As Cas Mudde points out early in this book, we now face a situation where three of the biggest countries in the world have elected leaders expressing far right views — Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India and, of course, Donald Trump in the US.
The growth of the far right over the past three decades has generated a huge upsurge of academic interest. Innumerable books and academic papers are published every year, conferences are held devoted to the subject and there are even specialist research centres in a number of universities all devoted to trying to understand the rise of the far right.
Mudde, a Dutch academic currently based in the US, is a leading figure in this field. His 2007 book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe has been widely influential, and Mudde is frequently quoted in the media and is an occasional columnist for the Guardian.
He describes his new book The Far Right Today as an accessible overview for a wider non-academic audience.
Mudde locates the core of the far right’s world view as: a combination of nativism (the notion that the state should exclude all “alien”, foreign elements, whether people or ideas, to restore a supposedly homogenous nation); authoritarianism, with social problems reduced to law and order issues to be dealt with harshly; and populism, where they claim to stand for the people versus a corrupt elite.
A key strength of Mudde’s analysis is a sober recognition that what he calls the “radical right” (more on this below) has entered the mainstream in most western democracies. Even more importantly, he insists that this is fundamentally the result of the action of mainstream parties moving to the right on issues such immigration, multiculturalism, crime and adopting more populist “anti-establishment” language thus providing legitimacy to the claims of the radical right.
As a result, he suggests that the boundaries separating mainstream conservatism and the once isolated radical right have blurred. So, Mudde suggests the differences between the formal programmes of say the French Gaullist’s of Les Republicans and the Front National (now National Rally) of Marine Le Pen increasingly overlap.
He labels the radical right a “pathological normalcy” — no longer an aberrant phenomenon on the margins of political life but “a radicalisation of mainstream values, supported by sizeable minorities”.
However, there are two big weaknesses in Mudde’s account.
Firstly, he downplays the relevance of fascism as a significant component of the contemporary far right. He makes a key distinction between the “radical right” and the “extreme right”.
The extreme right for Mudde are those parties and movements which reject democracy full stop (and by implication seek to overthrow it) and thus do share some continuity with historical fascism.
The radical right, by contrast, he defines by its acceptance of democracy even if it espouses a more “illiberal” version of democracy and thus shares nothing in common with historical fascism.
The problem lies in what criteria is applied to decide whether a party accepts or rejects democracy. Mudde provides little clarification and one suspects that he sees it as largely self-evident: if they say they are committed to democracy and don’t look like open Nazis, they then aren’t. So Golden Dawn in Greece is extreme right, and maybe fascist, but Le Pen’s National Rally is not. Comfortingly this allows Mudde to say the extreme right and hence fascism remains largely marginal.
But this is too dependent on the self-presentation of such parties and surface appearances. Fascist parties in post-war Europe have been forced to develop camouflage, to wear masks in order to hide their real face, at least to those who don’t look deeper. And even Hitler and the Nazi party pursued a dual strategy of elections (and swearing adherence to the Weimar Constitution and legal methods) even as they constructed a paramilitary street movement to smash all democracy. Fascism is a much bigger threat today than Mudde allows for.
The second weakness in Mudde’s account is his tendency to play down the role of mass mobilisations to counter and defeat the far right: “While massive anti-racist demonstrations might have given solace to some of the targeted populations… they have not stopped the rise of the populist far right”. Indeed, he suggests anti-racist protests may even serve to boost the profile of otherwise marginal far right groups. Instead Mudde, despite his incisive criticism of mainstream legitimisation of the radical right, is forced to turn back to a general call to somehow strengthen liberal democracy as the bulwark against the encroachment of the far right.
This reliance on the institutions of liberal democracy rather than on mass mobilisation from below will fail today, just as it did in the hands of the social democrats in Weimar Germany.
The opposite method, relentlessly focusing on mass mobilisation on the street, and not just to protest but to target and deny public space to the far right, has despatched Golden Dawn in Greece, just as it pushed back the BNP and the EDL in Britain and now struck a blow against the movement around Tommy Robinson. Mudde can offer real insights but not about how to defeat the far right today.
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