Flying the nativist flag

Austerity has opened up rifts within the EU, with extreme-right nationalist parties gaining traction. But is it really viable to retreat into the comfort zone of the nation-state?

Liz Fekete
10 June 2016

Marine Le Pen, NdFrayssinet

Europe's centre-left parties, just like the centre right, have long since embraced neoliberalism. The shock-doctrine of austerity – embraced by social democrats, as the Greeks well know – has accelerated the neoliberal project, shrinking the welfare state, deregulating labour and privatising state assets.

But austerity also provides cover for an aggressive raid on post-war socially progressive politics. And the rolling back of 'social Europe', including, vitally, gains made in the field of racial justice, has opened up a space for extreme-right and ultra-nationalist parties to champion causes such as economic protectionism and zero tolerance towards migration. Fidesz (Hungary), Law and Justice (Poland), Freedom Party (Austria), Alternative for Germany, Sweden Democrats, Danish People's Party, UKIP, Front National (France) all position themselves as a counter-force to transnational neoliberal elites and wishy-washy multiculturalism. These parties are just some examples of the many Right parties flying the nativist flag and making electoral inroads.

But what exactly is the nationalists' vision? In the UK, it's easy to write off UKIP's Nigel Farage as a latter-day Enoch Powell, attempting to turn the imperial clock back to the 1940s when women were women and colonial subjects knew their place. But Farage, a former commodity broker, knows that global circuits of capital and finance are here to stay. What preoccupies the Farages of this world is not how to undo globalisation, but how to do it up in an authoritarian wrapper. Hence the extreme-Right's apparent admiration for the personal qualities of President Putin, who stands up for the Russian national interest and doesn't spend sleepless nights worrying about human rights.

In the nationalists' vision, the EU and the US are both mongrel entities, betraying the national interest, either through Stalinist-style bureaucracy (EU) or feeble federalism (USA). Free movement of labour is the nationalists' bugbear. Policies welcoming immigration are unpatriotic, since migration undermines the vital instincts and civilisational vigour of the nation-state. The limp multilingual Europeans, or the 'melting pot' Americans with their part-Kenyan Black president, are not the sort of transnational elites the nationalists would want their children to mix with.

Nor do nationalists approve of the neoliberal way of holding things together, through the seductive pull of radical individualism, and the freedom of consumerism. Social conservatism, pride in nation and identity are central to the political culture of nationalism, which demands a more regimented labour force, a state which aligns power and punishment, and a hierarchical national culture where citizens are obedient and troublesome minorities known their place, no more so than in Hungary.

Above all, nationalists don't want the free movement of labour to open up pathways to citizenship. But this anti-immigration stance comes with contradictions. With shrinking productivity, declining birth-rates and people living longer, Europe needs migrant workers in the service industries, for the care of children, the sick and the elderly. The question the nationalists foreground is how to keep migrants un-integrated, in menial tasks and exhausting labour, outside citizenship rights and excluded from social rights. In other words, how to make sure that the boundaries between the citizen-worker and the abject migrant are clearly delineated.

That is not to argue that the nationalist camp is all of a piece or that there aren't variations in European racism. On the contrary, this newly-reconfigured Right takes in a range of authoritarian traditions, from social conservatism to fascism, from radical right-wing populism to those who continue in the tradition of Franco. Nationalists in the older, core EU countries tend to veil their racism, speaking in code and double-speak. In the post-Communist Visegrad countries, the tired old language of authoritarianism, race and ethnicity is more up-front. Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who opposes all non-Christian migration to the EU, pushes the boundaries further than most. During commemorations of the 1848 Hungarian revolution against the Habsburgs on 8 March, Orbán declared, '[m]ass migration is a slow water which erodes the shore with a persistent flow. It masquerades as a humanitarian issue but its true nature is to occupy space.' Poland's Law and Justice party, ideologically close to Fidesz, has joined the Hungarian lawsuit at the European Court of Justice against the EU's mandatory refugee quota system. With the success in the first round of the Austrian presidential elections of Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer – who carries a gun to protect himself from refugees – the possibility now exists for an arc of radical nationalist power-brokers across east and central Europe.

And the poison has also spread to Germany, which sought in the post-war period to refashion its identity in Europe. Alternative for Germany (AfD) has strong support in the   former GDR, in regions experiencing a mix of economic stagnation, low birth rates and depopulation.  

Following a string of good election results – spreading westwards into Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hamburg, the AfD has increased its authority. AfD did not emerge from the murderous neo-nazi fringe that has long plagued post-war Germany. Many of its founders were former Christian Democrats and economists who boasted their 'courage to stand up for Germany' against the political correctness of a cosmopolitan elite.

AfD first rose to prominence on the back of a right-wing media campaign against the Greeks 'begging for our billions'. But since 2015, a new, younger, populist, less technocratic leadership associated with the Christian Right has taken control of the party. Many in the new intake are sympathetic to the Islamophobic street movement PEGIDA. Under the leadership of the entrepreneur Frauke Petry, the AfD has morphed into a far-right party and become more openly aggressive to minorities and vulnerable groups. Its members demand Swiss-style plebiscites on asylum-seekers, mosques and minarets, attack the burden that single mothers and the 'mentally handicapped' place on the economy, challenge adoption rights for lesbians and gays and argue that the police should be allowed to shoot refugees at the border. 'Islam is incompatible with the Constitution' is its latest campaigning slogan.

Authoritarian solutions are in and of themselves nothing new to neoliberalism. Power against and punishment of the weak and vulnerable is intrinsic to it, as seen, since the 1990s, for example, by the neoliberal abandonment of people with mental health or addiction problems and their incarceration within an ever-expanding penal state. But austerity has also opened up a new layer of neoliberal-inspired authoritarianism, as exemplified by President Hollande's attempt to bypass parliament and force through by decree an unpopular labour law aimed at dismantling rights and creating a flexible and precarious workforce. Extreme-right nationalists do not want to break with this authoritarian attitude to labour; on the contrary they want to enhance it, via more disciplining of labour, more workfare, more power to the police and the military, more punishment of delinquents, including a return of the death penalty, and moral disapproval of all those who lack 'human capital'. In this sense nationalism, far from representing a break with neoliberalism, could provide the climate that allows its final break with democracy.

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