extreme-right views never use violence. Therefore, ideology is sometimes overlooked as an important explanatory factor. This misconception may result from too much emphasis on explaining variation between cases versus providing exhaustive explanations of each case. The fact that most extreme-right activists never engage in violence does not mean that ideology is irrelevant for those who do. On the contrary, the general appreciation of violence in extreme-right ideology is highly relevant for explaining many extreme-right attacks.
To explain variation of extreme-right violence across time and space, it is helpful to distinguish between the individual level (why do some persons with extreme-right beliefs turn to violence while others do not?), the group level (why do certain groups turn to violence?), and the country level (why do some countries experience more extreme-right violence than others in certain periods?). On all levels, no single-factor explanation has been found, nor should we expect to find one. Rather, as with any complex social phenomenon, we should look for “causal cocktails” – particular combinations of factors.
On the individual level, three types of explanations are routinely used to explain the violent behaviour of people with extreme-right beliefs: (1) their socio-economic background; (2) their psychological profile; and (3) their personality type. To help explain why some extremists turn to violence, while other extremists remain non-violent, certain combinations of factors appear to be particularly relevant. For example, research has found that those using violence tend to suffer from psychological vulnerabilities making them more receptive to extremist narratives, such as emotional distress, experiences of humiliation, or feelings of helplessness, while at the same time seeking to balance this out by seeking significance and prestige through extremist behaviour. In addition, some factors appear to be more predominant among extreme-right perpetrators than other extremist types, such as leftists or jihadis. These include low socio-economic status, low educational achievements, and difficult childhoods.
On the group level, at least two types of explanations can be derived from the existing literature: (1) those looking at internal group dynamics and (2) those looking at external dynamics between extreme-right groups and other actors. Internal dynamics driving extremist groups towards violence include internal competition and conflict (outbidding), organizational splits and group isolation, and the adaptation of increasingly extreme and violent ideologies within small and increasingly isolated groups. Some of the most common external dynamics are police repression, external competition with other like-minded groups, and violent interaction with leftist enemies.
On the country level, factors assumed to impact levels of extreme-right violence include grievances resulting from increased immigration, unemployment, and socio-economic hardship, limited political opportunities for mobilization through the parliamentary system, discursive opportunities for making extreme-right claims in the public space, authoritarian (fascist) legacies, and the extent of left-wing terrorism and militancy in a given country. One study looking at how these factors might combine to explain cross-national variation in deadly far-right violence found two combinations of factors present in countries with high levels of extreme-right violence. The first, relating mainly to immigration in Northern Europe, is the combination of high immigration, low electoral support for anti-immigration parties, and extensive public repression of anti-immigration actors and opinions. The second, relating mainly to the conflict between fascists and communists in Southern Europe, is the combination of socioeconomic hardship, authoritarian (fascist) legacies, and extensive left‐wing terrorism and militancy.
A final observation is the fact that nearly all perpetrators of extreme-right violence are men. That said, men are heavily over-represented in all forms of violence-statistics, partly reflecting a stronger biological inclination towards violent behaviour among men than among women. However, men are even more over-represented in statistics of extreme-right violence than other violence-statistics, including other forms of political violence, in particular left-wing violence. One reason may be how violence is portrayed as a natural and positive masculine feature in extreme-right ideology, thereby interacting with men’s stronger inclination toward using violence to begin with. In other words, as in most other fields, we should not look at either biological or socio-political factors, but at how these factors interact to produce recurrent outcomes.
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 The following review covers primarily research on extreme-right violence in contemporary Western democracies. For research covering other regions, please consult the citations provided above.
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