Watchin’ the Tide Roll Away?

By Absalom Sink

It’s becoming a tiresome cliché, isn’t it? Almost as tiresome as the cliché from a few years ago: that of a ‘rising tide of far-right populism’ in Europe. And while that old number is still getting plenty of play, it seems like every month there’s a handful of new articles and op-eds pontificating on whether the ‘populist tide’ has peaked and begun to ebb.

To be fair, I can understand the urge behind writing pieces like those. The ‘populist right’ has been dealt a number of blows this year. There was the “stunning rebuke” against populism in Slovakia with the election of centre-left, liberal Zuzana Caputova. Just over a week ago in Bologna, Italy, a rally held by the populist Matteo Salvini and attended by a little under 6000 supporters was counter-protested by between 12000 and 15000 people. Similarly, far-right rallies held last week by Pegida in Dresden and the ultranationalist NPD in Hannover were dwarfed by counter-protesters. And it’s hard not to see 13500 people marching in Paris against Islamophobia as a raised middle finger aimed at the Rassemblement National (RN), the political embodiment of Islamophobia in France. Finally, let’s not forget the “collapse of the far-right” in the Austrian election this past September, when the FPO lost 10% of the overall vote as compared to the last election because of a corruption scandal.

The problem is when we try to use events like these to extrapolate out over the whole of Europe. In fact, just framing it as the populist right is problematic. Certainly, there are transnational connections between populist movements/parties, but there is no single, monolithic populism. These groups cooperate to the extent that it’s practical. But if, say, Germany’s AfD were to suddenly founder, it’s a fair bet that the Swiss Peoples’ Party and the RN and the Sweden Democrats—far-right populists, all—would let them sink before risking their own positions. By lumping all these groups together when declaring that the ‘populist tide is receding’, we massively oversimply a complex transnational political situation.

Aside from oversimplifying things, there’s also the worry that such statements might make voters complacent; believing the threat to be behind them, voters might have less impetus to vote. The problem is a number of far-right populist parties in Europe still have fairly robust polling numbers. Germany’s AfD has held steady at 13-14% in the national polls for two years, while in Thuringia’s state election last month it came second, with over 23% of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen’s RN is actually leading the presidential poll, hovering around 28%. Even in Austria, where the ‘Ibiza affair’ saw the FPÖ drop by 10% in the last election, they picked up enough seats that they were able to maintain their coalition government with the winning ÖVP. How can we claim that far-right populism has peaked when a party like the ‘formerly’ fascist Sweden Democrats are poised to become the biggest party in their country, and could conceivably with the 2022 election?

My point in all of this is simply that journalists and political observers alike should be wary of making sweeping declarations on the state of far-right populism. Europe is bigger and more diverse than we sometimes recognize; when we’re talking about an entire continent, it’s worth remembering that high tide happens at different times in Helsinki, Finland and Cadiz, Spain. The same goes for the metaphorical tide. While populism might ebb in one region, it can still be in flood in another.

Europe’s Radical Right: Cultural Descendant of the Nouvelle Droite

By Absalom Sink

Two weeks ago, we read and discussed the rise of the Nouvelle Droite (ND), first in France, and then in a broader, pan-European context. Crucial to the formulation of the ND was its retreat from the political arena into the realm of culture, the realm of “metapolitics”. Seeing in the protests of 1968 the sway that the Left held over cultural institutions—particularly institutions of higher education—far right figures led by Alain de Benoist ostensibly abandoned politics and moved instead to open up cultural space in which later generations of Far Right thinkers and politicians might act; they appropriated from the Left Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, and worked to sow the seeds of a counterhegemonic bloc.

From this week’s readings, I would argue that the experiment is something of a qualified success. Certainly, most of today’s so-called Radical Right1 have not taken up de Benoist’s neopagan ritualism. And the populist, self-described “democratic” nature of Radical Right movements is inherently contrary to the ND’s anti-democratic, elitist formulation. But as the readings make clear, there are crucial threads linking the ND and the Radical Right. Chief among them is ethnopluralism. As Ina Schmidt explains, “Ethnopluralism is an ideology of the far right, which is no longer directed against foreign ethnicities, but rather against cultures—understood as being irrevocably connected with certain values, practices, and habits.” Essentially, it is a form of cultural racism, as opposed to the biological racism of yore, popular with fascists. By shifting the focus of their xenophobia from “race” to “culture”, Radical Right groups avoid the charge of racism and open ideological space between themselves and fascist forebears. It’s the ideological sleight of hand that lets Islamophobes respond to charges of racism with the stock sentence “Islam isn’t a race!” And as we’ll recall from Tamir Bar-On’s article, it is the same semantic shift that de Benoist and his followers made in the 1980s, moving from biological racism to the anti-multicultural “Europe of a Hundred Flags”.

