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The Far Left and the Far Right Take Us on a Joyride Back to the Future

What was once the oppositional language of fringe parties in Europe has combined into a toxic new politics that is making its way to the center of Western democratic discourse. That should frighten us.

Harold James
March 07, 2016
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

Why are unskilled workers, who used to be the core political support of left-wing parties, opting for populist leaders who come from the political right—Donald Trump in the United States or Marine Le Pen in Europe? Why are left-wing groups taking up a critique of Israel that echoes old themes from the anti-Semitic right? The ideological cross-dressing of left and right divides society, terrifies the political establishment, and disorients political scientists.

For the political establishment, it has long been axiomatic that the measurement of what separates the far left and the far right is not entirely clear. The radical fringes see themselves as anti-system movements, targeting the corruption of the existing order. But in the first half of the 20th century, there was a sharp and obvious divide between a fascism that developed on the basis of ultra-nationalism and a communism that championed the international cause of an international class, the proletariat. The Weimar Republic remains the iconic case of the collapse of a democratic order. There were brief moments in interwar Germany when the Nazis and the Communists together obstructed the republican center, but there was no doubt about their fundamental antagonism. Only on one occasion, the Berlin transport strike in November 1932, did the far left and far right join in a protest against the municipal authorities. Otherwise, they were fighting each other.

A new era of unparalleled political stability in industrial countries emerged in the second half of the 20th century, in the wake of the defeat of Fascism and Nazism. The political consensus that until recently most Western people have taken for granted was the creation of that era. In the post-1945 period of political calm, the soft left (or center left) and the soft right (center right) worked within a clearly understood political framework: The main distinction between the left and right was on economic issues. The left wanted to redistribute wealth and income; the right did not. But since both needed to look for support from a majority of voters if they were to gain power, they needed to tone down their positions. The left needed to be gradualist, and the right couldn’t simply say it wanted to turn the clock back.

The outsiders took a more radical stance and denounced what they deemed “the system” as a whole as corrupt, iniquitous, and dangerous. They wanted to destroy existing politics. They often had simple ideologies. But those ideologies, based on political ideas from the first half of the 20th century, were essentially backward-looking and fundamentally marginal. The French right looked back to Fascism, or to Marshal Petain’s Vichy state. Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front with a Petainiste ethos and even today continues to claim that the Nazi “gas chambers were a detail” of World War II. His daughter Marine disowned that ideology and tried to create a new politics for the modern National Front. On the other side, there was Communism in its Soviet form, based on the idea that the Soviet Union had created a “new civilization” (in the famous title of a book by the glamorous British political pair of Beatrice and Sidney Webb) and looking forward to the creation of a “New Man,” a completely new type of human being who was no longer driven by greed. This message lost its ability to convince. So, Fascism and Communism both faded.

In the 1980s and 1990s, something changed in the political order; but the full extent of the change became clear only after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. The best way of describing the new and more unstable world is “globalization.” Globalization in practice means exposure to mobility. For a long time, globalization debates were treated as debates about trade and about the loss of jobs to workers in low-wage countries as a result of trade openness. But there is little appeal to a message that is simply anti-trade—and trade unionists and unskilled workers are as addicted as the rest of society to cheap consumer electronics and bargain-price T-shirts.

The real ferocity of modern politics is derived from opposition to other forms of mobility: the mobility of labor and the mobility of capital. Fear of mobile labor is the driving force behind the British campaign for “Brexit,” leaving the European Union. Between 2004 and 2015, 1.7 million East Europeans arrived in the United Kingdom. In the wake of the European financial and debt crisis, with appallingly high rates of youth unemployment in southern Europe, young Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks joined them. The inflow made England more dynamic and contributed to Britain’s “soft power,” which advocates of Brexit like to celebrate. But the new migrants also strained resources, housing, and transport and produced resentments in the older population. Now even pro-EU Labour Party leaders often sound very skeptical about the migrant issue.

