2019: The Year the Far Right Sustainably Surged in Europe and Why It Will Keep Growing
In 2019, Europe was once again spared from an overt rise of stereotypical “brownshirts”. Yet, diverse as it is, the far right is bound to keep growing because its two major root causes are not being addressed by the political mainstream.
Hands down, the most crucial development of 2019 as far as the entirety of the European Union is concerned has been the seemingly sustainable and stable surge of the far right.
It is true that the greatest fears about the European far right failed to materialize in 2019. That in turn has led many from the democratic mainstream to calm dawn and wishful-thinkingly begin dismissing some of their otherwise well-founded fears. (So have some of the main culprits for the rising popularity of the far right – the far left / pseudo-liberal / cultural Marxist ideologues.)
Indeed, 2019, a year of EU elections as well as numerous other polls in many member states, a far-right nightmare didn’t storm the Union or any EU member country.
The fact that the worst fears didn’t materialize in 2019, however, shouldn’t blind anybody to what really happened. The far right kept on rising and growing all across the continent in a semi-noticeable fashion. That is actually more dangerous that if it had come as an avalanche. A gradual and sustainable rise has a far easier time blunting everyone’s senses.
And, as otherwise misguided “cultural Marxists” hopefully are aware, “quantitative accruals lead to qualitative changes”, as per Grandpa Marx’s now semi-legendary, semi-ridiculous dictum.
Think about what happened in 2019.
In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party kept scoring second places in regional elections, and its popularity has been on the rise not just in the “atavistic”, widely vilified former East Germany. Even the seemingly neo-Nazi NDP (“National Democratic Party of Germany”) was featured publically somewhat more prominently in 2019.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally – Front – whatever – beat Macron’s centrist movement in the 2019 EU elections. (Just two years ago, Macron managed to beat Le Pen in France’s presidential elections. However categorical that win was, it is still telling that it was replay of the 2002 French presidential elections when the entire democratic political specter rallied behind Jacques Chirac to make sure that Le Pen Sr. didn’t win. Before the far-right candidate eventually wins?)
In Spain, Vox made a breakthrough in a general election for the first time in April, and by November, in a repeat general election, it had become Spain’s third largest political party.
In Italy, the far-right League almost came to power through its leader Matteo Salvini’s parliamentary gambit in August – which didn’t pay off this time but seems doomed to do so at some point in the future.
In the more easily dismissed Eastern European part of the EU, Poland’s ruling (extreme) conservatives won another resounding parliamentary victory in 2019. The fact that non-conservative, pro-democratic candidates have won mayoral races in capital cities in several Central European states has come as little consolation against the backdrop of the often unnecessarily perplexing policies and moves by the “illiberal democracy” regimes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, with the oligarchy quagmire surrounding Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the otherwise exemplary Czech Republic to spice things up.
It is true that the “far right” is today’s Europe is way too broad and loose a term: it includes everything – from purely evil neo-Nazis to pro-democracy conservatives and pro-EU nationalists, all the way to whatever European versions of the American Christian right exist out there.
Precisely because of that the rise of a political force or movement termed “far right” might not always have to be a cause of alarm.
It is fully possible that some formations labeled “far-right” by their opponents might be fair and useful, raising legitimate concerns over the excesses of neo-liberal, extreme liberal, and sometimes even pseudo-liberal paradigms in the post-Cold War West. Because excesses there have been, and denying that is a likely indicator of incurable bias.
A bunch of articles in reputable European media appeared in the second part of 2019 seeking to draw a distinction between the “bad far right” and those far-right entities that could be “tolerable”, “possible to work with”, or even “good”.
So bundling together everything described as “far-right” and attacking it as “fascist” would be just as grave a mistake as failing to stay alert, if not alarmed, and shrewdly analytical about the steady rise of the wider far right throughout the EU. Which is precisely the kind of development we witnessed across Europe in 2019.
Whatever “tolerable” or even maybe “decent” “far-right” political forces might happen to exist out there, though, it would have clearly been better for Europe if their rise had not come into being, and, respectively, if the root causes generously feeding that rise had not been there in the first place!
Anybody who thinks that the far right shouldn’t be there, should also be able to admit that so shouldn’t the causes driving its growth.
20th Century European history demonstrates that the far right is a highly reactionary political phenomenon. That does not condone or justify those surrendering their souls to its evil reincarnations but it is also no excuse for failing to understand its reactionary nature.
It is probably correct to assume that most or at least a sufficient number of people, Europeans in our case, are bigots at least on some level. That they are weary of those different from them. That most or at least many people are shallow and superficial. It’s probably basic human nature that there is no escaping from: just like geography, technology, and the power of ideas.
