A reader recently brought to my attention the fact that a NSW government program called ‘Step Together’ has recommended that The Kids™ obtain illumination about the dangers posed by ‘Far Left Extremism’ by Reading All About It! on a website called Rise2Peace (R2P). According to Step Together, the R2P article provides a ‘[d]eeper discussion of just one of the extremist groups who have been known to use violence’. According to R2P (TLDR): a) ‘far left extremism’ is a form of terrorism based on Marxist principles; b) one of the more active of these extremist groupings (in the contemporary United States) is ANTIFA and; c) ANTIFA, like the anti-fascist movement as a whole, ‘is violent and threatening to society at large’.
Sounds terrible, Muriel.
In any case, this is an interesting perspective for the NSW government to seemingly endorse — and, certainly, to finance the promotion of — but I have a few quibbles, which I’ll outline below. But first, let’s take a walk.
Step Together is a project of the NSW government, initiated in 2017 and describing itself as ‘a helpline & online service to help you find the support and information you need if you’re worried that someone you care about may be trying to effect political or social change through violence, also called ‘violent extremism’’.
According to the Deputy Secretary, Strategy Police and Commissioning, Department of Communities and Justice — appearing on March 4, 2020 at a legal affairs committee hearing for an examination of proposed expenditure for the portfolio area of counter terrorism and corrections — the helpline had to that date:
… provided 2,400 telephone and web chat counselling contacts and [received] 145,000 hits on the website. We know the hits on the website come from international [visitors] as well as across Australia and New South Wales. This is a leading program and is being looked at by all the other States and Territories and the Commonwealth as a forerunner in this space because what it does is provide support to families who are concerned about a family member who may be being radicalised or caseworkers and counsellors in the community who are also concerned and need support. What we know is that these people ring and then they ring back, often to get follow-up support and advice. That is having a considerable impact.
The figure of 2,400 is a considerable advance on that initially reported after the program’s launch in June 2017, when:
… it had only received “around five phone calls” in the two months since its launch. One source, who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity, said: “It costs millions, but only a few people have called it. One call was a wrong number, the other was a parent worried their kid was dating a Muslim.”
The helpline itself is operated by a private company and registered charity called ‘On the Line’, ‘a national provider of some of Australia’s most vital and trusted services including MensLine Australia, Suicide Call Back Service and SuicideLine (Victoria)’. In its last annual report for FY2018–2019, the chairperson of On the Line declared:
Exciting times! On the Line is now in the third year of its market-oriented strategic transformation, and our attention has been on growing revenue to ensure our long-term sustainability, and position our organisation for the future. We continue to outstrip our annual performance targets and deliver on our strategic objectives.
For their part, the charitable company’s CEO was happy to report that: ‘Our corporate brand awareness of 36% (target 30%) demonstrates that current and potential Government and commercial funders know who we are, and understand the value of the outsourced telephone and online counselling services On the Line deliver’.
‘Online’ had a total declared income for the year of $13,365,541.00, 96.01% of which was derived from government grants.
According to Anthony Roberts, Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections (speaking at a previous committee hearing on September 9, 2019), the NSW government’s ‘$47 million countering violent extremism package has had $21 million towards supporting schools, $10 million in community grants [and] $6.5 million to design and develop the very successful Step Together helpline’.
In that hearing, reference is also made to CAPE, a project of ‘All Together Now’, which ‘educates Australians about racism’ by ‘imagining and delivering innovative and evidence based projects that promote racial equity’:
All Together Now’s ground-breaking Community Action for Preventing Extremism (CAPE) project, formerly known as Exit White Power [2012–2014], was established in 2012 to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of young people who are attracted to white nationalism and white supremacy. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and remains the only project of its kind in Australia.
(Note: there exists a similar program called EXIT Australia.) All Together Now was founded by Priscilla Brice-Weller, who previously worked in investment banking, in 2012. While being committed to racial equity, Brice-Weller is unconvinced of the political utility of counter-protesting events like Reclaim Australia rallies, writing in November 2015 that:
So, you may ask, if I’m not protesting then what am I doing to prevent racism? Instead of attending the protest in Sydney last weekend, I spent my weekend studying. I’ve been awarded a full scholarship to study an MBA. Studying business is giving me the privilege and opportunity to address interpersonal and systemic racism from another perspective. That is, I believe that social change comes through strategic thinking, effective leadership, and academic evidence, not through violent protest. My MBA studies are enabling me to work in this way.
