‘The Puzzles of State Extremism’ by Dr. Jonathan Leader Maynard

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‘The Puzzles of State Extremism’ by Dr. Jonathan Leader Maynard

Date Published: 21 September 2023

Dr. Jonathan Leader Maynard talked about ‘The Puzzles of State Extremism’ for the Extreme Beliefs Project at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Maynard is a Lecturer in International Politics at King’s College London, and a Parliamentary Academic Fellow working for the International Affairs Unit of the UK House of Commons.

Abstract Scholarly work on extremism focuses overwhelmingly on non-state actors. This is odd, since the most famous instances and catastrophic consequences of extremism in human history tend to be bound up with states – i.e. governments and their subordinate agencies. As Qassim Cassam (2022, p. 2) notes: “To get a sense of the scale of human misery for which extremism has been responsible, one only has to think of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China.” Yet many common definitions and theories of extremism can be extended only awkwardly to states, which throw up some knotty problems for how we think about extremism and the standards we use to assess it. In this talk, I will discuss some of the conceptual and theoretical puzzles that arise when considering extremism in the context of states. Drawing on my past empirical work on ideology and state violence, I argue that two key theoretical moves must be made to talk coherently about state extremism. First, we must theorise extremist ideology as a complex psychosocial infrastructure that cannot be reduced to individual belief-systems. Second, we must understand extremism as conceptually entangled with normative theories of legitimate violence and political authority. In making these claims, I call for state extremism to be placed back at the centre of scholarly work on extremism, while also considering the implications of these two theoretical moves for work on extremism more broadly.