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Europe’s New Authoritarianism

The Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, during the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. In 1995, he wrote an essay describing what he called “ur-fascism.” Among the characteristics of ur-fascism are the cult of tradition and the rejection of modernism, the idea that disagreement is treason, fear of difference, appeals to a frustrated middle class, contempt for the weak, and education that focuses on machismo and heroism.[1] While Eco predicted that contemporary forms of fascism would be different—Italy, for example, would not see black shirts parading in the streets as they did during the Mussolini  dictatorship—he warned that ur-fascism is always around the corner, appearing in the “most innocent of disguises.” This prediction is now a worrisome trend.

Electoral victories of right-wing coalitions in Sweden and Italy in late 2021 have set up concerning precedents in an already fragile political environment across the European Union (EU). Other far-right parties also advanced in Europe. In Portugal, the party CHEGA! (“Enough”) won 11 seats out of 230 (in the previous elections in 2019, they won only one seat). In France, in the second round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen won 41.5 percent of the vote (almost three million votes more than in 2017), and her National Rally party won 89 seats out of 577 (as opposed to only 7 in 2017).  These election results substantiate the claims that Europe is once again going down a dangerous path, flirting with neo-fascism.

The EU is already fraught with tensions and divisions, including the participation of countries that have instituted what political thinker Fareed Zakaria described in 1997 as “illiberal democracy.” In recent years, Hungary, under Vicktor Orbán, and Poland, under the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), have adopted this term to describe a political system. Important elements of what has also been referred to as pseudo-democracy or empty democracy are strong nationalism, government control of the media and the judiciary, the outsized influence of religion and tradition, populism in both rhetoric and leadership, and marginalization of opposition parties and minorities.

. . [The] European Union political integration process has been much slower than the economic one, mostly because of tension between the project of a sovereign Europe and the individual interests of member states . . .

In Poland and Hungary, the formalities of democracy, such as the existence of a parliament and the conduct of elections, have not been eliminated. However, under the current regimes, personal and political freedoms have been limited, if not outright denied, and the rule of law has diminished.[2] An example from Hungary was Orbán’s assumption of full power during the pandemic, which allowed him to rule by decree, with no oversight from check-and-balance institutions. One consequence has been jeopardizing the freedom of the press, putting journalists at risk of imprisonment for publishing information countering data issued by the government.

Understanding the EU Context
Still incomplete, the EU political integration process has been much slower than the economic one, mostly because of tension between the project of a sovereign Europe and the individual interests of member states, who are unwilling to give up some of their independence for a stronger EU. In part, this tension is a result of widespread inflation and the rise of energy costs, but it is also the consequence of a devastating war in Ukraine. Furthermore, the future of the EU has been rocked by “Qatargate,” a bribery and money-laundering scandal in which several members and former members of the EU parliament are accused of accepting bribes from agents of Qatar and Morocco in exchange for influence at the EU parliament. Amid this instability, authoritarian regimes  continue to pass repressive policies—especially against women, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and more) people, and refugees. Despite internal tensions, the EU Commission and Parliament continue to oppose these policies. As recently as November 2022, the European Parliament voted to put pressure on the EU Commission and the EU Council to  resist Hungarian demands for the release of EU Cohesion Policy funds, aimed at reducing economic disparities among countries in a region.[3]  A month later, on December 12, 2022, a committee of EU ambassadors froze 55 percent of those funds because of inadequate measures taken by Hungary to guarantee transparency and true democratic processes.

Across Europe: From Sweden, to Italy, Russia, and Its Allies 
Sweden Democrats, a far-right party founded in the 1980s by neo-Nazis, became the second-largest party in Sweden, netting 20 percent of the vote in 2022 elections. While the Liberal Party in Sweden vetoed the presence of Sweden Democrats in a newly formed coalition government by creating a minority government, Sweden Democrats lend external support to the government, meaning they will exercise as much influence as possible in the process of Swedish law-making. In Italy, the victory of the far right was more sweeping and has deeper historical roots. On September 25, 2022, the Brothers of Italy party became the head of a right-wing ruling coalition in Italy, which includes Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord (League) party and Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and a small centrist party called Us Moderates. The Brothers of Italy has origins in the post–World War II neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was founded by Giorgio Almirante, chief of staff in Mussolini’s last government right after the war. The Italian Social Movement had absorbed in its ranks many fascist sympathizers and officials who  had been spared in a general amnesty, approved by the Italian government in 1946 as part of postwar reconstruction. This meant that Italy never actually went through a real “de-fascistization,” following the twenty years of Mussolini’s regime. In a striking example in December 2022, Ignazio La Russa, currently President of the Italian Senate, celebrated the anniversary of the birth of the MSI with an Instagram post, acknowledging his late father’s role as a founder of the party.

