While this article is not about the extreme right’s responses to COVID-19, thinking about this issue briefly does give us a clear example of what it does focus on: the groupuscular dynamics of the extreme right. Across the globe, myriad extreme-right organizations have been finding ways to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis, from arguing it is a product of Chinese communism to claiming it reveals the inherent weaknesses of liberal democracy to using it as the basis for “proving” conspiracy theories.
In Britain alone, there is already a spectrum of responses, each created separately but also forming, in a way, a collective, extreme-right stance. For example, Nick Griffin has tweeted his strident opposition to the lockdown, and the British National Socialist Movement has been uploading fascist memes to its Telegram page, including one arguing the Nazi salute is the most hygienic form of greeting during this health crisis.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, has created a video where he confronts a group of men of color after they allegedly coughed at an elderly white couple. There has also been a rise in conspiracy theories alleging that the 5G networks are really responsible for the coronavirus, as espoused by groups such as the Hundred Handers.
Hate in the Time of Coronavirus
The manner in which these and many other nodes within the extreme-right space are making politics separately but around a common theme during this crisis is illustrative of groupuscular dynamics. But what does such an obscure terminology really mean? In sum, this represents a conceptual approach that highlights that the extreme right is not a single entity but rather is a highly diverse, polycratic movement set across countless small organizations, or groupuscules.
The terms groupuscule (a small group), groupuscules (a number of small groups) and groupuscular (a dynamic created by small groups) entered into the conceptual toolbox of researchers around 20 years ago. The terms drew on the French word groupuscule, or small political group, and were given greater conceptual focus by Roger Griffin and Jeffrey Bale, among others. They have become a frequent, albeit at times awkward, aspect of the analytical language of extreme-right studies. This language remains useful for thinking about the peculiar dynamics of the extreme right today and in the future.
In 2004, Roger Griffin explained, in an article for the German journal Erwägen Wissen Ethik, that since the end of the Second World War, fascism had adapted. It was akin to slime mold, “a slug-like entity that forms from countless single cells in … conditions of extreme damp … [t]hough it has no central nervous system, it has the mysterious property of forming a brainless, eyeless super-organism that somehow moves purposefully like a mollusc animated by a single consciousness.”
Unpacking this obscure metaphor, Griffin stressed before the Second World War, fascists had been able to generate enough support to become large, impactful organizations, while after 1945, most remained tiny, fragmented, yet in some ways also able to act collectively. While much more marginal, fascists and the wider extreme right had found ways to modify their organizations after 1945 and collectively were more significant than the sum of their parts.
In other articles, Griffin expanded further. In 1999, he developed the concept in a study of the tiny French organization, the Groupe d’Union et de Défense (GDU). Here, he stressed that, though the GDU was tiny, it was crucial to understand the role of this groupuscule in the “circuit board” of the wider French extreme right, which was able to function in a more potent way due to the GDU’s presence. In another article from 2003, Griffin defined groupuscules as a “small political (frequently meta-political, but never primarily party-political) entities formed to pursue palingenetic (i.e. revolutionary) ideological, organizational or activist ends with an ultimate goal of overcoming the decadence of the existing liberal democratic system.”
This key article set out some further definitional features. It distinguished between “monocratic” and “polycratic” movements, highlighting the extreme right was usually polycratic in nature. Monocratic movements were cohesive and relatively coherent phenomena, while polycratic movements were much more diverse, made up of many competing and contrary parts and so lacked clear, singular leadership.
To help flesh out the theme, he reflected on the distinction set out by poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari between arboreal and rhizomic structures. Arboreal structures resemble trees, with a taproot, a main trunk and smaller branches reaching out to form a wider canopy. In a way, mass political parties chime with this dynamic. Rhizomic structures are true grassroots networks and lack a single taproot. They form messy, tangled networks, lacking clear beginnings and ends, like the roots of grass.
For Griffin, this distinction was crucial. Monocratic, arboreal organizations could emerge from rhizomic, groupuscular networks. For example, in interwar Germany, the NSDAP was a singular (monocratic, arboreal) mass party that grew from the more amorphous (polycratic, rhizomic) Völkish movement. The extreme-right networks that developed after the Second World War that have been far more marginalized have remained largely rhizomic. They not only lack a strong, singular organizational structure but also some at least thrive without this.
