The results of the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections point to a shift to the right in the political spectrum – albeit to varying degrees in different countries. In France, Denmark, and Great Britain in particular, but also in Austria, Sweden, and Finland, as well as Hungary and Greece, a number of political parties that position themselves to the right of the conservativenationalist parties have gained seats in the European Parliament.
In France, the Front National (FN) became the strongest political force with 25 per cent; in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (DF) ranked first, receiving 26.6 per cent of the vote, and in Great Britain the UK Independence Party (UKIP) came in first. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) won 20.5 per cent of the vote and in Hungary FIDESZ had a runaway victory with 51.5 per cent. Several parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary should be classified as neo-fascist or neo-Nazi. There are thus considerable differences within the political right and extreme right.3
This rightward trend was also evident in the national elections held after the European Parliament elections. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been further consolidated in recent regional elections. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats managed to substantially increase their share of the vote.
In Sweden, the coalition of centre-right parties led by the conservative Fredrik Reinfeldt was voted out of office in an election with a high turnout of 83.3 per cent. While the Social Democrats fell short of reaching their declared goal of 35 per cent (they received 31 per cent; in 2010 their share was 30.7 per cent), it now falls to them to form a government. The coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, however, won only 158 out of 348 seats; they are thus 17 seats short of an absolute majority and must rely on 21 deputies of the Left party (Vänster Partiet) which attained 6 per cent at the elections. Reinfeldt’s centre-right alliance managed to win only 142 seats; the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats won 49 seats.
The Sweden Democrats, under their party leader Jimmie Åkesson, more than doubled (12.9 per cent) their share of the vote (in 2010 they received 5.7 per cent), becoming the third strongest force; they therefore have the capacity to block government decisions.
The trends in Sweden are illustrative of the developments in a large number of European societies that are economically well-off and politically advanced. After many years of a tolerant immigration policy, the centre-right coalition made the issue of immigration the heart of its election campaign. Prime Minister Reinfeldt reasoned that due to the great number of unstable regions in the world, Sweden faces an unprecedented influx of refugees and that the consequent costs would render both tax cuts and increased investments impossible for the next legislative period.
In contrast to other European countries, Germany has not seen a successful manifestation of right-wing populism and right-wing extremism in the form of a political party in recent years. It was only for the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections that an electorally significant right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), was established; other right-wing extremist parties, such as the NPD, have remained rather insignificant by comparison. However, the electoral potential for a right-wing populist force has been foreseeable for some years.
Up to now, the crystallising of this potential into a political party has failed because of the fragmented nature of the extreme right. The establishment of the AfD has changed all this. Within a very short period (since May/ June 2013) a mainly right-wing group of populists has received significant support. After failing to enter the Bundestag by a narrow margin (with 4.7 per cent of the vote ) in autumn of 2013, the party managed to win 7.0 per cent of the votes in the EP elections (which had a significantly lower turnout). The regional elections in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia showed that the AfD had succeeded in its strategy of consolidation, and it is now represented in these regional parliaments with more than 10 per cent of the vote.
As a morally conservative, national liberal, and right-wing populist party the AfD represents a part of the political spectrum which has been articulating itself in Europe for many years now, through the British UKIP, Austria’s FPÖ and Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), Italy’s Lega Nord, the Scandinavian parties True Finns, Denmark’s DF, the Sweden Democrats, through the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands (PVV), as well as France’s FN.
The AfD puts fiscal consolidation at the core of its programme. The party campaigns for a return to the structure of a national state (including a German currency and citizenship), regardless of how European neighbouring countries deal with their massive crises. ‘The idea of a peaceful Europe is crumbling under the pressure of the restructuring programmes that are forced upon the countries in crisis. Never before has the EU been so at odds with itself as it is today. This is why the AfD is campaigning for a planned and organised withdrawal from the single currency zone.’4
Its programme includes other demands typical of a right-wing populist party: Immigration is acceptable, as long as immigrants have no access to social security and rights. ‘The AfD strongly opposes access for immigrants to the German social security system. Social security may be granted to immigrants exclusively in accordance with German legislation without any interference by the EU.’ This radicalised attitude, a precursor of which was the CSU’s demand for a car toll for foreigners, generates material commonly found in right-wing populist programmes. The AfD has not yet become a consolidated organisation. It is characterised by three political tendencies and milieus: a radical free-market tendency, a national-conservative tendency, and a milieu clearly akin to right-wing populism. The AfD succeeded in instantly gaining an average 10 per cent of the vote in the regions of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia by presenting itself as a protest party espousing nationalist EU-scepticism, thinly-veiled xenophobia, and a populist critique of the political class. In its election programme, the AfD plays on numerous resentments and attitudes in the population. Massive geopolitical turmoil, as well as internal ‘threats’ due to the erosion of social justice, the increasing number of immigrants, and disenchantment with politics, is creating a hotbed for right-wing populist attitudes in Germany.