The Italian Social Movement had absorbed in its ranks many fascist sympathizers and officials who had been spared in a general amnesty, approved by the Italian government in 1946 as part of postwar reconstruction.

Today, several of the ur-fascist characteristics identified by Umberto Eco are evident in the rhetoric and policies advanced by Vladmir Putin’s regime in Russia and in the rhetoric of parties that somewhat align with Russia’s neo-fascist ideology. Hungary, for instance, has always been close to Putin’s regime, for economic reasons, such as a favorable bilateral agreement on gas supplies and a commitment by Russia to build two new reactors at the nuclear plant Paks—the only operating nuclear power plant in Hungary. There are also sociopolitical reasons (their shared  intolerance for opposition leaders and minorities and their vocal hatred of LGBTQIA + rights). In a re-reading of Eco’s essay, Italian journalist Federico Varese analyzed the elements of  Putin’s regime as an example of twenty-first-century fascism, including Putin’s obsession with tradition, his inability to tolerate opposing views, his disdain for diversity, and a hang-up, with an international plot twist: the virile hero and a fascination with weaponry.[4]

Crisis Across the Globe
An important question is: how is it possible that parties and movements that were once on the fringes of mainstream politics, such as Brothers of Italy and Sweden Democrats, are today the first or second most popular parties in their countries? Although each country in which these parties and governments now dominate is different, there are many commonalities—also visible in the United States—that help us answer that question. In the United States, the role of former President Donald Trump in encouraging violent insurrection on January 6, 2021 is illustrative. It brought hundreds of radical-right protesters to the capitol building in Washington, DC with the intent of overturning the election of President Joe Biden. It was only the last of many incitements Trump and his acolytes have used to capitalize on people’s discontent in the face of socioeconomic ills. Like their counterparts in Europe, their strategy has been to pit the working poor against immigrants, stoke hatred against so-called elites, and foment racism by scapegoating minority groups. They have done this, all the while denying any responsibility for their actions.

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 has contributed greatly to the rise of neo-fascist groups everywhere. The crisis was worsened by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, affecting millions of people. Although the middle class in both Europe and the United States had survived trickle-down global economic policies, their situation in advanced economies was compromised by the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession. It was worsened by the 2010 sovereign debt crisis. All these factors caused governments, especially in the EU, to inflict austerity  measures and cut social services. This, coupled with a series of economic processes that had their roots in neoliberal globalization—such as outsourcing and automation of jobs—caused the impoverishment of larger swaths of Western societies, the shrinking of the middle class, the casualization of the workforce, and rampant unemployment. This loss of jobs was mainly due to the impact of the financial crisis on the gross domestic product (GDP) of several countries and the effects of the sovereign debt crisis on the safety of investments. Add to this, structural  unemployment due to industrial automation which had already caused a decrease in entry-level jobs. Loss of jobs and income, and the uncertainty of one’s place in society, among other factors, have increased the popularity of electoral parties that promise easy resolutions to problems or place blame on others for the problems of their constituents.

A Fragmented Left
Although many people are active in social and political movements, these movements are largely fragmented, hardly channeled into formalized decision-making processes. They are seeking social change in an era that privileges individualism, consumerism, privatization, and personal gain over collective action for the common good. In this social and political conjuncture, individual interests are an overarching feature. Social structures and intermediate institutions (political parties, trade unions, schools) have lost much of their cohesive role in society, often replaced by  social media and media influencers who pressure us to consume more and more. Even politics has become more personalized than in the past. For instance, in Italy, strong mass parties, such as the former Communist Party and the former Christian Democrats, have been replaced by personalized political formations, starting with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy), established in 1994. Berlusconi’s party was mostly built around his charisma and the power of his media empire rather than on the link between politics and local needs. That link was broken when traditional mass parties disappeared early in the 1990s. The Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party fell in a huge corruption scandal (a “Tangentopoli,” or a widespread bribery system involving major political figures and businessmen). The Communist Party dissolved and changed its name with the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually underwent a centrist transition. In the vacuum created by the political institutions, Forza Italia changed the way of doing politics while paving the way for the development of other personalized right-wing ideologies, including Trumpism in the United States.

