In Europe’s Fault Lines, Liz Fekete exposes the links between neoliberal centrism, EU economic policy, and the rise of the far and fascist right, finds Martin Hall
Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines. Racism and the Rise of the Right (Verso 2018), ix, 214pp.
News came through at the end of May 2018 that Denmark has voted to ban the burqa and the niqab from being worn in public. In Europe, this adds them to a list that comprises France, Belgium and Austria; moreover, partial bans that prohibit the wearing of either or both garments in certain circumstances, including, but not limited to, the judiciary, schools, hospitals and public transport are in place in the Netherlands and Turkey. Furthermore, it is illegal in some parts of Spain and one canton in Switzerland, while some parts of Italy have banned Islamic women’s swimming costumes, popularly known as ‘burkini’. This is the environment into which Fekete’s book makes a welcome intervention.
Neoliberalism and the rise of the right
Fekete has two principal aims. Firstly, to provide an overview of the growth of far and extreme-right activity in recent years and to situate that within neoliberalism. Secondly, in so doing, she interrogates how the predominant form of capitalism on the continent has provided a friendly environment for the growth of the far right, accommodated and normalised this growth, and why. The second of the two aims is particularly incisive, as there is a tendency within some liberal critiques of racism and the rise of the far right to see the issue separately from the capitalist conditions that produce it, and to disavow the tendency of mainstream politics to shift to accommodate it.
The introduction sets out the volume’s aims via a brief discussion of the New Right, the importance of resistance, the role of the state, and, perhaps most usefully, some comments regarding terminology. This gives the reader a clear picture of what is to come and provides navigation through the designations ‘extreme right’, ‘hard right’ and ‘far right’, terms which are often used interchangeably by the corporate media. After this, the book is split into four sections, with each containing two chapters. The first chapter, entitled ‘The State of Play’, lays out the terrain upon which the far right has risen, and functions as an overview, providing the reader with a picture of them today: their aims; methods; groups and atrocities. Initially, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 killing of 77 people in Norway is used to outline to what the rise of the far right can lead. This atrocity is also linked to the commencement of wars in the Islamic world after the Cold War had ended.
This is followed by a précis of the actions of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany and Golden Dawn in Greece. These are neo-Nazi and fascist groups, and of course the Greek grouping was the first outright neo-Nazi party to gain a powerful presence in Europe since the 1970s, when the dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece had been overthrown. This brief discussion leads into a longer interrogation of various far-right and fascist groupings throughout the continent and what links them: Islamophobia.
Of particular interest is the section here on Strasserist and ‘third-position’ groups, who define themselves as both anti-capitalist and anti-Marxist. Fekete successfully teases out the similarities and differences between myriad groupings in the current far-right scenes, from ‘traditional ideological brands’ to the ‘fanatical fronts’ (p.17) that appear almost out of nowhere to attach themselves to specific causes, in particular when the overall political climate facilitates this. There is also an introductory section in the first chapter on privatised far-right security firms, particularly common in parts of eastern Germany, police actions in France against refugees, and their illegal counterpart, the vigilante and paramilitary militia groupings that have sprung up in Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The next chapter lays out the growth of the extreme right as an electoral force. The point is made that fascism was seen as an exception in both mainstream and academic discourse, a ‘problem at the margins of society’ (31); essentially, unconnected to mainstream politics and its increasing convergence with the extreme right on a variety of issues from the 1990s onwards. These convergences principally coalesced around refugees and asylum; social and employment rights for migrants and the War on Terror, with nativism growing in all branches of the right.
Failures of centrist politics
She also makes the point that the centre left cannot be let off the hook, citing New Labour’s ‘controls on immigration’ mug during the 2015 UK General Election as a contemporary example. While there was a pushback against the New Right and this trajectory during the mid-1990s – seen in, for example, the progressive reform of citizenship laws in some parts of the European Union – this has been a brief blip in a move ever rightwards. This tendency gathered steam following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and the subsequent coalitions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course, in various parts of the EU, the extreme right is in power at a local or national level: Front National mayors in France; Jobbik mayors in Hungary; the Sweden Democrats in southern parts of the country (they are currently polling 18.5% in the run up to elections in September, a projected increase of over 5% on their last results); Lega in the recent coalition government in Italy, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) having 94 seats in the Bundestag and representation in fourteen out of sixteen state parliaments. Much of this recent rise has been on the back of populist, anti-establishment rhetoric that mixes nativism with promises of economic protectionism, which is of course the formula that led Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 US presidential election.
A strong thread throughout the book is the confluence of positions taken on crime and punishment by the centre and the extreme right. This has seen an expansion of transnational policing; of torture and rendition; the militarisation of the streets and the marketisation of all this under the auspices of national governments and, indeed, the EU. This is given particular attention in chapter seven, ‘The Market in Asylum and the Outsourcing of Force’, which sets out the ways in which the borders of the EU and of some of the nation states within it have become militarised. The language used to justify this ranges from the blatant racism of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, to that used by leaders in the northern states, who tend to fall back on ‘the fiction that Europe is the continent of liberalism, generosity and the rule of law’ (p.152).
The European Union and refugee policies
All this is in the context of the EU striking a deal with Turkey that paid them three billion Euros for their part in interning Syrian refugees on their side, taking them once deported from the EU and attempting to close the Eastern Mediterranean route into it. This was implemented via a one-in, one-out system, so that for each refugee deported, one would be let in. This is part of an overall ‘good migrant/bad migrant’ binary approach, which has been implemented and encouraged in a number of ways across Europe, and which Fekete lays bare.
Chapter four, ‘Xeno-racism and the Making of “Enemy Aliens”’, sets up the deserving/undeserving distinction referred to above and describes the ways in which the legal status of migrants, refugees and the European-born children of immigrants has been called into question, destabilised, and (mis)represented in the media. Fekete describes how ‘ever more categories of people find themselves singled out for deportation, despite having previously enjoyed residence rights’ (p.76). This has happened through the creation of new criminal offences and the strict implementation of a raft of administrative ones. Furthermore, this creates separate forms of detention for asylum seekers and, indeed, discrete prison regimes for foreign-national offenders, all backed up by legal changes that underpin this move away from the principle of equality under the law.
A significant factor in the setting up of this environment has been the media’s increasing preoccupation with ‘foreigner crime’ (p.81) and the ways in which centre and extreme-right politicians have used the language employed and normalised by the corporate media to create a climate of outrage and indignation, particularly at election time. A particularly resonant example is the case from 1998 of the thirteen-year-old ‘terror kid’ (p.83) in Bavaria, known as ‘Mehmet’, as his real name is protected by data-protection laws.
The Christian Social Union (CSU) built their election campaign around migrant juvenile ‘delinquents’, using him as an example, despite Bavaria having one of the lowest crime rates in the whole of Germany. This led to Mehmet’s deportation that year, though he was returned in 2002 following an appeal to the Federal Administrative Court. When he returned, the newspaper Bild ‘carried the headline “Please spare us Mehmet”’ (p.83). Throughout the last two decades, headlines from that newspaper have given editorial support to a variety of political campaigns premised on the stigmatisation of migrant offenders. Similar stories are presented from a variety of countries, one example being Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy in the UK, which, of course, since publication has returned with a vengeance and created a major problem for a weak Tory government.
Replacing equality with assimilation
Perhaps the most important chapter in setting out how all of this has happened is number three, ‘Establishing Norms: The Cultural Revolution from the Right’. She sees the ‘centrality of the New Right’ (p.58) and a shift in language and interpretation of issues connected to immigration as key. This marks the beginning of a process of the ‘othering’ of certain communities via a move away from discussions of race, pluralism and inclusivity toward one of culture and identity. The controlling narrative behind this, on both the centre right and centre left, is a move away from discourses of integration to one of assimilation.
This has meant that any duty of care previously recognised by governments regarding an equality agenda has been replaced by one that privileges the ‘values’ of the country concerned, and attempts ‘a subsumption of the minority under the majority’ (Ambalavaner Sivanandan, cited in Fekete, p.69). She talks about the differing ways in which this approach has seeped through and been implemented, and makes efficacious points regarding the specificities of the countries involved, and how this discourse has been tailored to meet them. All of this has taken place via the politics of austerity, which has used the financial crash of 2008 as a springboard for further erosion of organisations set up to promote diversity and equality.
The extreme centre and the normalisation of the far right
In terms of the ways in which far-right discourse is represented and indeed normalised, there is a tendency in centrist discussions of the rise of the extreme and far right to see it as an anomaly, distinct from mainstream discourse. This approach tends to be in tandem with tarring the far left and far right with the same brush via ‘horseshoe theory’: the belief that both ends of the political spectrum bend around to each other and essentially meet on a platform of extremism, particularly when neoliberalism is deemed to be under threat from both left and right.
This has been seen recently in attempts in France to connect the radical-left party France Insoumise and the extreme-right Front National via a supposed shared Euroscepticism and anti-Semitism. In Britain, this battle is playing out via the media inches given to centrist politicians who wish to suggest that Labour’s Brexit policy is the same as the Tories’ or UKIP’s, and via the ongoing campaign to present Labour as having a specific problem with anti-Semitism. The catch-all employed by the corporate media and politicians is ‘populism’, which allows for the conjoining of policies that threaten the established dogma that are as distinct as renationalisation programmes and the forced repatriation of migrants.
The most extreme example of increased authoritarianism from the supposedly liberal centre is, of course, the treatment of Greece at the hands of the Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund – which has reduced the country to a vassal state of the EU, forced into selling off much of its assets. After Syriza won the election in 2015 on a mandate of debt relief, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, saw no contradiction in telling the world that ‘[e]lections change nothing. There are rules’ (p.53). Since publication, a similar comment has been made regarding the situation in Italy, where a combination of a genuinely populist and an extreme-right party have formed a coalition. Günther Oettinger, an EU commissioner, has stated that ‘the markets will teach the Italians to vote for the right thing’, though he has been forced to apologise.
EU economic policy and the rise of the right
Section three, split into chapters five and six, examines the fallout of all of this. The first of these chapters is dedicated to the EU and the nationalist backlash against its uneven development. Among other things, the ‘free-market economic shock therapy’ (p.97) that followed the entry into the EU of the former Eastern-bloc countries is examined. This involved the wiping out of state manufacturing, the introduction of privatisation and separate and beneficial tax regimes for foreign companies investing in these countries. She makes the point that ‘the transition from a command economy to a market economy failed by any criteria’ (p.97). The elites in these countries initially bought into the programme, but ‘since the financial crisis of 2008, it has become blindingly obvious that wealth, far from trickling down, is cascading upwards’ (p.98).
This has led to an array of extreme-right parties gaining ground and indeed power, taking advantage of ‘the comfort of the sticking-plaster of nationalism’ (p.99). Of particular interest is the section on ‘memory wars’, which Fekete sees as ‘a continuation of the New Right’s culture wars’ (p.100). In Poland, Hungary and Spain, revisionist history is being propagated, which, to give one example, pushes the idea that Hungary was a victim of the German occupation toward the end of World War II, while attempting to efface its status as an Axis power from 1940 onwards. This has also seen the erection of statues of anti-Semitic politicians from the era, and concerted attacks on the archive of Jewish Hungarian Marxist György Lukács, and the Central European University, founded by Jewish Hungarian American George Soros. In addition, the patronage of the government is being given to the Veritas Institute (Institute of Truth), whose historians have sought to minimise perceptions of the role of Hungary in the killing of its Jews during the Holocaust.
Such activity is not limited to the post-communist countries. In Austria and Germany, extreme and far-right parties have been successful in recent years, and there has been a return of ‘Völkisch Populism’ (p.107), predicated upon well-known theories of pan-German nationalism that connect the people to the land, and which underpinned Nazism. This has been heightened by ‘the German perception that it foots the bills and assumes the burden of leadership’ (p.106) in the European Union. This is a somewhat ironic belief given that ‘Germany’s attempt to impose its model on the whole of Europe has been a major cause of the fractures that threaten the EU’ in the first place (p.106). Of course, the Eurozone is a monetary union that favours the interests of German manufacturing. Similarly, the post-war dictatorships of southern Europe have left a legacy of nationalism that has been singularly revivified by the economic problems of those countries, leading to the growth of a ‘defensive nationalism’ (p.109) in the context of German hegemony.
It is in this chapter that Fekete analyses Brexit in some depth. While her analysis of the content of the campaigns is certainly correct, she perhaps gives too much credit to the effect of those xenophobic and racist campaigns as primary factors in the result. It is important when analysing such seismic results not to fall into the trap of utilising a hypodermic-needle model that assumes that people are empty vessels, deprived of agency, and simply open to all the worst sorts of propagandising.
She does discuss the effects of neoliberalism on the communities that voted in largest numbers to leave, but does not discuss the electoral make-up of those areas, nor mention that very many of them returned Labour MPs the year after in the General Election, and in so doing voted for the most radical manifesto currently on offer from a mainstream social-democratic party in Europe. Of course, the book’s aim is not to discuss in detail where the left is today in Europe, but the lack of any sense of Brexit as contested and a complex of factors is perhaps the only weak point in it.
