by Cynthia Miller-Idriss*
Advertisers and marketers have long known that brands and commercial products are deeply intertwined with individuals’ identities. But with few exceptions, mainstream social scientists have been slow to acknowledge that economic objects can have constitutive power for identities. The connection between material culture and extremist identity is even less explored. In The Extreme Gone Mainstream (Princeton University Press, 2018), I examine how far right ideology has been commercialized in Germany through the creation of high-end brands which sell clothing and products laced with far right iconography and messages. This commercialization is part of a radical transformation that has taken place in the style and aesthetics of German far right subculture—and indeed, among far right youth globally, including in the U.S. In this book, I argue that style and aesthetic representation serve as one gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures by helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society.
The book draws on a multi-phase research project studying these brands, their messages, and how youth in and around far right scenes understand them. In the first phase, I analyzed thousands of images gathered from the archives of professional photographers who track the far right in German public settings like protest marches, music festivals, and demonstrations, along with hundreds of screenshots and additional images and photographs of symbols, logos and brands I gathered from historical and museum archives in the U.S. and Germany and in everyday places. Following the image analysis, I launched a second phase of field research to conduct 62 interviews with young people and their teachers in two German vocational schools with histories of far right extremist youth presence. The interview data aimed to explore whether and how youth in and around far right scenes understand the symbols, what they think they mean, and what the messages in the clothing can teach us about the appeal of far right extremism more generally.
The new branding phenomenon emerged shortly after the turn of the 21st century, when the brand Thor Steinar launched a slick mail-order catalog selling high-quality, well-made clothing coded with historical, colonial, and mythological references related to the far right. Other brands quickly entered the fray, sharing a reliance on mainstream-style, expensive clothing and the use of coded symbols that evoke, connote, or directly reference far right ideological viewpoints or mythic ideals appealing to the subculture. Over a dozen brands in Germany alone now sell mainstream-style, expensive clothing with embedded far right symbols and messages.
My interviewees clearly explained that clothing choices are centrally important to peer groups, identity, and self-understanding. In this sense, it’s important to understand the ways that the commercialized, coded references and symbols can desensitize and socialize consumers. The products often use humor or aggressive coded references to historical atrocities against Jews, Muslims and others deemed not to belong, denigrating victims and celebrating violence. In this way, the clothing can help strengthen racist and nationalist identification. But the clothing also matters because it can act as a gateway to broader activities in the far right. In Germany, far right clothing brands help youth signal membership and ideological views to other insiders, and facilitate connections in new settings, such as underground concerts.
It’s important to note that the brands’ popularity mirrored the rise of populist and far right rhetoric and party success across Europe and in the U.S. Some of the appeal of the brands’ messages, in other words, reflect broader social and political contexts that help drive the appeal of far right messaging in the brands and clothing. For example, one t-shirt references the refugee and migration crisis with iconography of an anchor and the words “Raise the borders, batten down the hatches” (Grenzen Hoch und Schotten Dicht). Nothing else on the shirt indicates what exactly that message might mean, but text on the website next to the t-shirt for sale directly references the recent influx of refugees.
For most sociologists, economic goods are seen primarily for their role in the production and reproduction of inequality. While consumer goods are an essential part of this process, they are usually described merely as the end product in a larger exploitative set of labor and production processes. Even the increasing scholarship on consumption focuses heavily on how consumer goods play a role in status systems and hierarchies of social inequality. Bourdieu’s Distinction and a generation of studies that followed, for example, examined how consumption patterns and the purchase and display of particular kinds of objects and goods work to build and convey cultural and social capital.
What I suggest is that our focus on the role that economic objects play in the production and reproduction of inequality has distracted many social scientists from the potential for these objects to hold symbolic meaning and play a significant role in other aspects of social life. My contention, on the contrary—following scholars of visual culture, like Jeff Alexander and his co-editors of a book on iconic and material culture—is that commodities and economic objects are also cultural objects that carry emotion, convey meaning, and constitute identities.
My analysis of commercial, coded symbols conveying extremist ideology shows they play a key role as conduits of youth’s emotional desires to belong and rebel, acting as gateways to the broader far right scene while simultaneously helping to mainstream extremist ideas. This means that the production and consumption of economic objects are not only exploitative acts but also constitutive ones. Consumer goods and products not only add meaning to individuals’ and groups’ lives but also can inform consumers’ life choices, actions, behaviors, beliefs, and identities.
Mainstream sociologists ought to take economic objects more seriously not only for their exploitative power, but also for their constitutive possibilities. Style and aesthetic representation act as a ‘gateway’ into extremist scenes and subcultures, as young people’s consumption of “lifestyle” elements like tattoos, clothing, styles, or music may gradually lead to further involvement with extremist ideologies. In the German case, the commercialized, coded references and symbols desensitize and socialize consumers and their peers and dehumanize victims. In this way, economic objects have the potential to constitute identity and shape engagement in social movements or extremist groups in ways that deserve our close attention.
* Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany, was published in February 2018 by Princeton University Press. (Open access to the introduction)