In last year’s European elections of which in three countries (Great Britain, Denmark and France) radical right-wing nationalist parties became the strongest forces.
The number of right-wing nationalist Members of European Parliament (MEPs) has grown to a good fourth which are belonging to different groups in the EP while a considerable number of right-wing radical and neo-fascist MEPs are not organised in groups and Hungary’s FIDESZ despite exhibiting the characteristics of a right-wing radical party in many ways, has found its place in the European People’s Party.
“Radical Right” seems to be too vague as it applies to a spectrum including open neo-Nazis and right-wing parties having adapted their appearance to suit mainstream media.
The left’s historical experience in confronting it is substantial and extensive. But this observation must not mislead into overlooking the new factors.
No contemporary described hitherto the context of the right-wing development and the capitalist crisis more clearly than Karl Polanyi. In his principal work, The Great Transformation, he wrote that socialism and nationalism originated in the milieu of a crisis-ridden capitalism. Both they were the reaction to the collapse of the ‘utopian endeavour’ of constructing societies and international relations on the basis of a ‘self-regulating market system’.
Nowadays increased votes for right-wing radical parties are often interpreted simplistically as the protest of frustrated underclasses. However as data for many countries show the electorates of far right parties embrace also middle strata and are even spreading among upper-income groups.
Moreover right-wing radical thinking is nearer to the neoliberal zeitgeist than one might think. As Irish political scientist Cas Mudde writes it is a ‘pathology of normalcy’ rather than a ‘normal pathology’.
Among the right-wing radical parties that have achieved a respectable appearance with populist approaches are the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Front National, the Danish People’s Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns, the PVV in the Netherlands, and Austria’s Freedom Party which are nowadays are dubbed as typical populist parties.
In political science the concept of populism originally indicated authoritarian movements invoking the ‘people’. It soon became evident that as long as one did not attempt a more precise definition the concept also easily became a fighting word with which one or another political movement with oppositional aspirations could be characterised.
The Left and left liberal political science has considerable difficulties with this phenomenon. E.g. British political scientist Margaret Canovan starts with the observation that ‘the eternal slogan of the populists’, ‘is that politicians and special interest groups have stolen power from the people’; which of course is not absolutely untrue.
Populism accordingly always arises from the gap between what is promised in democracy and what is delivered.
By drawing on this gap between the promise and the reality it expresses a much deeper structural antagonism of capitalist societies, that is, between the alleged equality that democracy professes and the actual inequality that the hierarchical economic order continually reproduces. Populism is thus a symptom of the difficulty of sustaining the mediation between these two opposed realities of capitalism. Its growth would then be a sign of a serious crisis of democracy.
Cas Mudde has also sought to clarify the question. The overwhelming majority of parties that are called ‘populist, radical right’, he explains, have ‘an ideological core of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism’. The latter, he notes, ‘considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”’.
This leads to a most astounding parallel, one which jumps to the eye when reading the debates of the 1920s and 30s: Polanyi saw as symptoms of creeping fascisation the ‘criticism of the party system’, as well as the ‘widespread disparagement of the "regime," or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set-up’
Also the today’s populist discourses start as outsiders with provocative, at times aggressive language breaking taboos and pronouncing things in a politically incorrect fashion which appears to contrast the dominant discourse.
The contradiction dwells in the following: Notwithstanding their rebellious rhetoric populists are astonishingly conformist and conservative regarding the basics of the society. E.g. the Front National is absolutely not opposing austerity policies as such it even prescribes them for an indeterminate period in order to arrive at a zero budget however not to rescue the euro and Europe but the state and the nation.
This provides the key to understanding what populism actually is. It is not about talking to people in a popular language which anyway is a trivial observation.
In so far as it is rebellious, it involves a rebellion on the basis of the existing order. What liberal political science systematically mistakes is that the populism is a conservative rebellion, which, just like the conservative rebellion of early fascism, is the counter-programme to both the liberal’s and the left’s programme.
In terms of economic policy successful populist parties have been sailing, up to a few years ago, in the neoliberal mainstream for which e.g. the social state represented a decadent system that lulled people in the illusion ‘that simply by paying taxes they could redeem any sense of co-responsibility’, as the Austrian populist Jörg Haider put it. This thrived mainly in states whose political systems, as in Austria, were characterised by the strong intertwining of parties, interest groups, and a public economy.
