Fighting Europe’s resurgent far right
The man is certainly deranged on some level, as anyone who engages in the destruction of human life on that scale must be. But this is an incomplete explanation for what he did, and falls guilty to the biased double standard at the heart of the War on Terror—the idea that terrorism can only be committed in the name of fundamentalist Islam. This is, of course, not the case. Mass violence can be committed for other ideas and it can be inspired by others as well. Just as Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Tucson, Ariz. in January can be understood as a symptom of the right-wing extremism lingering in mainstream American political discourse, Breivik’s actions are indicative of a troubling political development in Europe—the resurgence of the far-right. The attacker’s obsession with Islam’s destruction of Western values and the evils of multiculturalism, as outlined in his rambling 1,000 page manifesto, are part of standard speech in some political circles.
While seemingly an impossible case to make ten years ago, it is now quite reasonable to argue that the greatest threat to peace in Europe is not Islam—nor even Islamist-inspired terrorism. Instead it is the old specter of the far-right, which feeds on fear, instability, the demonization of minority ethnic groups, and the mobilizing force of cultural-nationalist mythologies. Far from being swept to the dustpins of history after World War II, far-right politics are back in vogue. In France, the National Front’s (FN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen looks set to reach the second round of the upcoming election. In the UK, the English Defence League—with whom Breivik communicated often—continues to grow, while its more polished and “mainstream” electoral ally, the British National Party is on the path to legitimacy (their spokesman was recently featured on a prominent BBC talk show). And, in Scandinavia, once the famous hallmark of social democracy and liberal cultural attitudes, far-right parties have entered the mainstream in stunning fashion. All these parties, intent on further legitimizing themselves, have condemned the attacks in Norway—but this doesn’t hide the fact that, in ideological terms, they share much in common with Breivik.
There are a number of dynamics that explain this resurgence. In nearly every case, right-wing parties have undergone some serious remodeling—their leaders are polished and their language is carefully constructed so as not to offend. Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the defining xenophobic characteristic, but quite cleverly, most of these parties are careful not to denounce Muslim immigrants in the manner that Breivik’s manifesto does. They speak of preserving European identity and culture—you see, it’s not that Muslims are inherently bad, they just don’t fit in with the rest of “secular” Europe. Like the neoconservatives who conveniently discovered feminism ahead of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these movements promote women’s rights to satisfy different political ends. But perhaps the most interesting characteristic, because it might be the least expected, is that a number of far-right parties offer robust populist economic critiques of capitalism. This is something that mainstream parties across the political spectrum have not dared to do, but it is a move that might have expected to happen from the left some twenty years ago.
An uncompromising defense of workers and the social welfare state used to be the core values of the left. Britain’s Labour Party, France’s Socialist Party or its once-thriving Communist Party, the German Social Democrats, and the social-democratic parties of Scandinavia and the Netherlands were once the champions of this egalitarian vision. They depended on these principles for their electoral success. But as the parties grew to embrace neoliberalism—privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization—their economic positions gradually softened. And as the global financial crisis engulfed Europe in 2008, they were remarkably subdued in their critiques of a capitalist model that had failed. With the sovereign debt crisis now extending across the continent, they have all either embraced the self-defeating logic of fiscal austerity, or offered weak alternatives to it, disagreeing only on the scope of cuts. It is rather telling that some of major battles over austerity are taking place under the watch of governing parties belonging to the Socialist International—Greece’s PAESOK, Portugal’s Socialist Party, and Spain’s Socialist Party. In short, the story of the rise of the far-right—while, in many ways, a reaction to immigration and economic troubles—is closely tied to the demise of left wing parties that once offered a populist economic program. It is by focusing on this last point that we can begin to contemplate how to properly defeat the resurgence of the far right.
France: The National Front’s appeal
Consider the case of France, where the National Front has effectively taken a page out of the left’s economic playbook to catapult itself into the front running of the presidential race next April.
An interview given by FN presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in January of this year makes Dennis Kucinich look like a mere centrist on fiscal policy.
“Each time that a sector is transferred from the public to the private, it is accompanied by a regression of equality and an explosion of costs. I’m therefore for public service in transport, education, health, banks and seniors,” Le Pen proclaimed. “And I’m equally in favor of the intervention of the state in strategic sectors: energy, communications, telecommunications and media. Moreover, I’m thinking of a fiscal revolution that will importantly re-establish the balance between capital and labor.”
Le Pen even told the New York Times in May that the Arab Spring was inspired by “policies put into place by the International Monetary Found and the World Trade Organization toward an impoverishment of the North African countries.”
There is a painfully obvious contrast between Le Pen, always armed with populist critiques of the capitalist system, and the former Socialist Party presidential frontrunner Dominique Strass-Kahn, former IMF chair and very symbol of the excesses of global capitalism.
Perhaps this can shed some light on the reason that several polls show the tremendously unpopular President Sarkozy, Le Pen, and the undecided Socialist candidate all hovering around 20 percent.
Surely, the FN has reactionary and outdated social policies—its stance on France’s sans-papiers [immigrants without papers] is abhorrent. The same goes for the party’s stances on Islam and a whole host of other issues. This should, by no means, be taken lightly. But the FN’s conservative social tradition is not the only source of its appeal. The American tendency to prioritize the significance of social issues over bread-and-butter economic matters—think of the “progressives” who celebrated the victory of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in exchange for Obama’s extension of the Bush tax cuts—blurs the most important reason for the FN’s success. This view also fundamentally misreads what drives politics. The FN is not popular because it waves French flag at rallies or has ties to the Catholic Church—it’s popular because it claims to defend French workers against the interests of bankers, and as a result, when it proudly waves the French flag at rallies it is seen an act of defiance.
What is to be done?
Defeating the far-right will not be easy. At the local level, it will depend on community groups fighting Islamophobia and defending immigrants’ rights. This is not an easy task, and it will take time. There are already many admirable groups across Europe dedicated to these causes, and they are the foundation for rebuilding a strong left that puts the interests of the collective whole ahead of banks or corporate interests. The mainstream parties of the left have failed at this task thus far.
If Europe is to extinguish this troubling resurgence of the far-right, it needs parties that do not accept the logic of the corrupt financial class, but actively challenge it and propose solutions that benefit society as a whole. These are the terms in which it needs to start thinking again. And finally, of critical importance in the coming months, Europe needs stronger and principled movements that fight austerity and the excesses of capitalism in the name of all those who suffer from it—not just the white working class, but low-income families and immigrants, regardless of their ethnic background.
This might not fully prevent people like Breivik from committing heinous acts, but it will help thwart the ideas that shaped his bigoted political consciousness and block them from gaining further traction.