Thus, Sweden and Germany have seen a new development of right-wing populist and right-wing extremist political parties and movements, which has characterised other European countries for some time.5 The recent success of these parties has been very varied. Many have succeeded in establishing themselves as permanent players in the political system, capable of shaping its development.
In the political debate – including among the different tendencies of the left – the reasons for the success of right-wing and right-wing populist parties mostly remain hazy. The main case we would make is that in the course of the profound crisis which has seized European countries and the EU as a whole, political systems have also plunged into serious crisis. The ruling elites have proved incapable of dealing with the collapse of traditional bourgeois civil society and its economic dynamic. At the same time, the widespread criticism of the system is not spontaneously generating progressive options. Profound disillusion, growing insecurity, and the feeling that politics is no longer able to deliver solutions affect the whole traditional political spectrum, including the political left.
Thus, neoliberalism’s obvious defeat and the shock it caused do not lead to new dynamics for left political organisations, but create a space adroitly used by modernised right-wing populist and right-wing extremist groups in many countries. The mixture they have devised of criticism of capitalism, condemnation of the political system, and nationalism – an unambiguously right-wing populist position – has been very successful. Today, these parties intend to come to power and realise a profound transformation of the existing power relations. This means that we are no longer facing mere opposition groups, but protagonists who are posing the question of cultural and political hegemony.
Very often in theoretical and political debate citizens of the ‘classe populaire’ are made responsible for the rightward shift. The problem with this explanation is that members of this social stratum have voted continuously less often in recent years. Instead, it is the middle stratum’s fear of downward mobility which best explains the shift.
There is no end in sight of the transformation of the political architecture and of the political arena. The further development of the crisis will lead to further intensification of contradictions on the economic and political terrains. Talk of a lost decade is justified, especially in Southern Europe. Spain, Portugal, and Greece have experienced a massive downturn, and predictions of a quick economic recovery are not very convincing. Social injustice, a driving force of the crisis, was in turn aggravated by it. It is not surprising that the crisis has left deep traces on the political architecture of almost every EU state. One result in some countries, especially those of the South, is the strengthening of left forces. In many cases, however, it has been the Eurosceptical parties of the right which have managed to seize on and reinforce the resentful attitude towards the political establishment in times of massive economic difficulties, high unemployment rates, and radical austerity measures.
The right-wing populist parties have scored successes in their various countries by stressing three political issues: a) profound contempt for the existing political classes or elite; b) rejection of the European Union and the anti-crisis policies it has pursued up to now; and c) the demand to seal off the national social security systems from immigrants and refugees. Marine Le Pen’s statement for the Front National may serve as an example:
The EU is a catastrophe; it is an anti-democratic monster. I want to prevent it from getting fatter, continuing to breathe, touching everything with its paws and reaching to all corners of our legislation with its tentacles. We have lost millions of lives in our glorious history in order to stay a free country. And yet today we simply let our right to self-determination be stolen from us in this way.6
In EU member states, a consistent section of the population harbours a markedly right-wing resentment. Its extent and the political forms of expression and organisation vary according to the country. People’s everyday consciousness varies depending on how a country has been hit by the crisis, the neoliberal austerity policies implemented, and the degree of aloofness of the political elites. With the increased flux of refugees and immigrants, right-wing parties can appropriately adapt themselves to win greater political influence.
