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Fascism and troll culture

Nov 28, 2019 • 17m 12s

According to Jeff Sparrow, a new fascism is emerging from the internet – one rooted in meme culture, but that harnesses mass shootings as a political tool.

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Fascism and troll culture

131 • Nov 28, 2019

Fascism and troll culture

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

According to author Jeff Sparrow, a new fascism is emerging from the internet – one that is rooted in meme culture, but that harnesses mass shootings as a political tool. This is the story of how the Christchurch massacre came to represent a new frontier in the far right.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Jeff, let’s start with our understanding of the far right. What do you think is missing from analysis on the far right? And closest to us, from our understanding of the Christchurch massacre and the person behind it?

JEFF:

I think what's often missing is an understanding of fascism as a genuine, political phenomenon and not just as a boo word. I think one of the problems with much of the coverage of the Christchurch massacre was that the shooter was often treated merely as an extremist or as a fantasist, a deluded man who was detached from reality. And I think that there was an unwillingness to look into how he actually had a strategy, and how that strategy related to broader debates within the fascist movement.

ELIZABETH:

Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster. His latest book is Fascists Among Us: online hate and the Christchurch massacre.

JEFF:

The perpetrator of that massacre, he was ideologically committed to fascism and he saw his massacre, the massacre that he committed, as a particular strategy that would help fascists get past the strategic impasse that they were at at the moment. That's why it's really important, particularly here in Australia, for us to talk about fascism, because it's a real phenomenon. There are fascists in this country and we've seen the kind of damage that they can do.

ELIZABETH:

So Jeff the Christchurch killer identified as a fascist. I think a lot of people understand fascism perhaps in its more historical context. Something like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini's Italy. Those kinds of places and times. What does modern day fascism look like?

JEFF:

The Christchurch perpetrator talked about the person who most inspired him as Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. And Mosley is a particularly influential figure for contemporary fascists today, partly because he took the doctrines being expounded by Mussolini and Hitler in the 20s, in the 30s, and brought them into England. And so anglicised them in a way that makes them more relevant to fascists in the English speaking world today.

Archival Tape -- Sir Oswald Mosley:

“Ladies and Gentlemen this great meeting is gathered here tonight to hear the policy and face of fascism.”

JEFF:

He took all of those sort of key elements of fascism, that extreme hostility to any form of social equality, a commitment to remaking society in a hierarchical kind of way, and most of all, a sense of redemptive violence. What's interesting about Mosley and one of the reasons I think he's so influential amongst the contemporary far right is, unlike Hitler and Mussolini, he survived the Second World War. After the Second World War, he was a much more marginal figure. The war itself, and particularly the horrors of the final solution, meant that the kind of anti-Semitism, that was fairly mainstream on the right in the 20s, in the 30s, was no longer publicly acceptable.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Mosley and his supporters came to hold another meeting, in this stronghold of anti fascism their appearance was a guarantee of trouble as everyone well knew…”

JEFF:

Fascism as a doctrine was so unpopular everywhere. Mosley and his activists went, they were physically attacked.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“They cried down with Mosley and down he went.”

JEFF:

So it became very, very difficult for them to try and build any sorts of organisations. And in a way that was very much the fate of fascism through the 20th century, the English speaking world. It remained a fringe doctrine. And one of the things that I argue is that in the 21st century, the conditions changed quite dramatically, particularly after the war on terror.

ELIZABETH:

What do you mean by that?

JEFF:

So I think the war on terror succeeded in normalising Islamophobia, a doctrine that in many ways replicated the key tropes of pre-war anti-Semitism and could be used the same way by the far right, but it was much more acceptable within the mainstream by the 21st century. At the same time, the new anxiety about borders opened up an anti-immigrant sentiment that became very important for a new kind of right wing populism. That we saw manifest into Australia through organisations like One Nation, organisations that weren't fascist in and of themselves, but popularised ideas that had previously been associated with fascist organisations about the differences between ethnic groups. So a kind of racial populism.