Loss of jobs and income, and the uncertainty of one’s place in society . . . have increased the popularity of electoral parties that promise easy resolutions to problems or place blame on others . . .

But there is another and more significant reason for this rightward shift: tolerance for the existence, as well as the tactics of neo-fascist movements on the part of moderate, centrist, and right-wing parties. In Italy, for instance, small neo-fascist political parties have been allowed to exist and run for elections, despite the fact that the Italian constitution is explicitly anti-fascist[5] and that the Republic of Italy was founded on the ashes of the Fascist regime defeated in 1945. Forza Nuova, for example, has chapters in most Italian cities and has used systematic violence over the years, culminating in a squadrista-like[6] assault on a major trade union in October 2021.

We live in very complex and multifaceted societies that are not easy to govern. Globalization, widespread cosmopolitism, worldwide migration waves, the current inflationary economic crisis, the pandemic, new technologies, the use of new info-telematic technologies, and changes in social relationships have made Western societies much more composite than in the past. It has become very difficult for the political realm to control the economy; in fact, the opposite is true. Multinational corporations have become more powerful than governments; they have accumulated unimaginable amounts of money, while more and more people have a hard time putting food on the table and paying their bills. Furthermore, governments have tried to adopt managerial and technocratic tools to lead a society that instead requires multidisciplinary approaches to be managed. Societies are not firms but are complex systems that need composite responses to problems such as climate change, knowledge in the digital era, and health care in a world where pandemics might become the norm.

Paradoxically, as our societies become more complex, political messaging has become more and more simplified. We are, for example, experiencing the “tiktokization” of politics, which requires little critical thinking on our part and, at the same time, allows anyone and everyone to freely express their opinions and political views. Social media platforms have also been responsible for the spreading of “fake news” as well as racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic views. This ease of access has been a boon to neo-populists, who are very adept at creating simple and captivating messages that touch nerves, especially with the working class, who feel angry and abandoned by the political parties who are supposed to fight for their rights. In Europe, these include the U.K.  Labour Party, among other social-democratic parties. As a result, many working-class people have turned to right-wing parties that have pandered to their discontent. Moreover, a declining trade union movement has been unable to keep up with the challenges the working class has faced in the last couple of decades. In the northern regions of Italy, for example, the decline in union membership is 20 percent less than in previous years. In part, workers have accused trade unions in Italy of becoming business offices to handle paperwork rather than organizations to carry out a struggle for their rights.

In the past, workers felt like part of a meaningful social fabric, in which political parties and trade unions trained, educated, and encouraged them to participate in democratic processes. This is much less the reality today. Also, people have grown dissatisfied with how political parties have failed to address the problems they face daily. This is partly because what once could be solved locally or nationally now requires global responses, which are either inadequate (e.g., the response to climate change) or benefit only the wealthy (such as tax advantages). In an educational vacuum and in times of social rage, ignorance and lack of information grow; workers become more vulnerable to political dissatisfaction or political manipulation. In the end, this can lead to low voter turnout. A case in point: In Italy’s last election, 36 percent of people did not vote and the winning party won with only 26 percent of the vote. This is winning through non-participation.

It has become very difficult for the political realm to control the economy; in fact, the opposite is true. Multinational corporations have become more powerful than governments . . .

Voting for “the new kid on the block” is another impulse that has boosted the fortunes of right-wing politicians and parties in Europe. For most of the twentieth century, the major electoral contests took place between historic parties (e.g., the Socialists and the Gaullist party in France; the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats in Italy). These parties no longer exist or have declined to minimal numbers. Either way, they are doomed to irrelevance. New parties have arisen, very often based on a personal initiative rather than an ideological posture. Many of the political leaders—like Berlusconi, for example—who have personalized politics—have risen to glory only to fall to the ground. This raises a question: Will Brothers of Italy also fall into oblivion or to a secondary role in Italian politics in a few years? It is certainly possible. (The League, one of Giorgia Meloni’s allies in government, lost half of its votes in four years.) Even if this happens, what might remain are the regressive policies of the Meloni government. In the United States, a right-wing Supreme Court majority is a legacy of the Trump presidency. It provides a teachable moment: Although Trump is no longer president, his appointees to the Supreme Court have worked to dismantle progressive policies and legislation, including abortion rights and affirmative action.

