The Rise of the European Right

Has Liberal Extremism Played a Role in the Rise of Populism?
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italian far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), delivers a speech on September 23, 2022 at the Arenile di Bagnoli beachfront location in Naples, southern Italy, during a rally closing her party’s campaign for the September 25 general election. Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

When Polish President Andrzej Duda on June 14, 2020, referred to LGBT+ rights as an "ideology" more destructive than communism, he sounded a historic warning, but it went unheeded. Legalization has continued, and ultra-liberal policies have pushed conservative social forces into a more active political role, while globalized capitalist economic policies have marginalized millions of rural and small-town residents, creating a fertile ground for resentment that nationalist and patriotic calls have nurtured.

Today, in the country that gave birth to fascism, the Far-Right is back in power, and the Italian general elections produced the expected result: victory for the nationalist Brothers of Italy. Although there is near-universal agreement that the party's success represents a watershed moment not only for Europe but for all Western liberal democracies, some are betting on the ability of "reality" to erode electoral claims and promises.

On the other hand, others insist on reproducing the "stereotype" and recalling history as it really happened. Most analyses, for example, repeat the Italian right-wing leader's pledge to "defend God, the homeland, and the family," which was the motto of Mussolini’s party. Despite the fact that right-wing nationalists are winning elections across Europe, some centrist European politicians are calling for a "quarantine" to combat the pandemic!

If there is one story that has dominated Western politics over the last decade, it is that the Far-Right has not thrived. It has taken hold of the scene in many countries, perhaps the most important of which are America and France, where the Far-Right has long been the main opposition force. It is also gaining traction in Spain. In Sweden the party founded by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists has become the second largest party in parliament. In addition, far-right parties are in power in Hungary and Poland.

Supporters of far-right, anti-EU Casapound movement wave flags during the electoral meeting in Rome/EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCON

SLAUGHTER WITH THE DEMOCRATIC KNIFE

Today, the implications of election results in several European countries, particularly Italy, as well as various types of opinion polls confirm that the inextricable link between liberalism (particularly radical liberalism) and democracy has become deeply suspect in Europe, America, and a number of Latin American democracies. As a result, dealing with the "global right-wing turn" necessitates different approaches that go beyond the stereotypical image of right-wing forces and their sources of power, as well as the problems of democratic practices over the last few decades.

In 2009, Europe learned one of the most important lessons about "the limits of democracy" when Switzerland decided to hold a referendum on allowing Muslims to build "minarets" for mosques. The European Union was most aware of the danger and considered that resorting to a vote on the right of a religious minority to practice its rituals is - regardless of the outcome of the vote - an inappropriate use of democracy. Tobias Billström, Sweden's Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy, expressed his surprise at the time by saying: "I find it odd that a referendum is used to make this decision." The issue of "the limits of democracy" has manifested itself in various forms throughout the European Union since this referendum, and at the end of the process, a heated debate erupted in America as a result of the US Supreme Court's decision to abolish the "right to abortion," with opponents of the ruling questioning whether the Court's unelected judges had the authority to "change American society."

When the Polish government announced its intention to withdraw from the "Istanbul Convention," which aims to strengthen women's protection from violence, many European MPs expressed concern, and Dacian Cioloș, inaugural chairman of the liberal "Renew Europe" group, called it "a pathetic and miserable new move." In 2011, the Council of Europe, a European human rights organization based in Strasbourg, adopted the "Istanbul Convention" as the first "supranational" mechanism for establishing legally binding standards.

Poland signed the agreement in 2012, and the Polish Minister of Justice at the time, Zbigniew Ziobro, described it in 2020 as "a heresy, a feminist invention aimed at justifying the ideology of homosexuality."

Far-right parties (and ideas) have been "part of the European political mainstream for at least two decades now," according to one prominent Western academic.

The Far-Right is commonly portrayed as a social and political movement that rejects equality and pluralism and thus is hostile to democracy. Its organizations strive to create a hierarchically organized society in which certain groups of people wield greater political, social, and economic power than others.  It is "authoritarian and reactionary," sometimes conspiratorial, racist, and nationalist.

Not all far-right groups and individuals hold the same beliefs or pursue the same political strategies. However, the majority of the right wing promotes an exclusionary societal viewpoint and, in general, targets people of color, women, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, religious minorities, immigrants, and people who are not Christians.

WILL THE EUROPEAN COMMUNIST SCENARIO BE REPEATED?

One approach that was missing amid the condemnation and denunciation accompanying the rise of European far-right parties was that European democracy had previously succeeded in containing European communist movements and pushing them to transform into parties that accept the democratic transfer of power. It was a success whose most important condition was the disengagement of democracy with liberalism, so that former revolutionaries met with their opponents in almost all European countries to accept the transfer of power and access to state funds. The two cases are not identical, but the similarities are striking. It may be too late to warn voters against voting for right-wing forces, and it may be more realistic to focus on "democratizing" the far-right parties.

