Donald Trump, a relentless right-wing populist, outed as a sexist defender of rape culture, becoming the 45th president of the US proves that the rise of right radicalism is not confined to a number of states and regions and is not a foremost European issue but rather is the expression of a global crisis of politics.
How can this be explained?
This is not about overtly neo-Nazism parties situating themselves at the margin of the political system; but about parties attaining 20, 30 and more percent in national elections by virtue of their ability to modernisation tailored to political and cultural mainstream.
The first undue simplification concerns the social composition of the constituencies of the far right.
A lot of empirical material has been compiled in order to demonstrate that the rise of the radical right parties in Europe and elsewhere is the expression of demoralized and confused lower classes which from the bottom up contaminates the societies.
Of the inroads of right-wing radical parties into proletarian, formerly social democratic electorates there is much evidence. However, the data in most of the cases ignore the vote shares in other segments of the electorate and remain for this prejudiced and ideologically biased.
Anyway the political component must not be ignored.
As for Europe demonstrated by the ‘Eurobarometer’ data, people feel increasingly uncomfortable about their democracies. According to a survey of last year 62 % of the Europeans believe that things are taking a wrong direction; 48 % declare that they don’t trust anymore their governments and 43 % say that they are unsatisfied with their democracies.
The causes of this are complex. Alongside crisis, precariousness and the middle strata’s fear of downward social mobility, there is the decline of social democratic parties, and the disillusionment over this, when not compensated by the left with a credible radical alternative, ends all to easily delivering people to the mills of the radical right.
Unfortunately only few attempts are made to answer the simple question: Why does the crisis which by large layers of the society is perceived as a ‘crisis of the system’ – whatever people might think what the system they blame is about – spur the radical right and to a much lesser extent the radical Left.
Already Gramsci has warned the Left about this:
‘It may be ruled out’, he wrote in the prison notes ‘that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought’.
The answer to this dilemma cannot be found in empirical data, abundantly available but requires critical theory.
I depart from Cas Mudd’s definition of the ideological core of populist right radicalism, he speaks of a combination of three elements:
- Nativism, understood as ethnic nationalism (xenophobia, racism, and anti-Europeanism) connected with a strong social chauvinism calling to limit social benefits to native citizens only.
- And ‘populism’ which addresses the anti-establishment feeling of large layers of the society by in invoking an unbridgeable divide between a corrupted elite and a pure, morally homogenous people as Canovan and also Laclau have described in their writings.
It would be an interesting topic to demonstrate to which high degree the analysis by contemporaries on the rise of fascism in the 20ies of the last century resembles to what today’s political scientists denote as ‘right-wing populism’.
The communist Antonio Gramsci in his ‘Notes from the prison’ characterizes fascism as the reaction to a crisis of the state, consisting in the unsettling of existing certainties that functioned to hold together the state, that is, the dissolution of the hegemony of specific concepts and ideologies: ‘The great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies’, he notes, (…) ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Interestingly the Hungarian-Austrian socialist, Karl Polanyi concludes alike: ‘Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society, that refused to function’, meaning in the ‘collapse of the “utopian endeavour” of constructing societies and international relations on the basis of a “self-regulating market system”’.
These observations from almost one century ago are relevant for understanding how a structural crisis of capitalism produces different kinds of hegemonic scenarios; e.g.: why in the 70ies of the last century it triggered neo-liberalism, which in UK and US made his way through a populist push, while it spurred in the wake of the financial crisis 2007/2008 populist right radicalism.
In contrast to the thesis that the populist radical right in western democracies were ‘a pathological abnormalcy’ which of course would be politically comfortable, Cas Mudd denotes it as the expression of the a ‘pathological normalcy’ i.e. the particular ideological and cultural climate created by neo-liberalism itself.
The thesis of the ‘pathological normalcy’ in neoliberal capitalism helps also understanding the sudden change in public opinion last year in Germany and Austria which after the short ‘summer of solidarity’ polarized and turned hostile against the refugees. Mudd demonstrates by reference to Euro-Barometer that this did not come so surprisingly. Already in 1997 only one of three of those interviewed in the then EU-15 felt they were ‘not at all racists’, another third declared themselves as being ‘a little racist’, while another third expressed quite openly racist feelings. Even then going beyond most radical right populist parties 20 % supported a ‘whole sale repatriation’ agreeing with the statement that ‘all immigrants, weather legal or illegal, from outside the European Union and their children, even those born here should be sent back to their country of origin.’
So rather than being completely outside of the neo-liberal mainstream the populist radical constitutes ideologically and attitudinally a radicalisation of its values.
Moreover this radicalisation should not be regarded as the spontaneous reflection of the crisis. On the opposite is has been incited and promoted by corporate media outlets and the cultural industry. Also here applies that the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class which reacts to a changing juncture by all means available to it.
A short remark on nationalism: A rise of nationalism always is the index of deteriorating of national relations. In the European case this is due to the growing inequality between centre and periphery, accompanied by a reinvigorated rivalry between the major powers, Germany, France and the UK, both developments being the result of the neoliberal austerity policy and its unequal consequences.
Here it is crucial to understand that the EU does not represent only an economic and currency union but a system of institutionalized political relations between states and nations.
And paradoxically, as much as Europe’s radical right is divided through competing nationalisms they converge politically in their strong anti-Europeanism.
Consequently without ending austerity nationalism cannot be forced back.
Even after the US-election the fight with the populist radical right is not lost. However the radical Left has to cope at least with four political challenges:
- We ought to shift the emphasis in confronting right radical populism from moral condemnation to political struggle. That requires in first place acknowledging the validity of the social concerns, complaints and criticisms with which people are left alone. The decisive battle ground with the far Right is the overcoming of mass unemployment and youth unemployment, as well as new and old women’s discrimination. And it is us who have not only to raise this issues but also proposing feasible strategies which require a socio economic transformation towards a common based solidarity economy, in other words a rupture with the system on both the national and the European level.
- The claim of populist rights to be an ‘anti-systemic’ force is wrong. In aiming at substituting for liberal democracy, human rights, women’s liberation and the rule of law an authoritarian ‘Führer-state’ their function is to repress a system change from happening. But this means if the Left is up to confront the populism of the radical right it has to defend democracy in the same move against its distortion and depletion by neoliberal governance. Democracy cannot be defended in alliance with the ruling forces but in opposition to them.
- Defending democracy on the national level is not identical with nationalism. While defending the former the Left must not compromise with the latter. Choosing between democratising the nation-state and strengthening transnational democracy would mean accepting a false dilemma. On the opposite the Left must design the program of integration which would set up a democracy on the European level while respecting democratic self determination of its national components.
- Europe’s culture is poisoned by Euro-Centrism. The very idea of ‘White’s man superiority’ going back even to the Enlightenment and entrenched through the colonialisms of the European powers till today shapes, notwithstanding its metamorphoses, commonsense of Europeans and US-Americans preventing their societies from adjusting to the Great Transformation the world is undergoing. However, without changing the common sense and the mindsets even of the working classes in the capitalist centres neither democratic and cultural progress will be possible nor can the looming regression into primitiveness be prevented, which is the aim of far-right parties.