Developments such as those in Sweden and France show that – against the background of clear and dramatic social conflicts – right-wing parties are emerging from their social isolation. The ‘de-demonisation’ strategies of their party leaderships are working because by this very process the problems themselves are exacerbated. For example, the FN’s strategy of ‘normalisation’ and ‘de-demonisation’ is successful because the ruling elites are proffering solutions neither materially nor in their social communications strategies. Right-wing and right-wing populist parties are listened to and gain support when the elite’s problem-solving capacity is waning and when traditional parties, representative organs, and government institutions have lost touch with citizens. Overall, two developments are noticeable: a) the transformation of a few nationalist and extremist parties of the right into modernised radical right-wing populist parties; and b) the growing importance of such parties in national and European elections.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, all European societies are experiencing social tensions due to accelerated neoliberal restructuring processes. More people are anxious and dissatisfied with their professional existence. In particular, the insecurity among the ‘middle class’7 is turning into a crisis of democracy and consequently of the party system and the democratic decision-making process.
In the left, too, it is widely accepted that the explanatory key for the growing right-wing potential is the direct impact of the crisis on right-wing voters – for example in the case of unemployment. In reality, however, the causes of fear do not directly translate into right-wing mentalities and attitudes in those most affected.
There is a latent right extremism problem in a section of the petite bourgeoisie and of wage-dependent employees. For example, investigations of the social base of the right-wing electoral potential in different countries show that ordinary unskilled workers, skilled workers, the unemployed and certified craftsmen, the self-employed and farmers, people with a low net household income, as well as those questioned who have a very basic education and people who categorise themselves as workers have an aboveaverage tendency to vote for right-wing parties in comparison to people with a middle or secondary school diploma.
In the Greek parliamentary elections of June 2012,8 29 per cent of Golden Dawn voters wanted to express their desperation and protest, 27 per cent their attitude towards immigrants and border protection, 14 per cent their approval for the election programme and 13 per cent their patriotic attitude and anxiety about the future of Greece. The proportion of voters who are precarious and/or unskilled workers was above average (24.5 per cent), as was the percentage of unemployed voters (23.5 per cent) and business owners (20.3 per cent). Voters who do not face direct and harsh competition in the labour market, such as civil servants (4.7 per cent), women working at home as home keepers (3.6 per cent), university students (3.6 per cent), and pensioners from the private and public sector were significantly less likely to vote for Golden Dawn.9
Various studies have shown different attitudes towards these issues. In a survey of 6,000 participants in France in which social status and political attitude was investigated,10 it was shown that territorial isolation (living in the urban periphery) and a high level of social insecurity (especially employees of SMEs) correlate with a stronger tendency to vote for the FN. The perception of how democracy is working is also a clear differentiator: 83 per cent of FN voters, 72 per cent of non-voters, and 66 per cent of Front de Gauche voters think that the democratic system is not working. By contrast, only 56 per cent of UMP voters, 48 per cent of Green voters, and 29 per cent of Socialist Party voters share this opinion. Broken down by social position, this outlook is shared by 81 per cent of the unemployed, 78 per cent of people living in the urban periphery, 74 per cent of people with low incomes, and 72 per cent of people who live in households with less than €1,200 monthly at their disposal. A study conducted over a few decades11 shows that in the group of workers strongly affected by de-industrialisation, de-skilling, and precarisation, those who lean towards the political right become radicalised, whereas those who lean towards the political left tend to join the non-voters.
Due to growing economic and social pressure on the middle strata, and the resultant social fears, prejudiced right-wing attitudes are increasingly found amongst people who live in relatively stable, even well-off, households. This significantly expands the social basis for right-wing populism.
In terms of right-wing attitudes and mentalities we are confronted with a syndrome consisting of many different sources of resentment.
Right-wing attitudes are – albeit with differences – to be found in all European countries. This was confirmed in a study carried out by the German Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) in the framework of the project Group-Focused Enmity in Europe12 (survey period 2008):
In 2014 in Germany, people’s approval of right-wing extremist statements has decreased significantly in comparison with earlier studies. Researchers attribute this to the relatively positive economic conditions in Germany, which feature economic growth and a stable labour market. However, there are some important exceptions: asylum seekers, Muslims, as well as Roma and Sinti, are experiencing much greater stigmatisation. Contempt for asylum seekers is very widespread amongst survey participants from the new eastern states of Germany (84.7 per cent) and the old states of Germany (73.5 per cent). More than half of the German participants also harbour resentment against Roma and Sinti and almost half of them reject Muslims. ‘People continue to be susceptible to the ideology of inequality.’13
Anti-Semitism continues to constitute a noticeable and consistent element. In comparison with earlier eras, however, its role, though important, is subordinate. According to a German study conducted on right-wing extremism by the Leipzig research group Research Team on Right-Wing Extremism,14 5.1 per cent of participants in the survey can be classified as decidedly anti-Semitic. 11.6 per cent take the view that ‘Jews are too influential today’. The resentments are connected and constitute a syndrome.