This strategic thinking, effective leadership, and academic evidence presumably informs the approach of CAPE to countering racism and the ‘violent extremism’ of protest movements like Reclaim Australia (and, one assumes, its ‘violent’ opposition: ‘at least one person was arrested after allegedly writing graffiti on a memorial, New South Wales police said’). According to answers tendered in response to questions put to The Hon. Anthony Roberts at a budget estimates hearing in September–October 2019, this theoretical work is also supplemented by financial support. Thus:
Community Action for Preventing Extremism (CAPE) NSW was allocated $750,000 over four years. The project provides training for frontline workers across the state and creates a network of youth leaders who can counter far-right narratives in online conversations. Frontline workers who live in NSW and work with young people are eligible for a full-day of training. Training includes knowledge about far-right extremism, communication skills, skills supporting young people with complex needs and building networks and relationships. It includes updates and ongoing support from staff.
As to the impact of Step Together and CAPE, with regards the former, a review (NSW Countering Violent Extremism Program Evaluation, October 2019) undertaken by ACIL Allen Consulting concluded that evidence is ‘relatively limited as there were no outcomes data available’. Further, ‘[q]ualitative feedback indicates that the support line has achieved service uptake among its target audience. However, many of the contacts through the support line or webchat fall out of the scope of the service and are referred on to other options.’ With regards CAPE and its predecessor Exit White Power, Brice-Weller contributed ‘Challenging the Far-Right in Australia’ to The Far-Right in Contemporary Australia (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2019). From what I can gather, Exit White Power met with fairly limited success (hence ‘of the five people who responded to [a] survey [of its Facebook page], three reported they had benefited from hearing other views and perspectives’), while the precise impact of CAPE is uncertain and requires further research funding in order to determine.
Rise2Peace (R2P) was launched by graduate student Ahmad Mohibi in Washington, DC in late 2016. Like umpteen other QUANGOS, its initial efforts appear to have been aimed at developing and implementing strategies intended to limit the appeal of ‘Muslim extremism’, in this instance especially in places like Afghanistan. But the remit to ‘counter extremism’ has obviously extended beyond this into ‘right’ and ‘left’. Hence, the publication of two blogposts (one referred to above) analysing ‘far left extremism’.
The first cab off the rank in the ‘Extremism Assessment Series’ is titled ‘Far-Left Extremism’ (August 1, 2019), while the second is All About ‘Antifascist Action (ANTIFA)’ (July 24, 2019). The contents of the articles are rendered somewhat difficult to assess given that they abound with inaccuracies and are frequently incoherent. (Indeed, they read rather like undergraduate essays hurriedly composed the night before deadline.) In which case — and given that there are surely better-quality and more relevant analyses provided by less-obscure outlets — it kinda begs the question why Step Together would select this blogpost in particular to promote, especially to an Australian audience, and one presumably vulnerable to the appeal of the far left and anti-fascism.
The assessment makes a number of central claims:
1) Based on Marxist principles – left wing extremists believe that the working class should revolt against those in power; [c]an often be classified as “antifascist”.
• ‘Far-left extremism’ is undefined, but would presumably be able to be distinguished from, say, ‘far-left moderation’, though the employment of the term ‘far’ already implies some proximity to the outer limits of acceptable political discourse (and ah, praxis).
• My understanding of ‘Marxist principles’ — which is alleged to form the basis of ‘far-left extremism’ — is derived from Marxist thought, about which I understand a number of things have been published over the course of the last 150 years or so, not least by Karl and his mate Friedrich.
• Leaving aside the fact that specifically ‘Marxist’ principles are only one of several points of reference on the (extreme/far/extra-parliamentary) left, the proposal that workers can and indeed should revolt against those who dominate and exploit them — rather than, say, submit to these depredations — is one that’s accepted by divers political actors, though it can be asserted (and indeed in this instance is) that such resistance is constitutive of ‘far left extremism’.
• While Teh Left opposes ‘fascism’, left perspectives on the utility of ‘anti-fascism’ vary considerably.
2) One of the major goals of left-wing terrorism is the creation of a “utopian” society[.]
Is it though? As a general rule, acts of terror generally have more specific aims, and left-wing terrorism in particular. Certainly, few claim to be motivated by a desire to go no-where. (See also : The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde, 1891.)
3) There is absolutely no religious facet of leftist ideology[.]
Again — really? Presumably, along with collapsing the distinction between leftist ideology and far-left extremism, the author is simply ignorant of the long history of religiously-motivated leftism, and the long and complex history of left engagement with religion. TLDR : ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’
4) One of their biggest tactics is “provocation” – provoking those in power to overreact in order to garner more sympathy and members[.]
Uh-huh. So when Gaetano Bresci assassinated Umberto I in 1900, it wasn’t in retaliation for the Bava Beccaris massacre, it was because he wanted the Italian state to ‘over-react’? When Russian anarchists bombed Bolshevik headquarters in 1919, it wasn’t in retaliation for arrests and raids, it was so that more workers would join their circles? When Sholom Schwarzbard shot dead Szymon Petliura in 1926, it wasn’t Petliura’s orchestration of pogroms that motivated him, it was because Schwarzbard wanted the (non-existent) Ukrainian People’s Republic to unleash hell in the expectation that others would then want to join his (non-existent) group? When a smol group of left-wing activists hijacked a plane in 1961 to rain anti-Salazar pamphlets over the districts of Setúbal, Barreiro, Beja and Faro in Portugal, what they really wanted was to compel the dictator to close the libraries? When the ETA turned Admiral Carrero Blanco into Spain’s first astronaut in 1973, was it because they wanted the Spanish Navy to turn its guns on Donostia? When the Provos blew up the Brighton Hotel in 1984, they didn’t want to kill Margaret Thatcher, they just wanted to make her mad?
