By Jordan Auburn
On Wednesday 26th July 2017, The Henry Jackson Society welcomed Jamie Bartlett, Director of The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media for Demos, at an event chaired by HJS Research Fellow Tom Wilson. Mr Bartlett spent an hour discussing his new book Radicals, in which he chronicles his experiences with several of the world’s ‘outsiders’ – those who claim to have identified society’s problems, as well as their methods for fixing it.
Mr Bartlett begun by noting that, given the historically low level of trust the public has for politicians, something was always going to give. It was argued that history instantiates the possibility for fringe movements, given the necessary context, to become mainstream. Having spent the past few years embedded into some of the most prominent fringe movements in Britain, Mr. Bartlett offered a distinctly personal account of their methods, strengths and weaknesses.
To begin, Mr. Bartlett discussed the ‘Radical Right’. The term ‘radical’ was preferred over ‘extremist’ to avoid the overly loaded connotations of the latter. Since its formation in 2007, the English Defence League (EDL) had been led by the infamously divisive figure, Tommy Robinson. In 2015, Mr. Robinson made public his intention to found a ‘new’ EDL, free from the debilitating, alcohol-fuelled thuggery common to segments of the street protest group. Mr. Robinson’s intention was to replicate the model of Pegida, the German anti-Islamic group.
Having travelled with Mr. Robinson through parts of this journey, Mr. Bartlett is admitting of its partial success. However, while Mr. Robinson’s new movement was peaceful, it lacked a key ingredient: sheer support in numbers. The drinking, fighting and chanting, Mr. Bartlett found, were essential components to the EDL’s winning formula. This speaks to a broader reality about why people join such movements: they want to amalgamate social events with the feeling that, as a small vanguard, they are defending western civilisation. Nevertheless, Mr. Bartlett sees these movements, perhaps even those associated with the ‘far-right’, as unlikely to disappear – after all, the concerns they voice are not entirely fringe, but, rather, written about regularly in respectable news outlets.
Radical Environmentalism is, according to Mr. Bartlett, also increasing in relevance. Radical environmentalism was broadly defined as a collective, militant effort to use Direct Action to shut down industrial projects. Members of the movement benefit from a base of moral legitimacy, and are motivated by an absence of trust in formal politics. The Earth Liberation Front, an offshoot off Earth First!, are an infamous example of the resurgence of environmentalism. However, they, and groups like them, suffer from a lack of inclusivity. This is ironic, for their ideology strives to attain inclusivity, and in turn reflect the British consensus. However, their PR problem – many of us have likely heard them described as ‘just a little bit weird’ – continues to restrict their growth. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that the emergence of the anti-fracking lobby, which is formed (and persistently motivated) by local interests, could rejuvenate the movement, making radical environmentalism as big of a worry to the political authorities in five years as the Radical Right are today.
A particularly fringe (and long-term-oriented) group of radicals were described by Mr. Bartlett as the Transhumanists. These people intend to use science and technologically to radically change what it means to be human. Mr. Bartlett spoke of his experience journeying America with ‘Zoltan’, a transhumanist who stood for election, as an independent, in the 2017 Presidential Election. Travelling on the ‘Immortality Bus’, Mr. Bartlett described the strange dynamic whereby the journalists, intrigued as much as bemused, served to create the very trans-humanism they were writing about. In short, the sheer journalistic presence was sufficient to create public interest, which in turn increased journalistic interest, and so on. Though Zoltan – and other Transhumanist groups – have no realistic ambitions of winning office, such events help to afford fringe movements mainstream attention. Given their advocacy of life extension technology, or Artificial Intelligence which could transform the human experience, these movements have something valuable to tell us.