By Kumar David –
Political influence of the extreme-right will decline in the next period: Globally, alt-right populism is over the peak
When I drew attention to alt-right populism more than five years ago as a new phenomenon I was able to attract little attention; some left leaders ridiculed me. Though I brought the term into local usage I have discovered that Paul Gottfried first introduced it in 2008 in “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right”.
I will take the risk now, in 2019, of asserting that the alt-right is over the top and past its peak; the next five years will see decline. Fingers crossed! There are empirical indicators as well as theoretical considerations which motivate this assessment. Before plunging in let me enumerate the markers that delineate modern right-wing extremism. This phenomenon of course is not the same as pre-war fascism.
Every European country has right-wing extremist parties, or factions within the national right and will continue to have them even if alt-right extremism enters a period of retreat. Most noteworthy are France’s National Front led by Marine Le Pen daughter of the founder, Hungary’s Fidesz of Viktor Orbán the incumbent Prime Minister, Netherland’s Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders a virulent anti-Islamist, Poland’s Law and Justice party of Jarosław Kaczyńskincy which holds presidency and government, Freedom Party of Austria whose leader Heinz-Christian Strache is Vice-Chancellor, Italy’s Northern League of Matteo Salvini a Deputy Prime Minister, and other influential bodies. A new star is Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland which finished third in the 2017 Federal election. There is no denying the European Alt-Right has climbed into the spotlight. A BBC map of the rise of the European far-right reproduced here is disturbing.
More important and more complex is the United States. The US has had a long history of right-wing extremism leading back to slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy and 1950s McCarthyism. This legacy is not dead and the election of Donald Trump is both an extension and a spoke in the wheel for of this legacy. The Trump Base is a replica of the forces that drive the European alt-right; economic marginalisation of the old working class and the indigenous poor (typical of late capitalism), revulsion of immigrants and xenophobia in a context where the native population feels economically and culturally threatened, falling income, unemployment (not in USA post-2017) and stagnant economies. Brexit was backed by British workers; the National Front in France is strong in working class districts. It is not correct to say there are no deep and troubling economic and social roots to the rise of the alt-right and that it’s all a matter of racism and intolerance. No, a global phenomenon cannot emerge without basic economic and social drivers.
Every country has the right and the need to control immigration and limit it to lawful persons. No country can accept everybody who arrives at its shores. That said, laws must be fair and reasonable from the standpoint of its citizens and the country’s needs, and also international obligations to refugees from distressed regions of the world.
Hard times for Alt-Right
Having recounted all this, I risk the prediction that the alt-right has passed its peak and entered a phase of decline. First let’s count empirical indicators. (European Parliament Elections in May could well be the high point of the right-wing populist surge; the far-right and Eurosceptic parties together may win 20% of seats in the EU parliament). After that I see setbacks; Brexit chaos, Indian and Australian elections and then the unlikelihood of Trump’s re-election. Brexit has become a disaster: the Economist portrayed it as “The Mother of all Messes”. Whichever way things go it is indisputable that the rightist inspired Brexit decision of the British electorate was a huge blunder. In the unlikely event of a second referendum Brexit will be reversed. Otherwise, whichever way things evolve, Brexit has exposed alt-right philosophy and programme as dystopian.
I foresaw the BJP-Modi 2014 victory as a natural reaction to the failure of main stream Indian politics and a triumph for populism – the pro-business BJP is more populist than alt-right. Opinion polls indicate that BJP and allies will lose 50 to 100 of their 341 seats (BJP 269, Allies 72) in the 543-seat Lok Sabha in April-May 2019 elections, though the alliance may eventually form a government. In Australia, despite the right stirring up race and immigration issues, current polls indicate a victory for the opposition Labour Party when preferential second votes are counted – no party will secure 50% on first-preference.
America is the big one, and though the Trump Base is holding firm and though there is a flash in pan economic upturn, everything else is moving against Trump. His approval ratings have been stuck between 36% and 41% for over a year and prospects of a second term are not good. If he is defeated it will be a setback for the alt-right’s global world view.
