We are currently witnessing a tidal change in global politics. The far right, which seemed to be on the retreat for decades, has staged a huge comeback. From Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Narendra Modi in India, from Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, from Michel Temer in Brazil to Donald Trump in the United States, far-right politicians have risen to the highest ranks of world power. From these newly acquired positions of strength, they have initiated deeply disturbing authoritarian transformations of their respective countries.
The Neoliberal Offensive
In this endeavor, they form part of the same phenomenon: They represent the underside of neoliberal globalization. Neoliberalism is, after all, the latest form of capitalism, and it is deepening the contradictions inherent in capitalism in a very substantial way. We are producing so much more wealth than in, say, 1980, but the working classes have seen nothing of it. In addition, austerity policies have produced a steep increase in social inequality and economic insecurity, in turn undermining notions of community and solidarity, and leading to increased competition and individualism. Even the very notion of “society” has been under threat ever since Margaret Thatcher’s infamous intervention that “there’s no such thing,” and that “There Is No Alternative” to the policies she championed. And indeed, the neoliberal offensive has reshaped society—it has reshaped our hearts and minds, how we feel, and how we think. Neoliberalism has succeeded in replacing the old hegemony as the dominant system of our age. How can democracy, even just the deeply imperfect democracy we have today, survive this fundamental attack of its core principles?
Over the past few years, and in particular since the Great Recession of 2008, the “progressive neoliberalism” detailed by Nancy Fraser—of the old center, with its liberal rhetoric, technocratic approach, and increasingly empty promises—has rapidly been losing ground. While the left, at least for the most part, has not been able to rise to the occasion, the authoritarian right most certainly has. While the left keeps wondering whether there might be a window of opportunity, the right has decidedly jumped right through it.
As we write these words, the institutions and procedures of democratic governance are being actively undermined, or even removed, by far-right governments. Just take a look at what Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, and the like are doing: Government accountability, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the right to collective bargaining are all under heavy attack and increasingly looking like ghosts from the past. In other words, the radical right is increasing its attacks on the very essence of democracy, while existing democratic institutions and practices are less and less able to mobilize people for its defense. And that’s why this authoritarian threat is so immediate, and so dangerous.
Neoliberal Economics and Nationalist Identity Politics: A Marriage of Convenience
While neoliberalism, including its “progressive” variant, has failed the people, many if not most of these same people don’t place the blame on it. Rather, the right has largely succeeded in scapegoating minorities, immigrants, liberals, feminists, leftists, or “the elite” (not corporations, of course, but rather academia and showbiz) for the deteriorating living standards and working conditions that are a direct outcome of neoliberal policies.
This twist—substituting economic issues with cultural ones—has worked well for the radical right. The fact that cultural dissatisfaction demands very different policy solutions than economic or social malaise is a main reason for the growing appeal of the far right to the economically powerful. For as long as dissatisfaction and outright anger may be directed at the weak instead of the strong, it will remain a useful tool to both control unrest and push through policies that further benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes. Just take a look at Trump’s corporate tax cuts.
In general, many among the economic elite (outside the export-oriented industries) seem to be warming up to this marriage of convenience between neoliberal economics and nationalist identity politics espoused by the radical right. This “nationalist turn” is increasingly shaping the discourse in broader society, as well as more specifically among economic elites. The increasing support from the economically powerful further emboldens the radical right and contributes to its success.
The Ascendancy of the Radical Right Across Europe
The political situation in Europe serves as a good case in point of this wider phenomenon. In recent years, right-wing populist parties have grown in strength in nearly all the countries on the continent. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen outpaced traditional center-left and center-right parties in the presidential elections of 2017, reaching the second and final election round, where she received about a third of the votes cast. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV) came in second place in the national election of the same year. Meanwhile, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) shifted from being primarily neoliberal in focus to becoming an outspoken anti-immigrant populist party, receiving 12.6 percent of the votes in the September 2017 federal election and becoming the first far-right party in German parliament since World War II. This continental shift to the right also includes Italy, where the League scored a major success in the 2018 federal election, and Switzerland, where almost 30 percent voted for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).
It is important to note, however, that the radical right is not confined to populist party politics. It rather encompasses everything to the right of the old center-right, which in most countries continues to erode, as do the social democratic parties of the center-left. On the other end of the far-right spectrum, openly fascist organizations like Greece’s Golden Dawn, and even outright terrorists—such as Anders Breivik in Norway, or the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany—have increasingly become a serious threat.
There is a certain amount of overlap on both ends of the populist sphere. For example, many members of the populist right, such as Alexander Gauland of the AfD, used to be politicians of center-right parties, and Breivik was once a member of the populist Progress Party. However, the populist right is clearly trying to position itself between the old center-right and the openly fascist, extreme right. To this end, they rage against immigrants and particularly Muslims, criticize globalization and “cosmopolitanism,” and blame liberalism, feminism, and socialism for everything they feel went wrong. In addition, their nationalism places them in fundamental opposition to the European Union. This is the glue that holds together this emerging populist-right pole.
Beyond these points of general agreement, there are many differences, due either to national specifics and path dependency, or to degrees of radicalism. While most are staunchly anti-Muslim, a few, such as Hungary’s Jobbik and even Fidesz, are also anti-Semitic. While some are openly neoliberal, e.g., the Swiss SVP, others criticize many aspects of neoliberalism, for instance the French National Front or the Danish People’s Party. Some are socially liberal, such as the Dutch PVV, while others, including the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS), are socially reactionary. This means that even if the underlying reasons for the growth of the populist right may be similar, individual parties may differ fundamentally in terms of ideologies, constituencies, and policies.