And so on and so forth.
In reality, to the extent that they’re rational political actors, the tactics applied by left-wing terrorists are a function of their strategy, which in turn is determined by their goals, the context in which these are being pursued, and their underlying political commitments. The notion of provocation — of enticing authorities into unleashing such a degree of violence and repression that it triggers a more generalised revolt — is one that some have entertained, but there’s no consensus on its utility, some rejecting it on principle and others because it’s thought to be counter-productive, and there are better ways of sparking such confrontations. It’s also an accusation that’s not infrequently leveled at the victims of state violence and/or as a post-facto justification for its exercise. In this context, it might be more accurate to suggest that, like others, left-wing terrorists can sometimes perform spectacular acts of public violence in order to obtain publicity for themselves and/or in the hope that a significantly large audience will agree with or feel sympathy for the act and perhaps be inspired to join or to undertake similar acts themselves in future.
5) Primary targets are government buildings, symbols of authority, and right-wing conservative rallies/demonstrations[.]
Primary targets of left-ish punk rock songs are governments, authority and reactionary politics. So what? And while Willem Van Spronsen was killed by police while apparently taking action to disable the fleet of buses that serve the Northwest Detention Center, it wasn’t a ‘far left extremist’ who committed the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States prior to the September 11 attacks when the Alfred P. Murrah building was blown up in 1995. As for ‘right-wing conservative’ rallies and/or demonstrations …
• The article then proceeds to give a garbled account of ‘History of Ideology in the United States’. It gets off to a flying start by claiming that ‘Leftist ideology originated around the time of the industrial revolution’ — whenever that was. Happily, anybody with access to, say, a dictionary, would know that the origins of the distinction ‘left’ and ‘right’ derives from the French revolution, not the industrial. I also understand that historians, both Marxist and non-Marxist, have given some thought to understanding feudalism, capitalism, modernism and industrialism as economic, political and social modes.
• The article claims that ‘[d]uring the [1980s], left-wing terrorism was attributed to 74% of all terrorist attacks in the US’. The source for the claim is a 2001 essay by Karl A. Seger titled ‘LEFT-WING EXTREMISM: The Current Threat’, which was written for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Safeguards and Security. In the essay, Seger writes:
Leftist extremists were responsible for three-fourths of the officially designated acts of terrorism in America in the 1980s. From an international perspective, of the 13,858 people who died between 1988 and 1998 in attacks committed by the 10 most active terrorist groups in the world, 74 percent were killed by leftist organizations …
Between 1988 and 1998, 13,858 people died in attacks committed by the 10 most active terrorist organizations in the world. The most violent of these was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was responsible for 3,575 deaths. When all of the deaths attributed to these groups are compared, leftist organizations were responsible for 10,198 or 74 percent of all people killed by the 10 major terrorist groups during this time period.
Exactly what is being claimed in the article, then, is unclear. The figure of 74% in the reference is to that proportion of individuals allegedly killed globally by leftist terrorists in the period 1988–1998, not those killed (or terrorist acts performed) by leftist terrorists in the United States in the 1980s. (Seger cites Thomas Omestad, David E Kaplan and Stefan Lovgren, ‘The joy of the Turks, The fury of the Kurds’, US News & World Report, March 1, 1999.) But perhaps the author meant to write that ‘left-wing terrorism was attributed to [three-quarters] of all terrorist attacks in the US’ in the 1980s? If so, while no source for this claim is given, to the best of my knowledge — and if the Global Terrorism Database is any guide — it seems unlikely.
• The article claims that ‘[t]hroughout history [ie, if you think history is what happened in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s] there have been several known leftist groups that operated within the US, including the United Freedom Front, New World Liberation Front, Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and ANTIFA’. Who knows why these particular groups were chosen — and not, say, the May 19th Communist Organization, Symbionese Liberation Army, or even the Black Panther Party — but whatever. It could also be said that ‘throughout history’ there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘leftist groups’ in the United States, both very well-known and obscure.
And so on and so forth: to identify all the many faults, logical and empirical, within this very brief ‘guide’ is more bother than it’s worth.
Finally, it would be a Good thing if Step Together somehow succeeded in turning eejits away from terrorism and thus prevented the emergence of another Phillip Galea or Michael Holt or whoever those blokes in NSW are, but I’m not especially confident.