In order to properly identify and understand rightward shifts and authoritarian developments in global class relations, it is necessary to examine the particularities of the different capitalist states involved and the relations between the various social forces within them. These constitute the relation between national and transnational elements of statehood in each case.
In my view, however, it is prudent to emphasize that right-wing movements do not simply appear out of nowhere, but are usually present and politically active as one of the basic socio-political tendencies. They generally have organizational structures, a leadership team and an ideology, boast national and international networks, and work on developing alliances.
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Social Change and Its Detractors
Within Germany, literature on the subject is rife with the idea that the right exists because Nazism was never adequately dealt with or because anti-fascism in the GDR was merely superficial in nature. This view suggests that, from the end of World War II and Germany’s liberation from Nazi control to the country’s subsequent re-unification, everything proceeded in a straightforward democratic manner in accordance with the 1949 Bonn constitution. But there is every reason to think that precisely the opposite occurred.
The bourgeois practice of giving coexistence the form of a state-ordained political society has been accompanied by authoritarian and restorative tendencies since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these took the form of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the eighteenth century, they were conservative and counter-revolutionary (mobilizations in support of church and monarch). By the nineteenth century, they had taken on a nationalist and racist character (exemplified in the phenomenon of the mob, and in colonialism, racism, and anti-Semitism), and in the early twentieth century fascism took shape, mixing elements of nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-materialism, social Darwinism, and the violent and militaristic cult of masculinity.
These ideological elements became constitutive components of bourgeois rule and are reproduced in specific ways. The defeat of Nazism or fascism, or the fall of military dictatorships, have by no means eliminated the objective modes of thought or political forms that play a constitutive role in the formation of bourgeois society. Political groups, informal networks of leaders and others in civil society either persist or begin to establish themselves, reorganizing and regrouping. The ideological elements are rearticulated or there is a shift in focus.
With view to right-wing movements, it can be said that all political, organizational, and ideological elements are present, but they are distributed differently, are somewhat disorganized, and no longer unified in a party or state form. There are party organizations, loose alliances, as well as organized, potentially violent groups or networks in civil society: relief organizations, publishing houses, newspapers and magazines, institutes, associations, cultural practices ranging from clubs devoted to maintaining local tradition and traditional attire through to “Blood and Honour” meetings, with their associated musical acts and franchise businesses.
The same holds true for the ideological elements, with adherents striving to provide a contemporary spin on ideologemes such as “nation”, “the people”, an “us vs. them” mentality, racism and anti-Semitism, anti-communism and a rejection of the Left, direct democracy, conspiracies, doomsday scenarios such as “Volkstod” (the perceived death of the German people) or the “Great Replacement”, the idea of a specific Christian or (as the case may be) Islamic civilization, masculinism, militarism, heroism, and security.
Many of these elements have had a fixed presence in right-wing discourse for decades. This is hardly surprising, given that what is at play is not a form of theory that uses concepts to further its development and conducts research, but rather a völkisch (ethno-nationalist) set of political ambitions that is repeatedly adapted to the political context.
Crisis Management from the Right
Because the Right is in principle present and active, it is necessary to understand their increasing importance. This can be explained — and this must be emphasized — as not only a result of their own actions: it is also true that their programmatic intentions are by no means realized directly. I propose that a crucial factor in the rise of right-wing movements can be found in the most recent major financial and economic crisis of 2007 and 2008.
This crisis was inscribed within a far broader crisis dynamic. This includes elements of the crisis in the relationship between society and nature, most evident in accelerated global warming and the concomitant rise in severe weather events, as well as in desertification, erosion, extinction, dwindling supplies of drinking water, the loss of forests (and so of major carbon sinks), wetlands, and major sites of oxygen production, and urban sprawl, with its attendant increase in impervious surfaces. It also entails the erosion and crisis of democracy, of public communication and culture, of gender relations, of education and science, and of the relationship between city and country. Taken together, these can be understood as a multi-dimensional crisis, one which presented the ruling elite with a significant challenge, as they felt demoralized and still today are at a loss as to how to proceed.