State solutions for right extremism
Chapter six, entitled ‘White Grievance and the Cult of Exit’, provides the reader with a detailed overview of the various strategies employed by governments to return white supremacists to mainstream society and compares these with the treatment of those accused of Islamic terrorism. Along with this is a description of attempts within the mainstream to normalise white racists’ positions by suggesting that they have something specific about which to be aggrieved. This includes a tactic of using the term ‘white working class’ to suggest a discrete category, which also creates a discourse which does not allow for a consideration of capitalism’s effect upon disadvantaged communities. This approach takes off the agenda a discussion of ‘multicultural working-class communities, experiencing the same problems of industrial flight and neoliberal abandonment’ (p.131).
Along with this, there has been the growth of an industry of anti-extremism; another example of the marketisation of crime and ideology that is woven throughout the volume. Part of this marketisation is the overt disavowal of ideology as a factor in the actions of white supremacists, who are routinely medicalised as part of an attempt to put down to psychology the ‘longstanding political problem of fascism within European societies’ (p.134). Exit and other private-sector networks such as Against Violent Extremism (AVE) attempt to push skinheads into fun activities and see them as simply street gangs – a social problem, not a political one – with grievances that need to be addressed and understood.
Exit in Sweden even took youths on trips to white-power music concerts, insisting that they were ‘fine lads’ evincing a ‘positive nationalism’ (p.136). Even more worryingly, the security services in many countries took on members of fascist groups as informers, and may well have turned a blind eye to terrorist activities, including murder. One particularly striking example given is that of Tino Brandt, a fascist in Thuringia in Germany, who was recruited by the security services and later given a prison sentence for over sixty cases of sexual abuse of minors, including rape. The file on his time as an informer has been reported missing.
Resistance and strategies for the left
Having presented a very troubling picture throughout, Fekete ends on a positive note of resistance in her last chapter, ‘They Shall Not Pass’, where, as an opposition to the rise of the forces that she has been discussing, and the prevalence of their ideas, she talks about how ‘deeply rooted in European culture … are humanitarian, anti-fascist and socialist ones’ (p.175). Much of the discourse in the corporate media presents the current political battle as between globalisation and nationalism, and, as suggested above, tends to put recent leftist developments within the latter, as part of its strategy of rebuilding the centre and limiting discussion of genuinely anti-capitalist alternatives.
She uses the anti-fascist slogan ‘No pasarán’ to talk about how socialists must press for democratic renewal via defending cultural pluralism and its roots in local communities. She makes good points about a cultural revolution from the left, within the context of building networks of solidarity that would strengthen the resistance of local communities to racism and far-right intimidation. Within this, of particular importance is her situating of the need of anti-fascism to provide ‘an understanding of the relationship between fascism, war, militarism and securitisation’ (p.177), along with suggesting that campaigners for refugees are the contemporary equivalent of the last century’s conscientious objectors.
She ends by discussing the need for empathy as a basic foundation and weapon against the increased marketisation of society and argues for a broad coalition of campaigners and a vocabulary that utilises the best of the past while understanding the need to develop ‘a syntax to shock people out of complacency’ (p.181). This is all true, but we also need tactics to win over the majority of the working class to redistributive economic policies that are predicated upon seeing it as a whole, not as a discrete network of identities and interest groups. Local activism is important, but there needs to be national-scale political leadership that can make a wider case for a different economic model that addresses the needs of the working class. In short, politics must always take primacy. Without that dimension, campaigns can become fractured, and while Fekete does discuss the limits of identity politics, it is through larger-scale mobilisation that those limitations can be overcome.
Having said that, this book is a perspicacious enquiry into the ‘fomenting of a reactionary cultural revolution’ (p.1) over the last few decades and provides the reader with a clear picture of the state of political play in Europe, in particular the extent to which neoliberalism has been a fertile ground for reaction, in a world where the market has gained access to more and more aspects of life, and in so doing provoked the most monstrous reactions.
 Fekete states that ‘an estimated 71,500 pieces of prime public property have so far been sold to pay off Greek debts’ (111).
More articles from this author
- The Tories and the directions of travel
- Leaving the EU: this is about what sort of society we want – and it isn’t Johnson’s
- The true colours of the Brexit Party
- Labour’s Brexit slide
- The Coming of the American Behemoth - book review
- Johnson's Cabinet: a turn right and no resolution in sight
- The Millbank Militants: the forces behind People's Vote