ELIZABETH:

And then there’s the internet.

JEFF:

Yes, that that's that's right. The fascists discovered the Internet very, very early and then they also discovered that the online cultures that were developing in places like 4chan and other sites where troll culture emerged, had a real synergy with their own ideas. That kind of dynamic, of an obsession with transgression and shock and also cruelty was an environment that was simpatico with genuine fascist activists who quickly became very active in those kind of sites. I mentioned before that in the 20th century it was very difficult for fascist organisations to gather and to recruit. The Internet allowed them to do that in ways that weren't previously possible. And the success of the alt right in 2016 and the victory of Donald Trump emboldened many of the American fascists to think that the time was right to come out from behind the keyboards into the real world. And I did that most notably in the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in 2017. And as it happened, I think it's clearer now in retrospect then it was at the time that was an absolute disaster for them.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Unite the Right the group that organised that violent tiki torch march in Charlottesville one year ago failed to gather significant numbers of marchers this year.”

JEFF:

They were met by counter protests. They were met by state repression. And within about a year of that mobilisation, almost all of the leaders and organisations that had been involved in Unite the Right were in absolute disarray.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Fewer than two dozen of them turned up on the day, as they boarded the subway to ride into town, their police escorts forced them to leave their flagpoles behind, when they emerged in DC there was a big crowd was there to greet them and not in a friendly way.”

JEFF:

And that sent the ideologues of American fascism into this intense strategic debate as to what they should do. One element of the fascist right argued that they should continue to try to keep mobilising in the real world. Another element said, no, no, we need to go back into online activism, go back to memeing, and so on. I think what the Christchurch perpetrator represented was a third way. And that third way was individual terrorism. And an individual terrorism that was about mobilising the popularity that the fascist right had online, but turning it into a particular form of real world activism that was much, much harder to stop. And that was the gun massacre.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Jeff we are talking about contemporary fascism and the internet. Can you tell me a little more about that online culture?

JEFF:

The stereotype that the 4channers themselves used was of the young man sitting in his parents basement. It was invariably a man. It was invariably connected with a sensibility of failed masculinity. He couldn't get a date. Which is why, you know, he spent all his time in front of a computer. But there was also a sense of being economically um downwardly mobile as well. That was why you were in your parents basement, because you couldn't get a house of your own. I mean, you were not a labor this point too much, but it was kind of analogies to the demographic that was recruited to the classical fascism of the 30s, it tended to be this kind of this white collar, middle class and very masculine who were disappointed at how their lives. And as such were full of rage. And we're looking at a target to vent that rage. The racist, sexist memes that the far right we're associating found a kind of willing audience of these people who thought the world hadn't turned out the way it was supposed to turn out for them. And they felt that somebody had to pay for this.

ELIZABETH:

Jeff, you were talking about what separated the Christchurch gunman from these internet fascists and the thing you identified was real life violence, in particular individual gun massacres, can you tell me a bit more about that phenomenon?

JEFF:

The gun massacre in the form that we know it today was almost unknown before about the 1960s. Paul Mullen, who's the Australian forensic psychiatrist, says that that these massacres do not even begin to appear until the 20th century and only emerge as a recurring theme in the last 30 years. Now, the majority of the shooters, particularly in the 90s and the early 2000s, were apolitical. So they would often be kids at high schools or in workplaces and I think what the Christchurch perpetrator did was to see that this apolitical script associated with gun massacres could be hijacked, as it were, and politicised and turned into a vehicle for overt fascist politics. And that was what he set out to do. So he took every aspect of this conventional script but carried them out in a way that link them directly to hard ideological fascist politics so as to create a new script, a script that he was confident would appeal to the kind of bulletin boards on which online fascists have traditionally gathered. Young men who felt isolated and marginalised would also think that by committing a massacre, they were somehow redeeming not only themselves, but the white race as a whole. So why not go out in a blaze of glory?

