COVID-19 lockdown measures are opening the door to extremists, not just because people are spending more time on the internet at home, but because of the huge impact lockdowns had on the economy and employment.
Much like the 2008 stock market crash, which facilitated a substantial rise in far-right extremism, lockdown measures impacted low-wage workers the most. This time, however, it has been substantially worse, with Canadian workers earning less than $15 per hour seeing a 52 percent loss in weekly hours. Similarly, in the United Kingdom and Europe, non-university-educated workers were affected the most.
Western economies will be put to the test as they begin to reopen and furlough schemes come to an end, with the very real possibility of higher unemployment and rising poverty on the horizon.
Conventional wisdom tells us that with great economic uncertainty comes a lurch to the far right and studies confirm this. A 2015 paper analyzed average vote share for far-right parties five years before and after economic crises between 1919 and 2014. It found an increase from six to 10 percent.
But is this really the whole picture?
Concern about the far right was echoed by the head of Britain’s counter-extremism commission, Sara Khan. She warned in September that the economic chaos caused by lockdowns will see extremists exploiting uncertainty and mass unemployment for their own gain. A paper published in July makes reference to far-right extremism dozens of times, while referencing far-left extremism only twice.
Khan and the authors of the July paper fall into a trap whereby social media posts made by neo-Nazis and obvious conspiracy theorists are treated with the same level of concern as the future ability of extremists to radicalize and recruit based on economic uncertainty. The paper references research that found “hundreds of thousands of Far Right posts around COVID-19 and millions of engagements with known disinformation sites.”
It’s flawed in many ways, conflating conspiracy theory with established fact. While Bill Gates certainly isn’t plotting to control the world through vaccines and microchips, George Soros is funding far-left groups through his Open Society Foundations.
Far-left activists and politicians are recruiting and radicalizing in the same way far-right groups did back in the 2008 crash: by feeding on poverty, unemployment and economic uncertainty. In some instances, moderate leftists are bowing to pressure from far-left radicals and using their established credibility to advance radical ideas and promote total economic restructuring.
While more nuanced and complex than typical far-right narratives, far-left economic initiatives – and social policies that tend to come along with them – are just as dangerous.
In May, United States Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said that he saw the pandemic as an “incredible opportunity to not just dig out of this crisis, but to fundamentally transform this country.”
That same month, Biden appointed a former economic adviser to Bernie Sanders, Stephanie Kelton, to his campaign. Kelton advocates the modern monetary theory – which relies heavily on quantitative easing – and said in June that the economic system was “key to post-COVID economic recovery.”
In July, the New York Times published a manifesto entitled The Economy We Need, which conflated economic issues with the ongoing racial justice campaign pushed by Black Lives Matter. The manifesto recommended eliminating banking fees for black customers, providing interest-free loans to black-owned businesses and cancelling consumer debt for black customers.
What’s more, in a document intended for circulation internally at Extinction Rebellion, organizer Rupert Read wrote that the COVID pandemic was a “huge opportunity for XR” and that “it is essential that we do not let this crisis go to waste.”
Read argued that the virus may overwhelm some healthcare systems, and “ill and old people especially will not be able to get it [medical treatment], and some/many of them will die.” Read also said that the economic impact of the virus will put a strain on the capitalist and “vulnerable” just-in-time systems of trade.
Both Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have seen supporters more emboldened than ever, taking to the streets in record numbers even during this pandemic. If anything, the vulnerability of the economic system and politics generally has seen a wave of left-wing activism that, even to leftists and liberals, is repugnant, oafish and divisive.
With so many people facing the prospect of losing their job – if they haven’t already – and with radical activists looking to exploit uncertainty for their goals, surely now is the time to stop the partisanship and address extremism on all sides with equal vigour.
Far-right radicalization is real, but a failure to address left-wing radicalism and opportunism will only lead to more anger and division.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy.