Why is the Far-Right Rising Globally?

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Not since the pre-World War II period of the early 20th century have there been as many far-right governments in office as today. It almost seems that with every new election, another one joins the ranks of governments that can be described as authoritarian, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, or even sexist. Governments that fall into this far-right categorization include Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines, Narendra Modi’s of India, Tayyip Erdogan’s of Turkey, Viktor Orban’s of Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and last but not least, Donald Trump’s government in the United States. They all came into power in the last five years, more or less. Why is it though that there is this fairly sudden rise of the far-right? There are a number of political scientists and sociologists who have tried to explain this phenomenon, but it receives relatively little attention in the general public.

Joining me now to discuss the global rise of the far right is Walden Bello. He is a sociologist who has given this topic a lot of attention. He actually recently published a book on this topic with the title, Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. He is a Visiting Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and joins us today from Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks for being here today, Walden.

WALDEN BELLO: Oh, thanks for inviting me, Greg. Really happy to be here.

GREG WILPERT: So your book is for the most part a series of case studies where each chapter covers a different country. And just for our viewers, the countries are Italy, Indonesia, Chile, Thailand, India, the Philippines, the North, by which you mean mostly Europe, and Brazil. And before we look into these countries and the rise to power in each one of them, and we don’t have time to go into detail in each one of them, but before we dig a little bit deeper into the causes, I want to address how you identify these governments. That is, you specify that you’re looking at counterrevolutionary regimes, which you distinguish from conservative and reactionary regimes. Now, first of all, I just want to know, what’s the difference between these types: conservative, reactionary, counterrevolutionary? And why did you decide to zero in on the counterrevolutionary?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, let me just say that I’m following the categorization of a really great historian, Arno Mayer. When he describes these various phenomena or movements as reactionary, basically it is a movement that wants to go back to the past, to a past kind of regime. Conservative, and that is a regime that basically wants the status quo, doesn’t necessarily worship the past as reactionaries do. And counterrevolutionary, that is the most interesting and the most dangerous because there is a mass base. Whereas the reactionary and conservative regimes generally tend to appeal mainly to the elites, the counterrevolutionary regimes and counterrevolutionary movements are very heated kind of movements, and they do have a mass base. Oftentimes it is a multi-class base, but in many, many cases, the axis or the engine of a counterrevolution is the middle class.

And so that I thought was – that categorization I think was much more useful in terms of understanding right-wing movements rather than the usual categories of just calling them dictatorships, or authoritarian regimes, or populist regimes. There’s a lot of studies that call right-wing regimes at this point populist regimes, and basically it’s not very, very helpful because populism is more of a political style, a sort of direct appeal to the people. And populism really, as a term, doesn’t really give you a sense of the content of the programs of these regimes or these movements. And so that is why I felt that counterrevolution and counterrevolutionary movements was a better term in terms of capturing the essence of this movements.

GREG WILPERT: Now, you already mentioned one aspect of that, of how they came to power in the sense—I mean, it seems to me that if they have a mass base, it’s directly associated also with the fact that they take place or they come to power in the context of a liberal representative democracy. But I’m wondering what other kinds of commonalities, would you say, bring these counterrevolutionary regimes to power? I mean, it seems to me that you distinguished two different kinds. One is kind of political causes— that is, the failure of liberal democracy— and on the other hand kind of economic causes, the failure of neoliberalism. So can you just distinguish between those, and what kinds of countries would follow into those different categories?

WALDEN BELLO: I use the word counterrevolution to, as you say, describe two kinds of phenomena. One is the counterrevolution that is a response to a lower-class insurgency, an effort by the left, whether by reformist means or by revolutionary means, to come to power. And then there is a reaction from threatened classes. And these threatened classes – of course there are the elites, the capitalist elites, and usually the landed classes, but there is also a strong middle-class base to them that feels threatened by the rise of the lower classes.

And then there is, as you mentioned, the counterrevolution that is kind of a totalistic response to the crisis of liberal democracy. And this is a response to a failure at the economic level, a failure at the political level, and a failure at the ideological level. So it’s what you might [inaudible] a multidimensional response to the crisis of liberal democracy as not having been able to deliver on its promises. And so, we see this very clearly, for instance, in the Global South in the case of India with Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist movements that he now represents, which is a very, very strong reaction to the secular democracy that championed diversity, that was associated with the Congress Party, with Gandhi and with Nehru.

And you also see that in the case of the Philippines, where after 30 years of a liberal democracy that was not able to deliver on the promise of empowerment and equality, there was this middle class that surged to an authoritarian figure who in many ways challenges almost every aspect of liberal democracy, whether it’s due process, and whether it has to do with the language of liberal democracy and the promises of democratization, and a worship of authoritarianism and a strongman’s rule in the case of a person like Duterte.