In the early 2000s, networks such as the neo-Nazi Blood & Honour movement exemplified the tendency. Set across multiple discrete groups and found in many European countries as well as developing competing divisions in America, Blood & Honour epitomized the decentralized, rhizomic, polycratic nature of much of the extreme right. The Christian Identity movement was another clear case in point for Griffin. Again, this was a movement set across a range of “churches,” each with differing interpretations of the Christian Identity faith.
Other scholars picked up on Griffin’s core assertions. Jeffrey Bale highlighted there could be four central characteristics that extreme-right groupuscules developed: political parties, as they sought wider support; pressure groups, as they could attempt to influence the political process using direct action; terrorist organizations, as they were political and violent; and armies, as they incorporated paramilitary aspects and drew on a culture of discipline. Bale stressed that groupuscular cultures were not static either and changed dramatically over time. Individual organizations came and went, but the groupuscular dynamic meant the movement could adapt to changing conductions to survive.
Bonnie Berstow focused on the Canadian organization the Heritage Front, which she argued developed over time into an increasingly groupuscular structure, moving away from being a larger more arboreal style organization. She noted how it could find advantages by adapting to a smaller size. This allowed its political messages to become more ambiguous, incorporating a range of seemingly incompatible views, from the endorsement of Christian Identity ideas to the promotion of the anti-Christian World Church of the Creator. She also argued being smaller helped it outmaneuver attempts by the state and antifascists to limit its activities.
Picking up on this theme of the benefits of groupuscularity, Fabien Virchow studied the German Freie Kameradschaften movement through this type of conceptual modeling. Focusing on Aktionsbüro Norddeutschland, he stressed that the rhizomic nature of this movement allowed it to develop a range of cells that could offer different ideas to different audiences, from elements steeped in the ideas of Julius Evola to others based around white-power music. The network could develop different components that could attract people from different classes and ages. Moreover, because it was not grounded in a single arboreal structure, if one small element disbanded, there were always other places for those attracted to the movement to go. And finally, he concluded that “the fact that the movement consists of a great number of mostly small or even virtual groups with little or no formal hierarchy or rigid organizational matrix makes it practically unbannable.”
To highlight just some of the others who have used the framework since these early discussions, Graham Macklin has drawn on the concept to explore the ideas and networks developed by Troy Southgate. Kevin Coogan used the terms for assessing the history of the early postwar fascist group the European Liberation Front. Mari-Liis Madisson and Andreas Ventsel have drawn on this vocabulary to critically assess Estonian extreme right groups, and Markus Mathyl has developed the terminology to examine the dynamics of Russian organizations such as the National Bolshevik Party.
What helps to unite all these and other critical engagements with the groupuscular dynamics of the extreme right is stressing the point that understanding these small groups and their networks is vital. Individually, they may be tiny and of little consequence, but many seemingly insignificant groups interact and work collectively to create, maintain and develop anew the overall extreme-right milieu. Groupuscules are not trying to be mass parties or large organizations and instead revel in the amorphous dynamics found within the networks their collective activities generate. They are often savvy to the benefits of being small, even unnoticed. Their importance usually only becomes more obvious when such small groups — perhaps with just a handful of activists — pose a clear security threat.
In his article from 2003, Griffin concluded that in the future the extreme right could become ever more entrenched through rhizomic networks of small groups. Each would advocate its own variant of cultural, racial or national “purity,” while collectively they would attack the liberal, global order. For Griffin, this “dark matter” on the fringes of liberal democracy would mean “the centre of gravity of western democracies stays firmly on the right, an invisible counterweight to visions of a shared humanity and social justice for all.”
This seems a fairly accurate projection of the ways extreme right networks have developed. These now include, among others, counter-jihad activists, the neo-Nazi extreme right, the more ambiguous and amorphous alt-right, its less extreme variant the alt-light, the more philosophical Traditionalists and wider variants of Identiarians. Each is spread across various organizations and has developed complex networks using online tools. Whether the coronavirus crisis can provide opportunities for any of these overlapping polycratic networks to generate groups that can move beyond the rhizomic fringes of being groupuscular and develop a larger arboreal presence remains to be seen.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.