10. Welcome to Europe

Page 8

Interview

The far right is resurging across Europe, both in parliaments and on the streets. To beat them, we need to organize, educate and understand how they function.

Far-Right Political Terror in Europe

Illustration by
David Istvan

Over the last two decades we have witnessed a resurgence of extremist right-wing parties and movements across Europe, from Marie le Pen’s bid for the French presidency, PEGIDA in Germany to fascist paramilitary groups hunting migrants on the EU border in Hungary. The growing popularity of  these racist ideologies can in part be explained by the increasing economic precarity, social instability and political polarization resulting from neoliberal austerity measures put in place by many European governments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought people together through grassroots solidarity initiatives and a renewed awareness of the importance to protect the most vulnerable in our societies for the benefit of us all. But the pandemic also has the potential to further fragment, individualize and polarize our societies by turning migrants, refugees and other marginal groups into scapegoats and non-deserving competitors for increasingly scarce resources.

In this interview with ROAR editor Joris Leverink, Liz Fekete, Director of the Institute of Race Relations and author of Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right (Verso Books, 2019) draws on her decades of experience researching racism and the far right to explain the deep roots of supremacist ideologies in Europe, the far right’s many different manifestations, the infiltration of police and military forces by extreme right militants and the connection between neoliberalism, austerity, authoritarianism and xenophobia, among many other topics.

In response to the rising threat from the right, she makes the call for an anti-fascist movement “to defend cultural pluralism…embracing all that is best in the European humanitarian tradition.”

The last decade has seen a frightening increase in the power, spread and appeal of extreme right-wing parties and movements. From Breivik’s attacks in 2011 to Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency in 2017 and, more recently, the racist attack in Hanua. But this is far from a new phenomenon. You have argued that Europe “has a long history of racism and authoritarianism.” Could you provide a bit of historical context that can help us to understand the rise of the right across Europe?

It is important to point out here that I am not a historian, so what I say has come from what I have learned along the way in my activism and my writing around fascism.

Europe’s dark past is normally just understood in terms of the totalitarian systems of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but colonialism, particularly French and British, as well as dictatorships in southern Europe have cast a long shadow over the continent as well.

The over-emphasis on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, at the expense of the French and British experience among others, creates a kind of historical myopia which blots out the crimes perpetrated by those who occupied central positions in our societies. Racism was a key organizing mechanism during the colonial and imperial eras, and authoritarianism in southern Europe was nurtured by western European powers during the Cold War. The suppression of regional and national self-determination movements in Ireland, Basque country, Catalonia, among others, has been an important part of European history.

In the post-war period, former colonial subjects who migrated to the continent were brutalized —  do not forget that up to to 300 Algerians protesting the French-Algerian war in Paris in 1961 were killed or drowned when the police threw them in the Seine.

So, what we see with the focus on the two totalitarian systems, which are depicted as extremist anomalies in European history, is that it obscures the support for right-wing anti-communist dictatorships in Franco’s Spain, Greece under the Regime of the Colonels and Salazar’s Portugal by western European powers. And it also obliterates from the record continued enthusiasm in the post-war period for race science and eugenics programs (Sweden, for instance, practiced compulsory sterilization of Romani women until 1976).

I am increasingly interested in the legacy of dictatorship, colonialism, race science and eugenics — I do not see this as just a matter of history — I see that the legacy is still with us, as I write in a recent article on Golden Dawn and as I am also exploring in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Swedish and the UK governments initially followed a policy of “herd immunity.”

Dictatorship, like empire, is a structure of dominance that does not just belong to the past, but leaves its mark on the structures, policies, processes and political culture that govern us in the present.

The 21st century far-right has many faces, and its representatives can be found anywhere from the corridors of the European parliament in Brussels to patrolling the southern borders of Europe. How would you describe the different manifestations of this trend and what’s the difference between the “extreme,” “far,” “hard,” and “ultra”-right? And why is it important to make these distinctions?

You need to be precise or you will be ineffective — you cannot just say everyone is a Nazi or a fascist; they could easily prove this to be false and discredit you. The different formations have different tactics and strategies and if we are serious about defeating them then we cannot just be moralistic, we need to be strategic and tactical too.

Academics study the right in terms of their different “families.” It is important to understand which right-wing family, tendency, the different groups, parties and organizations emerge from. But academics tend to get hung up by classifications, so they fail to see what is changing. In Europe’s Fault Lines I use the image of a kaleidoscope to argue that: “The forming and re-forming of parties and tendencies are like the movement of the pieces of a glass in a kaleidoscope, which take on new patterns and formations with each swivel of the tube.”

