News | History - Social Movements / Organizing - Social Theory Contextualizing Global Authoritarianism

Some key questions and considerations around the rise of the New Right



Alex Demirović,

Polizeiaufmarsch bei einer Demonstration
Photo: Börries Nehe

In order to properly identify and understand rightward shifts and authoritarian developments in global class relations, it is necessary to examine the particularities of the different capitalist states involved and the relations between the various social forces within them. These constitute the relation between national and transnational elements of statehood in each case.

Prof. Dr. Alex Demirović is a Senior Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis, where he works primarily on questions of democracy and socialism.

This article originally appeared in the volume Autoritärer Populismus (Dampfboot, 2020).

Translated by Ryan Eyers and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

In my view, however, it is prudent to emphasize that right-wing movements do not simply appear out of nowhere, but are usually present and politically active as one of the basic socio-political tendencies. They generally have organizational structures, a leadership team and an ideology, boast national and international networks, and work on developing alliances.

Social Change and Its Detractors

Within Germany, literature on the subject is rife with the idea that the right exists because Nazism was never adequately dealt with or because anti-fascism in the GDR was merely superficial in nature. This view suggests that, from the end of World War II and Germany’s liberation from Nazi control to the country’s subsequent re-unification, everything proceeded in a straightforward democratic manner in accordance with the 1949 Bonn constitution. But there is every reason to think that precisely the opposite occurred.

The bourgeois practice of giving coexistence the form of a state-ordained political society has been accompanied by authoritarian and restorative tendencies since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these took the form of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the eighteenth century, they were conservative and counter-revolutionary (mobilizations in support of church and monarch). By the nineteenth century, they had taken on a nationalist and racist character (exemplified in the phenomenon of the mob, and in colonialism, racism, and anti-Semitism), and in the early twentieth century fascism took shape, mixing elements of nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-materialism, social Darwinism, and the violent and militaristic cult of masculinity.

These ideological elements became constitutive components of bourgeois rule and are reproduced in specific ways. The defeat of Nazism or fascism, or the fall of military dictatorships, have by no means eliminated the objective modes of thought or political forms that play a constitutive role in the formation of bourgeois society. Political groups, informal networks of leaders and others in civil society either persist or begin to establish themselves, reorganizing and regrouping. The ideological elements are rearticulated or there is a shift in focus.

With view to right-wing movements, it can be said that all political, organizational, and ideological elements are present, but they are distributed differently, are somewhat disorganized, and no longer unified in a party or state form. There are party organizations, loose alliances, as well as organized, potentially violent groups or networks in civil society: relief organizations, publishing houses, newspapers and magazines, institutes, associations, cultural practices ranging from clubs devoted to maintaining local tradition and traditional attire through to “Blood and Honour” meetings, with their associated musical acts and franchise businesses.

The same holds true for the ideological elements, with adherents striving to provide a contemporary spin on ideologemes such as “nation”, “the people”, an “us vs. them” mentality, racism and anti-Semitism, anti-communism and a rejection of the Left, direct democracy, conspiracies, doomsday scenarios such as “Volkstod (the perceived death of the German people) or the “Great Replacement”, the idea of a specific Christian or (as the case may be) Islamic civilization, masculinism, militarism, heroism, and security.

Many of these elements have had a fixed presence in right-wing discourse for decades. This is hardly surprising, given that what is at play is not a form of theory that uses concepts to further its development and conducts research, but rather a völkisch (ethno-nationalist) set of political ambitions that is repeatedly adapted to the political context.

Crisis Management from the Right

Because the Right is in principle present and active, it is necessary to understand their increasing importance. This can be explained — and this must be emphasized — as not only a result of their own actions: it is also true that their programmatic intentions are by no means realized directly. I propose that a crucial factor in the rise of right-wing movements can be found in the most recent major financial and economic crisis of 2007 and 2008.

