A guest post from Rick Saull, who is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has written on a range of topics from the international relations of revolutions to the Cold War and the geopolitical consequences of the 2008 global economic crisis. More recently he has focused on the international political dimensions of the far-right, co-editing The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (Routledge, 2014) which has just been published, and on which this post draws. He can be contacted here.
The politics of the far-right are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Unlike its historical foe on the left – social democratic or otherwise – which has continued to be characterised by a combination of disintegration and disorientation as it continues to implement neoliberalism, the far-right persists through exercising a toxic but powerful influence on political debate across mature capitalist democracies (and beyond). How are we to make sense of the persistence of the far-right and explain its recent reinvigoration? What analytical framework offers the best, way of explaining the distinct trajectories of far-right currents of politics across different historical periods? This blog post will try to address these questions through outlining an understanding of the contemporary far-right as a pathology of capital best explained through a framework based on an international historical sociology (IHS). Before I do that it makes sense to mention what the main alternative frameworks on the far-right tells us.
The academic discussion of the far-right is dominated by approaches grounded within the mainstream assumptions of bourgeois social science. Thus, it is the methodological nationalism of comparative politics combined with the literature on the history of ideas that are intellectually hegemonic. In the former, the far-right is assessed and compared across different states according to a quantitative grid of electoral performance, voter shares, opinion poll data and definitional attributes centred on ‘Europhobia’, anti-immigration hysteria and ‘welfare nativism’. In the latter, the fetish of definitional taxonomies prevails through the gradations of ‘neo-fascism’, the ‘extreme’, ‘far’, ‘radical’, populist’ and/or ‘reactionary’ right that are dissected via an examination of speeches and pronouncements to gauge the ideological coherence of said party or movement usually related to the core criteria of fascism.
This has resulted in an endless search for an ‘objective’ or ‘minimal’ definition of the far-right – an academic cottage industry in itself – which serves to freeze and simplify the far-right instead of viewing it as an evolving socio-political movement. Further, in spite of the need to treat ideas seriously it has resulted in analytical contortions to the effect that the far-right – in its fascist incarnation at least – can be seen as ‘revolutionary’ phenomena comparable to communism. This can be seen in the way in which the doyens of political science in organizations such as the ‘Extremism and Democracy’ Standing Group of the European Consortium on Political Research appear to mimic the assumptions of Cold War liberalism’s use of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ by treating the ‘extremist threats to democracy’ from the far-left and far-right as part of the same analytical exercise thus blurring their distinct and antagonist dynamics.
These approaches, then, tend to regard the far-right either as an ideological phenomena – which understands its embeddedness in socio-economic and political structures and its actions as a movement as of secondary significance – and/or a political phenomenon best captured within the particularities of each nation-state analytically isolated (hence methodological nationalism) from any enduring structural connections to a wider international or geopolitical context. In large part these movements and parties are understood as autonomous actors within civil society detached from both ruling class agencies of power – indeed, their rhetorical ‘anti-capitalism’ makes them appear to be subversive of the (neoliberal) capitalist order – and the possibilities of alliances with elements within the state.
These political and spatial distinctions as to who or what is the far-right are matched by a rather limited historical contextualisation of the far-right. As already suggested, it is the inter-war ‘fascist moment’ that provides the primary historical reference point in considering the current manifestation of far-right politics but this serves to not only normalise the far-right as a political party like any other; most – though there are exceptions (Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary) – do not have private armies and are not defined by the paraphernalia of militarism, but also, correspondingly, serves to question their character as a far-right movement (see in this regard UKIP and the US Tea-Party). Such limited historicisation serves to obscure the longue durée of the far-right as a constitutive element (or pathology) within capitalist modernity that has existed as a distinct current within the politics of developing capitalist states since the mid-late nineteenth century – at least within Europe – involving a clutch of social and political movements not confined to the historical experience of fascism. In short, whilst much of the comparativist/history of ideas literatures have provided important analytical insights into the self-identification of these movements and a range of data-sets that allow us to assess who they are and where they may be influential, they fall considerably short in recognising the deeper structural causes of the far-right and how its persistence and (re)emergence is a product of both historically-defined socio-economic and internationally-mediated forces.
An alternative framework within which to understand and explain the far-right that offers the possibility of overcoming some of the weaknesses described is offered by international historical sociology (IHS). The perspective offered here is an IHS drawn from the contributions of the Longue Durée volume – that are informed by Marxist debates and concepts. What an IHS perspective on the far-right offers, then, is an alternative methodological and theoretical stance that “can both recognize and account for the historical evolution of ideas attached to political groupings as they develop through historical time and space”. More specifically, it does this through: (1) outlining a longue durée perspective going beyond the historical fixation and definitional template offered by historical fascism; (2) an explicit engagement with analytical concepts associated with Marxist historical sociology in particular such as ‘uneven and combined development’, ‘hegemony’ and ‘passive revolution’ that are fundamentally linked to the ongoing political and socio-economic transformations within the structural context of capitalist modernity; and (3) an understanding of the far-right that locates it within an internationally-determined political context. Before I offer a bit more substance on each of these points it is worth outlining how an IHS approach views the question of who or what is the far-right over the longue durée.
