The Far-Right: Pathology of Capital

A guest post from Rick Saull, who is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has written on a range of topics from the international relations of revolutions to the Cold War and the geopolitical consequences of the 2008 global economic crisis. More recently he has focused on the international political dimensions of the far-right, co-editing The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (Routledge, 2014) which has just been published, and on which this post draws. He can be contacted here.

The politics of the far-right are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Unlike its historical foe on the left – social democratic or otherwise – which has continued to be characterised by a combination of disintegration and disorientation as it continues to implement neoliberalism, the far-right persists through exercising a toxic but powerful influence on political debate across mature capitalist democracies (and beyond). How are we to make sense of the persistence of the far-right and explain its recent reinvigoration? What analytical framework offers the best, way of explaining the distinct trajectories of far-right currents of politics across different historical periods? This blog post will try to address these questions through outlining an understanding of the contemporary far-right as a pathology of capital best explained through a framework based on an international historical sociology (IHS). Before I do that it makes sense to mention what the main alternative frameworks on the far-right tells us.

The academic discussion of the far-right is dominated by approaches grounded within the mainstream assumptions of bourgeois social science. Thus, it is the methodological nationalism of comparative politics combined with the literature on the history of ideas that are intellectually hegemonic. In the former, the far-right is assessed and compared across different states according to a quantitative grid of electoral performance, voter shares, opinion poll data and definitional attributes centred on ‘Europhobia’, anti-immigration hysteria and ‘welfare nativism’. In the latter, the fetish of definitional taxonomies prevails through the gradations of ‘neo-fascism’, the ‘extreme’, ‘far’, ‘radical’, populist’ and/or ‘reactionary’ right that are dissected via an examination of speeches and pronouncements to gauge the ideological coherence of said party or movement usually related to the core criteria of fascism.

This has resulted in an endless search for an ‘objective’ or ‘minimal’ definition of the far-right – an academic cottage industry in itself – which serves to freeze and simplify the far-right instead of viewing it as an evolving socio-political movement. Further, in spite of the need to treat ideas seriously it has resulted in analytical contortions to the effect that the far-right – in its fascist incarnation at least – can be seen as ‘revolutionary’ phenomena comparable to communism. This can be seen in the way in which the doyens of political science in organizations such as the ‘Extremism and Democracy’ Standing Group of the European Consortium on Political Research appear to mimic the assumptions of Cold War liberalism’s use of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ by treating the ‘extremist threats to democracy’ from the far-left and far-right as part of the same analytical exercise thus blurring their distinct and antagonist dynamics.

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Rendition and Exception in the Carceral Archipelago

Given half the chance
They danced around the truth
For most of my youth
Like you’re really going to jump off that roof
You lived your life
In a perfect paradise
The sun always shone
On your beaches with lies

- Leatherface, ‘Diego Garcia’ (2010)

Diego Garcia US Navy SeaBees

In October 2005, then Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells stood before Parliament and reported that the UK government had granted no requests for extraordinary rendition in any part of British territory or airspace, and was aware of no such use. Critics – who suspected that the UK was indeed complicit in rendition for torture – pressed the point. So in December Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary, explained that “careful research” within government had turned up no evidence of renditions since 9/11 in UK spaces (land, air, or sea) and, again, no requests. The very next day Straw was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and was asked about the possibility of an investigation along similar lines as other EU states. Came the forceful reply:

I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here…I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.

Conspiracies! Dark forces. Lies and secret states, no less. By January 2006, Howells was again reporting to MPs that all relevant Foreign Office records and recollections had been checked, implying that no proof of rendition had been discovered. Two years later David Miliband, who replaced Straw, was forced to admit that two renditions in fact did pass through the island of Diego Garcia in 2002 (Blair, pathetically: “We have just been informed by the United States of America about what has actually happened”). Suspicions were somewhat confirmed, but it was all a long time ago, and there was a change of Prime Minister, and then of government. While rendition-torture didn’t exactly go away, it faded from view. But it has resurfaced. Last month we discovered that some crucial records are incomplete due to ‘water damage’. Because if you have files pertinent to a major foreign policy controversy, why not store them that badly? Never mind that Ministers had previously argued that they wouldn’t be keeping notes anyway, and had to rely on assurances from the Americans (an “error” in US records was the culprit). Kettle logic, again.

