Early last month – February 2020 – the FBI director, Christopher Wray, elevated the threat of white nationalist right wing terrorism to the same national priority allocated to Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS. Explaining the reasons for making this decision, Wray stated that the threat from neo-nazi terrorism was unrelenting and formidable.
Wray elaborated the measures the FBI is taking to combat white supremacist terrorism, and detailed the arrests that his organisation made in clamping down on organised white racist groups. Later in February, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, also elevated the threat of racially-motivated terrorism to a national priority.
While right wing terrorism has a long and persistent history in Australia – like most resilient pests – this is the first time that a senior Australian official has highlighted right wing extremism as a threat requiring an increased national focus alongside foreign extremism. Burgess went on to say that:
Intolerance based on race, gender and identity, and the extreme political views that intolerance inspires, is on the rise across the Western world in particular. Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time, but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand.
It is interesting that Burgess, and his counterpart in the United States, focused on the increase in ultrarightist terrorism across the Western nations. Let’s remember that point, because we will return to it later. In response to the Asio chief’s assessment, the current Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, demonstrated his appalling ignorance by mixing up Islamist terrorism with left wing extremism.
Others have responded to Dutton’s woeful comments – for instance, Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful post here. Islamist extremism has ideological correspondence with ultrarightist groups, thus falling into the purview of right wing extremism. Other commentators have the patience and inclination to explain Introduction to Sociology 101 to the Antipodean Himmler-minister – let us move on to more important things.
White nationalism is transnational violence writ large
In approaching the question of white nationalist terrorism, perhaps the FBI director should examine the ideology that fuels such violence on a national and transnational scale. It is no secret that the US President – the FBI director’s ultimate boss – has provided a platform to propagate white nationalist talking points. Trump has consistently embraced and promoted ideas of white victimhood, portrayed immigration as a ‘national security’ threat, and encourages vigilante violence against his political opponents.
White nationalist doctrines, while not confined to the United States, have reached their ultimate development and application in that nation. Steve Bannon, former advisor to the Trump campaign, may have left US politics, but he has not ceased being a political operator. A US citizen who despises immigrants, he has been enthusiastically embracing and promoting anti-immigrant and racist parties in Europe. White nationalism has a transnational appeal.
Perhaps the FBI director should consider what actions he will take to stop American white supremacists, such as Bannon, from building an international coalition of the xenophobic. Wherever white nationalist views gain a foothold, there is a causative and corresponding increase in hate crimes and racist attacks. The FBI’s own experts have documented a dramatic increase in hate crimes in 2019, continuing an upward trend in racist attacks over the previous four years.
W E B Du Bois understood how capitalism and racism are interlinked
Perhaps the FBI director should consult the writings of African American sociologist, and the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard University, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963). An activist and scholar, William E B Du Bois was one of the earliest sociologists to discuss the interlinking of white supremacy with the development of American capitalism. He wrote about the intertwining of race and class in the United States.
Race and class can and should be discussed separately. It is easy and proper to focus on issues of racism. However, we also need to highlight how class and racism interact to perpetuate a system of socioeconomic and racial oppression. Du Bois noted that the problem of the colour line – the racial divisions of the US – was the main axis of contention throughout the 20th century.
Du Bois located the racial divide in the country within its economic system of capitalism. Mutually reinforcing, white nationalism and capitalism have coexisted and undergirded each other for the entire duration of the United States. Speaking out against racial segregation and discrimination was always the main priority for Du Bois. His famous remark that the black person has a ‘second sight’ captured the experience of racism in the US.
Second sight for Du Bois meant the ability of black Americans to see themselves in the way that white America regarded them. The African American is not blinded by the privilege and relative wealth of ‘whiteness’. The outcast within the racial-capitalist system is compelled to perceive themselves as they are seen by white nationalism. A racially-exclusive capitalist structure operates to immiserate the African American not only as a labourer, but also as an African American.
The 2017 white nationalist rally at Charlottesville – more accurately described as a race riot – was but a symptom of a nation founded as a project in white-minority rule. There have always been ethnic minorities in the United States, notwithstanding the specific foundational ethnic and cultural genocide of the indigenous nations. The organising principle of the newly emergent United States was white supremacy, built up on a capitalistic structure. Du Bois articulated the capitalist and colonialist underpinnings of white nationalism.
The working class has always been multiracial. Ethnic minorities are not recent additions to the ranks of workers, but have been working away in the industries and factories of American capitalism for decades. Of course there are white working class people – that is not in dispute.
The ultrarightist parties – taking their cue from the mainstream conservatives – deploy the concept ‘white working class‘ as an exclusionary political weapon, to exclude racial minorities and pivot white workers towards a collective notion of white racial resentment. Trump and his American co-thinkers encourage the same resentments in the US.
When the late Enoch Powell, and his current Tory counterparts such as Boris Johnson, use the term ‘white working class’, they are setting up an anti-immigrant platform with which the working class can be divided. White nationalism thrives in a climate of attacks on the poor, the deindustrialisation and immiseration of communities, and the promotion of xenophobia by mainstream politicians.