In considering the far-right from a longue durée perspective there is an obvious recognition of its metamorphosis over time. Thus, fascism reflected both the continuation of a far-right pathology that had crystallized across much of Europe in the late nineteenth century (visceral anti-Semitism, anti-cosmopolitanism, ‘democratic/populist’ authoritarianism and a perverse anti-capitalism grounded in the fetishism of petty-commodity production and a reification of finance capital as the sine qua non of capitalist civilization), but was also over-determined by the conjuncture of its birth – that of the technology of total warfare and the aesthetics and political forms associated with it, as well as the new geopolitical threat of communism. The key issue then is to combine a recognition as to the structural context and enduring pathologies that help generate the far-right with a sensitivity to its temporal and spatial distinctions. Ergo, the contemporary far-right encompasses a range of parties and movements some of which can only be described as neo-fascist (again, Golden Dawn and Jobbik) whilst others more closely reflect the politics of neoliberal populism through attacks on the remnants of the post-war social democratic settlement and liberal-cosmopolitan elites and institutions (again, UKIP and the Tea Party).
Such variations in the spectrum of the far-right are nothing new, including the fascist era. The significance of this in any explanation of fascist successes during the inter-war era, however, is that Mussolini and Hitler were only able to secure state power (they never conquered it as such á la Bolsheviks) because of the role played by a wider constellation of far-right social and political forces alongside the active connivance of state managers and ruling class agency. This sense of a wider and flowing far-right is also captured in more recent connections between the politics of the far-right and that of mainstream bourgeois parties. This is evidenced in the way in which Thatcher’s Conservative Party and Chirac’s Gaullists shifted towards the far-right – in the late 1970s in the former and the late 1980s in the latter – to draw support away from far-right parties, and which has been replicated in many of the debates over and public policy responses to issues such as immigration, welfare and the surveillance of Muslim communities over the last few years that has extended the ideological reach of far-right sentiments to European social democracy.
Yet, if there are differences across the spectrum of the far-right – both historical and contemporary – then what binds them within this distinct political categorization? First, is the embrace of and appeal to ‘the people’ and a disaggregated menu peuple in particular identified by a distinct ethnic homogeneity that serves to eviscerate class cleavages and upholds gender and racial hierarchies. This attachment to the politics of mass democracy is not, however, concerned with the democratisation of the state or society but, rather, a means through which to distinguish the self-identified constituency of the far-right – that of a racialised demos – from that of the liberal-cosmopolitan elite who are rendered as betraying the instincts of the people, Further, it is also the means to remake the state to better realise the far-right’s ideological vision. This embrace of the possibilities bequeathed by mass politics and radicalism vis-a-vis the existing institutionalization of the state are also important distinguishing aspects of the far-right from conservatism.
This take on democratic politics which defines the far-right across time and space also connects to a distinct register of politics as conspiracism focused on cosmopolitan institutions and movements in particular. Conspiratorial politics not only facilitates a politics that speaks to the alienated and dispossessed through a distinct populist register that ridicules existing sources of authority and knowledge – an alternative public sphere – but also makes an easy bed-fellow of anti-Semitism. And, whilst not always explicitly articulated by the far-right, it remains the foundation of its racialised political economy in the figure of the cosmopolitan Jew money lender. Indeed, as reflected in its historical experience of government and in its more recent engagement – via conspiracism – with the possibilities of democratic social transformation, the far-right’s commitment to democracy is highly perverse. Thus, it has actively sought to thwart the possibilities for the democratization of state and society through democracy being rendered as plebiscite endowing authoritarian leaders to govern free from legal-constitutional constraints. And, it has also undermined and attacked the possibilities of collectively articulated social and democratic imaginaries (emanating from organised labour, feminists and anti-racists amongst others).
The paradoxical embrace of the possibilities of mass democracy that define the singularity of the far-right as a mode of politics combines with a second component in its long-term identity; that of its distinct responses to the structural consequences of capitalist development. As highlighted in The Longue Durée of the Far-Right, the far-right emerges within, develops and responds to, the instabilities and social and cultural insecurities associated with capitalism. Specifically, the far-right appears in the nineteenth century – initially drawing on the political residue of the ancien régime – as a response to both the increasing dominance of capitalism as the basis for ordering social life and the concomitant emergence of the working class as a political and, potentially, revolutionary subject. Thus, it is the revolutionary social dynamic associated with capitalism – spatially in the re-ordering of the ‘international-national’ nexus and that of ‘town and country’, socially, in the dissolution of existing social relations and class differentiations and, culturally, in the transformations of national, racial and gendered identities – that helps give birth to the far-right. Further, through moments of crisis/transformation capitalism provides the temporal moments when the far-right has come to exercise a defining influence on the substance of political orientations.
