Extremism as a concept is central to current popular political discourse. In its common definition, however, it is also a highly flawed. Its use shows a bias towards centrist politics that silences a history of extremism. Centrists are just as well capable of committing extremist acts upon populations, and violently exclude them from basic rights. The concept extremist should be re-purposed to highlight centrist extremism, and expose the fundamental inclusion-exclusion divide of modern politics.
The most common definition of political extremism is an actor at the edges of the left-right political continuum. The so-called horseshoe-theory underlies this popular usage. Generally ascribed to French writer Jean-Pierre Faye, the theory poses that far-left and far-right political currents are more similar to one another than to respectively centre-left or centre-right political currents. The left-right continuum is not a straight, horizontal line, but rather a horseshoe shape where the ends almost meet at the bottom. These ends are the extremists: contemptuous of democracy, unrealistic and forceful, irrespective of whether they are on the left or right edge of the horseshoe.
The ideal world of horseshoe-theorists is one where radical actors are marginalized and politics is carried by hard-headed centrist politicians. These centrists are everything the extremists are not: democratic, pragmatic and open to compromise. Countries prosper when led by such actors. Extremists do at times manage to destabilize this consensus, but their alternatives do not offer realistic solutions. Centrist unity and pragmatic dealing can, in the long run, much better ensure stability and prosperity. Or so the argument goes.
I wish to propose a second conception of extremism in this article. My contention is that centrists, just as the radical-left and right, are perfectly capable of acting in extremist ways. And more broadly that extremism, a redefined extremism, is a universal characteristic of politics, left, right and centre. Furthermore it is inherently political to use the notion of extremism to solely denote political opinions at the edges of the left-right divide, and serves to exclude the voices at these ends. Rather we should come to a more nuanced understanding of extremism, an understanding in line with the almost inherently negative conception this term occupies. An understanding that does not privilege centrist actors as being more sensible than radical political voices.
So what does a re-purposed definition of extremism look like? That the term has a negative connotation makes using in a precise, analytic way more difficult. Nevertheless the term extremist still has a use in political discourse. Not to define the ideological position of a group, but to analyse the actual policies this group enacts or strives towards. I propose to define extremism in the sense of arguing in favour of taking extreme actions towards fellow humans, arguing in favour of placing certain population groups outside of the edges of normal politics, arguing in favour of actively denying groups basic rights, and often following this type of exclusion up with actual violence.
This definition goes to the heart of the inside-outside division that characterises modern society. Rights are to be granted to one group, but denied to another. The inauguration of a modern, liberal society in the 18th and 19th centuries, where feudal particularism was replaced with liberal universalism, did not mean the end of a society based on inclusion and exclusion. Where previously members of religious, professional and blood-based groups had separate rights and duties, in the liberal order everyone holds equal fundamental rights and duties. Except a “universal” characteristic of the new order has been the exclusion of entire populations from basic rights supposedly granted to all. While some sections of the population are granted basic rights, another group can be placed outside of this protection. This form of universalist exclusion is a general characteristic of modern political ideologies, left, right and center.
Centrist and extremist
A prime example of centrist extremism is the American 19th century. The US at this time was a country widely praised for its liberal democratic character, not only by figures such as de Tocqueville, but by an entire generation of European republicans struggling for democratic rights on their continent. And in many ways this was actually the case. Property qualifications for voting, for example, were generally removed much earlier in the United States compared to Europe. The US was also a country with very little feudal history, unlike Europe an universal order existed almost by default.
What also characterized this incipient democracy was violent exclusion of groups of others, from Native Americans to Blacks. Democracy and basic rights for white males was not contradictory with violent extremism being committed to groups external to this norm. In an odd juxtaposition, the history of the US until this day has been a combination of advanced progressivism and ugly backwardness. Furthermore, throughout US history perfectly centrist political actors supported, enacted and legitimated forms of violent exclusion. It was simply part of the centrist common sense of the day. Just because violent exclusion is common sense, however, does not make it any less extreme. Centrist extremists just as well dehumanize and brutalize excluded others.
In Europe this centrist brutality mainly manifested itself through colonialism. A history which European countries refuse to face to this day, for example in the form of the French laws that force schools to teach the positive aspects of French colonialism, the ex-Belgian foreign minister and MEP Louis Michel who called Leopold II a “hero and a visionary”, or the still very common glorification of the Empire in the United Kingdom. Both the past colonial atrocities and their current glorification were and are designed by centrists. As such it was perfectly possible for a regime from the far-right of the political spectrum, such as Nazi-Germany, to find inspiration for its racial policies and atrocities with the colonial regimes that were established, and are still glorified, by centrist politicians.
This simple observation, that centrists can just as well be extremist, is, however, often obscured in contemporary political discourse. The task of the radical left should be to re-define the term, and drag it away from centrist consensus.
This re-definition of the term extremist is of course no acquittal of the radical-left. We are just as capable of arguing in favour of excluding entire swathes of the population from basic rights, arguing for their violent exclusion from politics and public life. A true left-wing politics should argue for the stability of basic rights, and should be consequently anti-extremist. That the far-left generally is far removed from power does not exclude us from taking measures to limit the opportunity of an extremist attitude arising. Our position at the edges of the political debate easily causes an alienated political culture that sometimes descends into cultism, or blindness to our own extremism. An open political culture, wary of us-versus-them mentalities, and that respects basic rights for all, needs to be the core of any left practice.
What of the right?
And what then with the far-right? Does this redefinition of extremism not give this group a free pass? Should their politics then only be described by radical- or far-? In a sense they should, far-right is a much more precise term to describe this group on the political spectrum. Although it could be debated how radical they really are, as their politics generally revolve around a rollback of rights rather than their expansion.
And precisely this last argument is what makes the far-right almost inherently extreme. Because they mostly argue for the exclusion of certain population groups from basic rights, the far-right is almost by definition extremist. The far-right’s political programme directly legitimates extremist action, whereas in the case of centre and radical-left politics this tendency is only present indirectly.
The far-right argues almost by definition for the exclusion of population groups from basic rights. It is a key prerequisite for bringing their ideas of mono-ethnic and mono-cultural nations into practice. Centrist and far-leftists on the other hand generally only come to extremism indirectly. Through a (perceived) crisis of stability of their regime, through colonialism, through the realities of their class interests, or through underlying biases they have towards certain population groups. The far-right is inherently extremist, centrists and far-leftists are only pragmatically extremist.
Centrist and far-left political actors can suppress their tendency towards extremism. Centrists can be pressured to limit racism and other forms of exclusion. If not, attempts to reform the status-quo would be pointless. Combating extremism within the far-right, however, is to touch on the fundamental aspects of their political thinking. While it was possible for centrist regimes to forego their colonies and take action to limit racism in their societies. It would have been virtually impossible to make Nazi-Germany do these things. Although different from interwar fascism, it is equally doubtful the current far-right can be pushed to respect the fundamental rights of all population groups once in power. Their politics are based on exclusion, forcing them to abandon exclusion forces them to abandon their politics. If they cease to be extremist they cease to be far-right.