ELIZABETH:

So you're saying that the act that the Christchurch shooter committed sits at the intersection of these two areas of online culture and the contemporary phenomenon of gun violence?

JEFF:

Yes, that's right. And the intersection of that with a modified version of classical fascism. So it wasn't simply that he wrote a manifesto. It wasn't simply that he took a GoPro when he went off and committed this atrocious act. So he actually filmed the killings as they took place. It was that he did those things and studded them with various 8chan memes.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“...That the gunman stormed in wearing a helmet with a camera on it and it was live streamed on social media, much of the video unspeakably horrifying images…”

JEFF:

The manifesto clearly wasn't intended for a mainstream readership.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“It’s a rambling poorly written 74 page screed filled with internet jokes, pieces of online culture and apparent misinformation…”

JEFF:

It was intended to be read by the kind of people who assembled on places like 8Chan and other sites like that. In a context where he didn't believe that it was possible for fascists to translate their online support into real world activism of the kind that they tried to do at Unite The Right. Instead of that, what they could do is create this kind of cascading series of lone wolf terror attacks that take place unexpectedly in different places all over the world. And we'll be very, very hard to stop. And that's precisely what we've seen. We've seen about four or five direct imitations of Christchurch. I mean, this is, this is obviously barbaric. It's the it's nihilistic. And it's so nihilists it can seem almost nonsensical, but from its own twisted perspective it makes a certain amount of sense. And I think that the calculation is that this will lay down the foundations to make fascist organizing in the future more possible.

ELIZABETH:

So that said, Jeff, you know, it is fascism, but it is fascism played on different terms and with different tools. How do we as a society confront it?

JEFF:

Yeah, I mean that, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? And there's no simple answers. I think the problem is, of course, that the sort of strategy being implemented by the Christchurch perpetrator is designed to be much more difficult to stop than a public fascist rally. But I think one thing that we could perhaps say is there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the responsibility of journalists in covering stories like this. While of course, journalists need to show sensitivity when talking about such awful events. The notion that publicity will encourage more of these events I think misunderstands what is actually happening, these documents, the manifestos aren't necessarily intended for the public as a whole. They're intended for a particular audience on the online far right. And they find that audience anyway. So given that's the case, I think it's really important that we actually talk about fascism. And most importantly, I think we need to recognize that this whole tendency thrives on despair. You only engage in a suicidal, racist gun rampage in a context of bleak despair about the world and its prospects. So I think ultimately, the politics of fascism will only be overcome by a politics of hope. By giving people a sense of the future can be better than the past, that it's possible people of different races and ethnicities and genders to unite together and to make a better future. And until we're able to present that as an alternative, then this sort of voice of brutal, nihilistic violence will always get some sort of hearing.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has criticised Scott Morrison for calling the NSW Police Commissioner, Mike Fuller, about the investigation into Energy Minister Angus Taylor. Turnbull warned of the appearance of political interference in police investigations. In a radio interview last year, the Police Commissioner spoke of his friendship with Morrison when they were neighbours in Sydney. Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said Morrison’s call was quote "even more inappropriate" because of their relationship.

And more than 4500 doctors have signed an open letter urging Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie to save the medevac legislation, which has provided a pathway for sick refugees and asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical care. The fate of the legislation hinges on Lambie’s vote, as the Morrison government plans to repeal the bill next week. In Canberra on Wednesday, David Isaacs of the Royal Australian College of Physicians told reporters, quote: "People are dying on Manus Island and Nauru and it's extremely important that doctors are the ones who decide who comes to Australia for urgent medical care, not politicians.”

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

According to author Jeff Sparrow, a new fascism is emerging from the internet – one that is rooted in meme culture, but that harnesses mass shootings as a political tool. This is the story of how the Christchurch massacre came to represent a new frontier in the far right.

Guest: Author of Fascists Among Us, Jeff Sparrow.

Background reading

Under fire from the new fascism in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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fascism troll christchurch farright altright guns




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131: Fascism and troll culture