FeaturedInternational Labor & Politics

Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neoliberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism

The current crisis of burgeoning right-wing populism in Europe is a multi-dimensional one comprising the decline of the political center made up of social democrats, Christian democrats, and liberals who have governed since the war. At the same time, the left and right poles of the spectrum are growing, though asymmetrically. While, in the elections held in the EU and Switzerland in 2015, 11 percent fell to the parties to the left of the social democrats and Greens,[1] the vote share of radical right parties reached 22 percent, and this trend is continuing in 2016 as seen in the elections held in four German states resulting in double-digit results for the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). So far, political scientists were convinced that the share of the vote right-wing parties can attain in Western Europe cannot exceed 30 percent. In contrast the leave-vote in the referendum in the UK shows that they can break through that ceiling, by capturing the political agenda and reaching out to constituencies which cannot be wholesale written off as right radicals.

The influence of right-wing radical parties in Western Europe

Surprisingly for many people, the recent successes of right-wing radical parties across Europe have put the working class back into the locus of wide-ranging analyses. The same working class that many political scientists until recently thought had exhausted its role is now being held responsible for the rise of the radical right.

At first sight, empirical research appears to confirm this new reality. Thus, according to analysis of Austria’s presidential election in May 2016, the share of working-class votes for the right-wing radical and nationalist Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs,

FPÖ) candidate amounted to 86 percent. [2] Analyses of France’s December 2015 regional elections reveals similar data.

Indeed there is much evidence that right-wing radical parties have made significant advances among the traditionally social democratic working-class electorate. However, these findings remain one-sided as long as the published investigations do not also reflect the vote shares in other segments of the electorate. In Austria’s presidential elections, the results which the FPÖ candidate achieved in agricultural and tourist regions demonstrate that he succeeded in penetrating a traditionally Catholic conservative segment of society, and the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse reported growing support for the FPÖ by members of the national lobbying group, the Association of Austrian Industrialists.[3]

Author and political commentator Richard Seymour draws a similar picture for England in describing the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as a genuine cross-class party that, acting like a wedge, has shifted national politics to the right. For the 2014 elections Seymour finds a roughly equal distribution of the party’s influence over broad social segments, so that one-quarter of the party’s support is made up of blue collar workers, one-quarter small entrepreneurs, one-quarter high-level managers, and one-quarter large-scale entrepreneurs.[4]

The rise of right-wing radical parties has complex causes, which include numerous political and cultural factors: Alongside fiscal crisis, precarity, and the middle strata’s fear of downward social mobility, there is the decline of social democratic parties; and the disillusionment over this —when the left fails to offer a credible radical alternative—ends all too easily by delivering people to the mills of the radical right. In her work on the French National Front party, left-wing author Elisabeth Gauthier pointed out that its high vote share is statistically and politically the result of electoral abstention and demobilization of a left disillusioned by the politics of the Parti Socialiste  (Socialist Party in France) and unfortunately also of the Front de Gauche (Left Front in France).

Here we have a sense of déjà vu, recalling the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who described the political crisis of the 1920s in Europe as an interregnum in which “the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe. . . .”

The Recent Austrian Experience

In the May 2016 Austrian presidential elections, Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing  Freedom Party of Austria earned 49.6 percent of the vote and came within a hair of being elected.  Had Hofer won, Austria would have been the first western European country to have elected an openly radical rightist as head of state. In one important detail, the Austrian FPÖ differs from other nationalist parties in Europe: Its nationalism does not relate to its own nation. As a representative of the German-National tendency of the Austrian right, it considers German-speaking Austrians to be part and parcel of the German “ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community”[5] which in itself not only contradicts Austria’s constitutional law, but also is out of synch with Europe’s post-war order.

But German nationalism and the affinity to the political doctrine of the Nazi Party of Germany National Socialism, alone do not explain the FPÖ’s ongoing success, which began in 1986. Insight into the complex causes of this development can be gleaned from a post-election poll published right after Vienna’s City Council elections in fall 2015.


