A torn-up campaign poster of Austria's far right presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer. Photo: Michael Gubi
Today’s Europe exhibits strong far-right tendencies at the top levels of political power. In the recent presidential elections in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party came first by gaining 36 percent of the vote, before its candidate Norbert Hofer was narrowly defeated by the former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen in the second round.
In Finland, Poland and Hungary the extreme right already participates in the government, while in the Netherlands and France it is currently polling as the leading political force. Other countries experiencing an electoral surge of the far right include Denmark, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Italy. Equally worrying trends, albeit with a Hollywood tragicomedy aroma, manifest themselves at the other side of the Atlantic.
Certainly, things are much more complex beyond the realm of electoral politics. At the base of Western societies, a fierce battle is taking place between right-wing dynamics and the vibrant parts of society, with radical social movements at the forefront. In this context, it becomes clear that the rise of the far right is dialectically interrelated with the neoliberal project of Europe’s ruling elite.
Of Neoliberals and Cannibals
The contemporary far right has modern causes, novel features and wide popularity, meaning that historical comparisons with the fascist and Nazist movements of the past are only partly helpful. Overall, the far right emerges as a side effect of the negative economic externalities of capitalist globalization. Large populations view the far right as a mode of political refuge against society’s race to the bottom, caused by increased competition in a globalized economy.
The rise of the extreme right also corresponds to the destabilization of societal structures by financial markets, starting from states and businesses and reaching all the way down to communities and families. Through the nostalgic return to an imaginary community or nation, the far-right proposal offers cohesive substance for societies in disintegration, something that is missing from the impersonal institutions of financial markets and the weak community of money.
The pseudo-communal proposal of the right enjoys significant popularity among various social groups, including the European middle classes, which have suffered extensive alienation and individualization by market forces and which were gradually stripped off the social ties of their past. Hence, where the neoliberal war of all against all has forced societies into a form of cannibalism, the far right promises a return to community. The problem, of course, is that in the fascist community cannibalism does not cease but becomes vertically integrated.
The turn of the masses to the extreme right is a favorable development for the ruling classes. Far-right ideologies are based on a simplistic Manichean friend-foe worldview, which makes the minds of believers extremely easy to manipulate. Ultra-right ideologies are therefore already exploited by European elites to channel social frustrations about the negative externalities of neoliberal domination against various scapegoats, chiefly the most vulnerable social groups and the “dangerous classes”.
In the Middle Ages, the Church was the main source of domination and torment, yet the “witches” were finally torched. Under today’s dualisms of the extreme right, those who hold social power can easily escape from social anger over inequality by fomenting fear towards social diversity. The political proposal of the extreme right is also a unique opportunity to help elites re-legitimize national political institutions while leaving intact the root causes of their current delegitimization.
In the past, Roman rulers appeased the participants in major social upheavals by giving spectacles to their people. Nowadays, political forces can push forward with the neoliberal project through the iron fist of nation states and, at the same time, temporarily delay the rapid rate at representative institutions are decomposing by aggressively investing in nationalist and xenophobic ideologies.
Meet my Technocrats
The progressive proposal to overcome the crisis of global capitalism bears a certain cost for individuals, as it requires personal mobilization and participation in the construction of alternative social relations from the bottom-up. Such a proposal contests the dominant relations of neoliberal capitalism. On the contrary, the political proposal of the extreme right works in complementary interrelation with the neoliberal project. This makes it applicable at the micro- and macro-social levels without the need to subvert established hierarchies and countervail dominant social forces.
While in the neoliberal worldview the relation between the individual and society is confined to the impersonal institution of financial markets, in the ultra-right deviation such a connection is ideologically complemented by the feeling of an imagined community and a common destiny. In other words, the extreme right proposal provides a feeling of pseudo-belonging without inflicting any personal costs, and an identity based on simplistic friend-foe dichotomies, which make self-navigation easier in a complex and contradictory social reality. At the same time, its blind reliance on rigid hierarchies and a fully mediated relationship with politics renders the absolute delegation of politics to representatives and technocrats, as encountered in neoliberal meta-democracies, a seemingly natural phenomenon.
Last but not least, the concealment of social inequalities and contradictions under the abstraction of the nation relieves the person from any tendencies to come in conflict with approximating relations of domination or exploitation and, instead, masks and legitimizes them as allied to the interests of the oppressed. To sum up, in the right-wing totalitarian variation of neoliberalism, the individual still has to comply — without signs of resistance — with market sanctions and social hierarchies, but now with the additional burden of having to pretend she is not a “Jew”.
The popularity of the extreme-right proposal for society does not fall from the sky. Indeed, it is cultivated by dominant behavioral patterns and worldviews and fomented by the social ruins produced by the neoliberal project. In European societies governed by neoliberal elites, citizens are on a daily basis exposed to and trained for the transformation of human beings into means for alien ends. This condition is the ideal substrate for the familiarization with Nazism’s conversion of human beings into means towards the nationalistic ends of concentration camps and wars.