It does not really matter that groups like Pegida or the Front National don’t adhere entirely to the roadmap laid down by the ND. Remember, the goal of the ND was simply to create the cultural space in which Far Right ideals might be taken once more into the political sphere—ideals like the abandonment of liberal democracy, and at least since the 1980s, of ethnopluralism over multiculturalism. By achieving broader cultural acceptance, as evinced by de Benoist’s Prix de l’essai from l’Académie Française and glowing coverage in Telos, the ND was able to open that political space it desired. It now needed political actors to take up the mantle. As both Zack Beauchamp—in his interview with our old friend Cas Mudde—and Pietro Castelli Gattinara show, a series of events in 2015 would provide the spark for an explosion of Radical Right movements to occupy that space, a sort of Far Right Big Bang.

According to Mudde, “the core of the ideology of the radical right includes three features: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism.” Nativism, he says, is essentially a form of xenophobia that dictates that a state should only be inhabited by people who are “native” to it.2 Authoritarianism revolves around the belief that society should be “strictly ordered”, and in which any social issue becomes treated as an issue of security—the example Mudde gives here is the treatment of drug crises as “something to be cracked down on” through law and order, rather than as a public health issue. Finally, populism boils down to another “us versus them” dichotomy, this time between “the elites”—typically mainstream political figures, but with a healthy helping of wealthy proponents of liberalism, like the far right’s bogeyman George Soros—and “the real people”.3 2015 brought a confluence of factors that served to empower nascent Radical Right movements throughout Europe. First, the refugee crisis, stoked nativist fears throughout Europe. Terror attacks, starting with Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, fueled authoritarian tendencies and calls for increased vigilance, particularly against ‘outsiders.’ Finally, the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the aftershocks that threatened the structural integrity of the EU undermined the existing economic liberal order and played into populist anti-elitist rhetoric.

Julius Evola knew he would never see a truly resurgent fascism in his lifetime; it is entirely possible that Alain de Benoist never thought he’d see the ideological seeds he sowed bear fruit. But a series of external shocks—a financial crisis originating in the United States, revolutions throughout the Middle East leading to a nearly decade-long civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIL, and the largest refugee crisis since the Bosnian War—provided the cover for a broad range of Radical Right political movements to spring up in the cultural niche carved out by the ND.

1Borrowing here from Cas Mudde’s differentiation between “Extreme Right” and “Radical Right”, in which the former rejects democracy outright in favour of revolution aiming for authoritarianism, while the latter merely rejects aspects of liberal democracy, like pluralism and minority rights, while still claiming to adhere to democratic principles. Castelli Gattinara helps to further clarify, explaining that radical right groups “locate themselves outside the political mainstream but without intending to replace democracy with an authoritarian order.”

2Remember, though, from our very first class, when we grappled with the question of “who is really ‘native’ to a given place?” The Magyar people claim ownership of Hungary, even though they are likely to have arrived significantly later that the ancestors of today’s Slovenes within the borders of Hungary. Likewise, how “native” is a person who calls themselves an “Anglo-Saxon”—itself an incredibly fraught term—to Britain?

3”The real people” has become something of a shibboleth for Far- and Radical Right groups, differentiating them from Left populists; as Jan Werner-Muller explains, the term serves to “other” any who don’t fit with the “majority”, while also delegitimizing any other groups and figures vying for power.

Works Cited:

Beauchamp, Zack. “An expert on the European far right explains the growing influence of anti-immigrant politics”. Vox. May 31, 2016 https://www.vox.com/2016/5/31/11722994/european-far-right-cas-mudde

Bar-On, Tamir. “Transnationalism and the French Nouvelle Droite.” Patterns of Prejudice 45, no. 3 (July 2011): 199–223.

Castelli Gattinara, Pietro. “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy.” South European Society & Politics 22, no. 3 (Sept. 2017): 345–364.

Schmidt, Ina. “PEGIDA: A Hybrid Form of a Populist Right Movement.” German Politics & Society 35, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 105–17.

“The Dangers of Populism” Interview with Jan Werner Mueller, Council of Europe (March 2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahtvsNU2bkk

The Decriminalization of Abortion in Northern Ireland is Good, but…

A story that made that made the headlines last year in many newspapers around the western world resurfaces as the struggle for the Northern Irish advocators for an abortion ban lift approaches a conclusion. Interestingly, in the UK the Abortion Act of 1967 liberalized rules on abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland. So, Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom that was still holding a legislated ban on abortion which originated from the conservative political influence of its governance and the important place of religion in the area. Ireland voted for the legalization of abortions only last year in May. It is interesting that it is only now that we see a movement by the government for change in the legislation. Finally, on October 22 at 12am, the ban was lifted.