So those are the two kinds of counterrevolutionary phenomena that I look at. One is, as in Chile, as in Thailand at this point, a response to a lower class insurgency. And the second one is kind of a totalistic response to the crisis of liberal democracy.

GREG WILPERT: We can add so many different examples.


GREG WILPERT: And I think it’s very interesting to look at this. For example, the Indonesian case is also particularly extreme. And you’re not just talking about contemporary, I mean, your book focuses also on some past examples such as Italy and Indonesia, where these were also reactions to the failures I guess of liberal democracy or of the encroachment of, or the fears that the upper class seems to have of liberal democracy and reforms that were taking place or threatening to take place. So I think that’s a very interesting point.

Now, one of the other points that you make that is very interesting is that you identify two different kinds of class alliances or backgrounds to the far right. That is, one case – and I guess they correspond kind of towards the types of reactions or circumstances. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about that because I think it’s very interesting that oftentimes the middle class plays a very important role, and that’s something that perhaps Western analysts oftentimes don’t pay attention to. At least when you talk about the rise of the global right, it’s often presented in the context of the working class being responsible for it, but you really place the onus really much more on the middle class for the rise of the right.

WALDEN BELLO: Yeah. Well, let me put it this way, the great understudied class in political science or in sociology is the middle class. Oftentimes the focus of studies is on the elites, whether the landed elites or the capitalist elite, and on the working class because those are supposed to be the two polar classes in a capitalist society. And the middle class was long regarded mainly as responding to these two classes, a class or a stratum that could be pulled either way, to the left or to the right. And so, in a lot of the strategies of the left, the middle class was seen as this sort of passive agent that, as long as you just had a program that would satisfy their material desires, they would come over to the left. And this was the united front kind of politics that characterized the left in so many countries until the recent times.

But the fact though is that the middle class has an agency of its own. And once the middle class begins to have this agency because it feels that its structural position is very much threatened, then it becomes a very strong force in a counterrevolutionary coalition. And I think what we’ve seen for instance in the case of Chile and in many other cases is in fact that you have this mass base that has a dynamic of its own. Yes, as in Italy and Germany, it has alliances with the elites, but not really controlled by the elites. In fact, it pushes very hard on its own. So you have this very interesting class dynamics, and we kind of just reduce therefore the middle class to a simple, passive instrument in the hands of the elites or in the hands of say, working-class political parties. But it has an agency of its own, and I think that the lack of appreciation of the fact that the middle class has an agency of its own has been responsible for many of the political mistakes that progressive movements have committed.

Now, when you come to the Global North, at this point in time, definitely I would say that it is threatened middle classes that are the center of this right-wing movements at this point in time. But what I think has happened is that many of this right-wing movements led by middle-class personalities and sometimes by elite personalities, one of the characteristics of course at this point in the North is that they’ve been able to win over the base that was traditionally the base of the progressive parties and the traditional working classes. And I think the reason for this of course is several things. And as you can see in the book when I deal with the North, one of it is that the working class parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the United States basically espoused neoliberal programs, were won over to neoliberalism, and this had a major impact on the lives and incomes and the economic status of the working class.

And we also saw that in the case of the European Union for instance and its democratic deficit. The right was also able to use that. And then of course there was the whole issue of migration. And I think the right wing was able to use this issue of migration in a way that has been quite clever in basically saying that, “Hey, we’ll keep the welfare state, but only for the traditional ethnic stock in this country.” That’s sort of the kind of similarities and differences between these counterrevolutionary movements in the Global North and the Global South.

GREG WILPERT: I think that’s a very interesting point that speaks to the strategies, and I want to dig into that more in part two. So we’re going to conclude this first part.


GREG WILPERT: This concludes the first part of my conversation with Walden Bello on his book, Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. Please join us for part two, where we continue to delve deeper into the topic.

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. This is part two of my conversation with Philippine sociologist, Walden Bello, who just published a book called Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. Thanks again, Walden, for having joined us today.

WALDEN BELLO: Thanks again for inviting me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So in the previous segment we talked a little bit about the causes of the rise of the far right, and there’s a comment I wanted to make, or an observation that I wanted to make about your analysis actually that I didn’t have a chance to make in the previous segment, which is that it seems to me, and this is kind of a strange phenomenon, that is the right seems to rise under both conditions of neoliberalism and social democracy.