I use the term “hard right” to denote the new patterns that emerge when various electoral platforms, seemingly discrete, come together and to capture the way former center-right parties — like the Conservative party in the UK — have taken on elements of the program of the extreme right.

The “extreme right” are those parties to the right of traditional conservative parties, especially in terms of willingness to use racist language and rhetoric, that tend to work within the democratic framework, participating in elections and falling short of advocating violence.

Finally, the “far right” are distinguished from the extreme right in that, with few exceptions, they do not reject violence and are more closely associated with a country’s fascist or neo-Nazi past.

Since the 1990s, extremist parties have moved from the periphery to the center of society, consolidating their authority at a local level and establishing power bases in municipal and regional governments across Europe. We are witnessing convergences and affinities between the center and the periphery, and between the extreme right and a newly configured hard right.

In the introduction to your recent book you say that you were motivated to write it by a need “to discover what was new about racism, populism and fascism today, and discover what distinguishes it from the classical fascism of the 1930’s.” Could you explain what is different about racism, populism and fascism today and why understanding this difference matters for our political organizing?

Classical fascism emerged in the 1930s during a period of intense imperial rivalries between nation states. The circumstances today are different as the power of the nation state, which has become an agent for transnational capital, is much diminished. Classical fascism also operated alongside “state terror,” but in today’s world, state repression does not have to be against everyone, because technology allows for selective repression of dissenting and surplus populations.

What we are seeing are police-enforcement-led wars against the sans papiers, the multicultural poor, and the black and increasingly white disenfranchised. It is no longer necessary to put a formal state of exception in place, since a creeping securitization — government through technology — is already taking place behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, this “technological fix” and authoritarian drift has intensified with the pandemic. Lockdown has brought with it heavy policing in multicultural neighborhoods, while Roma and migrant communities have been subjected to targeted quarantine and militarized zones of confinement. States are now exploiting the crisis to create coronavirus data platforms whereby private companies with links to the police industrial complex, particularly in immigration, are getting access to sensitive personal information.

Fascism is not just an ideology or a set of ideas — it is an attitude to human life itself. All these developments provide a threat not just to social, civil and democratic rights, but to human dignity.

Why is this important for organizing? Because we have to identify who is the most oppressed, the most surveiled; we have to recognize that state power affects us all differently, we have to act accordingly and organize around the most oppressed and victimized people in society.

Lastly, we have to cut through the crap of the so-called nationalists. If we understand that the power of the nation state is diminished, we see that this is a faux nationalism. The hard right are posing as nationalists but they are part of a global elite who are benefiting from globalization. Nationalism is just a means to an end, a struggle within the global elite. We are not seeing nationalist wars — we are seeing alternative poles of globalization, competing for influence on the world stage. US hegemony is on the wane and there are new hegemonic axes being formed.

Following on from the last question, in recent years the political center has used the term “populism” to admonish the politics of both the left and right. In the UK, for instance, both Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have been accused of being populist. But this seems to run the risk of flattening important differences in political perspectives. What is it about the term that you think remains useful today? Do we need a new populism?

I do not like the term populism and rarely use it, for precisely the reasons you describe. It is a powerful tool for elites to basically preserve the status quo. It is ridiculous to call Jeremy Corbyn a populist when his whole program was a social democratic one with elements of international socialism. Nigel Farage is right-wing authoritarian; he uses populism as a means to an end but his politics are firmly situated in a right-wing authoritarian tradition.

I think that there is still some mileage in using the term populism in a right wing context but I do not really see a political family that I would classify as “right wing populist.” Rather, I see populism as a subset of authoritarianism. Populism is the style of politics adopted by the extreme right that wants to break with elements of representative democracy. To that end, they will talk about the people’s will, the volk, or the need for more people’s referendums, because they want to dispense with certain aspects of democracy.

Indeed, the xenophobic populism promoted in the media seems to be designed to appeal to the worst instincts of the nativist imagination — a veritable well of repressed racial feeling and angst that can also be tapped by the extreme right. In that regard, populism is part of an anti-democratic movement. I would never argue for a left wing populism; the left should be expanding democracy not abandoning it.

In your work, you point to the relation between neoliberalism, austerity and the right’s embrace of nativism. Can you elaborate on the mechanisms at play here?