The statement ‘Vienna is very livable’ was shared by (per cent):[6]
SPÖ (Austrian Socialist Party) voters 89
ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party (Christian Democratic)) voters 71
Green voters 94
NEOS (The New Austria and Liberal Forum) voters 81
FPÖ voters 30

In this off-year election, Vienna showed it was split in two. Whereas the voters of all parties appeared to feel comfortable in their city, 70 percent of FPÖ voters were not happy with their quality of life in the city. Here we see a de-facto monopoly by a right-wing radical party in representing the discontented in times of rising unemployment, growing fear of downward social mobility, and the growing precarity of living conditions .

A Europe-Wide Trend

The spectrum of far-right parties is multifaceted. In political science an important distinction is drawn between right-wing extremism and right-wing radicalism. Right-wing extremism indicates parties and groups that position themselves on the margin of the political spectrum, use violence, and in most cases relate ostentatiously to the tradition of National Socialism, that is, take up that party’s symbolism and rhetoric. They include Greece’s nationalist party Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik party, and the British National Party. In contrast to them, there are parties we call right-wing radical or right-wing populist which rhetorically distance themselves from extremism and claim to operate in the framework of parliamentary democracy. Modernized far-right parties camouflage their racism by the theory of ‘cultural difference’ thus trying to present themselves as a part of the mainstream. However, the basic idea remains the rejection of any sort of blending or living together of people of different cultural backgrounds within one society. This group of parties comprises, for example, the UKIP, France’s National Front, Denmark’s People’s Party, Democrats of Sweden, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the [True] Finns (of Finland), and the FPÖ.

The spectrum of the right-wing radical parties is fragmented. However, the common characteristics, which exist in different combinations in all cases, justify speaking of a family of parties. These characteristics are:[7]

  • a populist political style
  • an authoritarian conception of society;
  • ethnic nationalism (xenophobia, racism, and anti-Europeanism);
  • social chauvinism (the social state seen as exclusively for nationals)

How Populism Works

The question is: Can we call modernized right-wing radicalism fascism? I must confess that my answer is ambivalent. On the one hand, it makes no sense from a political point of view to address electorates making up nearly one-third of the population of certain countries as potential accomplices of mass murder, all the more so that the parties in question will tirelessly assert the opposite.

However, analyses of the 1920s and 1930s, in which Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Arthur Rosenberg, Walter Benjamin, and Otto Bauer tried to interpret what was then a new and paradoxical phenomenon of a ‘conservative rebellion’, reveals disturbing parallels with what contemporary political science terms right-wing ‘populism’.

Right-wing radical parties that are successful in deploying populist methods try to present themselves as rebellious outsiders. They discursively construct an antagonism between a corrupt elite and a betrayed people but exclude from their critique the actual connection of domination—consisting of the unequal distribution of property, income, and the resources of power. Instead, they present a criticism of existing conditions from the standpoint of the existing capitalist relations. The ‘anti-system’ rhetoric is not aimed against capitalism, which is taken as a given objective, but against the system of liberal representative democracy. What Walter Benjamin said of fascism from his Parisian exile in 1935 is true of today’s right-wing populism: it “attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”[8]

Quite contrary to the impression it tries to give, a populist discourse is not critical but exceedingly conformist. Its standard is not common sense, as it claims, but reactionary prejudice.

It aims at the maintenance and stabilization of socio-economic inequality by naturalizing it, offering, in periods of crisis and of political threat to rule, new authoritarian, repressive means and providing the appropriate ideology and the needed ruthless political personnel.

Thus, it makes sense that the first thing France’s National Front is demanding—under the heading ‘a constitutional reform for the re-establishment of democracy’—is to lengthen the term of office of the president whom the French system already provides with enormous powers.[9]

The ‘direct democracy’ of which they speak aims at producing a direct and exclusive relationship between the public and the charismatic leader, paving the way to a state which is governed according to the ‘Führer’ principle: He who is against the leader is against the people.’[10]

Competing Nationalism

Nationalists, whether they are French, Italian, or Hungarian, or other, see the world through the same eyes. They see their country as threatened by external forces and groups. Nationalism, or more accurately, nationalisms, represent a narrative that claims priority for the interests of one’s own country. In the case of major nations, the fulfillment of one’s own nationalism is seen as possible only at the cost of the nationalism of the others. Paradoxically, Europe’s radical right is divided through competing nationalisms at the same time as it is politically united by a strong anti-Europeanism.