That is, on the one hand it rises and when there’s social democracy because the elites are afraid and want to roll back those gains, so that’s definitely a counterrevolution. Then it also seems to rise when there is neoliberalism, and there’s of course many examples of that particularly in Europe and the United States. But we can see that in other countries where there’s been a predominance of neoliberalism where the right rises. It seems a little bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. That is, whether you introduce a social market as they call it in Germany, or that is a social democracy, or whether you introduce neoliberalism with a very harsh capitalism, in both cases, it seems to bring about the rise of the far right. At least that seems to have been the tendency in many cases historically and in contemporary society.

I want to look at though – these are two somewhat different circumstances, although they seem to combine sometimes especially when you think about neoliberalism. Some people actually have called neoliberalism to be a form of counterrevolution. That is, it already is a reaction against the gains of social democracy and the welfare state. Now, I just wanted to see what your reaction is to that idea that neoliberalism itself is a form of counterrevolution.

WALDEN BELLO: Well, yes, I would say that definitely neoliberalism was a big effort on the part of the elites to roll back the gains of the working class, the capital-labor compromise, the welfare state. So, basically in that sense it is already a counter-revolution, but what I’m talking about here in the book is something that’s – because of neoliberalism, you have the crisis in living standards that under circumstances where you would have a progressive party that has a very good analysis and that is anti-neoliberal, that could provide the locus of resistance to neoliberalism.

But as I say in the book, in both Europe and the United States, the social democratic parties and the Democratic Party in the United States basically we’re one over to neoliberalism, whether we talk about Blair or we talk about the Democratic Party with Bill Clinton. Because of this, there was a sense that among working classes that they had been abandoned by their traditional parties that they had been reliant on in the past to defend a welfare state, to defend the gains that they had made. The right-wing, and many of them again these are usually middle-class activists with very far-right kind of politics, saw an opening here.

That is why throughout Europe at this point, you have a stampede of many working class base to these parties at this point in time. I’m not sure, some people say that the stampede or the bleeding of the social democratic parties has tapped, but I’m not so sure of that at this point in time. I guess my point here is this counterrevolution because – or a move to the right, or a move to this very opportunistic kind of programs that basically says, “the welfare state will be here, but only for those of the right color and the right ethnic stock.” So what the right has been able to do is to merge these sort of social concerns with a racist, ethnic, and anti-immigrant kind of program.

That is a very dynamic and very threatening kind of thing at this point. That is what I would say – a very active, heated counterrevolution that is taking place. The same sort of dynamics, of course there are differences in a number of things including how liberal democracy and neoliberalism failed, but you also see that in countries like India and the Philippines. So, you have this middle class-led and based movements that quite unexpectedly, to many, have captured mass allegiances at this point in time despite the fact that, for instance, a guy like Duterte almost spits at every value of liberal democracy and he has an 81% approval rating.

Now the only other thing, Greg, that I would like to say here is that we need to distinguish between the active supporters and passive supporters in a place like the Philippines or in India and others. The active supporters then to come from the middle classes, but the passive supporters of these counterrevolutionary movements are usually from the workers, the masses, that sort of thing. They are brought along with the wave, but they’re not necessarily the people who make the ideological justifications for them and create the mass movements and the parties that push these programs.

GREG WILPERT: Right. I think that we’re basically getting into the area now of the strategies that they use to maintain power, which I think is also very important to look at. One of the things that I think is also interesting about this is that these governments oftentimes espouse to be, like you’re saying, I think the term that you used in the book is a race-based solidarity that seek to protect, as you say, the welfare state for the ingroup of that race or that ethnicity that’s predominant or the majority in that country.

But it seems to me also actually, and this is also an interesting point which you raise or what you look at in several different countries, is that they do combine it still with neoliberalism. That is, they’re actually dismantling the welfare state. You can see this is particularly the case in the United States of Donald Trump, where Obamacare is being dismantled and taxation for the upper class is being dismantled, and things like that. So actually, even though he’s on the one hand, it’s basically rhetoric this protection for the ingroup because the fact of the matter is that he’s actually implementing a lot of neoliberal policies.

You could say that also, I think, to a large extent in the Indian case for Narendra Modi and maybe even in Turkey with Erdogan. On the one hand, they have this dual nature. I think you kind of also describe it as being kind of an opportunistic type of government. I’m just wondering if you could comment on that briefly.

WALDEN BELLO: Sure. Well, the relationship of these counterrevolutionary movements with neoliberalism is very interesting in both the North and the Global South because whether it’s with Marine Le Pen or with the Nordic right-wing parties, they used to be tied up with the right with anti-tax movements, greater market “freedom,” neoliberal programs. But I think over the last 15 years, and you can see this for instance in Marine Le Pen’s program, they moved away from the classical neoliberal program and basically have embraced this program of “we’ll keep the welfare state, but just for the ingroup, just for those who have been here since time immemorial, that kind of thing.