This crisis was inscribed within a far broader crisis dynamic. This includes elements of the crisis in the relationship between society and nature, most evident in accelerated global warming and the concomitant rise in severe weather events, as well as in desertification, erosion, extinction, dwindling supplies of drinking water, the loss of forests (and so of major carbon sinks), wetlands, and major sites of oxygen production, and urban sprawl, with its attendant increase in impervious surfaces. It also entails the erosion and crisis of democracy, of public communication and culture, of gender relations, of education and science, and of the relationship between city and country. Taken together, these can be understood as a multi-dimensional crisis, one which presented the ruling elite with a significant challenge, as they felt demoralized and still today are at a loss as to how to proceed.

In the years following the outbreak of the crisis, anti-capitalist forces have changed their forms of action and organizational practices relative to what they had been since the mid-1990s: the World Social Forum movement, Attac, protests at major summits, and the founding of NGOs. Since 2011, there has been an ongoing upsurge in critique, resistance, protests, and the emergence of movements spread across the globe, such as the Arab Spring and the numerous initiatives against austerity. The latter current is most clearly embodied in organizations such as Podemos, Occupy Wall Street, movements against forced evictions, or the Syriza-led government in Greece, but also includes movements in Israel, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, and China (to name but a few), protests against the introduction of or increases to student fees, women resisting violence or demanding access to abortion services.

In the wake of a long phase of neoliberal globalization, of the discrediting of unions and worker-led movements, new wars, the appropriation of natural resources and social wealth through privatization and the destruction of the environment — all of which have been implemented not only by conservative, but also social-democratic and green parties — there is an increasing sense that a movement is building that is capable of responding positively and constructively to this destruction of nature, social relations, free time and educational opportunity (whether it be in refugee camps or a traffic jam, while searching for housing or at a bullshit job).

The bourgeoisie found itself on the defensive and proved itself incapable of dealing with the scale of the crisis. For just all those that preceded it, this crisis largely came as a surprise to the bourgeoisie. The general view was that the crisis-prone nature of the capitalist economy had been overcome and that the political challenge of socialism had been defeated, while in particular it was assumed that the European and German economies were protected from speculative tendencies by commensurate risk provision.

The defensive and clueless attitude of the middle class led to indecision in a number of areas: being either for or against the Euro, low interest rates, the energy transition, the policy of the “black zero” (i.e. balancing the budget) or investment, the dissolution of the EU, or politics by military means. In many countries, this led to a stalemate, and forming a government, and by extension a national spirit, became difficult (see Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, Austria, France, Italy, Germany, or the US).

The positive development of protest movements and new parties beginning to coalesce at the time were both overshadowed and hybridized by a number of events that marked specific counterpoints: the activities of the National Socialist Underground in Germany from the 1990s onwards, the massacre committed by Anders Breivik in Norway in July 2011, the suppression of protests on Taksim Square in June 2013, the electoral success of Golden Dawn in Greece, the spread of Islamism and the ability of ISIS to mobilize people, and the downfall of twenty-first century socialism.

In Hungary in 2010 and 2014, Viktor Orbán first won and then retained office. His government implemented an attack on civil society and left-wing representatives, strengthened racist government policy (such as anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamic racism), pandered to Hungarian irredentism, curtailed academic freedoms, restructured the justice system, and took control of the media. The reality of this trend within Central Europe was bolstered by the electoral success of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland in 2015, which assumed government in November that year and began transforming the country’s justice system and mass media.

In Turkey, Erdoğan carried out constitutional changes that allowed him to assume the presidency in 2014 — with effects similar to those seen in Hungary: deep attacks on educational institutions, academic freedom, the judiciary, and the media, and ultimately an indiscriminate hounding of peace activists, Kurdish people, journalists, and academics from autumn 2016 onward. Duterte’s electoral victory in the Philippines in 2016 suggested that a new and authoritarian embrace of state violence was gaining momentum. At the end of 2016, Donald Trump was victorious in the US presidential elections, taking office early the following year. Here the figure of advisor Steve Bannon made it clear that a government open to fascist ideologemes and forms of organization was being formed, with the support of parts of the middle classes.

