Fascism, Rebranded

How the contemporary far right won legitimacy under the guise of liberal-democratic ideals.

Marine Le Pen gestures as she delivers a speech during a rally at the Puybonnieux farm in Pageas, near Limoges, France, on Thursday.

Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Adapted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore. Published by Oxford University Press.

Given the diversity of the extreme right, there can be no simple explanation for its emergence in the post-fascist era. Opposition to globalization is an obvious starting point, because from Manchester to Moscow, the extreme right attacks immigrants. In Western Europe, the far right castigates the European Union as an agent of globalization, just as Americans attack the U.N. The incorporation of the new democracies of Eastern Europe into the EU provoked fear of a new wave of immigration from the East.

But it does not follow that because the far right attacks globalization, then globalization is a cause in a simple sense (any more than “modernization” was an explanation for fascism). The difficulty is that globalization is not a recent phenomenon; nation-states have always had to reckon with the internationalizing tendencies of capitalism, technological change, and advanced communications. Back in the 1880s, the radical right saw the Jewish Rothschild bank as the personification of the occult power of cosmopolitan finance capital. It is more informative to ask why and how the term “globalization” is mobilized in particular circumstances, for close inspection reveals that people are very selective in what counts as globalization. Politicians periodically invoke it in order to justify their policies. Few people reject globalization entirely. For instance, an independent bookseller in France might resent competition from the global internet sellers, while welcoming income from translations of the Harry Potter books. Instead, we must ask which aspects of internationalization the far right attacks and why and without forgetting that there are also important national barriers to internationalization.

One barrier is that antifascism no longer structures the political landscape as it did in the postwar years. Generational turnover rendered the antifascist reference “mechanical.” The student uprisings of 1968 inadvertently weakened antifascism further, for activists ridiculed what they saw as their elders’ cynical manipulation of antifascism to legitimize their power. Students indiscriminately accused contemporary governments of fascism and helped empty the term of specific content.

Moreover, another reason for the greater acceptability of extreme-right politics today is that intellectuals have redefined ultranationalism. In effect, they have translated xenophobia and intolerance into liberal-democratic universalist language. Three contemporary movements have reworked liberal values in this contradictory way. First, the French thinker Alain de Benoist and the “New Right” of the 1970s played a crucial role. This movement represented a reaction against the student movement of 1968, but it combined traditional sources of right-wing inspiration with certain liberal ideas in an ideology that was designed to subvert universal democratic values. Much of the New Right’s output was not new—one has no difficulty in recognizing an updating of the pseudo-science that inspired interwar fascism (the inevitable struggle between nations, the survival of the fittest, the necessary inequality of individuals, the need for racial purity). What was original (or almost so, for the radical Nazi Otto Strasser had espoused similar ideas) was the use of “equal rights” to justify discrimination against minorities within states. The New Right claimed that to preserve the alleged distinctiveness of a given nation, it was necessary to discriminate against minorities. It was not immediately obvious that this updating of ultranationalism would pay dividends, for the New Right appealed only to a small (but Europe-wide) group of intellectuals.

At first sight, Pim Fortuyn’s List party in the Dutch elections of 2002 was typical of the modern far right. It opposed immigration, blaming it for the “Islamization of the Netherlands,” and wanted to repeal antiracist laws. Fortuyn, who was openly homosexual, denounced Islam as a “backward religion” that threatened Western toleration and rights for women and gays, in this way linking nationalism to liberalism. Fortuyn was murdered before the elections; his party did well but succumbed subsequently to infighting. By 2010, most supporters had gravitated to the Dutch Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders. The latter is closer to the far right elsewhere in Europe, but it too depicts Islam as a threat to freedom, while denouncing France’s National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen as a “fascist.”

France’s far-right FN party also reworked liberalism to break into mass politics. In fact, the emergence of the FN recalled the conditions in which fascism had flourished in interwar Europe, in that it appealed largely to disillusioned conservatives. Initially, France’s FN electorate was relatively bourgeois, elderly, Catholic, conservative, and antisocialist, and the party program coincided with this electorate’s demands for the free market. The FN’s racism reinforced liberal economics, for the Arab was a symbol of the “unfit,” unable to compete in the market, who vegetated on welfare benefits. But the FN soon moved away from free-market economics, while the mainstream right, notably neoconservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, embraced it.

The FN took most of its voters from the right, particularly from small towns in provincial France. Yet it also became a party of the young, working-class male, who was often unemployed, relatively uneducated, and living in the industrial suburbs of large cities. In the presidential elections of 1995, 30 percent of workers voted for the FN, more than for the socialists or the communists. By the 2000s, the FN had largely abandoned neoconservatism in favor of defending French jobs against globalization and foreign workers—a policy that nevertheless also appeals to a large part of the right. The FN’s appeal to the poor has parallels elsewhere in Europe and around the World.

Decades of unemployment amongst unskilled young men, thanks to the de-industrialization of Western economies, is an obvious reason for this phenomenon. Russia and the former East Germany also witnessed the collapse of heavy industry and agriculture under the impact of free-market reforms, and these sectors provided support for the extreme right. Economic difficulty coincides with a sense of cultural disadvantage. Work no longer provides identity and status for many young men. Given cultural pressure to consume conspicuously, and the linkage of consumer goods to sex appeal, poor young men feel left out. They resent governments that are more inclined to tackle discrimination on grounds of gender, race, or sexual orientation than they are to deal with class inequality—doubtless governments ignore class inequality because it alone is intrinsic to capitalism. Consequently, the far right resents the wealthy and dislikes career women. In ghettoized suburban estates, young white men confront immigrants, whom they blame for crime and attacks on “their” women, and some are open to parties that cast them as oppressed “minorities,” which in a sense they are. Of course, poor whites are underprivileged members of the dominant ethnic group, and consequently they command more sympathy from the police and press than immigrants do, though they hardly count as privileged.

The availability of workers to the far right may owe something to the fact that from the 1990s many socialist parties embraced the neoconservative agenda. And as the left has shifted rightward in search of electoral success, conservative parties use xenophobia to differentiate themselves from the left. Not to be outdone, the left reassures the electorate that it is not soft on immigrants either. Immigrants are the losers, either way.

However problematic the relationship between the modern far right and historic fascism is, and however different the movements in question are, we can hardly avoid the fact that many people believe that these groups share something fundamental, and that belief is an essential element in political life. The conditions that produced the modern far right are very different from those from which fascism and Nazism arose. Nevertheless, even in the interwar years, contexts varied greatly from one part of Europe to another, and indeed even within individual countries people embraced fascism for different reasons. Since fascism’s decline, the differences between left and right became more attenuated, and both have spoken largely for those who gained from the transformation of the economy, leaving the losers seeking representation.

Adapted from Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright (c) 2014 by Oxford University Press.

Also in Fascism: A Very Short Introduction:

Is This Fascism?

A Dangerous Definition