And the enemies are the liberals and the social democrats who are the people who are trying to bring in the immigrants. So, basically they are reconfiguring social conflicts in a way that’s quite counterrevolutionary. This is not the kind of elite-led coalition— you know, “you give me this, you give me that” politics. These sort of very interesting class alliances being created with a racist, and at the same time pseudo-social democratic kind of ideology. That’s in the North with all its contradictions. I see what you pointed out about Trump. On the one hand, dismantling Obamacare. On the other hand, opportunistically telling the workers, “Okay, hey, I’m against the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” and that’s what you are against, right?

So, I guess it’s the first or second executive order that he made. And so, it’s a kind of very opportunistic kind of thing. Trump is not a doctrine of neoliberal. He’s a very opportunistic kind of right-wing politician who is going to bring together something that may not have much ideological coherence, but has a lot of emotional coherence that responds to this base that feels threatened; for instance, by immigrants. In the Global South, there you have a situation where Duterte continues to have a neoliberal program and Modi, again, also has a neoliberal program. Both are allied to their elites at this point in time, despite the fact that the neoliberal program is not working or is not bringing about the kind of better living conditions that they had promised. Nevertheless, they continue to have a lot of support. So it’s a very interesting and at the same time, very dangerous kind of situation, a combination of neoliberalism and great popularity.

GREG WILPERT: Right. Before we conclude, we briefly have to touch on the issue of the strategies that can be used to overcome counterrevolutionary regimes. Now, in a nutshell, what would you say would be the best way to confront them?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, I think the first thing is I think it’s going to be very, very important to really hold on and espouse and promote democratic values, and the values of protection for human beings, human rights and due process, which is being threatened everywhere. For instance, Duterte basically has said due process does not hold for criminals and he’s ended up killing over 20,000 people. Basically, it’s not a popular thing at this point in time, but we really have to uphold these traditional democratic values, the right to life and human rights.

Secondly, I think we cannot just go back and promote and say to people, “Hey, we have to go back to democracy.” And people will tell you, “What do you mean democracy?” for instance in India or the Philippines at this point in time. “This so-called democracy that you kept on telling us, we have been under it for decades. Things are still extremely bad for the masses of people. The inequalities, Greg, and everything else. Your democracy hasn’t delivered.” I think what you really need to do is to go beyond these elite liberal democracies and really propose social democratic programs. I use that in a scientific sense, not in a political sense, but we really have to put equality at the center now.

We cannot just have this formal equality, but really inequality. I think both in the United States, in Europe, in the Global South, equality has now to be at the center. Now whether we call this program socialist or social democratic, or popular democracy, for me that’s not important. The important thing is we have to distinguish that from the kind of capitalist liberal democracy that has hidden class conflict and has not really delivered. The third thing is really we have to find a way to counter the mass appeal of these demagogues that are appearing at this point in time. One of the problems with progressive movements are oftentimes they’re so rationalistic, if you know what I mean. Basically, the appeal is very much based on the interests. The appeal is very much sometimes very economistic in terms of its appeal to different groups. And they haven’t been able to win people emotionally.

Now, I think we can win people emotionally in a good way and not in a fascist way, but we really have to try and try very hard on that score. Then the other thing that I think we really need to look at is really the importance of the women’s movement at this point in time because all of these people— whether it’s Trump, whether it’s Duterte—they are misogynists. They are espousing misogynism in their behavior and in their programs, and the women’s movement throughout the world is on the rise and is quite uncompromising at this point in time. I think it has a very great role to play in terms of opposing these moves towards counterrevolution and fascism, which are very misogynistic right now.

These are just some things that I’ve been thinking about in terms of the way that we can get a handle on these movements and then confront them. One important thing I would just like to say, Greg, is we have to give up – we can’t fall into conspiracy theories that these are just people being manipulated by elites or by clever people. You know, there is a mass base to these right-wing movements, and I think we really need to accept that and then see how we can go toe to toe with them in terms of winning over the allegiances of people.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, I think that your point there is very well taken and very important. Especially also for the left, I think it’s crucial to understand the rise of the right in order to figure out where did we go wrong, so to speak. Like I said, it seems like the rise of the right is linked to both neoliberalism and social democracy. In other words, if we want to avoid the rise of the right in the future, that means having to overcome both neoliberalism and social democracy.

But unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Philippines sociologist, Walden Bello, about his just published book Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. Thanks again, Walden, for having joined us today.

WALDEN BELLO: Thanks too, Greg. I’m very happy to have been in your program today.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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