The experiences in Hungary, Poland, Austria and elsewhere make clear the anti-democratic character of Europe’s new right-wing extremist parties, which, once in government, infiltrate the state apparatus in order to take precautions against their being deprived of power again. Is it possible, then, to speak, in a scientific sense, of a fascist danger in Europe?
Over the past year, the biotope of modernised, right-wing extremist parties in Europe has spread virally. We are not speaking about violent, militant fringe groups but rather about parties who have found their way to the commanding heights of states across the continent. Should we use the term ‘fascism’ to label these parties, well-aware of the strong historical associations this term evokes?
We might also ask, from the point-of-view of tactics, whether it makes sense to emphasise and give prominence to the objectively existing continuity between present‑day right-wing extremist parties and historical fascism. Is there a difference between the historical far right in Europe and what the mainstream of empirical political science today calls ‘right‑wing populism’?
Critical theorists such as Hannah Arendt and Karl Polanyi agreed with the Communist left in the past on the point that fascism was the political answer of one part of the bourgeois class to the crisis of liberal democracy. Thus, Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, ‘Fascism attempts to organise the newly-created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure … Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.’
However true it may be that we cannot effectively fight modernised, right-wing radicalism with the slogans, language and symbols of the interwar period, it is still the case that today’s radical, neo-fascist, populist or otherwise right-wing parties’ grab for power can only be understood in the context of capitalist property and dominance relations.
In this sense I would like to present for discussion the following five theses:
1. The extreme right-wing parties want to establish an authoritarian state. For that reason, it is appropriate to speak of neo-fascism.
2. In several countries neo-fascism has made its way into the heart of societies, and in others it has shifted the agenda of traditionally conservative parties to the right.
3. The crisis has produced a fertile breeding ground for this. But only its interpretation within the framework of the patterns of meaning provided by neoliberalism make entire populations vulnerable to neo-fascism.
4. The rise of neo-fascism is a European phenomenon, finding its expression in transnational party formations in and outside the European Parliament.
5. The paradox of a nationalist ‘international’ is resolved in that conflicting nationalisms of moderate and radical parties of the right have found a common vanishing point in their opposition to the European Union.
Seven weeks after the elections that led to an absolute majority for the Law and Justice party (PiS) in the Polish parliament, Die Zeit published an article headed ‘How a new state is emerging’, in which it said that ‘step by step the new government is rebuilding Poland into a right-wing nationalist state’.
Since then the PiS government has done its best to meet such expectations, trying to get control over the decisive power positions in the state – for instance, by its effort to take control of the supreme court, which caused the European Commission to initiate infringement proceedings against Poland last year. At the same time, the government is tightening its control over the media, including censorship measures and politically motivated dismissals.
Similar developments have taken place in Hungary, where Fidesz enacted a ‘Basic Law’ in 2012. This starts with a national avowal of the ethnic-cultural nature of Hungary, thus defining the framework of legislation and administration – for example, by distinguishing general human rights from civic rights, which remain the privilege of Hungarians inside and outside the borders of the country.
In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is a nationalist party, however not faithful to its country but to a unified ‘greater Germany’, is now in charge of the police, army and secret services. As part of its determination to create a ‘deep state’ under its control, the FPÖ is extending its powers across a muiltitude of state institutions, from the national statistics institute to the public broadcasting service.
In all these cases, there is no reason to presume innocence. Wherever right-wing radical parties enter government, they act according to a straightforward principle: tolerate no more democracy than necessary and enforce as much authoritarianism as possible.
In doing so, they are acting as parties of the capitalist elites. Chasing them from power requires mobilising the majorities in our societies for democracy. In order to do so, it is important to see who the voters for neo-fascist parties are.
Mainstream political science answers the question by referring to the high votes for neo-fascist parties among the working class. The typical voter is portrayed as male, white, with a low income and level of education, located predominantly in declining industrial regions and outside urban conglomerations.
