Santiago Abascal: culture war campaign

Venomous targeting of migrants

Despite suffering something of a setback in Spain, the far right is on the march across Europe. Prime responsibility for this, argues Paul Demarty, lies with the left

Contrary to some expectations, the July 23 Spanish elections did not deliver a clear majority for the right.

On the basis of opinion polls, it was expected - or at least feared - that the combined tallies of the Popular Party and Vox would result in Spain becoming the latest European country governed at least in part by parties of the radical right. Prime minister Pedro Sanchéz would regret his gamble on calling a snap general election. What transpired, instead, was an impressive swing towards the parties of the ‘centre right’ - particularly the PP, which is now the largest group in parliament; but Vox lost 20 of its deputies, and together they fell seven seats short.

The Socialist Workers Party is the second largest party and had previously dominated the ‘progressive coalition’ with an assortment of left allies such as Unidas Podemos, the Communist Party and En Comú Podem. The PP is still in theory in the driving seat, when it comes to forming a new government, but may struggle in practice. Many of the remaining smaller parties are regionalist and/or separatist, and even the right-leaning examples of the species will be cautious even of confidence and supply arrangements, given the centralising chauvinist rhetoric of the PP over many years - never mind Vox, whose founders split from the PP on the issue of centralising Spain. It seems that the safeguards have held for now, even if The Guardian’s spin that the Spanish had delivered a stirring verdict of ‘¡No pasarán!’ rather puts the matter too strongly.

Indeed, though disappointment no doubt reigns for now at Vox HQ, its leaders and activists can celebrate a second election result in which they garnered more than 10% of the vote - a solid foothold, compared to the trivial returns of earlier elections. Though PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo is identified as a neoliberal moderate in theory, he attacked Sanchéz for making deals with Basque separatists and on law-and-order grounds (the PSOE’s reform of the law on sexual assault reduced the maximum sentence and therefore released 900 offenders early). Under his leadership, local government deals have been struck between the two parties. In short, the emergence of a serious far-right challenger had the predictable effect of dragging the PP onto its territory, in the hope of stealing back supporters.

It is arguable, then, that Spain has not decisively rejected the far right at all, but is merely lagging behind other European countries in a longer-term trend that has brought far-right, ultra-conservative parties to power in country after country. Some have their origins in the neo-fascist swamp, like Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI); others in Christian democracy, like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which is on course to come first in the next Austrian general election and has been in and out of government repeatedly in recent years, was a strange relic of liberal pan-Germanism and a member of the Liberal International until the 1990s, when it refocused entirely on anti-immigration hysteria.

To these names, we could add the ultra-nationalist and clericalist Law and Justice party of Poland (in government for eight years now) and the Finns, formerly the True Finns, who joined the governing coalition after this year’s election. In the Franco-German European core, National Rally and Alternative for Germany look very plausible contenders for government office before too long (only the comically Bonapartist structure of the French executive has kept Marine le Pen at bay so far).

Theory and practice

What exactly is driving this? The far right itself has its own answers. In the Anglosphere, we are most familiar with this in the form of so-called ‘national conservatism’ or ‘right populism’, which would argue something like this: since the end of the cold war, the permanent institutions of power in western societies - the civil service, the university, the media, and so forth - have been captured by a distinct ruling, managerial class. This class is fundamentally progressive and cosmopolitan in outlook. It favours maximal personal autonomy, particularly in matters of sexual morality, and identifies far more strongly with fellow class members around the world than the toiling masses at home.

Under its leadership, society has become intolerable. Free trade and mass migration have decimated wages. Sexual liberalism has resulted in plummeting birth rates, and attempts to enforce such liberalism have marginalised religion - except Islam, of course, which has been allowed to thrive in the name of multiculturalism, and offers an existential internal threat to social cohesion. When voters flock to parties who decry all this, they are doing no more than using their demotic common sense to see through the uncommon nonsense of the elite. (This invocation of the wisdom of crowds is enough to authorise the employment of the wholly useless term, ‘populism’.)

