How to contain the hard right

The question is, why do even the most enlightened liberals such as Fawcett and Barnett not really try to offer a set of specific policies to forge a liberal comeback?

Jan Zielonka
28 April 2018
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Beppe Grillo during election tour of M5S, March 4, 2018 – a "mysterious political object". What do we actually think? NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Jan Zielonka joins the debate initiated by Edmund Fawcett this April by calling for ‘cross-spectrum cooperation’ to frustrate the hard right threat to democratic liberalism, with a challenge both to Fawcett and Anthony Barnett.

The essays of Edmund Fawcett and Anthony Barnett are music to the ears of all liberals. We are a force for good, and the hard right are and always were a force for evil. We must stop them, whatever it takes. If need be, we should unite with other political forces to stop the hard right's surge to power.

Things get more complicated when we start talking about details. Who are we fighting against? Fawcett’s category of the hard right is very broad and includes a mixture of socially permissive libertarians and nativist conservatives. This categorisation may work well for the US and the UK, but I am not sure it works for many other Western countries, let alone those in Asia or Latin America.

Where shall we place Beppe Grillo in Italy or Thierry Baudet in Holland? Are they foes or potential allies in the struggle against the hard right? Should the Italian (centre-left) Democratic Party forge an alliance with Grillo’s Five Star Movement to prevent the Northern League coming to power?

A well-known expert on far right populism, Cas Mudde, went even further. On the eve of the recent Hungarian elections, he stunned his former colleagues at the Central European University in Budapest by advocating a tactical alliance between the socialists and the “reformed” (fascist) Jobbik against Viktor Orban.1

Clearly these questions must be resolved. There is a difference between politicians scolding the legacy of the liberal reign and those advocating racial purity or political violence. We need to choose our foes and allies carefully.

Liberal betrayal

This brings me to the second complication. Anti-liberal policies cannot be solely attributed to the hard right, however we define them. Inequalities have been tolerated, if not generated, by politicians who have called themselves liberals. Tony Blair cannot be labelled as hard right, and yet he invaded Iraq without a UN mandate. Angela Merkel, the bastion of liberals against the AvD, has imposed inhumane condition upon poor Greeks and stoked a rather illiberal deal on refugees with Turkey’s dictator. I could produce multiple, similar examples.

Both Fawcett and Barnett admit liberal mistakes, but stop short of asking why, in one country after another, voters have deserted liberals. Has the liberal project proved faulty, or merely its implementation turned opaque? I think (or should I say, hope) the latter; and if so we ought to discuss which liberal ideals have been betrayed, and by whom. In other words, as liberals we should first look in the mirror and not just castigate our political opponents. We ought to ask what went wrong under our reign, and how to regain the voters’ trust. In other words, as liberals we should first look in the mirror and not just castigate our political opponents.

This trust will not be regained by manipulating electoral laws or through scare campaigns. The former was tried by Matteo Renzi ahead of the last Italian elections, and the latter attempted by the Remain camp in the British referendum. We know the results.

Sex appeal

This brings me to the third, and most formidable, complication: How to make liberalism attractive for the twenty-first century? Fawcett and Barnett rightly point out that there is no way back; the clock cannot be turned back for liberals. But do we have a plausible, let alone sexy program to win back voters? Liberals tend to think that the hard right's proposals are dangerous rubbish. Do we, liberals, have anything better to offer voters than nostalgia for past glory?


A prospective ally for liberals? Anti-Orban electoral campaign poster for Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, in Miskolc, March 30, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.If we admit that there was too much freedom and too little justice under our reign, are we prepared to clamp down on those who took advantage of this imbalance? Do we want and know how to tax financial services and powerful transnational corporations such as Google and Facebook?

Are we in favour of rebuilding welfare systems, even at the price of greater indebtedness? Should those who abused tax loopholes and legal permissiveness be sent to prison? If we believe that the private sphere has taken advantage of the public sphere under our reign, should we propose re-nationalisation?

Which public agency do we want to strengthen: municipal, regional, national or European? Can power and money be shifted to institutions which citizens cannot control? If we admit that our immigration policy has not been truly liberal, are we ready to offer citizenship to all “foreign” residents across Europe? Do we want to spend more money on development aid, or on helping our local impoverished communities? What is the liberal response to terrorism?

Needless to say, we do not have answers to these questions, at least not yet. We can insist, as Fawcett and Barnett do, that our future policies ought to be guided by the liberal values of tolerance, freedom, the rule of law, minority rights and dialogue – but citizens expect specific measures to make them feel secure and prosperous. Citizens expect specific measures to make them feel secure and prosperous.

No wonder the hard right is winning

Of course, it is easier to talk about the past rather than future policies. It is easier to criticize political opponents than to offer plausible alternatives to their programs.

The question is, why do even the most enlightened liberals such as Fawcett and Barnett not really try to offer a set of specific policies to forge a liberal comeback? They write eloquently about our opponents’ vices. Yet they fail to offer a similarly convincing picture regarding our virtues: what are the alternative solutions for progress, security and co-existence, that deserve to be called liberal?

If liberals want to forge an alliance with the left, as Fawcett suggests, then the questions regarding the common program become pertinent. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto envisages limited renationalisation, a state investment bank, £250 billion borrowing program, and a £50 billion tax redistribution plan. Are liberals happy to endorse this package? I hope they are, or else they can forget about a common front against the hard right. Beppe Grillo’s manifesto envisages a so-called “reddito citadinaza;” a cash injection to all unemployed Italians in a debt stricken country. Are liberals happy to support this initiative (and cross the EU) in an attempt to arrest the Northern League’s ascent to power? Matteo Renzi seems more than happy to go to bed with Sylvio Berlusconi rather than with Beppe Grillo, who is a mysterious political object. Jeremy Corbyn is even attacked by a large number of his own Labour MPs. A hero of contemporary liberals, Emmanuel Macron, is closer to Donald Trump than to Beppe Grillo or Jeremy Corbyn. This is contemporary liberal politics in action. No wonder the hard right is winning. This is contemporary liberal politics in action. No wonder the hard right is winning.

More than one cocktail

Liberals must re-think what they stand for and how they differ not only from the hard right, but also from each other. A cocktail of an accidental set of values, programs, and policies, united only by the need to survive the anti-liberal offensive, is a recipe for disaster. Pretending that this cocktail represents the only “correct” liberal vision is false and politically damaging.

I strongly believe that the new version of an open society should take into account the plurality, heterogeneity, and hybridity of a Europe shaped by globalisation, but I know that some of my liberal friends fear that this would lead to chaos, free riding, and conflict. I am in favour of embracing technological innovation and employing it for the service of an open society, but it is hard to deny that the internet is also being used as a tool of propaganda and repression. Machines will perform many jobs more cheaply and better than humans, but they may also leave many people with no prospect of employment. I look at migrants as a cultural and economic asset, but this does not mean that those who demand a set of stricter conditions to govern migration are wrong. We need to debate all these complex if not controversial issues.

Tighten our seatbelts

We need to debate all these complex if not controversial issues, and search for practical solutions reflecting such core liberal values as openness and tolerance, individual rights and welfare; restraint, inclusiveness and fairness. This will require time, effort and imagination, but I believe in a “happy ending” after a period of political turbulence. In the meantime, we need to fasten our seatbelts. It will be pretty bumpy ride for some years.

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