Sebastian Kurz’s electoral victory in Austria, achieved through populist methods, and the fact that he formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) represented a further milestone in the authoritarian turn in European politics, as did the Five Star and Lega coalition government formed in Italy in June 2018, and the success enjoyed by the far-right party Vox in regional elections in Andalusia. Finally, there is also the Right’s victory in Brazil, where, following a legalist coup against the Workers’ Party government, it succeeded in having Jair Bolsonaro elected president, leading a government made up largely of figures from the military and big landowners. Bolsonaro’s government is openly hostile towards LGBTQI* people and so-called “cultural Marxists”, regularly making death threats to them as well as to indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

Alongside the above-mentioned and more covert developments festering below the surface, it is also important to note the much more public activities of right-wing movements and parties in France (Front National/Rassemblement National), the People’s Party in Switzerland, the Dutch Party for Freedom, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan.

Continuities and Innovations in Authoritarianism

The organizational and ideological composition of the authoritarian Right is complex. Particular movements assume many different forms and strategically foreground one aspect of their programme or another as needed. Yet it is not or only rarely possible for them to operate politically within the historically established mode of fascism (i.e. open racism, uniformed paramilitary combat units, and mob violence), as this would lead to them becoming politically marginalized and directly attacked by the state.

In addition, many on the Right are also of the belief that historical fascism (Mussolini and Hitler) was too knee-jerk and thus jeopardized its own earlier successes. This has led the New Right to adopt a meta-political strategy aimed at long-term changes in people’s convictions and the abolition of the theories and practices of the Enlightenment and scientific progress, along with democracy and freedom (here they find some common ground with the Catholic Church and Evangelicalism).

In this sense, right-wing movements have learned to take a tactical approach to their own position. This has helped them modernize and gain official acceptance among the middle classes, meaning that they are able to be present in the public sphere and hold public office. The strategic means for this modernization was populism, which allowed authoritarian positions to be passed off as a particular form of democracy and to assert themselves in the political sphere. The strategy was not adopted by all on the Right, because authoritarians must make compromises if they wish to operate within the democratic public sphere of the media and parliaments. It does have other components, however: amending constitutions to make them more authoritarian, nationalist social policy, fascistic everyday violence, the mobilization of mobs, and the whitewashing of politically motivated killings.

The Right vigorously attack many aspects of a way of life that were hard-won over many decades, as well as reflective thought, reflexivity, and the capacity to criticize things so established they are taken for granted. This has an impact on gender relations, sexist violence, bodily integrity and sexual self-determination (protection against sex disambiguation surgery for intersex people, the right to abortion services, public recognition of gay and lesbian lifestyles), environmental protection and climate change, the fetishism of economic growth and competition with a different understanding of prosperity, nutrition, mobility, racism, migration and refugees, science, education, and rationality.

Ring-wing movements have achieved electoral victories because many of their organizations and activities are interlinked at the regional, national, and international level — intellectuals, parties, associations, musical acts — and because they are broadly supported by government agencies, the police, the courts, and major media entities (national newspapers, television reportage, talk shows). It is also clear that the rich as well as criminal gangs have given more money to right-wing networks in recent years, supporting and financing individual actors, newspapers, election campaigns, or even paramilitary groups.

In addition, there are also civil society organizations — some backed by the Catholic Church — who share common cause with the right on a number of issues and administer organizational support. These regional and indeed global alliances and networks should be a focus of research in their own right. This is not to say that the increased significance of right-wing politics in recent years can be explained by these interconnections, but processes at the national level are able to embed themselves in them and gain strength as a result. There is every indication that the expansion of the capitalist mode of production and form of government since the nineteenth century has been a boon for the Right and their international networks.

Open Questions and Initial Conclusions

In light of the manifold and thoroughly heterogeneous array of crisis-prone, undemocratic, authoritarian, and right-wing developments, a number of questions arise:

  1. Is the Left in major capitalist centres only alarmed by these developments because they are now directly impacting their own countries, despite the fact that many countries around the world have been in thrall to authoritarian processes and in crisis for decades?
  2. Is the coincidence of the aforementioned factors largely contingent or can the various phenomena be understood as a broader theoretical-conceptual nexus?
  3. Are terms such as Bonapartism, fascism, authoritarianism, (neo-)nationalism, populism, and authoritarian constitutionalism capable of describing these phenomena?