Ever since the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU has not only represented an economic and currency union, but also a system of institutionalized political relations between states and nations resulting from both the Second World War and the victory of capitalism during the Cold War. According to the European treaties, all states of the EU are equal. In practice, the EU proved to be a hierarchical system, which in a capitalist context is not very surprising. The growth of nationalism in Europe is an indicator of a dramatic deterioration of national relations in Europe, between center and periphery, south and north, Germany and France, etc. Consequently, without ending austerity—or without initiating a broad pan-European movement against austerity—nationalism cannot be pushed back.

Within the European Parliament, the party family of the radical right has found homes under different roofs. Right-wing radical parties are members of three different groups:

  • ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists). Here under the same roof there are, among others, Britain’s Conservative Party, Poland’s Law and Justice party, the Alternative für Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns, and the New Flemish Alliance of Belgium.
  • EFDD (The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy). This group was largely formed by the MEPS (Member of the European Parliament) of the UKIP (Great Britain) and Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (Italy).
  • ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom). This group established in 2015 includes the National Front (France), the FPÖ (Austria), PVV (Netherlands), Lega Nord (Italy), and Vlaams Belang (Belgium)[11]

The composition of these groups is not the result of any recognizable overriding strategic calculation but rather reflects tactical considerations by the parties, often in relation to domestic politics and, in some cases, interpersonal competition at the European level and the personal aversions of leadership figures (for instance between Marine Le Pen of National Front and Nigel Farage of UKIP). These divisions however  simply do not weaken the radical right-wing phenomenon as a whole; instead, we see that their differentiation makes possible a diffusion of right-wing radical influence within a spectrum that reaches into the center of European politics—epitomized by the Hungarian civic Alliance (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége) FIDESZ, a right-wing radical party that has nevertheless found its place within the European People’s Party, alongside Christian Democrats.

The Fight for a “New Common Sense” 

While the struggle against right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism in most cases is a struggle at the margins of the political spectrum, the battle against right-wing radicalism by now has become a struggle for majorities at the center of society.

One experience of the inter-war years continues to have current relevance. The triumphal march of the radical right, specifically in Germany and Austria, was triggered by the mass unemployment and immiseration of the middle strata. This means that without a struggle against unemployment, and for the defense, expansion, and reconstruction of the welfare state, for adequate professional training and legally regulated work conditions, for the right to housing, and for the public services, right-wing radicalism cannot be defeated. However, doing so also requires a sustainable economic policy, control over the financial markets, a policy of industrial reconstruction, and a conversion to ecological sustainability conversion.

This kind of policy shift is not possible without a confrontation with the ruling parties and prevailing interests, as in the current struggle of France’s working class against the labor market reform introduced by the social democratic government. Although at the beginning of the year Marine Le Pen was leading the polls for the upcoming presidential elections, today a majority of the French view the General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT)  as the ‘most important opponent of the government’. [12] Overnight the National Front is watching itself being pushed to the margins of politics. Militant trade unions and social movements are indispensable in the confrontation with the radical right, but the trade-union movement in Europe is not up to the challenge, especially in terms of  Europe-wide cross-border solidarity.

There is, however, also a gap that needs to be filled by renewed left political parties.

The power bid by right-wing radical parties is indeed a threat to liberal democracy that is perceived by many people irrespective of political party allegiances. Right-wing radicalism, however, is not the only danger that threatens democracy today. The authoritarian means with which austerity policy is being carried out in the EU, the arming of a security and surveillance apparatus under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the anti-Muslim racism amplified by the media, and borders closed off to immigrants—all not only creates a climate in which right-wing radicalism thrives, but also represents limitations on and threats to democracy and freedom.

