What's Behind the Surge of the Far-Right in Europe?

A majority of the countries of Western Europe have seen far-right or "populist" political parties do well in elections or even win a place in government. In addition, with the recent French elections and the assassination of the Dutch leader Pim Fortuyn, we have seen an impressive popular mobilization. Confronted by this phenomenon, it is important to understand its real well-springs. What follows is a contribution to the comprehension of these recent events.

In several Western European countries there has been a significant breakthrough by factions of the extreme-right -- though to put things in perspective, it is worth noting that in Eastern Europe it is factions of the old Social Democracy or ex-"Communists" that have achieved electoral victories. With respect to the success of the far right in Western Europe, it serves no purpose to pretend that it is still only a minority of voters who support these parties, or, on the contrary, to fall into utter despair and conclude that political consciousness or class consciousness no longer provide any hope for a real social transformation. If these electoral results indicate the weight of the dominant ideology and the impasse into which it has succeeded in channeling discontent, they also express other tendencies present within society. Moreover, if it is clear that such factions of the far-right have entered governments or parliaments thanks to having won a certain number of votes, we still must not overlook the very high rate of abstention in all these countries, a fact that is also indicative of a profound loss of confidence in “democratic” mechanisms.

1. What changes?

The functioning of the economic system has undergone very profound changes in the course of its recent history. The massive utilization of technology, the globalization of the economy, have transformed the processes of production and have had a direct impact on the composition of social classes, the organization of commercial exchanges, and the relations between nations -- in short, everything that constitutes the system's historical economic and social benchmarks. The development of technology and of the economic crisis have sharply increased the gap between poor and rich countries, and the tendencies to destruction and exclusion. Today, technological progress is no longer synonymous with welfare and security for individuals, but rather entails a massive destruction of the environment, permanent layoffs, the existence of whole segments of the population denied any access to the labor market, and a situation of instability, genocide and war throughout the world. The climate of insecurity to which the bourgeoisies of Europe have pointed, and its link to the growth of violence and crime, is, therefore, connected to the profound insecurity engendered by the degradation of the overall economic situation and to the socio-economic transformations described above. The insecurity felt by each is not linked to social violence alone (we will come back to this point), but rather to a much more global and profound feeling of insecurity, one which is linked to a questioning of the very functioning of society and its economic and political perspectives. To put all the weight on the single phenomenon of urban crime is one of the weapons of the dominant ideology, wielded to prevent a link being made between insecurity and the very foundations of society. A simplistic link is then forged: insecurity = crime; security = drastic police measures to fight it. That is the equation made by the ruling classes of Europe, one that provides the basis for, and legitimation of, their discourse on the growth of violence and the security measures needed to combat it. It is all the factions of the bourgeoisie that have jumped on this hobby horse of violence, and have taken advantage of the situation to undertake unprecedented policies of control and repression.

Several years ago, at the time of the struggles that shook Europe in 1993-95, questions -- albeit confused -- were raised about the perspectives offered by the reigning system: it was the beginning of an awareness of violence, of the impasse towards which production for profit at any price was leading society. Parallel to that, the "affairs" linked to the corruption of the political and juridical systems provoked indignation and disgust among broad segments of the populace. If that development of consciousness was latent, confused, and found no real outlet on the terrain of workers' struggles, it continued to grow and could be seen in the "anti-globalization" movement, despite its heteroclite and inter-class nature, and its absence of any real coherence. That beginning of popular questioning constituted a real threat to the bourgeoisie, which reacted by attempting to channel it onto another terrain. In a sense, then, the ideological campaigns about insecurity and violence are a response to the contestation expressed on the terrain of workers' struggles from '93-95 and in the heteroclite and inter-class anti-globalization movements – as is the vigilance and heightened trade-union presence around that popular discontent.

The questioning about the functioning of society, the fears linked to its perspectives, as well as the loss of the social bonds and links provoked by globalization have led to a turning inward, a falling back on one's region, religion or race. Similarly, massive exclusion, and poverty, which has now reached the heart of Europe, has set in motion masses of the population, desperate and with no real chance of being integrated into the productive process. One's share of a diminishing cake gets ever-smaller; the fear of the Other grows, a fear both linked to, and produced by, the functioning of the economic system.

2. Discourse on violence, the "consecrated bread" of the ruling class

It is on that social landscape that "populist" and far-right political parties have returned to center stage. Basically, what do they defend? The turning inward onto the familiar and comforting national or racial entity, jobs for the natives and expulsion for the Other, the surplus population; the illusion that the growing violence in society can be assuaged. These far-right parties are merely taking a leaf from the traditional parties, by proposing simplistic policies for a society without any real perspectives.

