Analyst Leonard Zeskind Discusses Extremism in America

A longtime analyst of the extreme right considers our situation and the choices we face as a nation

Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, has been an anti-racist activist and a leading analyst of white supremacist movements for more than 20 years. He has written widely about the radical right for publications including the Intelligence Report, Rolling Stone magazine, The Nation and the British antifascist magazine Searchlight.

Last year, Zeskind was the recipient of one of the prestigious "genius awards" of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is currently at work on a forthcoming book, Barbarism With a Human Face: White Nationalism Against the New World Order. The Intelligence Report interviewed Zeskind about the state of the far right in this country, its relationship to more mainstream politics and institutions, and the development of white nationalism.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: How would you assess white supremacist movements in the United States at this stage in our history?

ZESKIND: I think it's important for those of us who have been concerned about this movement to try to put it in a larger box, a larger frame, so that we can understand the relationship it has to other currents in our society and the world.

Once you begin to think about it that way, to put it in the context of what's happening in the United States and the world, you begin to see what this movement is doing in its entirety — both the immediate lawbreakers and those who are trying to set up a more mainstream project.

IR: So what do you see as the major currents shaping this movement?

ZESKIND: Two of the most important are the end of the Cold War and structural changes in the global economy. These changes raise in a new way the question of who we are as a nation, how we define ourselves as a people.

IR: Let's talk first about the Cold War.

ZESKIND: For 40 years, the division of the world into Soviet and Western spheres of influence really defined politics for the world, and it defined American life as well. Now, the end of the Cold War has changed everything.

Shortly after the end of the Cold War, an important piece appeared in Foreign Affairs [a leading academic journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations] called "The End of History." What it argued was that with the end of the Cold War, the world would now be dominated, essentially, by liberal democracy.

To some extent, you could say that that was partly true. But it certainly wasn't the end of history. You could even say that it really marked the beginning of a new history.

What actually happened with the unfreezing of the icebergs of the Soviet and Western spheres was the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic camps, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nationalist conflicts like Chechnya trying to win its independence from Russia. What we saw was the reemergence of nationalism, ethnic nationalism — not only a global spread of liberal democracy as "The End of History" had argued.

IR: You mentioned several European conflicts. How did these changes affect America?

ZESKIND: The end of the Cold War shook up Americans' collective sense of who we were as Americans. Certainly, we saw ourselves as a democracy, as freedom-loving. But in the past, we had largely defined ourselves by who we were not. We were the people who were not the communists.

So once the Berlin wall was breached, once you took away the communist bogeyman, the question of who we were as a people was no longer answered clearly.

Now, in a way that had not been true for decades, you have different sets of ideals contending to define what America is. Everything is open to debate.

IR: Okay. And what role have global economic changes had?

ZESKIND: These questions of identity aren't all purely in the realm of ideas. There's a structural basis for these changes dating back to the mid-1970s. The American economy became part of the transnational economy in a different way than it had been before. It didn't happen all at once.

But what has occurred over the last 25 years is that we've developed a freer and freer global market in capital. Money that might come from Detroit sets up shop in Spain or Mexico. Daimler-Benz, a German company, winds up owning Chrysler in the United States.

Today, the allegiance of these corporate bodies is to their transnational, corporate selves. It's not like the old British empire, where people colonized these countries and sent money back to London, or the Spanish colonization of the Americas, with gold being shipped from the New World back to Madrid.

Now, with capital flowing freely all over the world, the nation-state as a definer of the market has gone the way of all flesh.

At the same time, there may be a free market in capital, but there is not a free market in labor. Indonesian workers, for example, can't emigrate to the United States freely the way Chase Manhattan can send dollars to Indonesia.

You can see this most clearly in Europe, where the European Currency Unit, the ECU, is taking over for the deutschemark and the franc and so forth. It won't be long before northern Italy, which is very industrialized, has much closer allegiances to neighboring industrial parts of Switzerland and France than it does to southern Italy, which is still largely poor and agrarian.

These kinds of historical currents have provoked opposition movements of the kind you see now in Italy, with the regional nationalism of the Northern League. Now, you're seeing a similar nationalist movement, an ethnically based nationalism, moving into the American mainstream as well.