The instrumental cost-benefit logic of neoliberalism, through which all social contradictions can supposedly be reduced to pseudo-objectivist technocratic issues, becomes a powerful legitimizing weapon in the hands of the extreme right for the management of the “other” as homo sacer. The hypocritical indifference of neoliberalism towards the asymmetries of social power generated by capital and financial markets — and their exaltation as the pinnacle of human freedom — legitimizes the glorification of social hierarchy and domination, which constitute the foundation of totalitarianism.
Make Democracy History
The shift to the extreme right preserves the present and, nonetheless, brings new elements into the dominant system of power. At the macro-social level, the far-right project leaves the neoliberal economic model at the heart of the nation state intact. Its most important novelty, though, is the refutation of basic democratic attainments; a key tendency in the current phase of capitalism and the holy grail for neoliberal social consolidation.
In external relations with globalized markets, the far right invests in a pragmatic protectionism and tooth and claw global competition. Hence the far-right celebrates and intensifies certain aspects of capitalist globalization (competition among national economies, intensification of the exploitation of labor and of ecological destruction, transition to non-democratic regimes), while at the same time constituting a clear and present danger for other aspects of capitalist globalization, because it has an inherent tendency for the self-destruction of the societies over which it prevails.
At the micro-social level, the ultra-right tendency invests in the darkest elements of human nature, such as fear, hatred and the lust for war. Keeping in mind that any type of human society is essentially based on collaboration, the violent top-down imposition of tendencies destroying such collaboration and replacing the latter with hatred and war leads to social disintegration.
Yet, the extreme-right variation of capitalist globalization does not tend to war only within but also among societies. The orthodoxy of neoliberal competition between nation states is not confined to peaceful means. Instead, war among nations becomes the continuation of economic antagonism by other means. This fact inevitably endangers the smooth operation of markets. Hence, the extreme-right variation is always a choice for the dominant system of power, albeit an ultimum refugium for the resolution of its crises and for the preservation of capital-dominated social reproduction through cycles of creative destruction.
The Neoliberal/Fascist Interface
With the exception of the Golden Dawn party in Greece, the far right in Europe today does not build the same structures as those of the interwar period in its quest to capture the state; there are no massive paramilitary Sturmabteilung groups battling opposing groups to win the streets. Indeed, the tactics of today’s far-right chiefly stick to electoral politics.
The reason for this appears to be the same reason for which the contemporary left has failed so far to reconstruct the massive workers’ movements of the past. It seems that the fragmentation of the individual’s relationship with any type of social collectivity is here to stay. This phenomenon of fragmentation cannot be easily dealt with by the left, which is reproduced upon the construction of alternative relations at the social base.
On the contrary, for the extreme right it suffices to cultivate and legitimize mentalities of delegation in order to surpass its organizational problems. After all, as Hitler realized since the night of the long knives, the inherently totalitarian nucleus of the state is much more rationalized, once power is seized, than stormtrooper groups. Therefore, and in contrast to progressive social forces, the far right’s power proposal is immediately applicable and largely compatible with the present status quo, as it simply constitutes an inflation of existing neoliberal tendencies towards social cannibalism and totalitarianism.
Generators of Fascist Hegemony
As soon as it becomes hegemonic, and even before seizing power, any political force is reflected at the centers of political decision-making. Before the extreme right rises in power at the core of Europe, its hegemony already reverberates in the trajectory that the EU has taken through decisions of purely ultra-right orientation. Such reactionary policies at the top of European institutions are the outcome of the dialectics between the extreme right and the dominating forces of neoliberalism. The far-right deviation from neoliberalism is compatible with the continuation of the current process of globalization, even as it dramatically escalates that process. Towards war.
There is, however, a progressive counter-proposal, which is based on solidarity, cooperation and democracy between peoples and the construction of an alternative type of international community. Contrary to the ultra-right deviation, such a proposal is not compatible with the current process of globalization. While extreme-right governments are nowadays encountered everywhere without significant conflicts or confrontations with preexisting forces or structures of power, left-wing governments, by contrast, if they rise to government, are rapidly absorbed by the structural power of global financial capital.
Even though the far right has already risen to power in almost half of Europe, Wolfgang Schäuble never said to his newly-elected fascist satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe that “we will skin you like hares and wave your skin to Podemos,” as he was reported to have transmitted to the leftist Syriza party, when the latter was elected in Greece.
Fascism and Nazism are not a foreign body to Western civilization. On the contrary, they are the children of the authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies at the heart of the European Enlightenment. The present international state of affairs does not afford any ground for forces of solidarity and cooperation. Yet it welcomes the enemies of humanity, the forces of destruction and war.
From the perspective of radical social movements, we have indeed been fighting for the past twenty years, day by day, in the struggle to construct societies of freedom within and against the power of capital. Today, though, it is more than obvious to all of us that we have to transcend our present level of organization towards the transnational level. The networking of European social movements is a project already being built through platforms of convergence, which combine both direct political action and long-term political goals.
As in the generations of militants before us, it falls on our shoulders to smash capitalism and its contemporary far-right deviations through internationalist coordination. As Gramsci once said, now is the time of monsters. Our task is to tilt the balance in favor of humanity and change the course of history.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/neoliberal-europe-fascism-xenophobia/