However, there is still much debate to come and a long way to go before any kind of substantive change is instituted in Northern Ireland. The ban repeal is good, a step in the right direction, but until regulations are provided, it remains similar to the status quo and even goes backwards to previous practices instead of moving forward with the legislation. It is also noteworthy to mention that Northern Ireland has had a very substantive opposing faction to this repeal : the Church(es) (i.e. Catholic and Protestant churches). The abortion issue, in which in the Catholic Church has taken a more pronounced stance, has always been debated against by the church. A member of the Catholic Clergy has gone as far as saying that being pro-choice was committing a mortal sin. Historically, Northern Ireland, or even just Ireland as a whole, has been a very religious country and a great deal of the population (including the leading political parties like the Democratic Unionist Party and to some extent the Sinn Féin) is very conservative in nature. This means that once a government is reinstituted with the conservative parties (as it has not been standing since 2017 in Northern Ireland), debates on the matter will likely restart as this reform was voted by London and not necessarily by the leading political parties of the area.

So, ban lifted, great! Now what? What should we think of this and how should we understand these changes? I am in total accordance with the idea that abortion should be decriminalized and that it should have been done long ago, however, in this instance, the decriminalisation of abortion also means its deregulation as the government was allowed until late March 2020 to regulate abortion. Ironically, this means that Northern Ireland just went from having some of the strictest abortion laws to the most liberal abortion laws in the European context. Now the Northern Irish population is very confused about the law and what is legal as it has no clear legislation or regulation. It should be understood that apart from the dropping of prosecution cases against healthcare professionals and women having sought abortions, not much as changed and not much will change until the new regulation in 2020. Women and girls are still required to go to England to terminate their pregnancies. There is no telling hat kind of restrictions or regulations will be put in place in march of next year.

This “good news” can also be seen as a step back as Northern Ireland is simply looking to go back to practices from 2012 when it comes to abortion. Also, as mentioned previously the fact that this was done without an actual standing government in Northern Ireland will complicate the matter once it comes back to power because of the conservative nature of the area. Even the Irish Times are sensitive to the matter, but frame their pro-choice opinion on bringing Northern Ireland back into the “European mainstream” while remaining conscient of the fact that many of the readers have conservative views tied to their faith.

Therefore, my opinion on this matter remains clear : it is a case of the “one step forward, two steps back.”

Russia in Europe: A New Game, An Old Playbook

By Absalom Sink

Things fall apart; the centre looks less like it’s able to hold, as the European Union continues to be buffeted by the widening gyre of euroskeptic nationalism. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rise of the European far-right isn’t exactly organic. In fact, you’d almost need to be willfully ignorant in order to miss the signs of Russian influence. The Kremlin has a well-established habit of supporting right- and far-right euroskeptic political parties and movements in Europe and beyond. In the short term, Russia’s goal is to agitate for the lifting of sanctions imposed on it following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But its long-term goals are no less transparent: Russia wants to weaken NATO and the EU, and reestablish its hegemony over former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin did, after all, call the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Hence, Russia’s support for nationalists, particularly the euroskeptics: illegal funding for Italy’s Lega Nord; the Ibiza scandal involving Austria’s far-right deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache; potential links between Russia and Germany’s AfD, the official opposition party; the miraculous loan from a mysterious Russian bank that kept Marine Le Pen’s Front National afloat in 2014; the list is long, and that’s without even touching on the likelihood of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2016 United States presidential election. Still, if we remove the latter two—obviously huge wins for Russia if they tipped the scales in either case—the win-loss record is decidedly mixed. While Lega Nord did end up in a ruling coalition Italian government, Marine Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron, and the Ibiza affair led to Strache’s resignation in Austria, to say nothing of apparent far-right failures in a handful of other European states recently.

But Russia’s record is spotty only if we count a Russian victory as being the installation of a sympathetic party in those countries. In reality, the Kremlin may be playing a much more nuanced game, one that instead harkens back to the Great Powers competition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before World War I, European states sought any advantage they could to tip the continental balance of power. An increasingly common tactic over that period was to back anti-colonial nationalist movements in opponents’ colonial empires, as a way to force that opponent’s focus inward. The Russian Empire themselves supported Armenian and Kurdish nationalists as a way to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. Nazi Germany revived the practice during World War II, hoping to undermine the British war effort by supporting Indian and Arab nationalist movements.

Remember, Russia’s goal is the disruption of the NATO and EU status-quo. In that regard, anything that weakens either is a point for Russia. The Kremlin certainly would have benefitted from a victory by Marine Le Pen, but it would be naïve to think that they haven’t benefitted simply from the uncertainty and political polarization that came with the contested 2017 French election. Even the renewed majority government that Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS)—famously frosty in its relations with Russia—won earlier this month is something of a minor victory for Russia, given PiS’ euroskepticism. If the Kremlin’s playbook in Europe is a throwback to those pre-WWI great power tactics, Putin and pals’ implementation is remarkably effective.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses for Russia. Their short-term goal of getting economic sanctions lifted is seeing little success. And even though Putin still looks to have his strongman hold over the country, “the shrinking economy, the shrill nationalism as a distraction from internal decay, an inward-looking elite feuding over the division of spoils while taking its monopoly on power for granted” might be signals of a crumbling grip, that some new revelation is at hand. If that’s the case, it yet remains to be seen what rough new beast will slouch towards Moscow to be born.