The Rise of the Far Right

Image: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas


The organic crisis of capital provided the ground for the irruption of the ultra-right

The Crash of 2008: Here It All Started

The year was 2012. The economic crisis resulting from the Great Recession was raging across Europe. Popular mobilizations in Spain (15M and the March 2012 general strike) and violent protests in Greece had infected the entire Western world. They reached the heart of the empire: in New York, citizens demonstrated on Wall Street through Occupy. There were almost no traces of the extreme right anywhere. Not even in France, debutant Marine Le Pen managed to reach the second round of the presidential elections, which would be decided between Sarkozy and Hollande, with a Socialist victory.

A phase of ideological and organic decomposition of neoliberalism was underway. The economic consensus of globalization, after the fall of the USSR, had been shattered forever. The honeymoon that lasted from 1991 to 2008, in which unbridled capitalism managed to incorporate all the countries of the former Soviet Union into its logic, is over. A formal and material subsumption of the entire globe had come to an end.

This resulted in a major crisis of hegemony that spread to all power strata. Thus, no one was spared the challenge: a crisis of representation, which led to a crisis of the traditional parties and the possibility of the emergence of new political forces. Crisis of the media, which tried to defend the indefensible and lost public credibility. This paved the way for fake news (fake news) that the extreme right will so much exploit, and for the emergence of new means of social communication. There was also a crisis of the scientific institution for having associated with the public and the official, which would later open the field for the conspiracy psychosis that would reach its peak with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organic crisis of capital provided the ground for the irruption of the ultra-right, which would exploit to the fullest all the derivatives of the ideological collapse of the neoliberal edifice. However, it was first the popular left that seized the opportunity.

In 2012, after two decades of starvation, digesting the historic defeat of the USSR, the left took the lead. He saw the moment and knew how to connect both with the pulse of the street and with the subsequent constituent proposal. Lessons were learned, manuals were renewed and a period of deep reflection was undertaken, which allowed the new scenario to be confronted with guarantees.

Thus, in 2015, Alexis Tsipras won the presidency of the Greek government, in an unimaginable electoral victory, after decades of bipartisanship. In Spain, Pablo Iglesias and Podemos obtained more than five million votes (20,2% of the votes) which, added to the million votes for Izquierda Unida, placed the PSOE above social democracy for the first time (6 million votes against 5,5). Bernie Sanders shook the foundations of the US Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton had to use every resource in the apparatus to stop him. In Italy and France, both the Five Star Movement and Mélenchon were starting to rise in the polls. There was a left-led popular impulse across the western world.

Two years later, however, everything had changed. The fragility of the left's popular dynamic has shaken some brave gamblers, who have returned to classic comfort zones, perhaps impressed or intimidated by their own electoral strength. From the discourses that drank from the Latin American national-popular hypothesis (popular sovereignty, democratization of the economy and dispute over the universality of the nation), they moved to the classic axes of the enlightened left of the middle class (environmentalism, minority rights, Europeanism). The defeat of Tsipras by the European Union, after the referendum against the draconian austerity measures, was a blow from which it was difficult to recover.

In 2017, Donald Trump became President of the United States of America after defeating Hillary Clinton. Marine Le Pen managed to reach the second round of the French presidential elections, in a first clash against Emmanuel Macron that would be repeated in 2022. In Italy, the Alloy achieved its best result ever (16%, the base of what would later become Brothers of Italy) and, in Spain, the VOX phenomenon began to take shape, which would awaken with a powerful force in 2018 (in the Andalusian elections). There remained the Italian experience, with the Five Star Movement leading a coalition executive with the populism of Alloy, after an important electoral victory, built on the challenge to the old economic and political elites.

The map had already changed. Now, with the new year 2023 barely underway, the extreme right rules in Italy, after an overwhelming electoral victory, revalidated the Hungarian presidency with Orban, as well as that of Poland, with the Law and Justice party, VOX holds about 15% of votes in Spain, Le Pen managed to surpass 41% in France and is preparing for an assault on the Élysée in 2027, just as Trump is preparing for the White House in 2024.

