Far Right Exploitation of Media

By Absalom Sink

The core questions around which this week’s readings revolve are:

  1. How does social media construct particular conditions for populist formations?
  2. How is networked society different from what came before?

To try to answer these questions, I’ll lean on three of the readings in particular: Niko Hatakka’s “When Logics of Party Politics and Online Activism Collide”, Des Freedman’s “Populism and Media Policy Failure”, and Nicole Doerr’s Bridging Language Barriers, Bonding Against Immigrants”.

Doerr’s article focuses on the use of visual imagery by the far-right to transcend linguistic and national boundaries to create transnational linkages between groups and individuals and mobilize support and solidarity. As her example, she uses the Swiss People’s Party’s “Black Sheep” poster from 2007 and the subsequent adoption of its imagery first by the far-right, fascist-descended Lega Nord and later by Germany’s Neo-Nazi NPD. With each subsequent iteration after the first, the imagery is adapted to a new local or national context, but the core symbolism—the black sheep being kicked out by a trio of white sheep, originally a visual metaphor for the expulsion of “criminal” foreigners after their prison sentences are concluded—remains the same. By the time the image trickles down to grassroots NPD supporters, they have modified the message by multiplying the black sheep (such that they outnumber the white sheep), while adding peritext that harkens back to the Nazi party, and calls for the expulsion not just of the “criminal other” but their entire kin networks (ie. families) as well. Here, memetic transmission via social media—blogs, in particular—is key to the spread imagery, and crucially does not rely on mutual linguistic intelligibility. Even lacking the peritext of the original poster, the visual shorthand of the image suffices to grant it tremendous cultural currency across a loose and shifting network of far-right groups and individuals.

For his part, Freedman focuses on the presence, or rather absence, of government. He lists a quartet of policy failures that are crucial to the rise of far-right populism and its coopting of media, and which are rooted in a blind liberal faith in the “logic of the marketplace”. Essentially, the neoliberal preference for a laissez-faire approach to regulation in which market forces alone determine the direction of media and communications evolution has resulted in the concentration of media ownership, the failure to check a tech industry driven purely by profit motive, failure to safeguard the “fourth estate” that is investigative journalism, and the gutting of public service media both by budget cuts and elite capture. Essentially, Freedman argues that the rise of far-right populists has been tied to their ability to exploit the above four policy failures, and compounded by lawmakers’ unwillingness to enact appropriate legislation. The second of the four enumerated failures is particularly pertinent to our questions this week; certainly traditional media is a factor in far-right radicalization, but the openness, low barrier to entry, and almost complete lack of oversight in social media by Big Tech means that any sufficiently motivated individual has access to a soapbox, and the means to reach like-minded individuals.

Finally, Hatakka’s article focuses on the early years of the previously “centre-left populist” Finns Party ideological capture by a more radical right through their alliance with the anti-immigration Hommaforum, and its subsequent ideological drift to a position more in line with European radical-right groups. His argument hinges on the very real difference between old-school “collective action”, and what has been termed the “connective action” made possible by online discourse. In contrast to traditional activist networks, “connective action networks rely on self-motivated sharing of personalized ideas, plans, images, and resources” in online settings. Taking action is thus not part of a “collective identity”, as it might once have been, but an individual act of self-expression, a completely different paradigm. Hatakka portrays the quasi-alliance between the party and the forum as something of a ‘deal with the devil’ for the party’s founder, Timo Soini. On the one hand, access to the large, politically engaged and well-educated user base of the forum helped propel the party to a historic highpoint in the 2011 parliamentary election, taking 19% of the vote and the seats. On the other, anti-immigrant messaging on the forum and outside of it—including by new candidates for the Finns Party, chosen from the forum’s user base—led to increased media scrutiny for the party and a series of minor scandals for Soini to deal with, as the party message strayed further and further from its previous economic core. The piece is even more worrying in light of events that came after the article’s publication: Soini resigned as party leader in 2017, and Jussi Halla-aho—the man whose blog formed Hommaforum’s anti-immigrant nucleus—became party leader and brought the party within a single seat of winning a plurality in the 2019 parliamentary election. In a sense, Hatakka’s article is a cautionary tale about engagement with new media that befits the current political climate.

Works Cited:

Doerr, Nicole. “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe.” Discourse & Society 28, no.1 (2017): 3-23.