In this context the left finds allies in civil society, churches, anti-fascist groups, and among political liberals. However those who advocate a refugee policy consistent with human rights, or LGBT rights, that is, those who are combatting racism and defending bourgeois freedoms, do not automatically fight for a redistribution of social wealth from the top to the bottom . Nor is the inverse necessarily true. A left that wants to successfully wage a battle against the radical right has to stand the test in both spheres, and only if it succeeds in combining the struggles into a common political project, establishing a ‘bottom-middle alliance’,[13] can it succeed in building a new left hegemony for a social transformation.

Finally, the crisis of European integration has opened up the decisive arena of confrontation between the left and the radical right. Europe is a political fait accompli and therefore an arena of the struggle for democracy. The EU can only be defended in the face of nationalism if it becomes a democracy with a full-fledged parliament.However, pan-Europeanism, cannot be the only perspective of the left on Europe, in which states and nations exist and will continue to do so; therefore the only European democracy that will be accepted by the populations is one that respects democracy in the Member States. The brute force with which a new Memorandum was forced on the Syriza government shows that this kind of respect is not the established policy. It is the state leaderships just as much as the European technocracy in Brussels which are responsible for this.

The struggle against the radical right will only be won if the prevailing regime in Europe is ended. Europe will either be democratic and social or it will founder on nationalism.

In the last analysis, there is another aspect to this European malaise. Europe’s societies as a whole are unprepared for the Great Transformation [14] which the world is currently undergoing. It must be understood that this prospect, broadcast into people’s living rooms through television and the Internet, is frightening for them, because there is not enough understanding of the underlying social processes.

This socio-economic transformation necessitates the fight for a ‘new common sense’ referred to by Gramsci, without which  the regression to primitiveness, which is the aim of far-right parties, cannot be prevented.



[1]This includes the above-average successes of left parties in Greece (Syriza, KKE, and Popular Unity: 44 per cent) and Spain (Podemos and IU: 24.4 per cent).

[2]See ‘Wer hat wen gewählt‘, Der Standard, 22 May 2016, <http://derstandard.at/2000037398941/Wer-wen-gewaehlt-hat>.

[3]See Die Presse, 2 May 2016,  <http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/economist/kordiconomy/ 4978742/ Hort-die-Signale-der-FPO? _vl_backlink=/home/index.do>.

[4] Richard Seymour, ‘UKIP and the Crisis of Britain’, Socialist Register 2016, London, p. 35.

[5]           Literally, in the FPÖ’s current programme: ‘Austria’s language, history, and culture are German. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are part of the German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community’. Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ) enacted at the Federal Party Congress 18 June 2011 in Graz’, <www.fpoe.at/fileadmin/Content/portal/PDFs/_dokumente/2011_graz_parteiprogramm_web.pdf>.

[6] ‘Wahltagsbefragung’, Source: ISA/SORA, 11 October 2015; quoted from orf-online: <https:/www.facebook.com/ZeitimBild/photos/a.381568636877.161891.182146851877/10153571900376878/?type=3&theater>.

[7] See Cas Mudde, ‘The Far Right and the European Elections’, Current History Magazine 03/2014.

[8]  Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, transl. Harry Zohn), New York: Shocken, 1969.

[9] ‘Notre Projet’ – Programme Politique du Front National (2012), pp. 44 ff.

[10] Hans-Henning Scharsach, Rückwärts nach rechts – Europas Populisten, Vienna : Wirtschaftsverlag Ueberreuter, 2002, p. 213.

[11] The MEPs of the explicitly neo-fascist Golden Dawn (Greece) and Jobbik (Hungary) could not find a home in any of the three far-right groups and registered as non-attached members.

[12] <http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/international/4999201/Frankreich_Streiks-eskalieren-vor-FussballEM>.

[13] Michael Brie (2010), ‘Einstiegsprojekte in eine solidarische Politik‘, <http://www.rosalux.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/brie_einstiegsprojekte.pdf>.

[14] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. New York:Farrar & Rinehart ,1944.


1 thought on “Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neoliberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism

  • Tim Williams

    Let me simplify what is going on in Europe politically. The people of Europe are fundamentally xenophobic, and have had their fill of immigration and Islam. Mainstream parties of Europe must put an end to immigration from outside the Eu, or they will be political toast, and the far-right will fill the void .The clock is ticking.

Comments are closed.