Once again, as in the decade of 2000-2010, only Latin America presents itself as the new beacon of the left in the world. As at that time, several popular leaders won the presidency of their respective countries, under a clear bet on the left, not aligned with any major western power, even if they are now a little more defensive and accompanied by a powerful rearmament of their respective national right.

What happened for the far right to assume leadership of the right in the West?

Fear is the dominant emotion in recession

The 2008 crisis changed everything. The collapse of the North American financial system dragged all the powers aligned with the United States of America, while the periphery of the world (China, Russia, Brazil, India) advanced, taking advantage of the Western fragility to continue to grow and occupy markets. A global realignment began to take shape due to the weakness of the United States of America and the strength of emerging countries. A new architecture was under construction, in which new powers would assume a leading role, capable of conceiving their model with a great capacity for negotiation.

Civilizational declines never happen overnight. It took decades to materialize. The end of the neoliberal consensus meant, in reality, the end of the very belief in the superiority of the Western system in relation to other economic systems on the globe. The western left was able to read it correctly at the time and, for that reason, the radical bet on a fairer system emerged, which would distribute wealth and change the rules of the game, in connection with that destituent moment. There was still hope in being able to seize power to transform the relations of domination.

However, the old ghosts often come up when everything seems to be going the right way. It was political scientist Dominique Moïsi who proposed a new way of understanding geopolitics beyond economic relations between countries. According to this way of thinking, in addition to collective values, there are narratives that shape the great states of mind of nations. Thus, Dominique Moïsi proposes to speak of a “geopolitics of emotions”, in which different powers act under the influence of different feelings: fear would be the dominant emotion in the West, humiliation in the Islamic world and hope in Asia.

This way of looking at the main moods that motivate different governments is quite explanatory of the way we deal with global issues. Fear in the West pushes it towards more security-centric policies and leads it to be constantly on the defensive ideologically. If we compare this with the attitude of the Chinese government, for example, they are driven by confidence in a promising future. They are on the offensive, driven by hope in their own values, their own system and their own leadership.

In the West there is fear: fear of refugees and of an outside world that tragically looms large every day in the waters of the Mediterranean. Fear of Russia and the new emerging powers. Fear of climate change, fear of social protests that can no longer be managed efficiently, fear of fake news and populism. Fear, in short, of the future. This fear is the main ingredient on which the extreme right feeds, which offers more reassuring speeches, structured around the return of strong values ​​and states, ready to fight in the face of the turmoil of our century.

The extreme right is no longer futuristic like the old Italian Fascism or German Nazism, which promised the glory of a Third Reich. The extreme right is reactive and seeks, above all, to assuage fears arising from the existential anxieties that pervade the West as a whole. Without a left capable of assuming these existential anxieties, the ground will be fertile for its successive electoral triumphs.

The extreme right did not emerge against “bourgeois” or liberal democracy. They are not abandoning any ships, but taking their commands. Giulia Meloni's compatibility with the European Union and NATO shows that the extreme right is not opposed to the European elites, but that they are, rather, its most overheated expression. They aspire to assume the fears that the old liberal right is no longer able to face. They aspire to refound Europe in a Christian and civilizing way, to protect it from the threats that would devastate it.

It is at this point that they find great appeal among the electorate and great strength in their hypotheses. Unlike many populist leftists, extreme right expressions have hardly regressed electorally since they burst onto the political scene, because they are inscribed in a zeitgeist: are the clearest expression of the civilizational collapse resulting from the 2008 crisis and the loss of position of the West in the world.

The first big knot to unravel the political and discursive strength of the extreme right resides in these geopolitical, emotional and political elements. But it is not the only node. There is another issue that needs to be treated as a priority: the expression of the working classes excluded from public discourse.

The left's sentimental distance from the people

When in France the yellow vests, a social protest of enormous scope, many people on the left had an intuitive distrust of these “men” from the “provinces” who were mobilizing against the tax on diesel. The same distrust was felt when, in March 2022, Spanish truck drivers staged a reverse march against the coalition government because of rising gasoline prices. They were accused of being instrumentalized by the extreme right, rather than being emotionally attached to its demands (a just claim against an impossible escalation of price increases).