One of the most effective considerations in any effort to contain the Right would be to ensure that its access to power—whether unilaterally or in alliance with others—would be impossible without the establishment's tolerance, and that the democracy that allowed it to exist should be respected for its foundations and values. In this regard, David Broder, author of Mussolini's Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, claims that: "Meloni owes a great deal to more moderate forces. They have provided her with the opportunity to present herself as a member of the mainstream."

With the transformations witnessed by the international communist movement, the European communist movements began their path of change. Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist leader, declared his rejection of peaceful coexistence with capitalism and his acceptance of parliamentary and non-violent means of achieving socialism beginning in 1957.

 

FILE - Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, center, hands on hips, with members of the Fascist Party, in Rome, Italy, Oct. 28, 1922, following their March on Rome. The Brothers of Italy party, the biggest vote-getter in Italy's national election, has its roots in the post-World War II neofascist Italian Social Movement and proudly kept its symbol the tricolor flame as the visible and symbolic proof of its inheritance as it went from a fringe far-right group to the biggest party in Italian politics. (AP Photo, File)

The Soviet Union, according to Maoist China, was no longer a truly revolutionary country. Some Western communist parties, including those in Italy, Sweden, and Norway, took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to assert their independence. Western European communism had no reason to support Mao because he rejected the post-1956 strategies of the peaceful path to socialism and peaceful coexistence that had become the foundation of Western European communist strategy.

Calls for each communist party's independence began to emerge more clearly. In the mid-1960s, the communist parties in Western Europe intensified their contacts with one another and began to function as an informal pressure group within the international communist movement's structures.

Many academics argue that the communist parties in Western Europe converged because they recognized a bare minimum of shared interests. A state of detente has existed on the European continent since the mid-1960s, as a result of changes in the security models adopted by the Soviet Union and the United States following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The fact that the two superpowers diverted their attention away from the old continent also contributed to European détente. After the democratic revolutions of 1989, almost all communist parties in Eastern Europe transformed into social democratic parties, and European communism became the norm.

Although right-wing parties all operate under a nationalist (or national) political umbrella that rejects "supranational" forms of political organization, whether European or global, this may be due to the radical liberal content of perceptions supported by the European Union and some United Nations institutions. That is, if the "European voice" becomes more conciliatory, it may be less fearful and conservative.

A LOOK BEYOND EUROPE

According to Italian essayist Roberto Saviano, the Italian Right can succeed because, "the left, like in most parts of the world, has failed to offer credible insights or strategies." When discussing the Right outside of Europe, the Brazilian example becomes a very important lesson, and researchers warn that the Russian communication app Telegram has become a center for the country's far-right, which calls for a military coup or a violent uprising similar to the US Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, if President Jair Bolsonaro is defeated.

The most obvious possibilities for containing the European Right within a power-dealing machine are evident here. This approach derives its strength from the consolidation of democratic traditions and its capability which has already been indicated in the experience of "democratizing" European communist parties. Accordingly, the rise of the Far-Right outside Europe, as the example of Brazil reflects, involves potential risks that vary according to the degree of entrenchment of democratic traditions, as reflected in one of the Brazilian Right's slogans: "Without military intervention, nothing will change in this country!"

Perhaps helping to contextualize the political rise of the Italian Right in the context of what is reflected in the "Donald Trump phenomenon," Texas Republicans, including US Senator Ted Cruz, tweeted their support for Giorgia Meloni, and a former senator said Meloni was fighting a culture war and compared her to Hungarian despot Viktor Orbán, a favorite of American conservatives. There is a warning about a dominant "global elite" that is scared of the rise of the Right in speech that celebrates the advancement of the Right.

FROM LEADERS TO BALCONY ORATORS

One of the main changes in the rise of the Far-Right in Europe and beyond is the end of the era of great theorists and the rise of "balcony orators," as well as a shift in the tools of influence that have been centered on TV channels and traditional media institutions since the end of World War II. Social media can be seen as a symbol, not only of tools to disseminate political discourse, but also to produce it.

The comprehensive theoretical conceptions that the West used as political programs with specific features have given way to populist discourse that addresses the broad masses. After more than a century of elitist moods that emerged from the minds of men like Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, or other personalities who are able to produce inspiring ideas that are primarily consumed by the elite, the scene is now led by orators who are able to communicate directly with large audiences, and their merchandise spreads fears, not hopes.

Photo: Alexander Becher/EPA

In a world once filled with calls of a universal horizon, there are calls for a less open and pluralistic world, and dreams like "global citizen" and "little universal village" have lost their luster.

In terms of democracy, it no longer entails more liberalism or pluralism. Instead, it is rapidly evolving into a procedural form used to construct fences - political, economic, and security - separate from values that have failed to sustain the upward path of progress and prosperity. Even if the problem is not in these values themselves, as it may be for large masses in the West, it has become a door through which dangers that threaten cultural identity and globalized economic relations have entered.  This has caused many national economies to lose some of the foundations of their prosperity, while it has benefited political and economic elites around the world.  As for those who have been marginalized by liberal democracy and a changed world in general, they are looking for a less liberal democracy, a less open economy, conservative social policies, and a less pluralistic identity by voting for the hard Right.


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