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Understanding the Global Rise of the Extreme Right


Just a few years ago, the idea that the extreme right would come to power in what were regarded as stable liberal democracies would have been dismissed not only by liberals but by more left-wing progressives. Yet, in just eight years, 2010-2018, the world has seen the extreme right move from being outside the corridors of power to the center of power itself.

Counterrevolution in the North

There is, of course, Donald Trump. But before his surprise electoral victory in November 2016, Viktor Orban had come to power again in Hungary in 2010 — this time reincarnated as a man of the hard right instead of the liberal democrat he was in the late nineties. Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists achieved a smashing electoral victory in India in 2014. And Rodrigo Duterte’s tough law-and-order line carried him to the presidency of the Philippines in May 2016.

And after Trump, the Alternative fur Deutschland won 94 of the German Bundestag’s 630 seats in the September 2017 elections, the first time the far right has gained a presence in that body, and the anti-immigrant Northern League came to power in alliance with the Five-Star Movement in Italy in the aftermath of the March 2018 elections. In France, it took an informal electoral alliance of the center right, center, center left, and left to fend off the presidential bid of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the electoral runoff of May 2017.

How do we explain this sudden resurgence of the authoritarian right?

First, a few words on the rise of the extreme right in the Global North. I don’t like quoting Barack Obama, but one must bring up an observation that he recently made in Johannesburg: “Challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements… [that] tapped the unease that was felt by many people.”

We on the left may not like the bearer of these words, but Obama was right: The extreme right expropriated the anti-globalization critique from progressives. They ate our lunch.

In fact, the extreme right not only took over the independent left’s critique of globalization. It also spoke out more loudly than the left about the European Union’s democratic deficit, with Marine Le Pen opportunistically calling the troika’s disregarding the results of the 2015 Greek referendum that rejected the terms of the latest austerity program a case of “Euro-dictatorship.”

Moreover, as the broad left was paralyzed by mainstream social democratic parties’ continued adherence to the neoliberal ideology that unleashed the financial crisis in Europe and the United States, right-wing parties in Europe gradually deemphasized the anti-tax, anti-big-government, and free-market concerns of their original petit bourgeois base and opportunistically embraced an anti-neoliberal agenda and the welfare state. The strategy has paid off.

In France, the “new look” bestowed on the National Front by Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father, the notorious racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, evoked this observation from a French socialist senator: “Left-wing voters are crossing the red line because they think that salvation from their plight is embodied by Madame Le Pen… They say ‘no’ to a world that seems hard, globalized, implacable. These are working-class people, pensioners, office workers who say, ‘We don’t want this capitalism and competition in a world where Europe is losing its leadership.’”

The extreme right has now married these traditionally left-wing concerns to a vicious racist, chauvinistic, and anti-immigrant agenda that is reminiscent of the platform that the fascists and Nazis offered to people during the volatile 1930s: a defensive program that involves strong state management of the economy while leaving the capitalist mode of production largely intact (along with its class inequalities), though with discriminatory privileges for whole communities based on ethnicity, blood, and race, and with borders sealed to migrants.

Call it a welfare state, but only for members of the dominant racial and cultural group.

This is a tremendously appealing program that will take all the energy and imagination of the European left to effectively counter.

Counterrevolution in Asia

Turning to Asia, there;s also a counterrevolution going.

In India, we have a Hindu right that scored a massive victory in the 2014 elections and aims to consolidate its hegemony in the elections next year. The counterrevolution is a bloody one. Lynching of Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, the murder or prominent intellectuals, and the arrest of activists are now commonplace.

This is perhaps not unexpected, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002, when over a two-month period, some 2,000 people — the vast majority of them Muslims — lost their lives in what many regard as a pogrom. The right controls cyberspace, from which they create false news that trigger anti-Muslim riots, as in the city Muzaffarnagar in 2013, or spread hate speech, like advocating tying Indian author Arundhati Roy to an army jeep as a human shield in Kashmir.

I think it is fair to say that liberal intellectuals and progressive activists in India still have not fully grasped what has happened, much less figured out how to counter it.

But who am I to speak? In my own country, the Philippines, a serial killer who’s taken over 7,000 lives (a figure regarded by many as a gross underestimate) in a little over two years is head of state — and he’s as popular today as when he was elected. The opposition still has to find a firm footing, with the two main forces being a discredited liberal elite opposition and an equally discredited extreme left. In the meantime, there appears to be little standing in the way of President Duterte scrapping the liberal democratic constitution and instituting an authoritarian system masquerading as federalism.

There’s little to be cheerful about elsewhere. In junta-ruled Thailand, the military shows no urgency of returning to the barracks, because the middle class would rather have them in power than a democracy supported by the lower classes. In Cambodia, Hun Sen has shed the last vestiges of democracy by unilaterally dissolving the main opposition party. In Myanmar, the military is carrying out genocide with strong support from the Buddhist majority and the acquiescence of the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Common Features

Looking more closely at some of these countries where authoritarianism is on the rise, several things become clear.

First of all, there’s a rebellion against liberal democracy that’s going on, though the nuances are different in the different cases.

In India, the revolt is against the secular character of liberal democracy, against its championing of diversity, and against the protections it accords to the minorities vis a vis the majority. One might say that what is emerging is a majoritarian regime — that is, democratic in the narrow sense of promoting majority rule at the expense of the minority rights and individual liberties, pretty much like Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban’s regime of “illiberal democracy.”