From here, it is a short road to regarding neo-fascism as a phenomenon spreading only in the lower classes. This leads straight to the so-called ‘populism thesis’, according to which populists are dividing the population into ‘corrupt elites’ and a ‘good, clean people’.
But populists address the people in a special way, namely through the medium of the reactionary prejudice, or, as Adorno has shown in his study about the authoritarian character, through ‘anti‑democratic resentment’, which is not contrary to the neoliberal worldview but forms an inherent part of it.
This is why the discursive cleavage in politics between right and left continues to be important. This can be illustrated by data from the first ballot of the 2017 French presidential elections, when the votes of blue and white-collar workers were polarised between the far-right Marine Le Pen (39% and 30% respectively) and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon (24% and 25%).
Contrary to the mainstream political science thesis that populism evades being assigned to either left or right, 70% of voters for Mélenchon identified themselves as ‘left’, while 63% of Le Pen voters called themselves ‘right’ in post-electoral surveys. This is confirmed by the decisive motives the interviewees expressed: social security, healthcare and an increase in mass purchasing power on the left, and the fight against terrorism, crime and criminality on the right.
It is no longer possible to analyse the spread of the extreme right-wing biotope in different countries as parallel but independent phenomena. The rise of the far right is a pan-European phenomenon. From 1999 to 2014, the share of seats of extreme right-wing and neo-fascist parties in the European Parliament more than doubled from 11% to 23%. According to the most recent projections as Red Pepper went to press, these parties can expect 25% of seats in the May elections, which would make them the second largest bloc.
This clearly shows that the kind of nationalism embodied by the extreme right-wingers and neo‑fascists has become an alternative, reactionary concept not only as far as the restructuring of individual states is concerned but with regard to Europe as a whole.
In the incumbent European Parliament, the far right is split into three fractions. Of these, the most dynamic unifying force is the ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom’ (ENF), embracing the Rassemblement National, the Freedom Party, the Northern League, the Congress of the New Right (Poland), the Czech SPD, the Party for Freedom (PVV) and Vlaams Belang.
The ENF charter is strikingly frank and precise about its objectives: ‘The parties and the individual MEPs of the ENF group base their political alliance on the sovereignty of states… The opposition to any transfer of national sovereignty to supranational bodies and/or European institutions is one of the fundamental principles uniting members of the ENF… They base their political alliance on the preservation of the identity of the citizens and nations of Europe… The right to control and regulate immigration is thus a fundamental principle shared by the members of the ENF group.’
The rejection of the EU in the name of ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘immigration control’ is the common position of all these right-wing extremist parties.
It would be fatal for the left to join in the game of nationalism, precisely because European integration finds itself in a crisis. A collapse of European integration – quite thinkable today – would be positive only if we thought that there was anything better to come, if we supposed that the great problems our societies are facing – such as globalised financial markets, migration, development, climate change, security – could be solved in a better way within a Europe of 28, 35 or 50 national currencies, nation states and border regimes. If that is not the case, the logical necessity is to defend peaceful European integration against nationalism.
At the same time it is no less important to acknowledge that uncritical acceptance of the status quo cannot succeed, and that it is necessary to fight for a radical social, ecological and democratic reformation of the EU and its politics.
To return to the question of whether it is possible to speak, in a scientific sense, of a fascist danger in Europe today, my answer is ambivalent. Not long ago, a friend wrote to me, saying, ‘The light we can see in the tunnel only comes from the entrance behind our backs. It can disappear with the next curve. We need to be alert!’
A version of this article appears in the next edition of Transform magazine. It is based on a speech at the ¡No Pasaran! conference in London in March
The first article I remember having written on political issues was 80 years ago. Easy to date: it was right after the fall of Barcelona in February 1939.
The article was about what seemed to be the inexorable spread of fascism over the world. In 1938, Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany. A few months later, Czechoslovakia was betrayed, placed in the hands of the Nazis at the Munich Conference. In Spain, one city after another was falling to Franco’s forces. February 1939, Barcelona fell. That was the end of the Spanish Republic. The remarkable popular revolution, anarchist revolution, of 1936, ’37, ’38, had already been crushed by force. It looked as if fascism was going to spread without end.