The Family as Nation-Building
The sanctity of binary gender and traditional marriages between a woman and a man is central to the rhetoric and policies of most rightwing neo-populist leaders. (These ideas are instantiated in the constitutions of Hungary and Poland.) Appearing before a Vox party gathering in Spain, Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Meloni noted the shared view between her party and the Spanish neo-fascist formation: “Yes to the natural family,” she said, “no to the LGBT lobby. Yes, to sexual identity, no to gender ideology.” In this exclusionary view, migrants, refugees, and queer people are demonized in the name of a fight for something pure and sacred—the family. The fetishization of the family is a sort of national self-defense against globalism, a defense of borders against “the other” and a defense against those who want to destroy the so-called natural family.

The sanctity of binary gender and traditional marriages between a woman and a man is central to the rhetoric and policies of most right-wing neo-populist leaders.

In 2021, all extreme right-wing parties in the EU signed an “Appeal for the Future of Europe.” In this document, they denounced the supposed threat of “a super-state imposing an ideological monopoly at the expense of sovereign nations rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of Europe.” They also claimed that the traditional family is the basis of nation-building and the “fundamental unity of European nations.”[7] The signatories to this appeal have advocated policies for traditional European families as a response to mass immigration.

What is clear is that without creating new political processes to amplify informed democratic participation, there is a very grim future ahead for Europe. Even where neo-fascist movements are not successful in taking power, they are already successful because they have shifted the political narrative, expanding the “Overton Window” definition of acceptability in political policy and political discourse. In other words, they have legitimized what was unthinkable only a few years ago.8 They have managed to turn racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia into bedrock issues of their political platforms. They have distorted the truth to advance their own agendas, flirting with unscientific dogma and conspiracy theory where it suits them.

The question of democracy in Europe and elsewhere is not just a matter of political institution, it is a question of democracy as the power to lift people from poverty, injustice, and ignorance; to provide a system that works for everyone, and not just the privileged few. In Italy, about two million people live in absolute poverty, while almost six million are living in relative poverty. This is in the seventh most industrialized nation in the world, a country of 60 million. Because of a dramatic increase in poverty, Matteo Salvini’s simplistic message of “Italian first” resounds with a great many voters. This scenario is replicated in other parts of Europe and among the MAGA (Make America Great Again) followers in the United States.

Justice Is the Antidote to Neo-Fascism
As long as the ongoing capitalist crisis continues to exacerbate poverty and despair, it will be difficult to counter the appeal of the extreme right wing. It is clear to me that we must strive for a new socioeconomic system, rooted in democratic socialism, a system that promotes sustainable development, a better quality of life for everyone, and social justice in all spheres. To do this successfully, we need to defeat neoliberalism—curb the power of multinational corporations, tax the ultra-rich, and restore  labor rights. Neoliberalism must be replaced with sound policies that attend to economic, social, gender, and civil rights.

The growth of a country cannot be measured merely by economic success recorded in indexes. The growth of a country and of our planet should be measured according to sustainable practices and policies, including the real happiness of people—not the happiness of accumulating money, but happiness that comes from a true quality of life. The true quality of life means a decent living wage for everyone, good public services, free education for all, health care for all, and economic policies that promote the common good rather than individual wealth. It also means recognizing that our planet’s resources are finite. We need to promote clean water and air and renewable energy. Only a different paradigm of how we live together on this planet will defeat the forces of eternal fascism.

Editor’s Note
An earlier version of this article appeared here: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/neofascist-and-authoritarian-trends-in-europe-are-alarming-says-presbyterian-world-mission-area-coordinator/.

1. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/.
2. https://www.remobassetti.it/cosa-resta-dellademocrazia/democrazie-illiberali/. The author prefers the use of tyrannical democracy rather than illiberal democracy.
3. https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/2021-2027_en.
4. https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2022/08/25/news/il_fascismo_eterno_di_putin_in_un_saggio_di_umberto_eco-362922191/.
5. The XII measure of the transitory and the final measure of the Italian constitution forbid the rebirth of the National Fascist Party, and the 1952 Scelba law introduced the crime of fascist apologia.
6. Squadristi were action squads that in 1919 started intimidating and violently suppressing political opponents, especially those belonging to the labor movement. Soon after, they were absorbed by Fascism as a tool to impose itself on Italian society.
7. https://www.politico.eu/article/viktor-orbanmarine-le-pen-matteo-salvini-eu-integration-european-superstate-radical-forces/.
8. Overtone is a term used to describe the range of politically acceptable ideas by the mainstream at any given time.

Author Biography
Luciano Kovacs is currently serving as Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Area Coordinator for the Middle East and Europe.