In the Philippines, the insurgency against liberal democracy is a response to the elites’ hijacking of the electoral process to compete with each other while cooperating to perpetuate their class rule and to the failure of the country’s 32-year-old liberal democratic system to deliver social and economic reform. In Thailand, it’s against the “failure” of liberal democracy to preserve the privileges of the minority against a poor majority they characterize as ignorant and corruptible.

Second, racism, ethnocentrism, and a cultural superiority complex are central drivers of some of these extremist movements. In India, Europe, and the United States, these movements have adopted the narrative of a fall from some mythical “Golden Age” unspoiled by aliens like Muslims and non-white people in the case of the European right-wing movements, Muslims and Christians in that of Hindu nationalists, and blacks and Hispanics in that of the American right.

Third, the extremist movements in the Asia, while benefiting the elites, enjoy the support of the middle classes.

In India, its most enthusiastic backers are what one observer called “a rising middle class that is hungry for religious assertion and fed up with the socialist, rationalist legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.” In Thailand, fearful of the masses of poor rural people mobilized by former Prime Minister Thaksin, the middle class, including most of academia, supports measures that would thwart the rule of the majority and would much rather have a military regime than a genuine one-person, one-vote system. In the Philippines, people from the middle class are the most avid supporters of President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, where due process has been thrown out of the window.

As for the North, large sectors of the white working class have joined the middle classes as a base for the extremist parties, falling for the right-wing promise of a welfare state, but only for the so-called native population, i.e., whites.

Fourth, in the Philippines and India, there is an eliminationist rationale for the regime’s brutal acts.

In India, Muslims and Christians are seen as alien grafts onto the Hindu body politic. While tactical considerations dictate that they must be treated as “merely” second class citizens for the moment, these communities must ultimately be excised by pogroms or forced displacement when the opportunity presents itself, as it did in Gujarat in 2002.

In the Philippines, drug users are the equivalent of the Nazi-era Jews in President Duterte’s universe. Duterte has all but written off these people out of the human race.Bottom of Form Drug users are consigned outside the borders of “humanity,” since their brains have allegedly shrunk to the point that they’re no longer in command of their faculties to will and think. In his speeches justifying the killings “in self-defense” by police, Duterte said that a year or more of the use of “shabu” — the local term for meth or methamphetamine — “would shrink the brain of a person, and therefore he is no longer viable for rehabilitation.” These people are the “living, walking dead” who are “of no use to society anymore.”

What is to be done?

First of all, progressives must squarely face the fact that these movements are either in power or on the threshold of power — and once they get power, through elections or other means, they have no intention of relinquishing it. If there’s one key lesson that these movements have learned from Hitler, who came to power via democratic elections in 1932-33, this is it. Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, has boasted that his party will be in power for the next 50 years.

Second, even as we continually call for respect for human rights, we must at the same time realize that these might have less purchase now among people influenced by leaders who dismiss human rights as a western ideology spread by what BJP ideologues call “sickular libtards.”

Moreover, the times call for a progressive politics that goes beyond calling for a return to the old discredited elite democracy, where equality was purely formal, to one that has as its centerpiece the achievement of genuine economic and social equality, whether one calls this socialism or post-capitalism. This program must call for stronger state and civil society management of the economy, one that moves it beyond capitalism, with a strong dose of radical income and wealth redistribution, while championing democratic processes, secularism, diversity, and the rights of minorities, including migrants.

Third, while a great many of the middle classes have what we might call, following Gramsci, an “active consensus” behind authoritarian politics, a great many of the poorer and more marginalized classes either keep the right at arms-length or limit their support to passive consensus. We must focus our counter-mobilization on these sectors — without, however, giving up on the middle class, or the white working class for that matter. Racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities must be central to this coalition.

Fourth, right-wing parties and personalities are strongly misogynistic at a time when women’s struggles for their rights are ascendant throughout the word. So it is very critical that women in great numbers play a central role in the politics of the anti-fascist movement. Women, when mobilized, are one of the strongest bulwarks against fascism.

Fifth, many progressive personalities and parties that played key roles in the old liberal democratic political arena have been discredited, along with the liberal democratic system. Thus while we must construct broad coalitions, it is imperative that new faces, new political formations, and new ideas come to represent the progressive response to fascism. The youth, re a central battlefield in this conflict, and we’re losing ground among them.

Déjà vu?

Today we’re pretty much where we were in the 1930s, when forces of the extreme right are on the offensive and the fate of progressive democratic politics hangs in the balance.

The last few years have buried Francis Fukuyama’s deterministic idea that liberal democracy was every country’s future, just as before Fukuyama momentous events buried the equally deterministic notion that socialism was the wave of the future.

The future emerges from the clash of movements and ideas, one that is marked by great uncertainty and contingency. There is no guarantee that our side will prevail, but we will certainly lose unless we resist in a way that combines determination, passion, and wisdom.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello is currently the International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. A member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines from 2009 to 2015, he made the only recorded resignation on principle in the history of Congress owing to differences with the administration of President Benigno Aquino III. He is the author of 23 books, including the forthcoming The Fall of China? Preventing the Next Crash (London: Zed Books, 2019) and State and Counterrevolution: Explorations into the Global Rise of the Right (Halifax: Fernwood, 2019).

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