Freedman, Des. “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication 33, no.6 (2018): 604-618

Hatakka, Niko. “When Logics of Party Politics and Online Activism Collide: The Populist Finns Party’s Identity under Negotiation.” New Media & Society 19, no. 12, (Dec. 2017): 2022-2038.

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

Nationalist Internationalism, or Internationalist Nationalism?

By Absalom Sink

(Note, this piece was posted nearly a week late, thus any references to “this week” actually pertain to the week ending on Saturday, September 20)

As David Motadel points out in his New York Times opinion piece from July 3, 2019, there is an apparent paradox at play in the international cooperation between the far-right, ultranationalist parties of Europe. In the EU Parliament, a broad assortment of far-right Eurosceptic nationalist parties—including France’s National Rally, Italy’s Lega Nord, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland—has coalesced into a more-or-less united bloc. Motadel quickly moves to the obvious question: “Why are nationalists so eager to embrace an ethos of international cooperation?” These are, after all, the people who frame international politics as a zero-sum game, in which a nation only wins through another nation’s loss. Why would a French nationalist ally with a German nationalist?

Of course, as a number of this week’s readings make clear, far-right nationalists have a long of forging international bonds. In his opinion piece, Motadel quotes George Orwell as pointing out in 1937 that “fascism is now an international movement, which means not only that the Fascist nations can combine for purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system.” In particular, arch-nationalists are able to coalesce into international alliances when confronted with a common foe. For Germany and Japan in 1935—with the addition of Italy and Spain in 1937, and a handful of other nations in 1941—the common enemy was the Comintern. For today’s European far-right, the primary adversary is the European Union itself, upon which they project a plethora of grievances, both shared and local: the EU’s supposed ‘softness’ on immigration from the Middle East, the supposed influence of international Jewish finance, fiscal austerity, liberalism, etc.

As Motadel makes clear in another of this week’s readings, “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire,” this particular form of internationalism can make for some strange ideological bedfellows. The piece highlights the Third Reich’s support during World War II of anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements throughout the British and French colonial empires, which presents another strange, apparent paradox: a regime founded on the claimed racial superiority of white Northern Europeans, helping to foment revolutions by colonized populations against other white Northern European states. In reality, the Nazis were drawing on a still-older playbook, reviving a tactic used during WWI of supporting colonial revolts against their colonizers. The Reich’s support for the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose or the Palestinian Amin Al-Husayni did not spring from ideological alignment—although Al-Husayni was an ardent cheerleader for the Nazis’ antisemitism—but rather from cynical expediency.

Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism highlights a second feature of nationalist internationalism: the need for a central myth. The particular myth on which Hanebrink focuses reveals the internal inconsistency of far-right mythologizing, the incongruous idea that Jews simultaneously control world finance, and are responsible for the Bolshevik system which sought to overthrow financial capitalism. It’s a tension that has never been adequately resolved, and yet the twin conspiracies of Judeo-Bolshevism and a shadowy, world-dominating cabal of Jewish financiers that provided a cornerstone for the Nazi political structure are still held up—contradictions and all—by the Third Reich’s ideological descendants. Far-right groups need an ‘other’ on which to hang their grievances, and the Judeo-Bolshevik myth “offered its users a way to interpret the multiple dislocations caused by economic modernization, democratization, and cultural pluralism”

We see these two factors today in the coalition of Europe’s far right: the “pragmatic” necessity of banding together against a common enemy, and the reliance on myth to create that enemy. These days, it’s less about Judeo-Bolshevism—though that remains a common refrain—and more about alternative myths, like the so-called “great replacement theory.” The song the EU’s Eurosceptic bloc is singing isn’t a new one after all. It’s just a variation on a theme.

Works Cited:

Hanebrink, Paul. A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Motadel, David. “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire.” In American Historical Review 124, Issue 3 (July 2019): 843-877.

Motadel, David. “The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism – But They Depend on It.” New York Times, July 3, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/the-surprising-history-of-nationalistinternationalism.html

On Fascism and Right-Wing Populism, By Absalom Sink✢

In years past, when I was a much younger man of more active politics, I, like many of my peers, had the habit of leaning on a particular word when describing those deemed far to my political right. Fascist, I called them. Relatively ignorant of history, and certainly ignorant of pre-World War II Italian history, I had picked the word up from my older friends, my political mentors. This was the term to be used against as much to describe police and conservatives as it was for racists and neo-Nazis. I was an anti-fascist, opposed to bigotry, fighter-for-what’s-right.

