Theorizing Publics and the Far-Right: Pushing the Field Forward
20-22 July 2023
Scholarship on the emerging threat to liberal order by far-right actors has encountered a set of conceptual problems. It draws centrally on terms like “alternative media,” “populism,” “anti-establishment,” or “anti-hegemonic” forms of “counter-publics.” These terms appear to be useful for scholars and journalists describing the emergent networks of websites, influencers, movements, and parties on the far right. These networks often thrive on their performed positionality outside the bounds of what they might label the “mainstream” or the metaphorical “center” of democratic societies. Yet such terms also carry meaning derived from previous decades of analysis of political strife and social order, in which they pointed to groups and movements pursuing progressive goals in the service of greater social equity or democratic representation.
This presents a problem that goes beyond the level of semantics. Rather than oppose or challenge the status quo to expand the scope of the public sphere, reactionary and illiberal forces ultimately seek to limit and exclude. Yet, while claiming outsider status, these forces emerge from a central position of power within established institutional structures and social orders. As scholars, we should avoid adopting terminology that might offer a tacit agreement with some underlying premises that feed illiberal mobilization. And it should make us wary that these labels are often also self-ascribed and claimed with pride by far-right actors, painting themselves as victims of “political correctness” or “cancel culture” to demand more space for their “alternative” or “counter-cultural” ideas.
Our workshop seeks to establish a shared perception of the mechanisms by which liberal institutions (including academia!) become susceptible to discursive cooptation practices from the far right. Ultimately, this would serve to establish a conceptual toolkit that would more accurately label the dynamics we observe. This would be applicable in academic writing and research practices but also provide a foundation for guidelines that might be used by journalistic institutions or other civil society actors seeking to study or describe contemporary political formations on the far right.
Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society
- Curd Knüpfer (FU Berlin)
- Sarah J. Jackson (UPenn)
- Daniel Kreiss (UNC)
- Annett Heft (Weizenbaum Institute)
- Ulrike Klinger (ENS)
- Barbara Pfetsch (FU Berlin)
- Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
- Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP), UNC Chapel Hill
- European New School of Digital Studies (ENS), European University Viadrina
- Center for International Cooperation, Freie Universität Berlin
- John F. Kennedy Institute, Freie Universität Berlin
- Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society Berlin (WI)