In the years following the outbreak of the crisis, anti-capitalist forces have changed their forms of action and organizational practices relative to what they had been since the mid-1990s: the World Social Forum movement, Attac, protests at major summits, and the founding of NGOs. Since 2011, there has been an ongoing upsurge in critique, resistance, protests, and the emergence of movements spread across the globe, such as the Arab Spring and the numerous initiatives against austerity. The latter current is most clearly embodied in organizations such as Podemos, Occupy Wall Street, movements against forced evictions, or the Syriza-led government in Greece, but also includes movements in Israel, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, and China (to name but a few), protests against the introduction of or increases to student fees, women resisting violence or demanding access to abortion services.
In the wake of a long phase of neoliberal globalization, of the discrediting of unions and worker-led movements, new wars, the appropriation of natural resources and social wealth through privatization and the destruction of the environment — all of which have been implemented not only by conservative, but also social-democratic and green parties — there is an increasing sense that a movement is building that is capable of responding positively and constructively to this destruction of nature, social relations, free time and educational opportunity (whether it be in refugee camps or a traffic jam, while searching for housing or at a bullshit job).
The bourgeoisie found itself on the defensive and proved itself incapable of dealing with the scale of the crisis. For just all those that preceded it, this crisis largely came as a surprise to the bourgeoisie. The general view was that the crisis-prone nature of the capitalist economy had been overcome and that the political challenge of socialism had been defeated, while in particular it was assumed that the European and German economies were protected from speculative tendencies by commensurate risk provision.
The defensive and clueless attitude of the middle class led to indecision in a number of areas: being either for or against the Euro, low interest rates, the energy transition, the policy of the “black zero” (i.e. balancing the budget) or investment, the dissolution of the EU, or politics by military means. In many countries, this led to a stalemate, and forming a government, and by extension a national spirit, became difficult (see Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, Austria, France, Italy, Germany, or the US).
The positive development of protest movements and new parties beginning to coalesce at the time were both overshadowed and hybridized by a number of events that marked specific counterpoints: the activities of the National Socialist Underground in Germany from the 1990s onwards, the massacre committed by Anders Breivik in Norway in July 2011, the suppression of protests on Taksim Square in June 2013, the electoral success of Golden Dawn in Greece, the spread of Islamism and the ability of ISIS to mobilize people, and the downfall of twenty-first century socialism.
In Hungary in 2010 and 2014, Viktor Orbán first won and then retained office. His government implemented an attack on civil society and left-wing representatives, strengthened racist government policy (such as anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamic racism), pandered to Hungarian irredentism, curtailed academic freedoms, restructured the justice system, and took control of the media. The reality of this trend within Central Europe was bolstered by the electoral success of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland in 2015, which assumed government in November that year and began transforming the country’s justice system and mass media.
In Turkey, Erdoğan carried out constitutional changes that allowed him to assume the presidency in 2014 — with effects similar to those seen in Hungary: deep attacks on educational institutions, academic freedom, the judiciary, and the media, and ultimately an indiscriminate hounding of peace activists, Kurdish people, journalists, and academics from autumn 2016 onward. Duterte’s electoral victory in the Philippines in 2016 suggested that a new and authoritarian embrace of state violence was gaining momentum. At the end of 2016, Donald Trump was victorious in the US presidential elections, taking office early the following year. Here the figure of advisor Steve Bannon made it clear that a government open to fascist ideologemes and forms of organization was being formed, with the support of parts of the middle classes.