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Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part II)

This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here 

wbbuca 013


This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations.  All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.

Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways.  Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages.  Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability.  What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.

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Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part I)


How big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? By one set of measures, it is three times bigger than the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, ten times bigger than either the Apollo Project or the International Space Station or Hurricane Katrina, or one hundred times bigger than the Panama Canal. These comparisons are only moderately outlandish. US$1.45 trillion is the Pentagon’s own December 2010 estimate of lifetime operating and supporting costs for the 2,443 copies of the F-35 currently on order by the United States government, which we can then compare to the known price tags, in 2007 dollars, of these five projects.[i] Costs—also variously prefaced as procurement, actual, sunk, fly-away, upgrade, true and so on—and their contestations are central to a discourse of accountancy that surrounds all projects that require large-scale mobilization of public power. But enormous as they are, these numbers still cannot capture the size of this particular weapons program. To understand just how big the F-35 is, I wish to suggest in this two-part post, we ought to conceive it as a proper assemblage—a heterogeneous association of human and nonhuman elements that is at once split, processual, emergent, and, most importantly, constitutive of the modern international.

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Assessing Ernst Jünger: Prophet, Mystic, Accelerationist

Following on from the two previous posts (here and here), this final entry will conclude the story of Ernst Jünger’s intellectual trajectory from exalted warrior-poet to withdrawn mystic. I will then propose a brief assessment of Jünger’s legacy and contemporary relevance to our present concerns, notably to a putative political accelerationism.

We pick up our story with the entry of Germany into the Second World War and Jünger’s new conscription into military service. Now aged 44, his experience of the war would however be quite different from the one that had so decisively shaped him as a young man. Following the successful French campaign, he would spend most of the war in an administrative posting in Paris where he assiduously frequented the literary and artistic circles, meeting collaborationist figures like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Louis-Ferdinand Céline but also Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. As during the first war, Jünger kept a diary that would eventually be published in 1948 under the title of Strahlungen (“Radiations”). However we encounter within it a markedly different tone, reflective of the different circumstances in which he found himself but also indicative of a retreat from the ideas he had espoused up to the early 1930s. Devoid of much enthusiasm for the war, his writings appear at times almost indifferent to the wider drama playing itself out across Europe but become progressively more somber as the fate of Germany darkens, reports of atrocities in the East filter through, and his eldest son is killed in Italy.[1] Already looking ahead to the end of the conflict, Jünger also worked during the war on an essay called The Peace that proposed a vision of a united federal Europe and was circulated among the internal opposition to Hitler in the Wehrmacht. Several of these figures would be subsequently involved in the failed attempt on the Führer’s life in July 1944, a plot Jünger was seemingly aware of but took no direct part in.


The end of the war would nevertheless see Jünger being called to account for his inter-war writings. Having refused to submit to denazification, he would find himself barred from publishing for four years and he returned to live in the German countryside where he would reside until the end of his life. His remarkable longevity would grant him the opportunity for an abundant literary production, penning novels, essays and diaries ranging from science-fiction and magical realism to early ecological thinking and reflections on his multiple experiences with psychedelics. I will however restrict myself here to discussing Jünger’s immediate post-war writings since we find within them a clear statement of both the continuities and breaks with his prior thinking. Of particular importance is the text that he originally composed in 1950 on the occasion of the Festschrift for Martin Heidegger’s sixtieth birthday, Über die Linie (“Over the Line”).

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Un-Manning; Or, Queering Bradley

Bradley Manning Trans Wig

Private First Class Chelsea (formerly Bradley) E. Manning has serious gender issues. Or so goes the story of the moment. In the wake of her statement, the question of identity (and language) has somewhat displaced that of the conviction and sentence. Another dimension in the smearing of whistleblowers, perchance. A way to denigrate and emasculate her still further, and so to reinforce the patriarchal entitlement of that shining city on the hill. Except that Manning’s sexual personhood is more contested than that.[1]