Generally, Euroscepticism is linked to elevated results in our rightwing extremism questionnaire. Regarding the questions on Islamophobia, contempt for Roma and Sinti, as well as asylum seekers, we are noticing significant trends: 64.1% of the participants who have a positive attitude towards the EU do not feel like strangers in their own countries because of the presence of Muslims. However, only 33.3% of those who have a negative attitude towards the EU reject the idea that they are strangers in their own countries.15
A recent study in France shows that xenophobia is on the increase again. 66 per cent of the participants in the survey said that there were too many foreigners in France, and 59 per cent said that immigrants did not make ‘enough of an effort to integrate’, which is 4 per cent more than the result in 2013. Despite a slight decrease in the number of people rejecting Islam compared to the previous year, 63 per cent of French citizens thought that it was ‘incompatible with French values’ (compared to 74 per cent in 2013).16
Also, in the United Kingdom the results of a study from 201017 are clear; prejudices against foreigners, a sceptical and distant general stance towards immigrants, and a xenophobic attitude are not rare phenomena but are widespread amongst the population. In Great Britain, 49 per cent of participants felt that the wages of the native population were falling due to immigration. 67 per cent have the position that immigration mainly constitutes a problem for the country.
In Eastern Europe the failed European integration strategy, as well as the increased manifestations of the crisis and the lack of prospects make for all kinds of tensions. According to the specific context and historic traditions, Sinti and Roma, Jews, national minorities, and other societal groups, including homosexuals, are often subjected to attacks. Nationalisms (e.g. Greater Hungary, Greater Romania, etc.) are often resuscitated during disputes with neighbouring countries or the EU.
Today’s continuous changes in economic structures and social relations, with the resultant change in individual and family living conditions, appear as particularly destabilising factors which are inscrutable, a threat to peoples’ identities, and also almost impossible to influence through politics.
Disenchantment with EU policies is particularly obvious when looking at the EP elections. Right-wing populist parties are strongly Eurosceptical and anti-EU. In particular, they criticise the growing internationalisation and centralisation of political decision-making processes in Europe, the single currency, an excessive bureaucracy, as well as the disconnection of political processes from peoples’ everyday realities. The shape of this rejection differs from country to country. According to the individual context, either nationalistic or welfare-chauvinist aspects (as for example in the Flemish right) are emphasised. Overall, the positions of right-wing populist parties remain rather vague. They consist mainly of strong dissociation from current policies and aim at giving the impression that they would provide relatively non-bureaucratic and quick responses to people’s needs and demands. This is also the reason for the widespread vagueness of political contents, which can even be contradictory, all with a view to ingratiating the parties with the voters.
The crisis and the associated euro crisis provide the right-wing populist parties with an unusually high degree of coherence (by their standards)18 by enabling them to present themselves as both anti-systemic forces and parties taking concrete action. At the same time, it is true that ‘the issue of national preference divides the employees in the face of the bosses while the discourse of nationalist opposition to globalisation exonerates the “French” bosses who are nevertheless responsible for, and the real protagonists of, liberalist globalisation’.19
The strong polarisation and boundaries drawn between an allegedly homogenous community and disruptive outside influences can be directed vertically against the political class, or the ‘establishment’, or it can be directed horizontally against influences which are disrupting society at its centre or in its lower strata.
There are growing doubts about politics’ capacity to solve problems. For a substantial number of citizens, politics is no longer able to manage and moderate the accelerated transformations of the capitalist system. The high wages received by parliamentarians and functionaries reinforce the impression that these representatives are far removed from people’s everyday realities.