Sebastian Kurz’s electoral victory in Austria, achieved through populist methods, and the fact that he formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) represented a further milestone in the authoritarian turn in European politics, as did the Five Star and Lega coalition government formed in Italy in June 2018, and the success enjoyed by the far-right party Vox in regional elections in Andalusia. Finally, there is also the Right’s victory in Brazil, where, following a legalist coup against the Workers’ Party government, it succeeded in having Jair Bolsonaro elected president, leading a government made up largely of figures from the military and big landowners. Bolsonaro’s government is openly hostile towards LGBTQI* people and so-called “cultural Marxists”, regularly making death threats to them as well as to indigenous peoples in the Amazon.
Alongside the above-mentioned and more covert developments festering below the surface, it is also important to note the much more public activities of right-wing movements and parties in France (Front National/Rassemblement National), the People’s Party in Switzerland, the Dutch Party for Freedom, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan.
Continuities and Innovations in Authoritarianism
The organizational and ideological composition of the authoritarian Right is complex. Particular movements assume many different forms and strategically foreground one aspect of their programme or another as needed. Yet it is not or only rarely possible for them to operate politically within the historically established mode of fascism (i.e. open racism, uniformed paramilitary combat units, and mob violence), as this would lead to them becoming politically marginalized and directly attacked by the state.
In addition, many on the Right are also of the belief that historical fascism (Mussolini and Hitler) was too knee-jerk and thus jeopardized its own earlier successes. This has led the New Right to adopt a meta-political strategy aimed at long-term changes in people’s convictions and the abolition of the theories and practices of the Enlightenment and scientific progress, along with democracy and freedom (here they find some common ground with the Catholic Church and Evangelicalism).
In this sense, right-wing movements have learned to take a tactical approach to their own position. This has helped them modernize and gain official acceptance among the middle classes, meaning that they are able to be present in the public sphere and hold public office. The strategic means for this modernization was populism, which allowed authoritarian positions to be passed off as a particular form of democracy and to assert themselves in the political sphere. The strategy was not adopted by all on the Right, because authoritarians must make compromises if they wish to operate within the democratic public sphere of the media and parliaments. It does have other components, however: amending constitutions to make them more authoritarian, nationalist social policy, fascistic everyday violence, the mobilization of mobs, and the whitewashing of politically motivated killings.
The Right vigorously attack many aspects of a way of life that were hard-won over many decades, as well as reflective thought, reflexivity, and the capacity to criticize things so established they are taken for granted. This has an impact on gender relations, sexist violence, bodily integrity and sexual self-determination (protection against sex disambiguation surgery for intersex people, the right to abortion services, public recognition of gay and lesbian lifestyles), environmental protection and climate change, the fetishism of economic growth and competition with a different understanding of prosperity, nutrition, mobility, racism, migration and refugees, science, education, and rationality.
Ring-wing movements have achieved electoral victories because many of their organizations and activities are interlinked at the regional, national, and international level — intellectuals, parties, associations, musical acts — and because they are broadly supported by government agencies, the police, the courts, and major media entities (national newspapers, television reportage, talk shows). It is also clear that the rich as well as criminal gangs have given more money to right-wing networks in recent years, supporting and financing individual actors, newspapers, election campaigns, or even paramilitary groups.
In addition, there are also civil society organizations — some backed by the Catholic Church — who share common cause with the right on a number of issues and administer organizational support. These regional and indeed global alliances and networks should be a focus of research in their own right. This is not to say that the increased significance of right-wing politics in recent years can be explained by these interconnections, but processes at the national level are able to embed themselves in them and gain strength as a result. There is every indication that the expansion of the capitalist mode of production and form of government since the nineteenth century has been a boon for the Right and their international networks. (…)
Prof. Dr. Alex Demirović is a Senior Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis, where he works primarily on questions of democracy and socialism. He will be in the International Conference „Contesting Authoritarianism: Perspectives from the South“, that will take place from 16–21 May at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.
More informations about the Conference and the full program can be found here
*This article originally appeared in the volume Autoritärer Populismus (Dampfboot, 2020). Translated by Ryan Eyers and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Photo: Börries Nehe