Matthew Collins was a teenage fascist who became disillusioned and decided to quit the scene. That?s not so unusual. Agreeing to work undercover as a mole for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight is. His new book, Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (Biteback, 2011), chronicles his journey in and out of the world of far-right extremism.
The book has much to teach us about three dynamics of radicalization in Europe: an environment of vulnerability that gives extremism its chance, a transformational encounter with extremists on the prowl, and a legitimating ideology or ?frame? that constructs frustration as violation.
The Environment of Vulnerability
Extremism is functional. Explaining the success of seventeenth-century Puritanism in England, the British historian Christopher Hill pointed out that while ?ideas were all-important for the individuals whom they impelled into action…the historian must attach equal importance to the circumstances that gave these ideas their chance.? The circumstances that gave fascism a chance with Matthew Collins were nothing special. He can?t remember a time when he wasn?t angry. Always poor, confused about his mixed Irish-English ancestry, frightened by rapid social and cultural change, and craving the love of his absent father (?I have no recollection of my father ever living with us?), he sought out targets for his frustration from an early age. ?I just thought that no one gave a toss about me because of my colour or class, least of all some trendy overpaid bastard teachers with lefty stickers on stupid satchels.? Looking back at his former self, he sees only ?a badly let down teenager who blamed everyone else for his failings.?
The Social Network
Extremism is relational. An individual?s ?fire? of vulnerability meets its ?oxygen? in a transformational encounter with an extremist recruiter. A conflagration results, as recruit and recruiter coauthor a ?project of radicalisation,? which?though we find this hard to accept?for a time serves the needs of both parties.
The recruiters are always on the prowl. When they spot vulnerability, they labor to work it up into extremism. They separate the recruit from the religion and family of their childhood (?I could not have been further removed from reality, from my family, former friends and from society?), they reattach the individual to a new worldview and a new identity (?I am a National Socialist, I am a white Aryan, part of the master race,? Collins reminds himself at one point), and they provide, for a time at least, all that is missing?security and clarity, belonging and identity, even glamour and glory. (A few years older and a lot wiser, Collins came to see that ?My only friends were all fucking mad.?)
In Collins?s case, the transformational encounter began when a copy of the British National Party newspaper, British Nationalist, dropped through his door. ?I pored over the articles in awe,? he writes (they included the obituary of Rudolf Hess). Collins?s next, brutally honest lines contain the mystery of radicalization.
My body trembled as I held it in my hands and read every inch of its pages. This spoke to me, this said so much without actually making any real sense to me. It made me feel small and, at the same time, the more I looked at it, the more obvious it was that this was my calling.
Inside the social network of the National Front and the BNP, Collins writes, ?I was having a good time to be honest.? For a while, he felt ?stunningly important.? He had found ?the most magnificent drinking club in the world? and decided that ?every other person in my life could go and fuck themselves.? He even found an older man who would listen to him for hours, ?sincerely warm and encouraging,? and ?the most generous person I?d ever met? (this was the neo-Nazi Holocaust denier Richard Edmunds). Collins felt he?d fallen in with ?the best and most terrifying group of friends a man could want? and that he was among ?the last exciting and dangerous men in the world.?
A Motivating and Legitimating Ideology
Extremism makes meaning. Al Qaeda expert Jason Burke points out that the job of the recruiter is to explain to the recruit ?why all the ?bad things happened.?? Social movement theorists calls this ?diagnostic framing??the act of defining the problem and assigning the blame. That last point is critical. As radicalization expert Marc Sageman has written, extremism only happens when frustrations are ?interpreted in a particular way, as violations.? And that is the job of the extremist ideology.
Matthew Collins seems to have been searching for ways to interpret his frustrations as violations since he was a child. He’d ?been at the back of every queue? (the frustration) but when he encountered the National Front and British National Party he could ?blame it on the idea that we?ve been swamped by worthless, lazy immigrants? (the violation). The ideas of these fascists ?appear[ed] to be the last plausible answer to everything that is shit about life.? Collins found ?the solutions to [his] sufferings and insecurities were properly explained? and he had hope: ?when our time came, this green and pleasant England would be ours again.? In place of frustration, ?finally I felt I had a life with purpose.?
(For reasons of space, I will not touch on his subsequent disillusionment and his work as a mole for the anti-fascists.)
This book should make it into every school library in Europe. It?s readable, with a nice line in industrial humor and self-deprecation (?It was hardly James Bond material,? he writes of his years as a spy for Searchlight, ?a little more like Austin Powers to be honest.?), so it could easily help youngsters tempted by racism and fascism and make them think twice. Not least because it deglamorizes extremism. Collins lays bare his ?stupid life? back then. ?We?d been making plans for world domination from the very fringes of society,? he writes, ?among the ashtrays and urinals of council estate pubs.? He introduces us to ?the Nazi constants of alcohol abuse and violence? and to vile self-dehumanizing racism. He lets us see the black women who are beaten senseless, as well as the obsession with pornography that circulates among these ?perpetually single men? of the master race.
He has a (frustratingly brief) analysis of the rise of the far Right. He gives the star role to the Labour Party?s ?ongoing dislocation from the working class, particularly in England? and the related rise of ?identity politics [that has] replaced class politics.?
And the book carries a warning: ?Those arguments I had with myself all those years ago about who I am and where did I belong, are now almost like a national obsession.? As ?identity and religion has almost totally replaced class in the minds of everyone,? and as the English working class has become ?obsessed? about ?its own dislocation in the UK,? there is a danger of an ?explosion of identity politics from groups like the English Defence League??a violent anti-Muslim group.
Collins rightly worries that few politicians are speaking to the angry and vulnerable working class. ?Because they?re working class, because they are overwhelmingly white and from the football terraces,? he writes, ?it?s almost as if no one wants to tackle their message head-on.?
Matthew Collins is now employed by Searchlight and is one of the most effective speakers and outreach workers for its campaign ?Hope not Hate.? I put his book down thinking I?d like to buy him a drink. If I can borrow the phrase, he has not come back from hell empty-handed. And that is no small feat.