The problem of economically driven migrants from within the EU is logically quite separate from the discussion of refugees fleeing from violence and civil war in Central Asia, the Middle East, or North Africa. In Germany, at the beginning of the mass inflow of refugees in the summer of 2015, with tens of thousands arriving daily to the Munich train station, Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, became an internationally understood German word, replacing the sinister sounds of the past like Angst or Achtung. The new mood was a mix of genuine humanitarian concern, lessons from the German past in which forced migration had been a common experience and an economic argument that the additional population would be a solution to Germany’s aging population, inadequate fertility, and demographic decline. Being open to the outside world was presented by economists as the only way of escaping “Japanization.”

But then a host of practical problems eroded Germans’ willingness to practice Willkommenskultur. It was not clear that the immigrants really had the skills to be integrated in the German workforce. In the summer of 2015, the stereotype of the immigrant had been the “Syrian doctor”; by the autumn the popular press was filled by discussions of how most of the immigrants lacked literacy in Arabic, let alone in German. And at the beginning of the new year, the attacks by large numbers of North African migrants in Cologne and other German cities raised fears that immigrants carried an Islamic culture of aggressive masculinity that was incompatible with the secular and tolerant values of modern Western European society. The story of the Arab Spring was reframed in the popular discussions so that the main point was no longer the opposition to kleptocratic autocracies but rather the groping and assaults on Western women in Tahrir Square. The Pegida movement (a German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West”), which started in eastern Germany in 2014, and whose support had been waning, started to take off again: The movement takes being anti-Islam as a simple statement of identity, without any reflection on whether violence by militant jihadis is really an expression of the inherent values and practices of the broader Islamic world.

Central European countries had already articulated that theme long before the swing in German opinion. Poland elected first a populist and nationalistic right-wing president and then a new parliamentary majority for the same (Law and Justice) party in 2015. The nationalists declared that the country should not take Muslim migrants and that refugees brought disease and terrorism. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who had initially responded to the refugee crisis with a barbed wire fence, became the new defender of European civilization and of a new model of European politics. The Prime Minister of Bavaria (a state in Germany) Horst Seehofer in his campaign against the German chancellor acknowledged the intellectual leadership of his Hungarian colleague. Even Switzerland held a referendum on whether to expel foreign “criminals,” though the measure was rejected by a substantial majority (with 59 percent voting against the initiative).

The new model of politics also targeted other forms of mobility. Part of the Hungarian problem had been the mis-selling of mortgages by banks, many of them owned and controlled by foreign banks. Before the global financial crisis these banks had offered foreign currency mortgages at much lower interest rates than those in the domestic currency, mostly in Euros and Swiss francs. The homeowners were not financially sophisticated and did not realize that there was a substantial foreign exchange risk, so that any economic or financial downturn might knock down the value of the Hungarian forint or of the Polish zloty. The mortgage would then be worth more than the house and the interest and amortization unaffordable. The bank-loan issue pushed first Orban, and then the Polish right, to adopt an economic populism that also included interventions to direct credit to “worthy” borrowers and increase pensions. In this way, with opposition to migration and opposition to capitalism, Central Europe recreated a politics that linked old-fashioned left wing re-distributionism to popular nationalism.

The Euro banknotes were designed with the depiction of symbolic versions of bridges and gates. But today, gates are being closed and bridges are blocked. Fences are the face of modern Europe, as well as of the United States.

Nationalist language offers the only convincing way of linking the elements of the globalization backlash. It identifies the enemy as a foreign power, a political and monetary threat. For Viktor Orban and his admirers, it was modern Germany that produced the crisis: The strength of its economy, combined with the generosity of its welfare system, set off a giant sucking effect that destabilized European nation-states. Orban had already built up criticism of Germany as a theme for his political campaign in 2014: one of the high points being the installation of a sculpture in Heroes Square showing a German eagle attacking the Angel Gabriel, the symbol of Hungary (which attracted criticism in that it seemed to blur the lines between Jewish victims and Hungarian perpetrators). Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, thinks that Germany is importing new slave laborers and called Angela Merkel an “empress” who was imposing her will on the rest of Europe—above all on the hapless French. For her, “France is neither on the right nor the left—it’s just France. … I don’t have the feeling that I tell patriots on the left different things from what I say to patriots of the right.” German right-wing demonstrators denounced Merkel as a “whore” and a “traitor to the people.”

