Liberalism’s Intimacy With the Far Right

Though liberal elites are horrified by the vulgarity of the far right, they are not opposed to diverting the masses from a politics of class to a politics of despair, as the far right has done, writes Vijay Prashad.

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

One of the curiosities of our time is that the far right is quite comfortable with the established institutions of liberal democracy.

There are instances here and there of disgruntled political leaders who refuse to accept their defeat at the ballot box (such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro) and then call upon their supporters to take extra-parliamentary action (as on Jan. 6, 2021, in the United States and, in a farcical repetition, on Jan. 8, 2023, in Brazil).

But, by and large, the far right knows that it can attain what it wants through the institutions of liberal democracy, which are not hostile to its programmes.

The fatal, intimate embrace between the political projects of liberalism and those of the far right can be understood in two ways.

First, this embrace is seen in the ease with which the forces of the far right use their countries’ liberal constitutions and institutions to their benefit, without any need to supplant them dramatically.

If a far-right government can interpret a liberal constitution in this way, and if the institutions and personnel of this constitutional structure are not averse to this interpretation by the far right, then there is no need for a coup against the liberal structure. It can be hollowed from within.

Second, this intimate, but fatal, embrace takes place within the “cultures of cruelty” (as Aijaz Ahmad called it) that define the social world of savage capitalism. Forced to work for capital — in increasingly precarious and atomised jobs — to survive, workers discover, as Karl Marx astutely observed in 1857/58, that it is money that is the “real community” (Gemeinwesen) and it is the person who is the instrument, and the slave, of money.

Wrenched from the care of genuine community, workers are forced into lives that oscillate between the hell of long and difficult workdays and the purgatory of long and difficult unemployment. 

The absence of state-provided social welfare and the collapse of worker-led community institutions produce “cultures of cruelty,” a normal kind of violence that runs from within the home to out on the streets.

This violence often takes place without fanfare and reinforces traditional structures of power (along axes of patriarchy and of nativism, for instance). The far right’s source of power lies in these “cultures of cruelty,” which occasionally lead to spectacular acts of violence against social minorities.

Savage capitalism has globalised production and liberated property owners (both individuals and corporations) from adhering to even the norms of liberal democracy, such as paying their fair share of taxes. 

This political economic structure of savage capitalism generates a neoliberal social order that is rooted in imposing austerity on the working class and the peasantry and in atomising working people by increasing their working time, eroding the social institutions that they run, and, therefore, diminishing their leisure time. 

Liberal democracies around the world conduct time-use surveys of their populations to see how people spend their time, but almost none of these surveys pay attention to whether workers and peasants have any time for leisure, how they might spend this leisure time, and whether the reduction of their leisure time is a concern for general social development in their country.

We are very far away from the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation’s 1945 Constitution that urged the “free flow of ideas by word and image” and the need to “give fresh impulse to popular education and to the spread of culture.” 

Social discussions about the dilemmas of humanity are silenced while old forms of hatred are sanctioned.

It is the hatred of the migrant, the terrorist and the drug dealer — all portrayed as sociopaths — that evokes an acerbic form of nationalism, one that is not rooted in love of one’s fellow human beings but in hatred of the outsider.

Hatred masquerades as patriotism while the size of the national flag grows and the enthusiasm for the national anthem increases by decibels. This is visibly displayed in Israel today.

This neoliberal, savage, far-right patriotism smells acrid — of anger and bitterness, of violence and frustration. In cultures of cruelty, people’s eyes are turned away from their own problems, from the low wages and near starvation in their homes, from their lack of educational opportunities and provisions for health care, to other— false — problems that are invented by the forces of savage capitalism to turn people away from their real problems. 

It is one thing to be patriotic against starvation and hopelessness. But the forces of savage capitalism have taken this form of patriotism and thrown it into the fire. 

Human beings ache to be decent, which is why so many billions across the world have taken to the streets, blocked boats, and occupied buildings to demand an end to Israel’s war on Gaza. But that ache is smothered by desperation and resentment, by the intimate, diabolical embrace of liberalism and the far right.

From Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research comes “What Can We Expect from the New Progressive Wave in Latin America?” (dossier No. 70), a study of the political landscape in Latin America. 

The text opens with a foreword by Daniel Jadue, the mayor of the commune of Recoleta, Santiago de Chile, and a leading member of the Communist Party of Chile. Jadue argues that savage capitalism has sharpened the contradictions between capital and labour and has accelerated the destruction of the planet. 

