The Resistible Rise of the Far Right in Europe

The rise of the radical right in Europe raises many questions. The key here is the crisis of European democracies. To counteract this development, the Left is confronted with great challenges: overcoming mass unemployment and nationalism, and defending democracy.

The victory of the candidate of the Greens, Alexander Van der Bellen in the second round of Austria’s presidential elections over the far right contender is certainly a reason for relief. In case the latter one had prevailed Austria would be the first West European country with a straight forward radical right winger as head of state; who moreover in line with Nazi tradition regards Austria as part and parcel of historic German territory, which in itself not only contradicts Austria’s constitutional law but also runs against Europe’s post-war order. In any case the extreme narrow result with a margin of only one percent between the two candidates reveals the precarious state of Austria’s democracy.
The following talk was delivered the day before the crucial run-off in Austria at the Left Forum in New York.

The far right in Europe presents quite a confusing picture of a divided political movement. In the European Parliament, it is split into three political groups, as well as a number of non-affiliated members of the EP. This is without mentioning Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, which is without a doubt a radical right-wing party, even though it is a member of the conservative EPP.

Modernised radical right parties

It is important to distinguish between neo-Nazism and modernised radical right-wing parties, which nowadays manage to attain between 20 and 30 percent of the votes in national elections. We cannot simply dub these modern parties as fascist. First and foremost, because history does not simply repeat itself and secondly, for the political reason that talking about fascism in Europe means referring to Nazism and its monstrous crimes. But it would be wrong and pointless to define electorates making up a third of the population in this manner, all the more so because the parties in question will tirelessly assert the opposite.
However, an important theoretical reservation must be made here: the observations of contemporaries who witnessed the rise of fascism in the 1920s, for example Arthur Rosenberg, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Otto Bauer, Karl Polanyi et al., are indeed disturbingly similar to what modern political science defines as right-wing populism:

·         The ‘anti-system’ rhetoric;

·         The authoritarian conception of society; and

·         Ethnic nationalism (xenophobia, racism and anti-Europeanism), connected with

·         Social chauvinism (meaning that the social state should be reserved exclusively for nationals).

So, what’s going on in Europe?

The key here is the crisis of European democracies, demonstrated very recently by François Hollande’s decision to enforce a new reactionary labour law, bypassing the government using emergency powers.
Explaining the rise of the radical right as a phenomenon of demoralised and confused lower classes contaminating society from the bottom up would be an over-simplification of matters. There is much evidence of right-wing radical parties infiltrating into proletarian, formerly social democratic electorates. However, these findings remain biased as long as investigations published fail to also reflect the distribution of votes in other segments of the electorate.  In most cases, successful right-wing radical parties are parties that cut across class divides, with the party’s influence being roughly equally distributed across a broad range of social classes.
Europeans are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with their democracies. According to last autumn’s ‘Eurobarometer’, 62% of Europeans believe that things are going in the wrong direction; 48% declare themselves to have no trust in their governments and 43% say that they are unsatisfied with their democracies. This is not new. The available data suggests that this process of erosion was already underway in the 1990s. What is new, however, is that it now coalesces with the still-unsettled economic and social crisis.
Gramsci spoke in the 1920s of an ‘interregnum’ from which fascism arose as a condition in which ‘the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to.’ This is a result of the failure of neoliberalism, meaning, and here I quote a 1944 text by Karl Polanyi, the ‘collapse of the “utopian endeavour” of constructing societies and international relations on the basis of a “self-regulating market system”’.

Anti-Europeanism unites the radical right

What we saw following the electoral victories of Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland is that these parties are not seeking simple changes in parliamentary coalitions, but are striving to gear states towards authoritarian forms of governing.
The reasons for their rise are complex. Alongside the crisis, precariousness and the middle-class fear of downward social mobility, there is also the decline of social democratic parties. The disillusionment caused by these factors, when not compensated by the left with a credible radical alternative, ends up all too easily driving people into the arms of the radical right.
These phenomena affect all of Europe. Paradoxically, as much as Europe’s radical right is divided through competing nationalisms, it is politically united by a strong anti-Europeanism. Ever since the Lisbon treaty, the EU has not only represented an economic and currency union, but also a system of institutionalised political relations between states and nations resulting from both the Second World War and the victory of capitalism during the Cold War. The growth of nationalism is an indicator of a dramatic deterioration of national relations in Europe, between centre and periphery, South and North, Germany and France etc., which is one of the devastating results of austerity-driven politics exercised on behalf of the EU for over a decade. Consequently, without ending austerity – or without initiating a broad pan-European movement against austerity – nationalism cannot be forced back.
From this follow four political challenges for the radical left:

1.      It remains true that the decisive battleground (even for the far right) is to overcome mass and youth unemployment, particularly in Southern Europe. This requires a new investment policy, a restructuring of the financial sector and a socio-economic shift towards a common-based solidarity economy, not only within member states but also on a European level.

2.      The other battle ground is the defence of democracy. The radical right’s claim to power constitutes a real threat to liberal democracy which is also (and here lies the complication) simultaneously threatened by the post-democratic practices of political elites in European member states and institutions. This means that either the European Union will be democratized or it will disintegrate, i.e. it will be replaced by a state system of competing nationalisms which will once again put peace in Europe at risk.

3.      Nationalism is both a distorted projection of the economic and social crisis and the expression of a deficient democracy. The left must not trap itself in the false dilemma of deciding between national self-determination and European unity, but must instead come up with a programme of integration which would construct a Europe-wide democracy while still respecting the right of its national components to self-determination.

4.      After all, there is another aspect to this European malaise. Europe’s societies as a whole are unprepared for the Great Transformation the world is currently undergoing and which will change Europe’s role in the world. It must be understood that this prospect, broadcast into to people’s living rooms through television and the internet, is frightening for them, because there is not enough understanding of the underlying social processes.
However, this points to the broad arena of the fight for a ‘new common sense’ referred to by Antonio Gramsci, without which progress is not possible and the regression to primitiveness cannot be prevented, which is the aim of far-right parties.

Talk delivered at Left Forum 2016, panel: Capitalism’s Right Turn: From Far Right Populism to Authoritarian Neoliberal State on 21 May 2016.