A demonstration by the Italian neo-fascist CasaPound movement in Trieste. Photo by Erin Johnson / Flickr

While Europe’s support for wars in the Middle East and Arab world have long strengthened enemy images of Muslims and bolstered Islamophobia, the insecurities generated by the globalization of the world economy and the embrace of neoliberalism have created the climate for nativism, “our own people first.”

The EU’s embrace of neoliberalism, and later austerity, strengthened European authoritarianism, both at a member-state level and within the EU, where the powerful core countries set the agenda.

Whether the reconfiguring hard right — fortified by the ultra-nationalist rebellion within mainstream conservatism — represents neoliberalism’s nemesis or its resolution, is by no means clear. We saw, prior to the pandemic, the ways in which nationalism and neoliberalism were combining with the suggestion that, in the short term at least, the center of political culture in many of the EU’s member-states would take a more illiberal turn and not just in response to immigration. But, paradoxically, with the pandemic, there are signs that this could be changing. People are frightened and the far-right’s response, which focuses on their civil liberties and right to break the lockdown, means they are hemorrhaging support. Everything is up for grabs.

In the post-communist states of the EU, neoliberal market reforms were imposed in the name of democratization. Here, parties of the authoritarian right are advancing, taking advantage of a broader rebellion against the outcomes of the “transition process” that was implemented after the collapse of Communist Party rule.

Neoliberalism, with its promise of abundant riches and freedom, no longer provides a plausible script, particularly as systemic corruption is becoming institutionalized within the political process. Hence the comfort of the sticking-plaster of nationalism, and the narratives of anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration. Mainstream politicians in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia speak the tired old language of authoritarianism, ethnic nationalism and the nation-state, with nineteenth-century style social Darwinism and anti-Roma and anti-migrant racism providing pitch and tenor. The disciplinary power of religion — Catholicism or Calvinism —is also invoked to maintain social control in the face of the narcissistic lifestyles of the super-rich.

These new and sometimes not so new corrupt elites, in countries with little experience of modern immigration, are manipulating a victim narrative, issuing dire warnings about foreign domination while covering up their own failure to protect their people from the ravages of neoliberalism and now their failures to manage COVID-19, hence the salience of the “Blame China” narrative.

Neoliberal elites, having once extolled the virtues of the global village, are responding to the nationalist challenge by packaging globalization in a more patriotic and authoritarian wrapper. In fact, authoritarian solutions have always been an aspect of neoliberalism, and there is much in its practice —as opposed to its superficial ideology — that nationalists can build on. Punishment of the weak and vulnerable is as intrinsic to neoliberalism in the UK as it is to authoritarian nationalism in Hungary.

Nationalism, nativism, the military ethos, the setting of boundaries between citizen and migrant, the promise of national security in the face of the Muslim enemy within — all are means to an end, ensuring that the public colludes in policing itself within the technological security apparatus that has grown up alongside the market-state. In this sense, nationalism, far from representing a break with neoliberalism, provides the climate that allows for its break from democracy.

The far-right’s militancy is an increasingly deadly force, with attacks on and assassinations of politicians, activists, migrants, refugees and Muslims in general. You have written about “an ultra-right grassroots insurgency” and “a racist insurrection.” First, can you give us a description of the type of organizations and ideologies we are dealing with here? And second, how serious is the threat they are posing both to stability and democracy at the systemic level and to specific groups and individuals at the local level?

I am not sure I would say that these extra-parliamentary, quasi-paramilitary forces have an ideology as such — their only true ideology is racism and race war. But in this, they can draw on various conspiracy theories floating around on the internet — from eurabia to white genocide, from the Great Replacement to the Alternative Right’s white ethno-nationalism and/or white supremacy.

Ultra-right formations could be anything from far-right border vigilantes, organized football hooligan, combat sport groups, Autonomous Nationalists to identitarians. In Europe’s Fault Lines, I write that the ultra right “comprises a fluid, constantly mutating, evolving scene. Its various ideological formations are loosely linked in a web of relationships, sometimes splitting off, sometimes coming together, in the spaces provided by specific sub-cultures — around music, football and combat sports, for instance.”

If the state does its job, the ultra right should not pose a threat to stability and democracy. European states have a vast amount of powers at their disposal which they could easily deploy to deal with the ultra right but the problem is the ultra right is not in their sights. The reason for this is because the ultra right do not primarily target the state, or state institutions; they target ethnic minorities.