However, in recognizing the causal logic between capital and far-right we also need to make clear its precise articulation of an ‘anti-capitalism’. This is important for more than just analytical reasons as reflected in the disorientation of what remains of much of the organized left’s response to the post-2008 crisis. Here, the far-right’s anti-capitalism has exercised as an important and destructive influence with respect to developing a post-neoliberal alternative, as that of its capturing of a politics of populist insurgency across much of Europe. It is the convulsions of capitalism, particularly when they are connected to or have geopolitical dimensions that have provided the greatest openings for the advance of the far-right (see the Great Depression of 1873-96 and the inter-war crisis) yet, perversely – and which much of the bourgeois literature on the far-right largely neglects – the far-right actively disavows the causality of capitalism as responsible for such crises. Inevitably, this tends to work in favour of the maintenance of the social rule of capital. Instead, drawing on its racialised political economy migrants and foreigners are scape-goated as responsible for economic difficulties and capitalism is rendered in a fetishised form framed around the figure of the Jew as a “universal-cosmopolitan spectre associated with the moneyed properties of circulation divorced from production”. The pathology of capital is encapsulated, then, in anti-Semitism, which connects to a ‘producerism’ associated with the idealisation of the small-local firm – hence the continuing significance of the petty-bourgeoisie – as the antithesis of cosmopolitan capital and its connection with financialized power. This also relates to wider articulations of nationalist responses to crises that, historically – and much less evident in more recent times – make explicit connections between economic crises and their international resolution through reconfiguring geopolitical relations.
Over the longue durée the precise character of the far-right political response to and connections with capitalist crises differs but this only demonstrates the need for a theoretical framework that can recognise and explain such change, dialectically. Thus, the responses of UKIP and much of the contemporary far-right differs from that of the far-right in the inter-war era not because they are, ultimately, different sets of political species but, rather, because of the way in which capitalist development has come to reshape and condition both the ideological content of the far-right (i.e. the end of imperial trading blocs and exterminist racism does matter) and, consequently, determine the historically contingent political-economic possibilities for ultra-nationalist responses that distinguish the far-right from other political currents.
As already suggested, an IHS account of the far-right regards it not as a nationally-specific and temporally contingent phenomena but, rather, as a long-term and structural political-ideological current produced from within historically specific internationally-mediated structures and processes. Ideas matter, then, and, in some respects, we can see them as conditioning the understandings of and responses to the moments of crisis and change associated with far-right politics. However, it is also the case that the ideas of the far-right are infused with the materiality of the evolving social world that they are also part of. Further, that material context – out of which ideas and corresponding political subjectivities are reproduced – is also framed within a social order that has distinct international and geopolitical characteristics. The result is that the location – the nation-state – wherein politics of the far-right plays out, has, with the emergence and spread of the capitalist state and its associated states-system, been fundamentally co-constituted by the international and its evolving and shifting organizational-institutional forms.
To understand and explain the far-right, then, requires a recognition and explanation of the way in which the international comes to shape ‘domestic’ socio-cultural and political spaces from which the far-right has, in some instances, not only come to thrive, but has also – as the 1870-1945 era demonstrates – actually constituted and determined to a significant degree. An international historical sociology, then, not only overcomes the significant ontological lacunae of the methodological nationalism of the dominant comparativist paradigm, but also highlights the determining role of the international in the fortunes of the far-right. In short, to understand the ‘success’ of the far-right necessitates a recognition of both the particular structural integration of states into the wider international logic of capitalism, but also how crises generated from within this international arrangement have determined the domestic political possibilities of the far-right because the far-right regards the international ‘other’ as the primary means of the explanation, and exit-route out of crises.
With reference to the contemporary far-right such an historical sociological sensibility ensures less a crude structural determinism of the past causing the future but, instead, understands the far-right – at any one historical moment – as the product of a cumulative set of socio-historical developments that have both preceded it and provided for the possibilities of its success. Thus, the historical specificity and political uniqueness of the contemporary far-right vis-a-vis the past is a legacy of the continuing infamy of fascism that combines with structural changes in the connections between geopolitics and socio-economic reproduction as reflected in the post-1945 transnational liberal-capitalist order, within an enduring structure of uneven and combined capitalist development.