The “political centre,” he argues, has governed most countries in the world for the past few decades “without resolving the most pressing issues of the people.” With social democratic forces moving to defend savage capitalism and neoliberal austerity, the left has been dragged to the centre to defend the institutions of democracy and the structures of social welfare.

Meanwhile, there has been, Jadue writes, “the resurgence of highly combative discourse among right-wing forces that is even more extreme than in the era of fascism almost a century ago.”

Our dossier traces the zigs and zags of politics across Latin America, with the left’s triumph in Colombia’s presidential election balanced out by the tight grip of the right in Peru, then settling on a point that is of great importance: the left across most of Latin America has abandoned the final aim of socialism and has instead adopted the task of being managers of capitalism with a more human face. As the dossier states:

“[T]he left today has shown itself to be incapable of achieving hegemony when it comes to a new societal project. The irrevocable defence of bourgeois democracy itself is a symptom that there is no prospect of rupture and revolution. This is reflected by the reluctance of certain left?wing leaders to support the current Venezuelan government, which they consider to be undemocratic — despite the fact that Venezuela, alongside Cuba, is one of the few examples of a country where the left has managed to face these crises without being defeated. This meek position and failure to commit to the fight against imperialism marks a significant setback.”

Liberal democracy has proved itself to be an insufficient barrier to halt the ambitions of the far right. Though liberal elites are horrified by the vulgarity of the far right, they are not necessarily opposed to diverting the masses from a politics of class to a politics of despair, as the far right has done.

The main criticism of the right does not come from liberal institutions, but from the fields and the factories, as seen in the mobilisations against hunger and against the uberisation of work. 

From the mass demonstrations against austerity and for peace in Colombia (2019–2021) to those against lawfare in Guatemala (2023), people — barricaded, for decades, from liberal institutions — have again taken to the streets. Electoral victories are important, but, alone, they transform neither society nor political control, which has remained under the tight grip of the elite in most of the world.

Jadue’s foreword is alert to both the weakness of the political centre and the necessity to build a political project that lifts up mobilisations and prevents them from dissipating into frustration:

“Reconstructing a concrete horizon — socialism — and building the unity of the left are key challenges in identifying and addressing the dilemmas we face. In order to do this, we must break from the language of our oppressors and create one that is truly emancipatory. Integration and coordination are no longer enough. A true understanding of what Karl Marx called the material unity of the world is essential to achieving the total unity of peoples and joint action across the planet.”

The reservoirs of working-class forces across the world — including precarious workers and the peasantry — have been depleted by the process of globalisation. 

Leading revolutionary parties have found it difficult to extend and even maintain their strength in the context of democratic systems that have been taken over by the power of money.

Nevertheless, to face these challenges, the “concrete horizon” of socialism that Jadue mentions is being crafted through the sustained building of organisations, through the mobilisation of the masses and through political education, including the battle of ideas and the battle of emotions — part of which, of course, is the work of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and this new dossier, which we hope that you will read and circulate for discussion.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations.  His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and, with Noam Chomsky,  The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Views expressed in this article may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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8 comments for “Liberalism’s Intimacy With the Far Right

  1. Joseph Tracy
    December 14, 2023 at 09:55

    The primary insight here has to do with the connection, the marriage-like interdependence between the authoritarian and violent colonialist tendencies of what Vijay calls the far right and its seeming opposition in the market freedoms and social freedoms of what he calls liberalism. Why are these stated ideals with their inherent contradictions always united around imperial wars? Has it ever been truly different? Was there ever a movement toward social justice that did not ultimately give in to a bargain with the violence of state militarism? The Magna Carta ideals submits to the monarchically inclined British empire, Athenian Democracy gives way to and the rise of Tyranny and empire, the early pacifist communal Christians and feeders of the poor followed first by the women-hating patriarchal bishops and then by Constantine, the American revolution led by smugglers and land speculators and yoemen farmers leading to 100 years of slavery, genocide and broken treaties.

    Is there another way at all? That is the deep question and why are examples so rare and fleeting. Do examples like Iceland or Bhutan or Denmark or Finland or postwar Japan at their best inspire us and cause us to say let’s do that? Or does it shame us because it seems so far away.

