The expansion of ultraconservative movements

Image: João Saplak


The ultra-right, neoliberalism and the contradictions of capitalism

The rise of the ultra-right has been dizzying since the 2008 financial crisis, especially in Europe and the Americas. The expansion has been marked by important electoral victories, such as the recent ones of Javier Milei in Argentina (2023) and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands (2023). Research also indicates the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the presidency of the United States in 2024, which would bring new impetus to the ultra-right. There will be elections in more than 40 countries, including six in Latin America. There is a lot of room for the far right to expand.

It is crucial to understand how we arrived at a situation in which the advance of the ultra-right puts left-wing sectors, which defend full democracy, in a defensive position. The political parties that historically supported neoliberalism lost space, as evidenced by the cases of Brazil and Argentina. In this context, social movements and left-wing parties must oppose the ultraconservative movement.

In the first decades of the 1930th century, the rise of the ultra-right, represented by Nazism and fascism, occurred following the crisis of classical liberalism. The economic crisis in Germany and Italy served as a catalyst for the expansion of these movements. Similarly, the great crisis of XNUMX, marked by the fall in capital accumulation and the impoverishment of the working masses, provided fertile ground for the expansion of ultra-right dictatorial governments in several countries. Often, violence against sectors of the organized left was the way that the ultra-right found to come to power, as in the cases of Spain and Germany.

The current expansion of the ultra-right has parallels with the last century, especially in its association with the crisis process of the capitalist economy. Notably, conservative extremist groups grow stronger during economic recessions, increases in unemployment, inequality, and uncertainty. Faced with the contradiction between neoliberal governments that adopt austerity and solving the crisis through State action, neoconservatives occupy space, emphasizing individual freedom, the expansion of markets and promoting the fight against minorities.

Michel Löwy (2015) highlights that these groups present themselves in different guises. In Europe, the most common thing is for ultra-conservative groups to form new parties or reform traditional political groups. These parties may either have an explicitly fascist or Nazi program; or be semi-fascists, not assuming all of this ideology; or they could be ultraconservative parties that do not embrace fascism, but share values ​​such as racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia.

In other regions the situation is different. As Michel Löwy (2015) explains, in Brazil there is no mass party whose main banner is racism, but political groups spread across different political parties, whose discourse is centered on valuing the role of the military, facilitating the use of weapons and intolerance towards minorities. Along with these flags, racism, sexism and anti-ecologicalism equally thrive.

The advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s, following the Gilded Age crisis, contributed to growing social inequality, transferring income from labor to capital, especially finance, and reducing well-paid jobs in industry. Faced with this new reality, Wolfgang Streek (2018) emphasizes that the XNUMXst century is not only facing a slowdown in the market economy, but also facing the imminent crisis of democratic capitalism.

The 2008 crisis boosted the growth of the ultra-right, the decrease in capital accumulation severely impacted social sectors already harmed by neoliberalism, increasing uncertainty, reducing income, and opening space for ultra-conservative discourse. With an emphasis on valuing traditional principles, such as Christian morality and the patriarchal family structure, along with the worship of national symbols and the supposed defense of freedom, sectors of the far right have gained support among those most affected by the global economic crisis.

Wendy Brown (2019) observes that the ultra-right adopts a discourse in which freedom is put at risk by any policy that challenges the traditional model of Christian society, as interpreted by neo-Pentecostal groups. This includes not only combating issues related to sex, race and gender, but also demonizing social justice and democracy in favor of free markets.

The ultra-right attributed the causes of the economic crisis to factors that it presents as external to the functioning of the capitalist market economy, such as, for example, globalization, immigration, left-wing politicians and social movements, communism and identity politics. They also pointed to the state as the villain and responsible for social problems, denouncing that public bureaucracies and the political class act only in defense of their own interests.

Thus, the solution proposed by these sectors involves the reduction of the state, the rescue of nationalism in the face of globalization and the promotion of attacks on left-wing sectors. While its main proposals are state reconfiguration, reduction of public services and taxes, and advancement of liberal reforms, reducing workers' rights and democratic guarantees. In a clear alliance with the most radical tendencies of neoliberalism, the ultra-right mixes cultural traditionalism with economic ultra-liberalism. Their governments seek to promote liberal reforms, reduce labor rights, reduce state intervention and dismantle participatory institutions and spaces of popular control. They attack workers' income and democracy.

By adopting the economic agenda of neoliberalism, the ultra-right conquered the space previously occupied by neoliberal parties, which lost political influence. Many of the proposals made by neoliberal economists have been strengthened, as can be seen in the first measures announced by President Javier Milei, in Argentina. An idea that is close to that proposed by former president Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, and which will be the program defended by the representative of Bolsonarism in 2026.

The political rise of the ultra-right coincides with an increase in tension for global hegemony and the resurgence of conflicts with a strong capacity for international destabilization. For example, there are a series of diplomatic confrontations between the United States and developed countries with China and developing countries. Russia adopted a policy that mixes defense and expansionism, evidenced by the war against Ukraine. Furthermore, one must consider the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians, which has served as a pretext for Israeli expansionism in the Gaza Strip, and which could lead to war involving other countries in the region..

It is essential to remember that ultra-rightist regimes played a crucial role in triggering the Second World War and in the persecution of minorities. The defeat of the ultra-right came after an inestimable human cost, with millions of deaths on different continents. Currently, these sectors are playing a central role in intensifying a set of global conflicts that can result in wars.

To complement the context in which we live, two more factors come together to compose the picture of the current stage of capitalist society. The climate crisis, possibly the greatest challenge faced by humanity in the 2016st century, is the result of a very specific phase called by Jason Moore (XNUMX) as capitalocene. The environmental impacts resulting from capitalist production are reaching a critical point, with several scientists and international organizations warning of an imminent ‘point of no return’.

Furthermore, the crisis emerges in a scenario in which several international indicators, such as the Latinobarometer and V-Dem, signal a growing dissatisfaction among societies in relation to democracy. Surveys frequently reveal indignation towards politicians, distrust in political parties and, especially, distrust in governments perceived to be affected by corruption. It is precisely this combination between the negative effects of the great crises of capitalism and the disbelief in politics and democracy as means of solving social problems that fuels the growth of the far right.

In this context, the expansion of ultra-conservative segments does not mean that we have a losing battle. Hope lies in democracy and the abandonment of neoliberalism as a path to building a more equitable and sustainable economic model capable of confronting the rise of the ultra-right. It is up to the popular sectors that suffer the consequences of the economic crisis and the ultra-right discourse to play their role in building this society and develop a new political agenda with real alternatives to face the crises arising from capitalism.

*Adalmir Marquetti Professor at the Department of Economics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul.

*Alfredo Gugliano He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.


BROWN, Wendy. In the ruins of neoliberalism. São Paulo, Politeia, 2019.

LOWY, Michael. Conservatism and extreme right in Europe and Brazil. Social Work and Society, 124, pp. 652-664, 2015.

MOORE, Jason. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, PM Press, 2016.

STREEK, Wolfgang. Purchased Time. The postponed crisis of democratic capitalism. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018.

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