Navy Captain and psychiatrist David Moulton, according to CBC, testified that Manning’s ‘gender disorder’, amongst other things, “caused him to conclude he could change the world by leaking classified information”. But Moulton was a defence witness. Captain Steven Lim, Manning’s brigade commander, also pointed towards gender trouble, and revealed the existence of the now much-seen photo of Manning in a wig to the Fort Meade court. Again, a defence witness. Manning’s lawyers were forbidden from seeing much of the (non-)evidence against him, thanks to techniques of classification, and this surely influenced their strategy. Since they could not openly contest claims of the most traitorous harm (claims that were in the end unsubstantiated), why not try and reduce the sentence with whatever biographical resources were available? Where gender identity sometimes served as justification for the leaks, at others it was made irrelevant (to wit: “It was never an excuse because that’s not what drove his actions. What drove his actions was a strong moral compass.”). Interviewed today, David Coombs (Manning’s lawyer) again juggled his client’s personhood somewhat unsuccessfully, maintaining both that “we weren’t offering it as an excuse” but also that Manning’s gender explorations were relevant because they “happened at the same time [as the leaks and therefore] that provides context”.

Paradoxically enough, it is at times Republicans who have had to point out the shamefulness of this strategy:

Now that he prepares to stand trial, he has shown himself to be willing to sacrifice honorable gay and lesbian servicemembers to avoid responsibility. Lawyers for Manning are claiming that his struggle with his sexual orientation contributed to emotional problems that should have precluded him from working in a classified environment. This shameful defense is an offense to the tens of thousands of gay servicemembers who served honorably under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We all served under the same law, with the same challenges and struggles. We did not commit treason because of it.

Despite the appeal to homonationalism, there is here an actual defence of LGBTQ identity against perpetual fears of a deviance that cannot be trusted with full equality. Fairly obviously, framings of ‘disorder’ put trans* and genderqueer back in the realm of medical pathology from which they have only just begun to escape. And yet this is not a one-sided story of medical bio-politics. Continue reading

Why I’ll Miss Jean Bethke Elshtain

A short version of a tribute to Jean Bethke Elshtain, who died last Sunday, from Christine Sylvester, Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

She was embraced by feminists for her books on Women and War and Public Man/Private Woman, and then ostracised by the sisterhood for her disapproval of gay marriage and approval of “just” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She would become anathema to peace researchers and sandpaper to scholars of critical IR. Those who liked her early writings in a secular vein would be disappointed when she began to argue from a base in religious philosophies. Jean Bethke Elshtain encapsulated the best hopes of feminists to effect change in core topics of “men’s studies” –International Relations and Religious Studies –and ended up instead on the wrong side of several issues. That’s clear. So let’s ignore her recent death, shall we? Possibly celebrate her end?

Not me. I met Jean at a series of feminist IR conferences held between 1989 and 1993 in the USA, and then shared many a panel with her at the International Studies Association for a few years. Without equivocation, had I not met Jean and found favour in her eyes, I wouldn’t have produced publishable work in my own voice. Jean pulled me aside at one conference, sat me down, and told me to maintain and further develop what she called my “maverick tendencies.” The good Coloradan that she was warned against following the herd as it raced along toward…possibly nothing. My graduate school mentors had been excellent and very encouraging, especially Karen Mingst. I learned much from them, but also resisted some of their good advice once I was out on my own, stubbornly insisting on writing about Zimbabwe and feminist IR –two very different specialisations, both approached in slightly off-centre ways. To Jean, that was the way to go. Permission granted. Years later, in 2001, when she was on an ISA panel discussing my work, along with Cynthia Enloe, Steve Smith, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, she gave me a hard time over what she called my “postmodern avoidances;” by then, Jean was a solid believer in truth. She gave an audience member an even harder time, though, for wilfully misrepresenting my arguments.

Jean the scholar I admired very much. Jean the person behind the scholar astounded me. Her story, of course, appears in an early chapter in Women and War (1987), a book that came out decades before IR recent “new” interest in auto-ethnography. Jean depicts herself as a smart-ass tomboy, a shoot-em-up leader of the cavalry of kids, clearly smarter than everyone around her. But she was decidedly in the pack of youngsters who contracted polio before the vaccine, and who had to suffer the neanderthal treatments available at the time (my cousin was similarly afflicted and spent months in a hideous Iron Lung.) Thereafter, Jean walked with a noticeable limp. I remember the two of us racing like maniacs down the streets of the University of Southern California to get to where we were to speak. That pronounced limp on a shortened leg could not be ignored: I suggested we go slower. She wouldn’t have it. “I can do this,” she said, “not happily or easily, but I can do it.”

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