And, yet, while most or many people might be shallow, superficial, or even bigoted, are they also evil racists, nationalists, chauvinists (in the real sense of the word), extremists?
Probably not. Most people would prefer to go about their everyday lives without getting involved into questionable political action. So going from the former quality to the latter condition is a socio-political pathology. That pathology is often a helpless, though condemnable, reaction to developments those individuals finds unfathomable, irrational, inexplicable, or even unjust and unfair, as per their own perception.
Enter the modern-day totalitarianism of the highly questionable “cultural left” and “pseudo-liberalism” with its shocking political correctness censorship and shaming. (Often resulting from the never-ending “transponding” of America’s “identity politics” realities on European soil.)
Modern-day Western totalitarianism of thought is especially striking to you if you happen to come from former communist Eastern Europe where violating the one-time political correctness of the murderous communist dictatorships would easily get you killed, sent to a labor camp, or at least severely beaten up and tortured in a local police station for several days.
The latter is the real fate of a once talented local poet in a provincial town in North Bulgaria who ended up with severe mental health problems as a result of police torture after some low-level critique of the communist regime, a man who was then roaming the streets for decades, talking to himself, until he eventually passed away a few years ago, hopefully finding peace from a lifetime of suffering.
I myself had a very tiny (luckily) yet very relevant experience in that regard. Some time in 1989 or 1990 when I was 5 or 6, I heard a joke in the street about Bulgaria’s then outgoing communist dictator, and I was immediately shushed at home when I decided to share it, not even really knowing what it meant or what could follow…
Looking back, now we know that at the time the “times had been-a-changing”, but back then nobody could know for sure when the secret police would knock down the door, or the tanks would be called up to crush rally in downtown Sofia, as was nearly the case in December 1989.
Then fast forward to 2004 when I was a freshman at college in the U.S. and thought I’d share some Bulgarian jokes with some classmates – and I got shushed immediately by them in a well-intentioned gesture because those jokes could be offensive to someone, in order words, they could be considered “politically incorrect”, in spite of me not even really knowing what they meant or what could follow…
That is why Eastern Europe’s experience is so crucial for today’s West”: when the communist hell ended, and you “re-integrated” with the West, the world of freedom and democracy”, you got to discover that there was censoring political correctness well in place there as well.
Breaking it (knowingly or unknowingly – it doesn’t matter for its self-appointed “1984 thought police” censors) (probably) won’t get you killed or beaten up but it would get you shamed, disgraced, annihilated all over the Internet and the ubiquitous “(anti-)social media”. (“It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter,” Joker director Todd Phillips put it recently.)
This whole “identity politics” development where somebody would invariably get offended, and would scream bloody murder all over “social media” has taken anti-democratic political correctness censorship to a whole new extreme level. Unfortunately, the proponents of “identity politics” tend to direct it towards minorities, and tend to forget that the majorities also happen to have “identities”. And when those majorities finally decide their identity gets threatened, that’s a recipe for disaster.
One gets the feeling that these paradigms are turning the West into the laughing stock of much of the rest of the world (where the last thing regimes, political movements, and even individuals would care about would be somebody’s hurt feelings).
This setup has come as a shock to many well-meaning, pro-Western, pro-democratic, pro-freedom, pro-human rights Eastern Europeans who have had the communism experience, and seems to be causing growing disgruntlement among Western European publics as well – despite the fact that it emerged gradually, and the Western European societies have had no “communism dictatorship” experience to compare it with.
Couple that unsettling setup with current economic factors generating galloping inequality growth, enriching the One Percent beyond any imagination, annihilating the middle class, and utterly crushing the lower or working class – and you got yourselves a recipe for new Hitlers and Mussolinis.
Against that scary backdrop, it might even be deemed lucky nobody more radical hasn’t come to power in at least some European nation-state yet. And it is now known that the eager far-right bunch, of Marine Le Pen’s type, no longer wants to destroy the EU but wants to conquer it. (Through democratic, parliamentarian means. Wasn’t that how Hitler did it?).
The steady, sustainable rise of the far right across Europe isn’t just about worsening socio-economic conditions, oftentimes a favorite explanation for various kinds of extremes such as terrorism. Social conditions are just a part of the mix. It’s never just about “the economy, stupid.”
Even in the US of A, which has now inflicted Trump not just upon itself but also upon the rest of the world.
Perhaps the saddest part about Trump’s rise has to do with who preceded him, if we still remember. Remember Obama? Remember all the celebratory talk about a “post-racial society” with the election, twice, of America’s first black President?
