People forget, but Britain First gained its initial traction as an animal charity. As the BNP broke up, around 2011, party leader Paul Golding employed an Ulsterman called Jim Dowson to handle his web content. Dowson was a grifter more than he was an ideologue — he had once set up an entirely fictional charity that raised £130,000 for ‘victims of The Troubles’ — so, with his keen understanding of human psychology, he made posts with pictures of flayed cats and loping dogs in miserable bondage, telling browsers: LIKE THIS POST IF YOU BELIEVE THESE CAGES ARE A DISGRACE. The algorithm did the rest. By 2014, Britain First had quietly become massive on Facebook, with over 300,000 subscribers.
There are many ways to skin a cat (though, as established, Britain First are firmly against cat-skinning). Any telesales executive knows that if you can have a conversation with people about what’s important to them, soon enough you get to talk about what’s important to you.
As the virus becomes the new hinge of broader political polarisations, various fringe actors have spotted a chance to expand their audience, hoping to turn our crisis into their opportunity. And while some commentators are hoping to revisit the 1930s in the form of FDR’s New Deal, there are others who wish to rehabilitate a very different vision of that decade. In America, a coalition of the strange, the merely esoteric and the truly nutso have interleaved themselves into the movement to end the lockdowns, and are now trying to blend in with the crowd.
Patriot Prayer, the Trump-loving nationalist street rabble, have been fighting running battles with Antifa in downtown Portland for almost three years. The clashes have become a spectacle in themselves — the point at which the online hysteria of the culture wars congeals into flesh and baseball bats and teargas.
Now, they organise their own anti-lockdown protests via a website called ‘Non Essential Help’, suggest other personal acts of defiance — like mowing the lawn or having a haircut — and promote businesses who defy the lockdown:
“Come support Glamour Salon is Salem today!!! Owner was courageous enough to open and defying all the threats and illegal orders by this government. Will be here all day until 6pm. BBQ and Music!”
And then there’s the Proud Boys, a group set up in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, the VICE founder. He envisaged them as a ‘Western supremacist’ men’s fraternity group — one that would stand up for what he saw as the values of the Enlightenment, and oppose postmodern Left-wing narratives, with force if necessary. “Violence solves everything!”, as McInnes once put it, his tongue only half in his cheek.
Like Patriot Prayer, the Boys are veterans of the Portland Wars, though they have a national presence too. With their distinctive black-and-yellow Fred Perry shirts, the Boys have lately made themselves regulars at anti-lockdown protests. Given that most organisers are Tea Party Republicans, their presence has lead to tensions. At the Michigan Town Hall protests — the largest and most successful of the initial wave — the organisers apparently asked for them to be removed. But they in turn form a buffer against stronger tack — there are reports of Proud Boys chucking out neo-Nazi groups at Open Ohio.
It’s not immediately clear where they would chuck Ammon Bundy. Bundy is most notorious for his 41-day armed militia standoff with law enforcement in an Oregon national park in 2016, but now he too has re-emerged as an anti-lockdown advocate. In late April he led a demonstration outside the home of a policeman who had arrested an anti-vaxxer mother for her anti-lockdown ‘playdate protest’. He then put on a church service for 1,300 people in Louisiana.
Bundy is America’s leading advocate of an obscure legal doctrine, posse comitatus, which has become tangled up with the militia movement and far-Right thought. Posse comitatus’ adherents believe that local sheriffs are the final constitutional arbiters of American law. Over the past decade, they’ve fought a proxy war against central government itself by advocating for the right of sheriffs to decide, most famously in the case of the Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned by Trump for ‘racial profiling’.
In the legal landscape thrown up by Covid-19, sheriffs suddenly have great latitude to decide the future of the country by indicating how harshly they will enforce lockdowns. Many of them are flexing that new political muscle. Last week Adam Fortney, the sheriff of the county that had the first Covid-19 case in the US, refused to implement the stay-at-home order. Others have followed.
Some, though, aren’t in the mood to blend in. The neo-Nazis who frequent Andrew Anglin’s Stormfront forums are finally seeing signs of the end times everywhere, and it’s stoking their appetite for Accelerationism. Once a vague notion, Accelerationism has grown into a defined creed over the past decade. In brief, it’s the idea that the present neoliberal social order needs to be subjected to just one final heave-ho before it crumbles, so that a new fascism can pour through into the vacuum.
Accelerationism’s defining document is a novel. The Turner Diaries is a sort of neo-Nazi Fifty Shades Of Grey — in that it is exceedingly low in literary merit, and exceedingly high in wank fantasy. In it, author William Luther Pierce (writing as ‘Andrew McDonald’), sketches a sci-fi 2099, where the guns are taken from Americans under ‘The Cohen Act’, and so Turner and his fellow insurgents wage and win a bloody global race war.
Mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh was a big fan, and almost every far Right terrorist since has fallen under its spell: the Admiral Duncan nail bomber, David Copeland; the white nationalists who assassinated the liberal talk radio DJ Alan Berg in 1984; the Christchurch mosque shooter, Brenton Tarrant. Anders Breivik’s manifesto planned to foment a European civil war in three stages, ending in 2083 with “the execution of cultural Marxists and the deportation of Muslims”.
Locked down in their Telegram silos, suggested Accelerationist schemes have ranged from deliberately spreading the virus through aircon units, to stoking panic by aimlessly firing off guns in downtown areas. As ever, it’s tricky to tell who is a mere fantasist, who is actively joking, and who is in criminal earnest.
But as ever, law enforcement will still have to make those calls: on March 24 of this year, in Kansas City, a 36-year-old white supremacist called Timothy Wilson was shot dead by the FBI. He was apparently in the final stages of a plot to blow up a hospital that was caring for Covid-19 patients.
As Simon Lindberg, leader of the Nordic Resistance Movement, puts it:
“[Covid-19] might be precisely what we need in order to bring about a real national uprising and a strengthening of revolutionary political forces… We cannot build a society lasting thousands of years into the future on the rotten foundations of today. We must build it upon the ruins of their creation.”
Of course, Accelerationism isn’t solely a far Right idea, and there are leftist, as well as reactionary and other ‘anti-liberal’ forms. Left-Accelerationism has its roots in a reading of Marx’s statement that capitalism will collapse under its own contradictions as an instruction more than a prophecy. The system is destroying itself already — so vote Trump not Hilary, and save four years on inevitable Armageddon.
But both theories are determined by the black swan that comes along, and this is not a classic ‘crisis of capitalism’, so much as it is a crisis of capitalism’s absence, with a central logic of fear of the other and survivalism. While the banking crisis of 2008 naturally slanted Left, on Covid’s terms, so far it is the far Right who have been rubbing their hands with most glee. It’s a crazy-mixed up world, but some of us are just trying to make it even crazier and more mixed-up, till it finally bursts, like a bug on a windscreen.