It’s not exactly what’s happening today but, if we can borrow Mark Twain’s famous phrase, ‘History doesn’t repeat but sometimes rhymes.’
When Barcelona fell, there was a huge flood of refugees from Spain. Most went to Mexico, about 40,000. Some went to New York, established anarchist offices in Union Square, second-hand bookstores down 4th Avenue. That’s where I got my early political education, roaming around that area.
We didn’t know at the time but the US government was also beginning to think about how the spread of fascism might be virtually unstoppable. They didn’t view it with the same alarm that I did as a 10-year-old. In 1939, the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations began to carry out planning about the post-war world. And in the early years, they assumed that it would be divided between a Nazi-controlled world, most of Eurasia, and a US-controlled world, which would include the western hemisphere, the former British empire, which the US would take over, and parts of the Far East.
Those views, we now know, were maintained until the Russians turned the tide. Stalingrad, 1942, the huge tank battle at Kursk, a little later, made it pretty clear that the Russians would defeat the Nazis. The US planning changed. The picture of the post-war world changed.
Today we are not facing the rise of Nazism, but we are facing the spread of an ultra-nationalist, reactionary international, trumpeted openly by its advocates, including Steve Bannon, the impresario of the movement. The Middle East alliance consists of the extreme reactionary states of the region – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel – confronting Iran. We’re facing severe threats in Latin America. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil put in power the most extreme, most outrageous of the right-wing ultra-nationalists who are now plaguing the hemisphere. In western Europe, the right-wing parties are growing, some of them very frightening in character.
At the level of states, the balance looks overwhelmingly in the wrong direction. But states aren’t the only entities. At the level of people, it’s quite different. And that could make the difference. That means a need to protect the functioning democracies, to enhance them, to make use of the opportunities they provide, for the kinds of activism that have led to significant progress in the past could save us in the future.
Noam Chomsky was speaking to Democracy Now! in Boston
The question is not so much why the far right is a threat to democracy as why mainstream political parties that consider themselves democratic have incorporated far-right perspectives and nativist principles into their welfare, immigration and legal programmes.
Now that extreme-right parties are part of coalition governments in so many countries of Europe, policing, security and immigration policy can be under their influence. But in paying particular attention to the democratic threat this poses, we must not ignore the multitude of other institutions complicit in the erosion of human rights. The Italian coalition government may be dominated by the League, for instance, but its refusal to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea has the tacit approval of the European Commission.
Liz Fekete is director of the Institute of Race Relations and author of Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right (Verso)
How can we face up to the threat of the far right? More than two decades of failed attempts across western Europe have made clear that copying far-right frames and policies does not stop their rise; it largely does the work for them. The only way to stop the far right and, more importantly, strengthen democracy is to address all issues that people care about, including, but not only, so-called ‘far-right issues’ such as crime, immigration and national sovereignty, and to offer clear and convincing democratic solutions.
Cas Mudde’s The Far Right Today (Polity) is out in September
The far right’s success over the past decade has emerged from the failure of traditional parties to offer any cogent response to real or perceived economic and cultural disquiet.Initially invited into governing coalitions as ‘support partners’ for traditional conservative parties unable to win parliamentary majorities, far-right parties have shown themselves now capable of winning national ballots across the continent.
I started looking into nativist populism in the aftermath of the financial crash, with my own country, Britain, having just elected two members of the extreme-right BNP to the European Parliament. Political commentators, negligent about the groundswell of anti-elite sentiment swirling around European electorates, are now desperately rushing to ‘explain’ political events they failed to see coming.
Their ‘answers’ remain unconvincing to those who warned them: grassroots activists and migrant-led NGOs, a smattering of writers and thinkers, not to mention vast swathes of Europe’s minority communities. It’s from these groups that any resistance to the far right’s forward march may arise.
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