Global Extremes

What will 2020 bring? Finding our way in a more polarised world

As 2020 and a new decade begins, why are we more polarised than ever before and can we do anything about it?

Richard McNeil Willson
3 February 2020, 12.01am
Police keep Anti-Tommy Robinson protesters kettled on December 9, 2018 in London
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As we embark on the start of the 2020s, our politics and societies seem more divided than ever. The Middle East totters on further instability, climate change creates extremes, Brexit puts up yet more barriers to travel and work, and populism destabilises long-established political regimes. As a result, our societies seem more polarised than ever.

This has real dangers for our communities. In Britain, for example, as the contentious Brexit vote is enacted following a referendum that caused the death of an MP from violent extremism, far-right referrals have rocketed and several neo-Nazi teenagers have been gaoled for planning violent acts.

What has caused such divisions and violence to appear in our societies? Why are we suddenly more polarised than ever before? How long will this instability last? Or were the last years of the 20th century simply an anomaly of stability and we’re now returning to the tempestuous norm?

Recent work led by the European University Institute as part of the Building Resilience against Violent Extremism and Polarisation (BRaVE) project has sought to understand this new polarisation, its links to so-called ‘violent extremism’, and how to respond in a way that challenges current divisive and security-driven counterterrorism approaches.

In its latest report, the BRaVE project has identified four causes of the recent polarisation that seems to have swept much of the ‘global north’.

Financial shock

Data from across Europe points to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis as laying the groundwork for much of the political instability we see today. This economic shock, and the politics of austerity that have been inflicted on communities in much of Europe, has affected most prominently those already vulnerable to globalisation and new forms of capitalism, with long-term studies showing that far right parties generally receive around 30% more support following sudden economic decline.

However, despite broader links, direct relationships between experiences of poverty and the propensity for individuals to engage with the far-right are not clearly established, and it must be stressed that populism is far from a working-class phenomenon – with parties often led and backed by wealthy individuals and financial interests. However, financial crises and their fallout do highlight the inequalities of current economic and political systems in place, and create a driver in society for radical forms of change, a call from which the far-right attempts to carve its legitimacy.

Weaponisation of political crisis

The rise of the right-wing in response to the financial crisis has also been accompanied by a shift in mainstream political discussion, with such parties more likely to attribute blame to minorities and migrant communities and to push for greater state security over and above individual rights.

Other Financial shocks as well as other global events – such as international terrorism or waves of migration due to wars, climate change and human rights abuses – have provided an easy target for increasingly right-wing groups and political parties to explain away economic crises. This has led to polarisation, through the deliberate enhancing of existing societal cleavages and community division.

The Rise of Malicious Organisations

The weaponisation of such crises and the problematisation of minorities has opened up space for irregular malicious organisations. The spread of security concerns based on the language of race – planted by counter-terrorism and used by governments for their own ends – have ensured that far-right and populist groups, hostile to current systems of governance, immigration and integration, have been given legitimacy and a platform and, as such, have flourished. This further accelerates polarisation throughout all levels of society.

New forms of media

Finally, online and social media have enabled these often internationally well-funded malicious groups to grow their presence organically and spread propaganda that amplifies and normalises polarising narratives in already fracturing societies. As such, today’s polarisation has developed over several years and is the result of many previous political, economic and societal events.

But how are these processes taking place?

Researchers at the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), the University of Lancaster, working with the BRaVE project, have put together a set of indicators to further understand how this polarisation is occurring and being articulated throughout Europe.

They isolated 20 indicators, taking place from the very top to the very bottom of European societies, which help to establish how and why polarisation occurs. These factors include the level of state welfare and segregation in any given society, the individual voting patterns of its citizens, how widely minority cultures are understood, the restrictions placed on minority identities by the state, and the levels of hate speech legislation and national media monitoring taking place.

Researchers have put together a set of indicators to understand how polarisation occurs and is articulated throughout Europe.

Taken together, these indicators help us to understand, define and identify causes of, and instances where, polarisation happens – and represent the first step towards forming a response.

What does polarisation tell us about violent extremism?

What does this polarisation mean for another important topic of our time: ‘violent extremism’? The concept of polarisation is a relatively new addition to discussions on counter-extremism, and these usually exist in a swirl of a highly contentious and politicised debate.

So far, BRaVE project Research has found some links between polarisation and localised acts of violence, referred to as ‘violent extremism’. Polarisation can and does, in some cases, provide a permissive context which encourages such violence to occur. However, there is no direct line between polarisation and violence, with violent ‘terrorist-style’ attacks occurring in the ‘global north’ in some contexts that are unaffected by polarisation.

This analysis of polarisation does offer one clue to explaining how and why such violence might be taking place. How violent actors interact with their political, social and economic context can be significantly missed or underplayed in current counter-extremism approaches. As such, polarisation indicators offer a means of creating a more holistic concept of violence which may look random or incomprehensible, as well as helping to remove the current over-reliance on ideological factors that bedevil programmes like PREVENT.

Polarisation indicators offer a means of creating a more holistic concept of violence

By putting into context our understanding of violence, this approach encourages a greater focus on how communities can become stronger in a way that is, critically, removed from a security context.

Rather than pushing communities to focus their response on ‘terrorism’ – which, in turn, has securitised minority communities and groups – a focus on polarisation could help to shift the discussion away from the vagueness of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ and onto more productive responses to issues such as structural inequality, Islamophobia, poverty and the permissive racism of much of the mainstream media, among other examples.

A focus on polarisation could help to shift the discussion away from the vagueness of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ and onto more productive responses

The report for the BRaVE project aims to show how polarisation occurs in Europe and highlights the steps that can be taken to increase the resilience of communities against this.

By encouraging community resilience – not against the phantom of ‘terrorism’ but against the clear and obvious cleavages that affect our communities and societies – we may offer a more viable solution. It is far more difficult, and it involves critically analysing the role that governments and counterterrorism policies have played in exacerbating divisions and legitimising the far-right. But its spoils are greater and, in doing so, we may start to heal community cleavages in a way that sweeps away the ‘war on terror’, addressing properly the factors that have divided and polarised our societies.

The BRaVE Project report is written by Drs Richard McNeil-Willson, Vivian Gerrand, Francesca Scrinzi, and Anna Triandafyllidou. It can be read here and more information on the BRaVE project found here

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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