From the population’s point of view there is considerable dissatisfaction with the current state of democracy. […] More than 75 per cent state the opinion that – contrary to the realm of politics – in the economy decisions are taken rather quickly. For more than 80 per cent this means that the economy dictates the decisions, and not politics. […] About 90 per cent say that political elites disregard democracy and are only interested in pursuing their own interests. […] There is widespread scepticism about democracy, as about 90 per cent of the population do not think that the democratic parties are up to the task of solving difficult problems.20
The mistrust of functionaries and politicians is symptomatic of the extent of unsolved problems, as well as the idea that the political elites, whatever their political colour, accomplish nothing and are mainly looking to their own private interests. The issue is no longer monitoring the political class; the mood has changed. Everybody expects the worst of parties and politicians, elections are primarily used as a means of protest, and political involvement is declining. Thus, in many countries a dangerous cocktail is being mixed, in which nationalist and radical right-wing parties are increasingly anchored in societies in the framework of an (impending) implosion of political systems.21
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are not only dealing with an altered right-wing mentality, but also with a new form of the right on the political stage. The right-wing political spectrum in Europe is based on a social milieu, concentrating on the middle strata, which may be defined as ranging from right-wing populist to radical right wing. In recent years it has become obvious in European countries that increased prosperity affects only the richest one per cent of society while real income is at best stagnant for the middle and low-income strata, which means social differences are increasing. For the sectors of the population who take part in political decision-making processes, it is important that their own wealth does not diminish – independently of whether others get a smaller or larger share of the total economic wealth. The pessimistic attitude towards change, the disillusion with the political class, and the middle stratum’s loss of hope are the main reasons for the shift of the political coordinates to the right.
This rightward shift with shrinking electoral turnouts is connected to the emergence of new types of right-wing populist parties. Sometimes they strongly dissociate themselves from the traditional right-wing extremist parties. The right-wing extremist parties with an openly racist and nationalist orientation, for example NPD, Jobbik, or Golden Dawn, can only represent a small part of the new protest spectrum or they must transform themselves.22
Characteristics of modern right-wing populism are its frontal assaults on the structures of society’s decision-making processes and the political class, as well as the promise to remove social conflicts by a culture-based valorisation of the family and the nation, and so to stabilise the living conditions of the ‘ordinary folks’. In contrast to historic fascism, which drew its legitimacy from the nation’s racially based superiority, the nationalism (or regionalism, for instance in the case of the Lega Nord) of the new right is built on another theoretical foundation.
Instead of nationalist claims of superiority, the ideology of the new populist right puts forth the concept of ethnic and cultural particularism which recognises the basic right of all people and races to be different. This reinterpretation, which marks the main difference with classic right-wing extremism, associates itself with what at first seems a quite modern concept of cultural and political autonomy. […] The anti-liberal flipside of relativism only becomes evident when looking at the domestic consequences for a country. […] The actual thrust of its neo-right-wing demands lies in its […] rejection of any kind of ethnic, mental and cultural mixture (and its idealisation).23
As a reaction to the success of right-wing populist parties and movements, the traditional centre-right parties have adopted large parts of the rightwing parties’ programmes (particularly in the areas of domestic security, immigration, and asylum-seeking) and therefore partially pulled the rug out from under their feet. Right-wing populists have thus indirectly caused a significant shift of the whole political spectrum towards the right and accelerated the development towards an authoritarian capitalism with massive limitations on social and civil rights. This rightward shift, especially in the bourgeois camp, however, only goes as far as is needed to temporarily damage an unwelcome competitor, because the underlying social problems and mentalities are not eliminated by this strategy, but are exacerbated and extended by it.
In many European countries, the populist and nationalist extreme right is gaining momentum due to the radicalisation of the right-wing electorate. And at the same time, the left is losing support in a context of crisis, austerity, the dismantlement of democracy, and the delegitimation of politics. Dealing with these tendencies poses a challenge to the whole of society, especially the trade unions, cultural protagonists, and social and political movements.24
The left in Europe is thus faced with the question of how to put a stop to the offensive of the nationalist, populist, and extremist right. Slogans like ‘no pasarán’ or calls for creating an antifascist front only reflect widespread helplessness. The challenge for the left is a lot more complex. The left, it is true, must take a firm stand against nationalist, xenophobic, and racist tendencies wherever and whenever they appear. What is decisive, however, is whether it is possible not only to organise resistance against the dynamic of the radical right but also to find new and creative answers to the question of whether politics can achieve anything positive. In this respect, all the left’s societal forces are facing a very complex challenge.
If the left wants to create a new political momentum, it has to counteract the demobilisation of its potential voters (particularly those most affected by the crisis) with a new ambitiousness and therefore develop a strategy for overcoming unleashed capitalism.
A debate on the question of Europe is an essential element of a left counteroffensive. The left must show that between the current neoliberal orientation and the anti-European orientation of the nationalist and rightwing radical forces there is an alternative that will pave the way for new developments in individual countries and in Europe.
translated by Veronika Peterseil
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