Just a few years ago, the idea that the extreme right or neo-fascists 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.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 to fend off the presidential bid of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the electoral runoff of May 2017.
Now the main question one may ask is how do we explain this sudden resurgence of the authoritarian Far Right? An observation may be that the extreme right not only took over the independent left’s critique of globalisation. Moreover, as the broad left was paralysed 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 de-emphasised the anti-tax, anti-big-government, and free-market concerns of their original 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. Her vision is of resistance to a world that seems hard, globalised, and implacable. Her party’s targets 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.’ This 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.
Turning to Asia, there is also a counterrevolution going on. In India, There is a Hindu extreme 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, 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 some 2,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslims, lost their lives in what many regard as a pogrom.
In the Philippines, a serial killer, Duterte, who’s taken over 7,000 lives in a little over two years, is head of state, and he’s as popular today as when he was elected. 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.
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 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.
Looking more closely at some of these countries where authoritarianism is on the rise, several things become clear that there are some common features. First of all, there’s a rebellion against liberal democracy that’s going on, though the nuances are different in 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. 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.
Second, racism, ethnocentrism, and a cultural superiority complex are central drivers of some of these extremist movements. In 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.
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 political 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 mobilised by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, 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. 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.
Lastly on what can be done, I strongly think this is the time to call for 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 centrepiece 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.