John Meadowcroft is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at King’s College London.
John, you have spent a lot of time researching threats to free societies, including the rise of radical right wing movements in the UK. Why have these movements gained favor across the UK and other western democracies in recent years?
My work on the far right, undertaken in collaboration with Elizabeth Morrow, a postdoctoral fellow here at King’s, and based upon ethnographic research within far right groups, suggests that the rise of far right and radical right groups is about a significant group of mostly white, working class men who feel disenfranchised from and undervalued by mainstream politics and culture. These groups offer those men an opportunity to come together collectively to experience group solidarity and restore their sense of self-worth. Our research suggests that for most activists far right politics isn’t really about politics in the traditional sense of pursuing a strategic goal, such as winning elections, but is more about the ability of these organisations to meet the needs of their members for self-esteem and recognition.
It’s interesting that you emphasise cultural disenfranchisement rather than economic performance as a reason why working class men find radical right wing groups so compelling. Why do you think white working class men have begun to feel so culturally disenfranchised in countries like the US and UK?
The key is probably the interaction of cultural and economic factors. In the UK, traditional manufacturing industries have declined from employing about a third of the workforce in 1970 to employing less than ten per cent today and that has had a dramatic impact on the communities that were once organised around those workplaces. The white, working class men we meet in far right groups believe that the decline of those industries is the result of deliberate decisions by mainstream politicians. They believe that those mainstream politicians don’t care about them, or their communities, but do care about the rights of various minority groups. Whether that analysis is correct or not, there is a strong sense of resentment towards a culture that is seen to denigrate the traditional white working class while valuing and celebrating what are perceived to be minority or alien lifestyles.
Recently you’ve begun working on the subject of totalitarianism. What drew you to this topic? Is it still relevant today?
My work has always been concerned with the free society and its enemies. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I was most concerned with the threat to liberty from the incremental accumulation of seemingly piecemeal regulations and prohibitions introduced by social democratic governments. But in the last few years I’ve become increasingly convinced that social democracy is in fact relatively stable and can be pursued for decades without compromising individual liberty, and that the greater threat to liberty is from extreme political movements and events that can destabilise a political system very quickly. History is littered with very dramatic and unexpected political changes that prove catastrophic for the lives of many people. What happened in Russia in 1917, in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933 is relatively well-known, but there is less popular knowledge of relatively more recent events in Argentina in 1976, in Iran in 1979 or in Turkey just two years ago. I believe it’s incumbent on all of us who believe in liberty to study and try to understand these events.
Drawing on these lessons from the past, what do you think are some of the main threats to liberal democracies today?
I think the past shows us that when freedom dies, it does so first slowly and then quickly. Slowly in terms of the deterioration of the climate of opinion so that liberty is more and more widely seen as secondary to other values, such as equality, security or nationhood, and then quickly in terms of legislative changes that actually take away people’s freedom. There are presently developments in many European countries and in the US that fall into both categories. We are witnessing a rise of ethnic nationalism in many Eastern Europe countries, notably Hungary and Poland. In the UK and US we can see the emergence of economic nationalism. In the second category we might identify moves to restrict the ability of people to live and work in the UK and the US, restrictions on academic freedom in Hungary and Turkey, and the challenge to judicial independence presently ongoing in Poland. Ultimately there is much work to be done to fully understand and combat these threats.
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