My comments so far have dealt with electoral trends and not a theoretical analysis of why the alt-right is entering a period of decline. There are three underlying factors: (a) alt-right programmes, where they has had a run (Brexit, Trump), have failed; (b) race-biased extremism has resulted in deep divisions and constitutional crises, most notably the US; and (c) preference for turning inward to the core nation-state, that is economic isolationism, e.g. Trump’s trade-wars, have weakened national and global capitalism. The alt-right’s political, social and economic agendas are in trouble.
Backstop exposes Brexit’s unfeasibility
Brexit has brought Britain to its knees. Theresa May’s last desperate gamble is the Backstop. Neither Northern Ireland nor Ireland will agree to a ‘hard border’ between them. Limiting free movement of people or restricting transit of good may have disastrous political consequences even threatening the Good Friday Agreement which ended the civil war in 1998. May’s solution was a ‘no-border’ concession supplemented by as yet unspecified soft restraints between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Ulster Unionist Protestants who fought Catholics for centuries will not accept restraints between N. Ireland and the UK proper, forcing her into a position which, in so far as a customs union is concerned, makes Britain a part of the EU for a long time or in perpetuity. This for hard-Brexiters is a betrayal of the referendum and the alt-right victory on the Brexit battlefield. So, Brexit has jammed Briton into an impasse. It has proved undoable; there is no way out except to jettison it; that is to discard the alt-right perspective. A no-deal Brexit will be disastrous for the UK economy.
Trump’s plans, instead of making ‘America great again’ have run into constitutional impasses, including a lawsuit between 16 States and the Federal Government. The US is now an internally divided nation and its international alliances with Europe and NATO are stressed. It is true that this in part due to Trump’s abrasive and idiosyncratic personality, his proclivity to lie (one website has counted 5000), alleged indictable business dealings, and an investigation into collusion with a foreign power. However, the conflict in America is also an outcome of efforts to deliver on a promised alt-right agenda. When Trump leaves office and takes the GOP right-wing down with him, this legacy will count as a failure of the alt-right programme.
Alt-Right’s race philosophy
It is in nationalism and race issues that the greatest failure will occur. Who are the alt-right’s core thinkers and what do they say? Richard Spencer one of its most important theoreticians describes Alt-Right as “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world”. Jared Taylor describes the primary belief as “race is a biological fact and a significant aspect of individual and group identity and any attempt to create a society in which race does not matter will fail”. The anti-Semite Kevin B. MacDonald claims that the US Jewish community has been a powerful group favouring unrestricted immigration into the US. Steve Bannon who runs Breitbart News, the leading alt-right magazine, was one-time chief of Trump’s presidential campaign and later chief strategist and senior counsellor and is the public face of this philosophy. Alt-Right thinkers are unabashed in their clash of civilisations world view. One of my arguments in this essay is that this thesis will go down as a failure in political-America and globally.
Nativism, extreme nationalism and white-supremacy are failing to deliver the goods. True the alt-right has been making gains in Europe during the last 20 years and America in the last decade. But it has little to show in terms of practical achievements. In Hungary the alt-right is strongest, it controls the state and inference with the courts and schools. The EU imposed sanctions on Hungary for flouting democracy and civil rights. Wherever the alt-right has influence it flouts democratic rights and freedoms. It is opposed to admitting human contribution to global warming and is taking over Trump’s climate agenda.
Globalisation and the Alt-Right
Trump’s trade wars and Brexit are symptomatic of alt-right suspicion of internationalism, global trade and economic integration. Globalism today is not what it was in the high day of neoliberalism. In the period 1973 to late 1990s globalisation was the tool neoliberals used to pry open markets, steer foreign investment and capture third-world economies. That period came to an end for three reasons; determined resistance by people’s movements, the rise of Asia and China which capitalised on free trade and eventually the 2008 economic collapse. It is the US that is now the great obstacle to global trade; it uses US laws to subvert foreign banks and firms, imposes sanctions on Russia and China, and strangles Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Alt-Right ideology inspires this policy, but it is time limited. Sooner than expected the American yoke will be discarded in country by country and with that the sway of the alt-right will fade.
However a return to the old order of business-as-usual-capitalism is, in the long run, infeasible; the genie of populism is out of the bottle. Creating a world where people decide for themselves locally, but society and nations are rationally networked into inescapable and global realism is the challenge.