Then came Trump. How did America go from Obama to Trump in one night? Didn’t the rise of Trump negate whatever social progress Obama’s election stood for? Many would object that Trump is just a temporary lapse, a reaction of a group that is dying off. Which would be a horrible way to put it. And probably the wrong way.
Unfortunately, America and the Europe that’s heavily influenced by it don’t feel like anything “post-racial”. They feel like a constant replay of that hard-to-watch 2005 film, “Crash”.
The mix of causes of the sustainable growth of the far right (in Europe, in our case) is a complex and robust one, which in turn means it won’t go away by itself but will probably keep growing.
That is a cause for alarm even if the rise of the “far right” turns out to mean nothing more than a return to the times not so long ago when it wasn’t a deadly sin to inadvertently imagine a certain individual a certain way, without causing alleged irreparable offense to somebody else.
And denouncing the past purely from the point of the present is a flawed, risky business. It will surely lose you some lessons. As the Dalai Lama puts it, if you lose anything, don’t lose lessons.
Inequality keeps on worsening and the dominant Western political correctness paradigms are becoming ever more almighty, even aggressive, thanks to social media. Putting these two together can only mean more sustainable growth for the far right in Europe in the years to come. Plenty of reasons for indignation among the classes susceptible to far-right recruitment. Real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter with respect to the outcome. Plenty of developments to react to by resorting to extremes, and plenty of ways to justify those extremes.
The “brownshirts” are coming. It is a scary thought. They might be wearing nice suits or trailer trash jeans. Or be your average respectable disappearing middle class families. Far-right extremism will vary, already does, from wanting to ban abortion all the way to wanting “racial purity”.
In the meantime, the supposedly “responsible” political mainstream, those establishments – who have been irresponsible by giving in to their own ideological and financial extremes over the past 20-30 years, and are responsible for their own abject failure to preempt the causes of far-right rise – remain as clueless as ever in those preceding 2-3 decades.
For example, they just wonder why seemingly educated Austrian or French hipsters are swelling the ranks of an “identitarian” movement. Well, maybe those establishments had swung the pendulum too far to the left, and it is now coming swinging back to the right. But in that case is hoping that the pendulum doesn’t swing way too far to the right the only thing one can do?
With so much to feed the various forms of the far right there isn’t any escaping from the grim forecast that it won’t be too long before it conquers some very high ground such as the governments of entire EU member states, or even of the entire Union.
(Think of how Salvini need took over Italy in the summer of 2019. Then again, there is the debate how “far-right” Savlini really is. Does he want to become a new Mussolini, or is he just rightfully disgruntled over the tremendous influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants into Italy?)
Those who think that the relative but nonetheless marginal growth of Green parties and movements across the EU in 2019 actually eclipsed in importance the sustainable growth of the far right are right far from the truth.
But the most notable indicator of the rise of the far right and the prominence of the causes feeding it has been the electoral annihilation of the mainstream left throughout Europe – from the German regional elections all the way to the very specific case of the now clearly Brexiting UK where BoJo got to win constituencies that had been voting Labor for 100 years.
The best that Europe’s right-wing political mainstream is coming up with on tackling the far right’s growth is moving a further to the right and/or entering into coalitions with far-right parties – both to “steal their wind” and try to tone down the most extremist demands on their agenda. This “strategy” might have the short-term dividends of stopping far-right landslides here and there (for example, it has been employed somewhat successfully in Austria for a while by former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in Denmark, partly in the Netherlands, and even in some form in my native Bulgaria). But this strategy does have the disadvantage of making more publicly acceptable some far-right tenets and demands that might been unimaginable just a few years ago.
The leaders of the “brownshirts”, regardless of how brown their shirts are, metaphorically speaking, are well-aware the root causes of their popularity growth are deeply rooted and getting deeper. They are being “professional”: they are taking their time, and “getting the job done” in terms of sustaining their popularity growth until they get to win power. In parts and maybe even all of the EU. They have powerful potential allies abroad, from Russia all the way to India. How they would tackle all the various grave challenges once they win power is a whole other question.
Those causes, excesses and anomalies feeding the rise of the far right throughout Europe should not have been allowed to occur in the first place.
The only way to stem the growing far-right tide now would be to somehow miraculous crack down on growing inequality thus saving whatever is left of the European middle class, all the while dismantling or at least modifying tremendously the overarching Western political correctness paradigms and the censorship of thought which is already killing freedom of speech thus Western democracy.
Given the incredible amount of political capital, effort, and resolve either of those two feats would require, neither of those seems likely.
So better prepare to for a lot of face to face with the far right all across Europe.
And the far right’s face by default is usually not pretty.