Notes on the Far-Right

Fabian Figueiredo sketches a sharp overview of how the current circumstances in Europe and the Global North, which are dominated by war, energy crises, and nationalism, are affecting the development of the extreme right.

At the European Left Summer University 2022, held in July in Aveiro, Portugal, transform! europe asked me a set of 12 challenging questions about the far-right in the Global North and the successive cycle of crises that mark our time. In the plenary debate “Democracy around the world: fighting the far-right”, I managed – with the precious company of economist Yuliya Yurchenko and the moderation of Cornelia Hildebrandt – to answer two of them satisfactorily. The answers sparked a lot of interesting conversation, which did not allow us to touch on the remaining questions. The lines that follow are a presentation of those answers, as faithful as my notes and my memory allow, and as dated as being written two months later imposes. 

1. In times of war, violence intensifies and nationalism grows. Does this help the extreme right in Europe or does it stabilise the rulers? 

Our times are marked by deep instability, uncertainty, and popular unease. It is increasingly difficult for political powers to respond to social demands or mitigate the effects of successive crises. We have practically no memory of not living in a “crisis” anymore, but rather live in a permanent crisis. 

Neoliberal globalisation has weakened the tools available to political powers. Governments govern less and less. The centre of decision-making is increasingly distant from the organisations elected and erected, at least in much of Western Europe, in the post-World War II period. In many Southern European countries, including in my country, Portugal, but also in Greece and in Spain, the democratic spring only took place in the 1970s. 

In recent decades, we have witnessed a de-democratisation of democracies in the Global North, in parallel with an intensified commodification of social relations, i.e. with the deconstruction of the welfare state, social security, and the weakening of workers’ representative organisations. 

To put it another way: the intensification of capitalism in the Global North and the retreat of socialism have made our societies more unequal, more spartan, made crises more frequent and, above all, more unpredictable. It is important to emphasise this in all forums of debate because we must distinguish our analysis from the liberal and dominant analysis that, on principle, ignores the origin of our current problems: the triumph of neoliberalism. 

All governments in the Global North have sought to draw political dividends from the war, using it to try to overcome internal scandals (take the case of Boris Johnson), to attack the opposition in an election campaign and mobilise the electorate (Emmanuel Macron), to consolidate their power by exploiting the contradictions of their “allies” (Mario Draghi), to intensify the Atlanticist consensus and isolate the radical left (António Costa and Pedro Sánchez) or to break understandings on post-war defence policy (Olaf Scholz). 

None of these governments can exactly be classified as stable. Some will certainly be less unstable than others, but all have sought, in one way or another, to “stabilise” themselves at the expense of the war in Ukraine. They are unlikely to succeed. 

The far-right, on the other hand, has not seen its growth slow down. It has capitalised on the war and will continue to do so. I will leave the details about this for the answer to the second question. 

2. How is the far-right in Europe faring at this moment?

In several European countries, the far-right directs and ideologically organises virtually the entire right-wing camp. This is very evident in France: Marine Le Pen has turned the Gaullist right into an absolutely residual force. In Italy, the leadership of the right is disputed between Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. The Forza Italia of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is now a decadent force, a small sidecar of the far-right. 

The far-right parties have elected members in all the national parliaments of the European Union Member States, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland and Malta. In a growing number of countries, they are the second or third political force, exerting great pressure and influence in setting the political and media agenda of the traditional right. This is very evident with VOX in Spain, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the Swedish Democrats. 

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a source of dissatisfaction for several European far-right parties known for their proximity to the Kremlin, (such as the AfD in Germany, the Lega in Italy or the party of Marine Le Pen in France), it has also increased the possibilities of cooperation between powerful far-right formations that were previously at odds or had strong differences. 

Practically all the relevant far-right parties have distanced themselves from the Russian aggression – at least in their rhetoric. This means the ever-sensitive position in relation to Vladimir Putin’s government is no longer a blatantly divisive factor, especially between Western and Eastern European parties, such as the Polish PiS or the Baltic extreme right. The same centrifugal effect has been seen with the progressive evolution of the main parties from a position in favour of leaving the European Union, of the “Brexit” type, to the development of a supremacist and xenophobic European nationalist project, aspiring to control the European institutions. 

The upcoming European elections will unravel the mystery. But we must seriously admit the possibility that the far-right will not only increase its electoral result but also its unity in action, making use of the European structure and its profound democratic shortcomings to impose its political agenda, markedly promoting all forms of inequality.