Consequently, whilst the particularities of the present require us to recognize and explain the unique properties of the far-right within the UK or France – say, over immigration (and the integration of Muslim communities), welfare reform and European integration – an IHS perspective suggests that we can only understand and account for these movements by locating them within “longer-term structural processes and dynamics through which such crisis-tendencies are generated and incubated within deeper social and political logics that are not always immediately visible”. Thus, in France, the trajectory of the Front National (FN) reflects the distinct political economy of France (evidenced in the geographical distribution of its support) and how the historical legacies of France’s international standing – both with regard to the Algerian War and European integration in a post-Cold War context – have helped to cement the continued appeal of the far-right.
In this respect and following other recent work within IHS drawing on Trotsky’s theorization of uneven and combined development (UCD) provides the outlines of an IHS approach that incorporates the international dimension of socio-historical causality through its ability to capture a range of determinations structured within the contradictory possibilities generated by capitalist development and crises out of which the subjective agency of far-right movements emerge, develop and, at times, prosper.
The far-right’s idealization of and ideological references to the past as the basis for both mobilizing a mass social constituency and making political judgements about the present are particularly captured through the analytical prism of UCD and especially through the way in which, under capitalism, a process of radical temporal and geographical unevenness are combined with the reproductions of the social and cultural past. In providing an ideological exit for the crises of capitalism – without overcoming it – this can be understood in a non-functionalist, dialectical, fashion, where the reproduction of tendencies and counter-tendencies of crisis-resolution are, ultimately, resolved in the politics of the moment, but a politics structured within a distinct set of historically–generated possibilities and imaginaries. Thus, in the contemporary case of UKIP, its rise and significance reflects the particularities of a far-right with ‘British characteristics’. We can see this in its commitment to key aspects of neoliberalism in a geopolitical context of US power and European integration. This combines with the ongoing legacies of British imperialism (e.g. its concerns over the dilution of white British identity because of immigration and hostility to the cosmopolitan pretensions of European integration) and the splits across the different elements of capital operating within Britain allied and opposed to it – itself a legacy of the longer-term trend of neoliberalism and financialization. And, yet, it also relies on securing significant political support in those areas that have suffered from the consequences of neoliberalism.
Analytically and politically allied to UCD within the IHS canon are the concepts of ‘passive revolution’ and ‘hegemony’ developed by Antonio Gramsci that can also be usefully deployed in explaining the politics of the far-right. The former has a particular utility in accounting for specific temporal phases of capitalist transformation within moments of political crises that reflect a combination of a genuine revolutionary possibility that, historically, is eclipsed through a ‘revolution-restoration’ involving a reconstitution of the capitalist ruling class associated with subaltern mobilizations articulated via the ideology and subjects of the far-right. In many respects this analytical optic captures the paradoxes of the fascist moment – at first glance a social revolution (as emphasized by a range of bourgeois interpretations of fascism) with fascist movements gaining access to state power. However, the result was, in effect, to leave the social rule of capital intact but with an international orientation committed to a militarized geopolitical re-ordering of capitalist relations thus reconstituting the relationship between capitalist development and geopolitical order. Whilst the neoliberal epoch has not replicated ‘passive revolution’ in this fascist form (which it shouldn’t if we are thinking dialectically), the connections between neoliberalism and the far-right – as an expression of an ideological compensation for neoliberalism through its populist insurgency – are suggestive of a logic of ‘passive revolution’: the capitalist class has been reconstituted through financialization, political society has become increasingly imbued with a racist authoritarian populism (the far-right absorption into the state’s popular self-identity) and the international operations of capital are re-ordered. This is what has occurred over the last twenty years and the far-right – in the form of the FN, the Austrian Freedom Party and now UKIP – have played an important role in developing this new terrain of politics, as a populist but self-limiting dissenting current.
This links into Gramsci’s twin-concept of hegemony. Whilst this has been parlayed into international political economy and, in particular, the idea of a liberal international historical bloc after 1945, an alternative application of hegemony as a modus operandi of class rule is to see it as a means of not only demarcating the landscape of what constitutes ideological ‘common sense’ but also, correspondingly, ‘polices dissent’ where the far-right’s articulation of distinct ideological tropes and cultural postures determines who is and is not part of the demos. This serves as a powerful tool of hegemony which – as has been increasingly apparent in recent years and within a context of crisis – provides an important ideological resource for stabilising class rule and helping to expel alternative imaginaries from political debate.
Many of the concepts and arguments outlined above feature – in a more developed form – in the Longue Durée volume. Given the revival of the far-right and its capture of much of what some regard as ‘common sense’ an IHS approach provides more than just analytical strengths in explaining the far-right, but also the groundwork for a politics of opposition to it and to the rule of capital, from which it, ultimately, derives.