Essentially, I fell into the trap that Gilbert Allardyce was lamenting decades earlier, writing in 1979’s “What Fascism is Not”. Allardyce argues that the term is so nebulous, so open to interpretation by sociologists, historians, and political scientists—let alone the public—that it becomes both difficult to take seriously, and all-but-useless as a focus of scholarship. The crux of his argument could be summarized by a quote he borrows from an earlier article by Stanley Payne titled “Spanish Fascism in Comparative Perspective,” in which Payne concludes that “the term fascism can be applied to the entire broad genus only at the cost of depriving it of any specific content.” Fascism to Allardyce is a term whose use as a descriptor ought to be confined to political movements from the period of 1919-1945 or so; anything outside that timeframe ought not be classified as “fascism,” much as the term “romanticism” is reserved for the artistic movement temporally bound to the early 19th century.

In the past few years, the term “fascist” has seen increasingly widespread use, as right-wing populism gains both in popularity and political clout. Questions swirl as to whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, to say nothing of arguably still further-right figures like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Marine Le Pen. Of course, even ignoring Allardyce’s exhortation to not apply the term “fascist” outside the early 20th century, there is a set of core characteristics of fascism, as Dylan Matthews argues*, few of which the above mentioned populists evince. For instance, none of them advocate an outright rejection of democracy, and few are fervent anti-individualists in the vein of Mussolini; indeed, as Matthews points out, Trump is fervently pro-individualist. And while today’s borderline mainstream populists may inspire violence, they rarely advocate for it directly. By contrast, as Zeev Sternhell explains, the early 20th century saw the proto-fascist Georges Sorel calling violence “something very beautiful and heroic,” not just a means to an end, but a worthy goal in itself. And Mussolini himself valorized violence while decrying pacifism, exhorting that “war alone maximizes to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it” in his 1932 essay “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Peace is “thus hostile to the spirit of Fascism”.

It is crucial to recognize that Fascism arose in response to a particular set of historical circumstances in Europe in the post-WWI years. By contrast, as Cas Mudde argues, today’s right-populist wave—what he and others describe as “illiberal democracy”—arose from its own set of historical circumstances; in particular, as a reaction to inequality and feelings of disenfranchisement brought on by the undemocratic, technocratic implementation of liberal economic and political doctrine. Mudde argues that the neoliberalism that emerged in the US and Western Europe in the 1980s and its attendant increase in financial inequality and instability has inculcated a popular reaction, which opponents of liberalism have stoked through charismatic leadership and effective propaganda in order to gain power and enact illiberal agendas. But unlike Mussolini or Franco, they gain that power through democratic means; thus, definitionally, they cannot be fascists.

With age and education, I am better able to reckon with the mistakes of my youth. We are clearly facing a right-wing populist “moment” today. But even a salty, battle-scarred old radical like me recognizes that those ascendant populists and would-be authoritarians should be fought and denounced on their own qualities; fascists they are not—at least not at present—and to call them otherwise not only undermines the damage caused by the real fascists of the early 20th century (ie. “cheapens the term”), but also risks any criticism not being taken seriously (a sort of “boy who cried wolf” syndrome). There certainly are still fascists to be “anti-“—as Dylan Matthews makes clear, Greece’s “Golden Dawn” would qualify, as might any number of homegrown, anti-democratic “Western” chauvinists—but as for the more mainstream, right-wing pop-authoritarians like Donald Trump, better to find terms with which to criticize them without resorting to ahistorical, imprecise name-calling.

✢ This author has used a pseudonym.

*For a still more in-depth read of the characteristics of fascism, Umberto Eco’s 1995 article Ur-Fascism is an exceptional resource.

Works Cited

Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept,” American Historical Review 84 (1979): 367-98

Cas Mudde, “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century

Dylan Matthews, “I Asked 5 Fascism Experts if Trump whether Trump is a fascist. This is what they said” Vox May 19, 2016 https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2015/12/10/9886152/donald-trump-fascism

Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm

Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1994).