President Macron visits s migrant center, Croisilles, with French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb (right),January 2018. Pool/Press Association. All rights reserved.
« Hello, dictator! » The president of the European commission thus welcomed the Hungarian Prime Minister to the Riga summit in 2015. If Senator John McCain had caused a diplomatic incident earlier when he called Viktor Orbán a “neo-fascist dictator”, this was just friendly banter for Jean-Claude Juncker. The contrast in tone of the diktats imposed upon Greece at the very same time by the Eurogroup was striking: austerity is no joking matter. Just before Syriza came to power, German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schaüble warned that “new elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into.” For the EU, there is nothing funny about neoliberalism: economics is too important to be left to the people. Democracy, however, is worth a good laugh. The burlesque scene in Latvia recalls another instance of slapstick: in The Great Dictator, Mussolini slaps Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler on the back: “my brother dictator!” There is nothing funny about neoliberalism: economics is too important to be left to the people. Democracy, however, is worth a good laugh.
How can we make sense jointly of these two simultaneous phenomena – the rise of the far right, in Europe and elsewhere, and the authoritarian evolution of neoliberal regimes? On the one hand, we have white supremacy and political xenophobia, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán or Matteo Salvini. On the other, what can be called “democratic coups”. Remember Greece? #ThisIsACoup: the “democratic” variation of the coup requires “banks, not tanks.” The same applies to Brazil, from Dilma to Lula: a military coup was not needed; parliamentary votes and judicial decisions do the job. Of course, police violence can still play an important role in the repression of the social movements that resist neoliberal reforms: France is a case in point. On both sides, public liberties are thereby losing ground.
Moreover, there is nothing incompatible between neoliberal policies and far right politics: the EU has now accepted far-right governments. Compare 2000, with the sanctions against Jorg Haider’s Austria, to 2018, with Sebastian Kurz presiding over the Council of the European Union. Democracy is not a political criterion any longer. The EU thus subcontracts the handling of the refugee crisis to Erdoğan’s Turkey and to Libya’s mafia-like coastguards. Again, France is no exception, especially when it comes to migrants. It is true that Macron applauded when Trump, under pressure from all sides, decided to drop his policy of separating undocumented aliens from their children; but the consequence is that the US will follow the example of France: children sent with their parents to detention centers.
Sure, after the far-right Lega came to power in Italy, Macron warned against the contagious populist “leprosy” spreading throughout Europe. But while both actions were illegal when Génération Identitaire, the same alt-right group that patrolled the Mediterranean to hunt down humanitarian NGOs during the previous summer, decided in April 2018 to take control of the French-Italian border to send back refugees, the authorities (whether French, Italian, or European) condoned both. Not only were they not prosecuted, but those who demonstrated against them in Briançon were – just as NGOs rescuing migrants at sea had been a year earlier in Sicily. In France, activists supporting migrant rights like Cédric Herrou are exposed to judicial harassment – though the July 6 decision of the Constitutional Council might finally put an end to this so-called “crime of solidarity” in the name of the Republican principle of “fraternity.”
Macron may have denounced Italian politicians who “betray asylum”; but his speech was delivered just as the French Senate was debating his Interior Minister Gérard Collomb’s bill restricting asylum rights. Indeed, he also raged against those who “lecture self-righteously” about solidarity with migrants: “look abroad!” That is the true meaning of the Italian reference in Macron’s discourse: French immigration policies could be so much worse – think of Salvini! In solidarity with the new Spanish Premier, Pedro Sanchez, Macron went so far as to propose sanctions against European States who lack European solidarity. But France had just refused to open its ports to the Aquarius rejected by Italy, and finally welcomed in Spain. Never mind contradictions: Macron soon went on to borrow Salvini’s words, accusing NGOs of “playing into the hands” of human traffickers. The French president ostensibly rejects the temptation of “illiberal democracies” such as Poland and Hungary – but Europhobes no longer have a monopoly on political xenophobia. These days, Europhiles often follow suit. The French president is the perfect embodiment of what can be called “neoliberal illiberalism”. Europhobes no longer have a monopoly on political xenophobia. These days, Europhiles often follow suit.
“Leprosy” and neo-fascism
How are we to define today’s “leprosy”? Chantal Mouffe’s “populist moment” won’t do if we are to take into account both sides of the coin. The philosopher advocates left-wing populism in response to right-wing populism: according to her, both have a “democratic nucleus” since they are both responses to “the demands of the popular sectors,” “from the groups who are the main losers of neoliberal globalization.” One could argue (as I have) about the “popular” vote for Trump. But in any case, today, not only can we see that neoliberal leaders like Macron have no qualms about mobilizing xenophobia, but conversely, populist leaders such as Trump, Orbán, or Erdoğan, promote neoliberal policies. This is why it seems misleading to argue that voting for right-wing populists is “the expression of resistances against the post-democratic condition brought about by thirty years of neoliberal hegemony.”