During the last decade, a growing hatred of the working classes has been instilled in Spain and the rest of the West. This stigmatization, perfectly described in the phenomenal book Keys by Owen Jones, has been drifting towards complete demonization. The workers are portrayed as a bunch of sexists and racists. Far from fighting these archetypes, most of the left has taken these clichés as their own. Many popular expressions are suspect. Indeed, attacks on what has been called red-pardism ("Rojipardism“) are structured around these prejudices. Red-pardism would be any “obsolete left”, which did not take as its own, among others, the advances of feminism or the fight against racism (multiculturalism).

In an attempt to align the left with the really existing elites, discursive disciplining came from the side of the supposed sophistication of green, liberal postulates and tolerance for what is different. These political ideas, presented as the height of culture, are postulated as representing a more advanced stage of the human being. There is no analysis of the class biases of these ideas urbanites, but they operate strongly in speeches mainstream.

Globalization has created winners and losers. Today, we are in a phase that Esteban Hernández describes as one of deglobalization, accentuated by the war in Ukraine, but there is a part of the elites and middle classes that continue to bet on the dissolution of national sovereignties, convinced that the European Union is the best possible horizon . Thus, an enlightened faction of the middle class (journalists, academics, people from the liberal professions and part of the civil service) believes in an alliance with the globalist elites. He looks up due to the vertigo he feels when he looks down, at the abyss of precariousness and poverty, of which more than 35% of our country is a part. This faction of the disappearing middle class is confident of being included in the elites' honey of progress and is very afraid of being left out on the periphery of progress.

Who takes on the discomforts, yearnings and voices of those at the bottom, if the enlightened middle class refuses to ally with them? Well, it is the ultra-right that takes advantage of the flank. The ultra-right manages to unify the excluded from above (those national elites who were excluded from globalism) and the excluded from below (the losers of globalization) under a single axis.

As the French geographer and essayist Christophe Guilluy explains, the dominant classes are postulated as being the positive force of progress, the only heirs of the best tradition of Western culture (purity) and the popular classes are no longer a positive cultural reference, as they were before of the 1980s, becoming the losers and failures of the system, guilty of their own misery and political-moral backwardness. The disappearance of the middle class, for this French author, inaugurates a new era in which those at the top will fall out with those at the bottom, who will be condemned to cultural and moral ostracism. In this way, the popular classes are excluded as active subjects with their own voice.

This rupture between the world above and the world below causes, at the same time, that those expelled from society (the popular classes) build their own narratives that are impermeable to the narratives of the dominant classes. From here arises populism, as a return to the people, an attempt to rebuild a society broken by the division of the elites. However, this populism can oscillate between authoritarian tension (ultra-right) and democratic openness (republican).

So that popular expression is not monopolized by the extreme right and is not redirected to dark places, it is necessary to place the common good and the idea of ​​people once again at the center of policies and discourse. Reclaiming popular language and putting community values ​​in a positive light. An important task is to move away from the moralistic games that the elites use to stigmatize the popular classes, to once again reposition the cultural reference in expressions that come from below. Affirming its own project, which is subordinate neither to the old national elites nor to the new global elites, but which takes command of interclass alliances.

The ultra-right is an expression of the collapse of the West. Nowadays, it is necessary to take this collapse into account, so that there is a democratic and popular solution to the crises that will follow it. Likewise, it is necessary to take care of the existential anxieties that this collapse is causing among the social majorities (deep fears and discomfort), positively assuming a new expressiveness that aspires to refound the idea of ​​people, in the face of the fragmentation and dissolution of the social, proposed by the elites. Otherwise, the ultra-right will continue to conquer political, social and cultural spaces, accumulating more electoral victories. It is in our hands not to allow this to happen.

*Alejandro Perez Polo is a journalist and holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Paris VIII.

Translation: Angelo Novo for the electronic magazine the commoner.

Originally published in the magazine El Viejo Top, no. 420.

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