By the end of the first decade of the new century almost all populist parties have accomplished a considerable metamorphosis. The originally neoliberal oriented character of their programme has been replaced by a ‘neo-social discourse’.
In fact, they have not simply added social-policy demands to their programmes but have constructed a fighting position from which they want to overturn the understanding of social policy that has prevailed up to now and which was largely shaped by the TU and the Left.
The Front National, for example, wants to rehabilitate France’s healthcare system through the privileged treatment of the French. Some political scientists view the combination of what are ‘left positions in terms of social policy with traditional right-wing arguments’ as indication of the ‘overcoming of a clear right/left distinction’ due to the populist discourse.
But the Front National’s programme in no way fluctuates between right and left. The main chapters of its electoral programm in 2014 were titled ‘the authority of the state’, ‘the future of the nation’, ‘social reconstruction’, and ‘refounding the republic’. The sequence is itself the programme. It is not society that represents the point of departure from which, as in the Enlightenment, the nation and, through it, the state is derived but the inverse: Here it is the state that precedes both the nation and society and is superordinate.
The ‘welfare chauvinism’, does not just aim at new divisions of societies but is also the blueprint for the recomposition of the ethnic corpus, which is to be implemented from the top down.
Populists want to share power with no one, not even with the people. Their goal is to represent the people in a new way. The way in which the people are supposed to be represented is the direct and exclusive relationship between the led and the charismatic leader. ‘The [authoritarian] leader system is represented as a form of the state in touch with the people, because allegedly only the leader is in a position to carry out the will of the people.’ Even when it is not expressed in this way, in the end the state form considered adequate for this is not democracy but dictatorship, in which there can be government according to the principle ‘those who are against the leader are against the people’.
Nowadays populist parties have gathered together across Europe under the banner of nationalism and the opposition to European integration.
Is it conceivable that right-wing radical parties can come to power in the most powerful European states? France’s Front National became the strongest party in the European Parliament elections. Marine Le Pen’s chances for the 2017 presidential elections are not bad in view of the crisis of French society and the difficulties of the left.
Their successes depend, however, on more fundamental, social political factors and is tied ‘tied to a crisis of the ruling ideological discourse, which is in turn part of a general crisis of society’.
In a critically acute situation Argentinean political scientist Ernesto Laclau notes ‘a class or class fraction [can], in order to gain hegemony’, decide ‘to appeal, against the established ideology, to “the people” as a whole’ aiming through mobilising is at a new form of government more adequate to the situation.
There are many indications that Europe is headed toward a social and political crisis with increasing speed.
Authoritarian collectivism and nationalist compartmentalisation are already filling a gap today, which the discrediting of neoliberal individualism and European integration has opened up in the wake of the crisis. In a dramatically aggravated situation, the question is whether the right-wing radical populists are also in a position to promise a political stabilisation of the prevailing social relations (as Hitler once promised German big capital).
Can nationalism be more today than opium for the people, simulating social integration through strengthening the national community in the face of external and internal enemies? And if right-wing populism represents a government option in several influential countries, can the nationalism it represents also provide a blueprint for the reshaping of interstate relations in Europe?
On the one hand, this would be the case if in some of them the nationalist option gains acceptance within the ruling class and eliminates its political competitors. Maybe there will be a fragmentation of the Union into several blocs, the most powerful of which would constitute itself around Europe’s economic and political power centre, the newly united Germany, and which would exercise a more or less benign hegemony over the rest of the continent.
On the other hand, as demonstrated through the electoral victory of SYRIZA there is also the chance that parties come to power which would refuse to submit to the austerity policy insisted on by the EU institutions. In one or the other case, the probable outcome would be a crisis of European institutions whose results are hard to predict.
Europe is at a crossroad, and the decisions that are to be taken in some states and at the EU level will determine its direction for a long time to come. The struggle will no longer be conducted on the margins of the political spectrum but will be aimed at the majority and the centre of society.
Speech given at the editor’s conference of Socialist Register 2016, York University Toronto, 17.2.2015
See also the Focus “Radical, Far and Populist Right” on the transform! europe website.