The Far Right in Government: Six Cases From Across Europe
The rise of this populist right is, no doubt, an issue to be reckoned with. Once the far right is in government, things get deadly serious. With this book, we want to take a closer look at what the far right has done in those countries in Europe in which it has either taken over or become part of national governments. How did they manage to get there? What do their constituencies look like? And once in power, what policies have they enacted? We hope these analyses can provide us with insights to help fight the rise of the far right, in Europe and elsewhere.
Kristóf Szombati opens our collection with a scholarly examination of Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime in Hungary. Since their landslide victory in 2010, Orbán and his Fidesz party have worked hard to subvert liberal democratic values. They have re-written the country’s constitution, removed checks on the power of the executive branch, and undermined the independence of the judiciary. Together with the radical nationalist “Movement for a Better Hungary,” or Jobbik, Orbán has portrayed the country’s liberals as economically insulated and culturally deracinated, sitting pretty in Budapest and Brussels while the country’s “real” citizens suffer from unfettered globalization and constant threats of immigrant invasions. Szombati concludes his contribution on a somber note, predicting that after Orbán’s recent re-election this form of authoritarian populism will retain its appeal in Hungary for as long as the promise of socio-economic transformation remains a distant prospect throughout the country’s semi-peripheries.
Bartosz M. Rydliński takes up where Szombati left off, appropriately, since former Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński has spoken explicitly about his desire to construct a “Budapest in Warsaw.” While Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) does not describe itself in terms of far-right ideology, it is openly anti-refugee and explicitly racist, and emerges from what Rydliński describes as an alliance of nationalism and neo-fascism. Indeed, the situation in Poland echoes the one in Hungary, also in terms of its illiberalism and its populist appeal to a disproportionately poorer and rural electorate. The fact that this politics has been married to policies that PiS sells as counter to neoliberalism is something the social democratic left should take worrying note of. As Rydliński concludes, the only real answer to this political twist is socialism or death.
In Turkey, right-wing populism takes on a particular neoliberal twist. As Pınar Çakıroğlu shows, traditional political fault lines in the country have separated conservative religious groups with anti-establishment sentiments from modernist, secular reformers who belong to the culturally liberal ruling elite. Out of this tension emerged an ideological synthesis between Turkish nationalism and Islamist rhetoric that appealed to lower-class voters in economically deprived and religiously conservative provincial areas, thus creating fertile ground for the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). What is new about the AKP’s “new Turkey,” Çakıroğlu argues, is that this particular brand of right-wing populism combines cultural conservatism with economic liberalism in ways that have pushed the country over the edge into becoming a politically authoritarian regime.
Unlike in Turkey, far-right sentiments in Denmark are usually considered part of a “subculture” rather than of a long-established discourse. In recent years, however, right-wing rhetoric has become increasingly acceptable in Danish politics, even when it is portrayed as a “pragmatic” choice rather than an ideological commitment. Inger Johansen cites the Danish People’s Party (DF) as a prime example for a kind of “far-right pragmatism” that remains at a distance from both right-wing extremism and economic neoliberalism. Although the DF often acts like a party of the far right—spouting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and EU-skeptical rhetoric—Johansen demonstrates how the DF is able to present itself as a mainstream political force. With a political agenda that foregrounds conservative nationalism and the defense of the welfare state, the DF does not only attract disaffected voters from both the right and the left. Its broad base of support has also allowed the party to move the entire political spectrum in Denmark to the right.
Next up, Asbjørn Wahl takes us to Norway, a place where we’re not accustomed to thinking about the far right in government, to discuss “Right-Wing Populism, Nordic Style.” He describes a Progress Party that, now in its second term in government, skillfully maneuvers between populist rhetoric and neoliberal realism in order to stay in power. Slightly at odds with some of our other cases, Wahl tells us that the country’s ruling party has not so much promoted racism in the traditional biological sense, but rather spoken of a heterogeneity of cultures and the right of a people to its identity, thus locating immigration as a universal threat responsible for many of the ills of Norwegian society. In doing this, it has created and come to dominate a “new axis of conflict,” centered on values and identity as opposed to redistribution and economic fairness. Wahl closes by challenging the left to take up the fight to reestablish an axis of conflict based once again around class solidarity.
Finally, the concluding piece by Sebastian Reinfeldt focuses on Austria, where—following a coalition between Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the early 2000s—another right-wing government formed in late 2017. Since the ÖVP’s sharp turn to the right under its young leader Sebastian Kurz, the government now consists of two parties whose recent electoral successes are tied to their far-right populist agenda. Their appeal is particularly strong among the traditional mainstream of Austrian society—the lower middle class, comprised of medium-income groups such as white-collar workers or civil servants. This means that the FPÖ is not a “proletarian party” or a party of the lower classes. Instead, it harnesses the fears and anxieties of social groups faced with the risk of downward mobility and economic precariousness. Reinfeldt’s point is significant if we want to understand and confront right-wing populism: While the appeal of the far right might lie in its rhetorical ruses against immigrants, elites, and politicians, it is the deep satisfaction caused by the crisis of capitalism that makes people susceptible to this rhetoric in the first place.
We hope that the unique focus of this book—the far right in government—will prove to be a valuable contribution to the body of literature on the far right, and will also play a role in our shared fight for democracy. For, to fight this trend, we absolutely must understand what the far right has done to make such headway in recent years. In many places, including those discussed in this book, these gains have included taking part in or even taking over national governments, making it possible for them to implement a terrible agenda of hurting the weak and the poor. As of this writing, the momentum is on their side.
Clearly, if we want to beat the far right, we need to reexamine our counter-strategies. And make no mistake, we are convinced that we can turn things around if we come together in forming a broad united front. But if we want to win, the democratic left needs to fight both: neoliberalism and the authoritarian attacks on what’s left of democracy. Onward!
Gustavo Sanchez and Charlotte Swasey