Politics Analysis

Pandemic a hothouse for far-Right politics

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Senator Pauline Hanson is known for her far-Right political views and racist rhetoric (Screenshot via YouTube)

COVID-19 may serve to intensify the pre-existing turn towards fascism, currently inflaming the Western world, writes Dr Gerard Gill.

AT THIS point, it is barely worth mentioning that COVID-19 has forced us to dramatically rethink the politics of everyday life.

On the positive side of this has been a proliferation of community support and mutual aid — acts of kindness to help the vulnerable and various gestures aimed at raising people's spirits. On the other hand, some darker human impulses have also been witnessed, perhaps giving us a preview of the struggle for what comes next.

In their article for Clinical Neuropsychiatry, researcher in clinical psychology at University of Salento Claudia Venuleo, Associate Professor Dynamic Psychology at University of Salento Omar C.G. Gelo and Professor of Dynamic Psychology at Sapienza University of Rome Sergio Salvatore, describe some of the more problematic ways people have been dealing with the crisis.

"Polarised connotations" refer to the essentialising of people into friends or enemies, good or bad. In this scenario, concerns over public health and behaviour can escalate to harassment and death threats. Politicians engage in war language — rhetoric usually reserved for times of war, such as talk of battles and frontlines. And finally, let’s not forget the conspiracy theorists, who typically thrive in times like these.

In considering where life and politics are heading after the pandemic, it pays to think about where these impulses might be coming from. For this, Venuleo, Gelo and Salvatore turn to terror management theory (TMT). TMT is a psychological theory that says in times when people suffer an increased awareness of their own mortality, they double down on their own beliefs — becoming more certain, more emotionally attached and militant about their religion, values, ideology, and so forth.

This mental state is referred to as "affective semiosis". In a crisis, it can be immensely helpful, producing clarity of thought and action that allows people to take the immediate measures required to protect themselves — frequent hand washing, physical distancing and the wearing of masks. The stockpiling of food and essentials has been of dubious value but we might also count that.

The more harmful aspects of affective semiosis come from its generalising, homogenising nature. Nuance is lost and ingroup-outgroup polarisation increases. Left to fester, these dynamics do not make for a sanguine post-COVID future.

Historically, fascist and anti-democratic forces have known this on some level and seek to exploit affective semiosis to scapegoat minorities and consolidate their own power. 

In Australia, far-Right politician Senator Pauline Hanson has pivoted back to the China-based xenophobia she was originally known for — before she turned her vitriol on Muslims in more recent years. Attacks on Chinese people on the streets have also risen and anti-Chinese rhetoric – a recurring feature of Australian politics through history – has started to become more prominent in online discussion.

A recent report by the London School of Economics’ Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit warns that the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to exacerbate a pre-existing turn towards nationalism and authoritarianism in the world.

While economic deglobalisation doesn’t need to be a pernicious force, the nationalist version being touted by many societal actors at the moment is likely to be driven by authoritarian populism and prejudice. At the same time, government actions taken to address the pandemic, such as centralisation and surveillance, can easily be turned on the people for repressive ends.

The above then begs the question of what to do to counter these impulses, to imagine another, better "new normal". Venuleo, Gelo and Salvatore have some thoughts on this as well. Affective semiosis is not a psychological state well suited to the complex task of rebuilding after the crisis is over.

For this, nuance and complexity of thought are vital. This can be achieved in the individual through an increase in "semiotic capital" — that is to say, the mental resources we have available to make sense of the world. Semiotic capital is in turn nurtured through a reduction in personal uncertainty (say, through social welfare measures) and performative sensemaking (through social and democratic participation).

The current rise of far-Right, anti-democratic politics in the Western world predates the pandemic — COVID-19 did not cause it, though it may yet serve to exacerbate the problem. Proposed drivers of this turn towards fascism include economic anxieties and inequality, cultural resentments and backlash, and simple racism.

Probably it’s all of the above. At the same time, resistance to these forces, such as Antifa, are also becoming more prominent. As the world grapples with where to go from here, this struggle is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Dr Gerard Gill received his PhD from Curtin University, studying the influence of communication technologies on modern social movements. He has previously worked in countering violent extremism and is now a public servant. You can follow Gerard on Twitter @good_disc_horse.

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