Contrary to Mouffe who refuses “classifying right-wing populist parties as ‘extreme-right’ or ‘neo-fascist’,” I argue that it makes sense to speak of a “neo-fascist moment” of neoliberalism. Today, we encounter familiar features of historical fascism – such as racism and xenophobia, of course, but also the blurring of boundaries between right and left, the fascination for charismatic leaders and the celebration of the nation, the rejection of elites and the glorification of the masses, contempt for the rule of law and a taste for violence, to name but a few. Contrary to Mouffe who refuses “classifying right-wing populist parties as ‘extreme-right’ or ‘neo-fascist’,” I argue that it makes sense to speak of a “neo-fascist moment” of neoliberalism.
It is interesting to read in this light Cornel West’s immediate reaction after Trump’s election. To explain this neo-fascist resurgence, the philosopher pointed out the responsibility of neoliberal economic policies, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, that Hillary Clinton was about to continue: who could disagree? But he also writes: “The neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neo-fascist bang.” Who can believe that Trump’s neo-fascism put an end to neoliberal policies? Certainly not Wall Street.
Contrary to West, Wendy Brown rejects the historical comparison with fascism, and continues favouring an interpretation in the light of the “stealth revolution” of neoliberalism that she has powerfully analyzed as an “undoing of the demos”. According to this political scientist, “despite some resonances with 1930s fascism, this libertarian authoritarianism is a novel political formation, one that is an inadvertent effect of neoliberal rationality.” Such a formation “should not just be reduced to the idea of fascism or populism.”
This argument complements Robert Paxton’s: according to the great historian of Vichy, while “it is powerfully tempting to call the new president of the United States a fascist,” given all the “fascist staples” of the new regime, if one takes into account his economic libertarianism, it makes more sense to call him a “plutocrat.”
These are serious objections, because there are indeed real differences between historical fascism and today’s neo-fascism. But is this not the very definition of Weberian ideal-types, such as feudalism or bureaucracy? The terms we use to think about the social world are umbrella terms regrouping empirical realities from diverse historical contexts – because of their similarities, and despite their differences. That is how concepts work.
This is true of fascism or populism, as it is of capitalism or neoliberalism itself. As Wendy Brown rightly points out, Trump’s protectionism is but a neoliberal variation, just like German ordoliberalism can be approached as “the other neoliberalism”, despite differences with IMF ideology. In the same way as there are different forms of neoliberalism, distinct from but related to traditional economic liberalism, neo-fascism can be approached in its contemporary specificity with historical echoes. And instead of opposing the two readings (either neoliberalism or neo-fascism ?) – why not then think of a neo-fascist moment of neoliberalism?
An approach in terms of “moment” is a way to insist on the historical logic of such concepts. In other words, there is no necessary link between capitalism (today neoliberalism) and fascism (here neo-fascism) – any more than there is with democracy, of course, contrary to the dominant discourse after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One need only remember that Tony Blair and José Luis Zapatero, when they converted social democracy to neoliberalism, far from riding the xenophobic wave, advocated opening the borders to economic migrants. More recently, the German Chancellor was both “Kaiser Merkel” in the spring of 2015 (when imposing ordoliberal austerity on the Syriza government in Greece), and “Mutti Angela” in the fall (when she opened the borders to over a million Syrian refugees). Neoliberalism can go both ways. But these moments of liberal illiberalism seem to belong to the past. The German Chancellor was both “Kaiser Merkel” in the spring of 2015 ... and “Mutti Angela” in the fall.
Calling a spade a spade
Why speak of neo-fascism? The answer is pragmatic: because today we need to call a spade a spade. Refusing to name neo-fascism is a way to refuse acting against it. The theoretical scruples of a few can be used as a political pretext of inertia by the many. Euphemizing the harsh reality of contemporary neo-fascism can become an obstacle when we need to mobilize a kind of anti-fascism that, far from serving as a democratic alibi for current economic policies, clearly points out the responsibility of neoliberalism for the rise of neo-fascism. As a consequence, there is no need to entertain the illusion that populism, which is a symptom of neoliberalism, might be the cure against it. Conversely, we have to accept that neoliberals like Macron are no antidotes to the far right: his immigration policies are not fundamentally different from Salvini’s. Both defend “Fortress Europe”.
In a word, there is nothing anachronistic about singing “Bella Ciao” today – providing that we update its meaning: we should not reserve this anti-fascist treatment to the current Italian Minister of the Interior, head of the Lega. It equally applies to his predecessor, Marco Minniti, from the Democratic Party, and to his French colleague who left the Socialist Party for Macron’s movement, En Marche – although Gérard Collomb apparently complains that he is sick and tired of playing the role of a fascist.
Maybe these politicians need to be told what they are doing in so many words, in the hope, if not that their weariness might induce some seachange on their part, but that ideological clarity will help us develop alternative strategies.
A shorter version of this piece in French was published in Le Monde a month ago.
The Great Dictator.