To my mind, these theses follow from the foregoing discussion:

1) It is true that many countries around the world have seen long-standing and ongoing authoritarian, violent, and corrupt actions by ruling classes, often propped up and strengthened by the ruling classes in the major capitalist centres, frequently with the goal of hindering critics and left-wing movements from fundamentally altering capitalist relations. Yet it was and remains possible to criticize these authoritarian forms of government from within the capitalist centres and to compel one’s own government to adopt policies of peaceful conflict resolution, the implementation of environmental goals, respect for human rights, support of democratic processes, and the acceptance of social critique and alternative ways of life.

With a shift in power relations and incorporation into the “imperialist chain” to the benefit of bourgeois-authoritarian practices, this kind of solidarity has become considerably more difficult. Emancipatory struggles encounter greater resistance when the ruling class becomes populated with authoritarian, criminal, and corrupt figures, who are then able to influence international affairs.

2) The question of whether the coincidence of these factors is contingent or whether they are intrinsically related should not be posed as an either/or binary. Authoritarian movements and forces are inherent components of the complex structure of the capitalist mode of production, and are thus endogenous. But they can also absorb more traditional forms of authoritarianism, and the two mutually re-articulate, support and draw strength from one another — in short, they can exploit the present moment and further consolidate their own positions to the detriment of the Left, democracy, and socialist perspectives.
My suspicion is that in the face of the confusion of the bourgeoisie as a whole, a fraction of it is drawn towards authoritarian forms of crisis resolution. The economic, environmental, and political problems that we face are pressing, and must be negotiated with a great deal of resolve. But within the capitalist forms of production, politics, and the appropriation of nature, no real plans of action exist. Or to put it more cautiously: none have emerged in the past 30 years despite widespread attempts to discover them, as the fate and short half-life of terms and concepts like “sustainability”, “sufficiency”, “great transformation”, “de-growth”, “post-growth”, the “Green New Deal”, or “geoengineering” have shown. Many aspects of these concepts and their attendant strategies are not entirely without value, but they require new forms of social life and new constellations of power (including a reorganization of the state) if they are to be realized. Considerable efforts must spent on questioning the basic interests and the lifestyles of those who profit from the current forms of life as determined by capitalism.

A fraction of the bourgeoisie and the parties that represent them are at a loss, because they can see or sense the necessity of change and are constantly reminded of it through their own media reporting, scientific research, international conferences, and NGOs. Another fraction is panicking and glum. They seek to deny or relativize the reality confronting them and attempt to carry on as if things were the same as before: fossilized, sexist, technocratic, hostile to reason and knowledge. Driven by racism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism, they construct new enemies through pathological projection: invading migrants and refugees, notions of a “great replacement”, religious conflict, sexual minorities, those who speak the truth but are discredited as “pseudo-intellectuals” or “politically correct”, or those who supposedly threaten and weaken masculinity or a willingness to use violence or go to war.

The persecutors perceive themselves as the persecuted: they advocate racist, nationalist, and masculinist identities while deploring the identity politics of feminists and the Left; they insist on maintaining obstinate attitudes while criticizing political correctness. Political, police, and military mechanisms that facilitate the wholesale control of the populace, preventing even the smallest signs of life, are planned, established, equipped, and tested.

Accordingly, a section of the populace is mobilized and transformed into a mob. A coalition forms out of forces from above, from the middle, and from below, which can thus claim to represent the entire population. Both fractions of the middle class mentioned above find themselves in an unsteady balancing act with one another regarding which strategy should be adopted next. The expectations that form the backdrop of their strategic considerations are evidently not clear enough for them to come up with unambiguous alternatives and make unambiguous decisions.

The economy is stagnating, the environmental situation is perilous, many countries are unstable, considerable fractions of their populations are migrating or being displaced — or they are stepping out of their passive roles as consumers and voters and becoming involved in protest action. Globalization has created a new geopolitical state of affairs. If in the 1990s the planet seemed to be clearly divided into three large spheres of influence, conditions have shifted as a result of the vast economic — and increasingly political — influence of China.