    We seem to have stopped being drawn toward hope even when there are examples to follow. Hate and fear are a miserly consolation prize compared to the kind of changes FDR brought. There are few with a good news message, and instead of taking a first step toward those who do bring such prospects( I would include Mcgovern, Kucinich, Carter, Nader, MLK, the late Kennedy, Bernie, FDR, Ron Paul among them in the US) we accept their dismissal from viability as inevitable, accept the replacement of feisty journalism holding the powerful to account with the imprisonment of truthtellers and the rise of deep state infestation into global news media.

    We fork over our taxes without representation, hate the revolutionary spirit of Tom Paine, Frederick Douglas, Susan Anthony, Muhammed Ali, Julian Assange, Medea Benjamin. But the working class does not have to buy what is being sold. Did not have to give in the habit of mass slaughter started in Vietnam. If there is no buyer, there is no sale. If unions hold out, they usually win. Change is having a voice and a choice, freedom requires thoughtfulness to become meaning and joy.

    We need leaders with a language that can reach a wider spectrum. We need a vision still relevant of not just peace but the path to peace, of a prosperity of the love rich heart, of beauty in everyday life, the wisdom of growing food and making buildings that are strong and warmed by the sun, of the love rich community. Not a thing to defend with constant war but the power to soften and warm the cold hard hearts made by these centuries of submission to oligarchy and war now gone atomic.

  2. JonnyJames
    December 12, 2023 at 16:07

    Dr Prashad is always great to hear and read. So-called liberal parties in the US and vassals (Europe, Canada, Australia, NZ) have become firmly right-wing authoritarian parties. They are anti-labor, pro oligarchy. The traditional “socialist” parties in Europe etc. have also become anti-labor, right-wing, warmongering authoritarians as well. The Death of the Liberal Class (Hedges) and the sell-out of the self-described “socialists” has resulted in the rise of other brands of right wing authoritarians. (Eg. Geert Wilders’ and the PVV in the Netherlands). The liberals call these “populist” “far-right” but that’s just hypocrisy. Saluting Nazis in parliament, training Azov Batallion Nazis, supporting genocide were not done by the “far-right” these actions were done and supported by so-called liberals and “leftists”. (Orwell roll over)

    Capitalist faux-democracy only offers two flavors of right-wing authoritarian warmongers. In the US, you have a rabid, geriatric, far-right, racist, Zionist warmonger (JB) or the “alternative” is another bloviating, geriatric, far-right Zionist racist warmonger (DT) Both of them support the US funding genocide of Palestine.

    • Ace Thelin
      December 12, 2023 at 22:03

      good summary. thank you

  3. Francis Lee
    December 12, 2023 at 05:43

    Yes it seems that the dreaded ”bourgeois ideology” has insinuated its way into the thinking and of the thought-patterns of the man in the street. As Friedrich Engels pointed out in 1844.

    ”And still they crowd one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement was a tacit one, that each will keep his side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing the streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much of a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling, the unfeeling isolation of each, in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive , the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, the narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the great City. The dissolution of mankind into nomads, of each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.”

    (Friedrich Engels – The Condition of the Working Class in England – 1844)

    Things don’t seem to have changed very much.

  4. Jack Lomax
    December 11, 2023 at 17:44

    Vijay so much commentary on the works of global capitalism. Capitalism is the greed of the powerful systematised so what can be expected of it? Only a fig leaf cover and a controlled mainstream media. It is not possible for this global monster to be led by any but psychopaths. Its global wars disguised as fighting evil are but manifestation of that – and the present manifestation of one of its leading powers mass extermination of defenseless civilians is capitalism with its cloak thrown off .

  5. Selina Sweet
    December 11, 2023 at 15:08

    Vijay Prashad – I always learn something from your essays. Thank you for opening my understanding of what must happen and a
    bit on the how.

  6. Paul Citro
    December 11, 2023 at 12:21

    It seems that social advances we enjoyed for some decades are not permanent. The world is reverting to feudalism.

    • Selina Sweet
      December 11, 2023 at 15:16

      Indeed, Paul Citro, it sure does look like feudalism has already happened. That President Biden can so completely ignore
      so many of us who are vocal, demonstrative, shocked, appalled, frustrated, hurt by his support of Bibi’s genocide (UN) of the Palestinians,
      it appears that functionally the citizenry are of no importance or significance at all. He and the other global leaders
      do as they please. What in heck has happened to “representative” and a government by, for, and of the People? He hasn’t
      a clue, obviously, what sentiments he’s brewing deep in the USA citizen’s breast. And, it for sure, isn’t love. No matter
      what the “numbers” look like.

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