Fences are the face of modern Europe, as well as of the United States.

The common oppositional sentiments of the far right and the far left are forging a common language of nativist protest in Europe. A substantial number of supporters of the far left party in Germany—Die Linke, the heir to the Communist Party in East Germany—state that they would be happy to join demonstrations of Pegida. In the wake of the attacks by young North Africans in Cologne and elsewhere on German women on New Year’s Eve, Sahra Wagenknecht, the deputy party leader of Die Linke, and a figure who had long been associated with the hard left, explained that refugees who ignore the rules of hospitality had forfeited the right to hospitality.

The political logic of democracies also means that in the face of a new and popular movement, mainstream center parties contemplate borrowing the language and ideas that seem to be so attractive to large portions of the electorate, and small symbolic gestures are vested with an immense significance in a global war of ideas. David Cameron’s negotiations with the EU centered around the fiscally trivial issue of a temporary restriction of benefits for EU migrants. President François Hollande split his party when he proposed to change the French Constitution so as to be able to revoke the citizenship of terrorists. The newly increased popularity of anti-Israel slogans on the left, with demands for boycotts of Israeli products, can also be seen in this context, as they fit easily with anti-American and anti-globalization sentiments.

The new politics also dresses up its new combination of ideas in the language of anti-corruption. The populist revolt is driven by outrage at the extent of political corruption by the established parties of the center-left and center-right. The anti-system movements call for a purge of politics, for strict judicial enforcement, and for a new beginning. That was the narrative successfully presented by Syriza in Greece, as well as by the left-wing protest party Podemos and the more centrist rival Ciudadanos in Spain. Both had a strong showing in the Spanish general elections in December 2015, but Podemos only came third overall with 20.7 percent of the vote and will find it hard to make any effective pact with either of the mainstream parties.

For a long time, analysts of globalization—including myself in the book that I wrote in 2001 discussing the possibility of an “End of Globalization”—believed that the anti-globalization forces lacked a coherent model of how anti-globalization might be put into practice. After 2008, there is an effective model that its supporters see as being capable of being exported: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which purposely spreads its own oppositional propaganda through state-funded outlets like Russia Today. If the new orientation can be described in geopolitical terms as a reaction against the established Western powers, in particular the United States and Germany, and personally against Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, who are caricatured and vilified in the crudest racist and sexist terms, Putin is its hero figure. Donald Trump says he would “get along very well” with Putin, as they both dislike President Obama. Putin on his side calls Trump “brilliant” and “an outstanding and talented personality.” The leader of UKIP, the anti-EU British (or more accurately English) nationalist party, Nigel Farage, scored a massive hit with the British public when he described Angela Merkel as a greater threat to his country than Putin; the Liberal democrat leader, Nick Clegg, who tried to counter him, was destroyed. Marine Le Pen, whose party has been financially supported by Russian sources, claims that Russia is “a natural ally of Europe,” and that in the crisis following the annexation of Crimea and the fighting of troops in eastern Ukraine the EU has been behaving “like American lackeys.”

At the beginning of the financial crisis, Obama tried to win the presidential election with the slogan “Yes, we can” (initially he apparently thought that it was “too corny”). At the height of the refugee crisis, Merkel came up with a similar slogan, “Wir schaffen das,” “We can manage it.” Both leaders gave a gigantic hostage to fortune, because there really is a limit to the extent to which modern states can solve complex problems. But the alternative—thinking that all solutions are flawed, and that our democratic governing systems are irredeemably corrupt—is a recipe for the resurrection of all the evil spirits of the past.


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Harold James, Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, is Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, and the director of the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society.

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