Beyond that, it is necessary to point out another pernicious maneuver of the ruling class. Let's take the example of France and Le Pen, who only says aloud what the other factions of the ruling class just whisper. If one looks at our "democratic" European societies, what do we see? A systematization of police control, identity cards, telephone wire taps, round-ups, strengthening and reorganization of the national police, strengthening of measures of repression directed against the under-age, and all under the cover of the safety of the ordinary citizen; the creation of refugee camps, which cannot fail to recall those other "camps;" the legitimation of murderous military campaigns in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Palestine. In addition, the attacks of last September 11th in the US provided the occasion for the ruling class to unleash an unprecedented ideological barrage around the permanence of the terrorist threat throughout the world, as well as the necessity to deploy a vast repressive arsenal to combat it.

Violence is inscribed in the very functioning of the system; it is practiced daily by the ruling class of each country, and the policies of the extreme-right are only a caricature of the policies of the dominant parties.

Another lesson that we can draw from this, and of which the French situation is a clear example, is the extraordinary capacity for political recuperation possessed by the bourgeois political parties. While the votes for the far-right (and the far-left) are a snub to the dominant parties (Jospin and the Socialists in France, the majority in Holland), Chirac ends up with a majority that would have been inconceivable had not Le Pen been on the ballot. There, where disgust with politics as usual had seemed headed to a massive refusal to participate in the electoral circus, we saw an unprecedented mobilization against abstentionism!

This ideological sleight of hand is certainly necessary in a social context in which disillusion reigns and the parties whose task it was to control the working class have an ever-harder time maintaining a semblance of credibility. Thus, the left parties present in most of the Western European governments have carried out "realistic" policies, and are (correctly) seen more as defenders of the interests of a ruling class confronted by an unprecedented economic crisis than as defenders of the interests of the working class -- an ideological discourse that they assiduously cultivated when they were in the opposition. There is therefore an ideological void that the "populist" parties now try to fill.

Finally, what is the real issue when it comes to violence and immigration? Is it a matter of a new phenomenon, or one that has now taken on an extraordinary amplitude, or is it being blown out of all proportion by the ideology of the ruling class? We have already pointed to the roots of violence: they reside in unemployment, in the absence of any perspectives and anxiety about the future. That anxiety is often manifested by a desperate destructiveness that increases acts of violence in the cities and poorer suburbs. There is, however, a distinction between stating these facts, and describing (as does the European ruling class today) a European space in which everyone is permanently obsessed by the fear of acts of aggression and/or where this has become the whole Truth about reality: for example, during the electoral campaign in France, there was virtually no news story without an act of violence, such that one could literally not escape the climate of fear, powerlessness, and danger to the nth degree. Such an atmosphere is generated by the ruling class, and is not a reflection of social reality.

3. Immigration: threat or bugbear?

With respect to immigration, here too -- via the media -- Europe is presented as an unprotected space, invaded by swarms of aliens who have come to steal the already scarce social resources of the national states. It is obvious that the economic crisis leads fringes of the population to flee their miserable conditions of living, to flee war, to flee fear. But to only see that, is to fail to also see the policies of drastic control that the various governments have instituted against the migratory flux, the camps for those asking for asylum, the housing centers that have been closed, and the forced repatriations. Beyond that, to

first make an appeal to immigrant workers as cheap labor, and then to present that same potential source of labor as a horde of locusts who have come to devour the resources of the national economy, is a way for the ruling class to put pressure on the population, and on the working class in particular. It is a way to increase the competition between workers and to force them to accept ever-more precarious conditions of work; and it is also a means to break the solidarity that is established among those whose labor is exploited -- a solidarity that is their most important weapon in resisting that exploitation. Here too, just as in the case of urban violence, immigration is a phenomenon that exists, but that is utilized, manipulated, for ideological ends.


There is a double lesson to be drawn from all this: if the votes for populist parties reflect a certain social anger and a rejection of the prevailing policies, if in the same paradoxical movement, the mobilizations against the far-right also mean a rejection of racist solutions, solutions based on enhanced police security, the positive lessons stop there. As long as social discontent, the questioning of the perspectives offered by the present society, are not expressed on a terrain in which a radical change in the very nature of society is envisaged, this contestation and this discontent will remain imprisoned by the dominant social relations.

The ruling class presents us with an image of contemporary society as a great mixture in which all class antagonisms have disappeared. But this very image results from the ideological confusion necessary to the blocking of any clear reflection and to the maintenance of the domination of that self-same ruling class. There are in this society, exploiters and exploited. The working class, even if the recent economic transformations have made its definition more fluid than before, is an exploited class; one that has no interest in the maintenance of the social relations in which it has been placed: social relations in which its only raison d'etre is to sell its labor-power so as to produce the profits necessary to the continuation of the present system. The interests of the working class are clearly opposed to those of the ruling class, and it is, therefore, the only force capable of conceiving and bringing into existence a new society. Social violence will not be resolved by any plebiscite for Chirac; still less in the defense of our so-called democracy -- on the contrary! The perspective of capitalism is one of a deepening of this violence and this instability. The only way to free ourselves from it is to destroy its source: the present capitalist system, and the social and economic relations that it entails.


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