For particular state formations, these extra-democratic forces can be turned to as tools in times of crisis; they can be used to do the dirty work that no state can be seen to do. But in the meantime they pose a growing threat to specific groups and individuals at a local level. More and more attacks on mosques and synagogues and asylum centers, on humanitarians at the Greek Turkish border and on the Greek islands. One racism opens up other racisms. The situation is very alarming indeed and I cannot think of a period in my lifetime when it has been as intense as this, not least because the role social media has in inflaming tensions and mobilizing vigilante activities at short notice

How does far-right militancy manifest itself in Europe today?

There is a definite, pernicious, politically organized and racially motivated violence taking place in Europe. It is most prevalent in its de-industrialized and agricultural heartlands, or in the lieux de vie — spaces of life — in port towns and cities, where the sans papiers and Roma set up camp only to be brutalized by police and far-right vigilantes, sometimes hard to distinguish between.

The “foreigners” hunted down in Chemnitz, Saxony by a combination of neo-Nazis, football hooligans and martial arts fanatics, experienced this organized violence and police complicity first-hand in August 2018. Not only did the German police all but lose control of the streets for two days but the head of the federal intelligence services, Hans-Georg Maaßen complained that “deliberate misinformation” had been spread about the anti-foreigner violence and that a video showing racists hunting down foreigners was fake. After further incendiary statements over a period of months, Maaßen was sacked but he remains a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, where he is a vocal supporter of the Werteunion, an inner-party group that was formed in 2017 as a protest against the Chancellor’s asylum policy.

This is not just a German problem. Throughout Europe the police and intelligence services are systematically failing the victims of far-right violence and colluding, either directly or indirectly, with the growth of fascism. This collusion should be understood both in the active sense — “to conspire, connive or collaborate” — and as a failure to act, by “turning a blind eye” to or “pretended ignorance” of what should be “morally, legally or officially” opposed.

One does not have to look hard for evidence that sections of the military and police support the far right. Individual soldiers and police officers have been implicated in a number of far-right terrorist plots across mainland Europe and in the UK, where serving soldiers have been prosecuted for  membership of the proscribed far-right terrorist group National Action. In France a report by the Jean Jaurès Foundation entitled “Who do the Barracks Vote For?” warns of growing support for the far right in communities with a strong military or paramilitary presence. The first recommendation of a French parliamentary inquiry report into the far right is for greater surveillance of military and former military implicated in far-right groups.

But these ad-hoc initiatives and slow-moving inquiries do not meet the level of threat involved. The authorities are, at best, asleep at the wheel. Surely, the deep-seated and systematic intrusion and infiltration of the Greek police and military by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn — all of whose MPs are currently on trial in Athens — and the recent revelations about the Uniter Group plot in Germany, should have been the wake-up call?

The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was the third largest party in parliament when it emerged that it had penetrated an elite unit within the military which was planning a coup d’état, as well as the National Intelligence Service, the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, the immigration police and the DELTA squads —Force of Control Fast Confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Uniter Group is a far-right network of active and former soldiers in both Germany and Austria who are under investigation for stealing weapons and ammunition from the Bundeswehr supplies and devising a hit list of politicians and people from the left wing scene who would be eliminated on Day X.

Europe not only has a long history of racism and authoritarianism, but also of anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian organizing. Can you explain what, in your view, is the importance of organizing against the resurgence of fascism and xenophobic violence; what strategies and tactics it ought to pursue; and to what end?

We need an anti-fascist movement to defend cultural pluralism which is a basic tenet of democracy, but it also needs to be anti-racist and firmly embedded in local communities. It has got to be at the heart of socialist pluralism and left wing cultural democratic renewal, embracing all that is best in the European humanitarian tradition. It is not just about mobilizing against the fascists — important as that is — but it is also, as Greek anti-fascists argue, “a political struggle about the kind of world we want to live in — it is a battle for democracy, solidarity and social justice.”

The current anti-fascist movement is much more racially and gender inclusive than we had at the height of previous resistance in the 1970s. Anti-fascism has resurfaced as a dynamic riposte to the fairy-tale version of multiculturalism and equality of opportunity embraced by the global elite.

For anti-fascism is a collective fight that brings us together as a progressive and inclusive community to face, with determination, a common enemy. But if modern anti-fascism is to grow as a material and cultural riposte to neoliberalism and fascism, it must combine mobilizations against the far right with a critique of the institutions and cultures that nurture its forces. We must mobilize quickly on national and European levels each and every time mob violence occurs.

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