China has long since ceased to be merely the “extended workbench” of the capitalist centres, but is a strong centre of the capitalist economy in its own right — a centre where the reproduction of capital takes place, which exerts influence on many Western companies, invests in different regions all over the world, and cultivates debt dependence, and which signs contracts to secure agricultural land and access to resources required by its high-tech companies, so that they cannot simply be taken away from them. Conflicts with the EU and the US are thus on the agenda. These are likely to become exacerbated by Chinese efforts to exploit new regions such as the Arctic, Greenland, Antarctica, and the ocean floor, and even ultimately to undertake space mining expeditions, which would require corresponding “national” territorial claims on the Moon and Mars as well as securing the necessary satellite and communications infrastructure, with the potential to wage new forms of war (cyber warfare and space-based conflict).

3) The new authoritarianism is hybrid, combining elements of the normative state and the rule of law, as well as the state in a state of exception. It permeates the state apparatuses, reorganizing the police and frequently creating new forms of violence and (digital) surveillance, while for their part the police and the military reinforce the trend towards authoritarian politics. Time and again, flexible forms of the state of emergency that are regional, temporary, and that target particular groups are engineered (and accompanied by considerable military violence). According to Nicos Poulantzas, this allows the state to take on certain qualities of a fascist state in a state of exception, in which the police are the essential coordinator of the various factions in the power bloc.

Authoritarianism also depends massively on the military, the military-industrial complex, arms build-up, and readiness for war (the US, Russia, China, Israel, Turkey, India, Egypt, and Brazil), and can take on the features of a military dictatorship. Alongside fascism and military dictatorships, Bonapartism can be also considered a form of a state in a state of exception. Many states resemble it through the fact that a kind of equilibrium seems to prevail, not between the ruling power bloc and the rest of the populace, but between factions (each with their different alliances) within the power bloc itself.

For this reason, they seek to build alliances with the working classes (i.e. the petty bourgeoisie and workers) to serve as instruments for their politics. This can be achieved through racist and nationalist ideologemes, and in this case, the ruling class is not required to make any concessions to secure ideological submission. The suffering is borne by those who are excluded, and those ways of life that might pose a threat to the generalized subservience.

Finally, authoritarianism depends on formal constitutional reforms that have an impact on state expenditure, electoral procedures, the media, and the judiciary, but that also have significant impacts on the activities of the state apparatus and on civil servants (supporting certain civil society groups, pressuring students and academics). This recalls Poulantzas’s claim that such an arrangement is not a state in a state of exception, in which the power bloc primarily organizes itself via apparatuses of state power (the police and the military), but in fact is much closer to a normative bourgeois state. In the 1970s, he called this “authoritarian statism”, as state administration had become the relevant channel for the decision-making process of the power bloc, to which the political parties, through their leadership, had become subordinate.

Considering the reorganization of state apparatuses that has occurred since the 1990s (in which state administration was significantly weakened via new instruments of control, restrictions on financial resources, and the permanent monitoring of performance by private actors) and the newer trend of controlling global communications, transactions, information flows, and resources by means of big data, the construction of transnational border regimes and the strengthening of predictive controls on people’s ways of life, numerous forms of an “authoritarian norm” can be identified, in which right-wing formations are granted a significant organizational and mobilizing role. Antidemocratic and racist violence has become a constitutive element of the third phase of neoliberal state rule.

Yet these developments have not gone unchallenged in recent years. Global authoritarianism develops in direct conflict with the critique of the neoliberal reorganization of capitalism. In addition to protests at the G20 and G7 summits or against free-trade agreements, which extend the praxis and critiques of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, there has also been a widespread rejection of corruption, nationalism, racism, sexism, police violence, and threats made against academics and the media.

In many countries, people have stood up for their democratic rights and the development of their common life. International examples include the #MeToo movement; the millions of women who participate in the women’s strike each year, protest sexist violence, or demand access to abortion services; Black Lives Matter; anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic; and the Fridays for Future demonstrations. In Germany, further examples include the #unteilbar (#indivisible) alliance, Seebrücke, the right to the city, demonstrations for renters’ rights, protests against brown coal, and #noPAG (protests against changes to the Law on Police Duties in Bavaria).

The international conference “Contesting Authoritarianism: Perspectives from the South“ will take place from 16–21 May at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin. Learn more about the event here.