Some cousin of this explanation may be found in many countries on the continent who have elected far-right parties to government, or to substantial fractions in national parliaments. From Law and Justice you will get a more Catholic version, and from Giorgia Meloni you may get some barely intelligible Tolkien analogies. Yet the overall story is the same - the people versus the technocratic liberal elite, with a focus on cultural conservatism and migration panic.

There is a sense in which this critique - or family of critiques - is like Marxism viewed in a fairground mirror. Social classes play a major role here, clearly, although they are demarcated impressionistically: “all that is solid dissolves into air”, indeed, but the solvent is not capital, as it was for Marx and Engels, but the cosmopolitan elite. (In some cases, this peculiar affinity is happily adopted for shock value, as with Steve Bannon’s oft-declared admiration for Lenin.)

In this respect, it is truly the descendant at least of the far right of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. August Bebel described anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools - Idiotensozialismus - but the ‘globalist elite’ need not be identified with the Jews to play the same role in the overall ideological narrative (of course, there certainly are anti-Semites of the old school to be found in this mob). The classical fascists purloined the rhetoric of revolution, and so have many participants in the new ‘populist’ right.

The difference between the two (pace liberal ‘horseshoe theory’) is perhaps best highlighted by a cold-eyed look at the gap between the rhetoric and reality. The concern for the declining lot of the common man is revealed - by the actual practice of such parties in government - as a sham. Hungary and Poland effectively operate maquiladoras feeding German industry, and do so by maintaining low-wage, dangerous working conditions. The FPÖ has retained the (appropriately) Austrian economics of its older, ‘liberal’ incarnation. Meloni has repeatedly attacked the rights of workers and the unemployed.

As for economic ‘populism’, so, oddly, for nationalism. These parties have largely abandoned long-standing commitments to leaving the European Union, despite grumbling and kabuki fights over human rights with the Brussels authorities (especially in the case of Poland and Hungary). It is, specifically, immigration that remains as a toxic obsession, and such parties - not unreasonably - conclude that, instead of breaking away, it will be more prudent to band together to build another curtain wall around Fortress Europe. When it comes to the tutelage of the United States, the picture is almost the same. Only Hungary really stands out as a remotely rebellious member of Nato - Orbán quipped that he and the pope were the only heads of state on the continent to favour a peace settlement in Ukraine.

This narrowing of political horizons inevitably directs more energy to the remaining targets. Apart from demonstratively worsening the plight of migrants, the target du jour is transgender people: the ideal target for the far right, since there are so few of them, but they enjoy the ferocious support of most liberals and leftists, whose horror in the face of such attacks is in some ways the point. Petty cruelty in that direction is an impeccably phoney way to look like you mean business.

All of which is to say that, while one can construct a roughly coherent picture of the contemporary world on far-right, nationalist-conservative grounds, one cannot in the end so construct a correct picture, and therefore one cannot govern truly in accordance with that picture. It is not the conspiracy of liberal elites that erodes freedom and dignity, but the grinding logic of capital; thus in the case of Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’, the state core, media and other institutions have been purged and rebuilt, but nonetheless the picture is much the same of economic subordination, strategic impotence and even - despite various gimmicky, natalist policies - a low and declining birth rate. Liberal governments pretend that global capitalism is liberatory and good for everyone; conservative governments pretend that they have triumphed over that order. It’s all gravy - just so long as Audi gets its cheap labour.

Marxism offers a real alternative, because it locates the real antagonism - between labour and capital - and does not project the mechanisms of capital’s self-expansion onto reified images of an elite. In doing so, it exposes rightwing ‘populism’ - so far as it gains working class support - as a species of sectionalism, and thereby explains its failure to make any positive difference to those workers’ exploitation. Sectionalism directly opposes the interests of the working class, because the working class is only as strong as its numbers; dividing sections against each other erodes discipline in direct struggle and lays the class open to piecemeal political cooptation.


Having said all that, it is precious little comfort to have the solution to this riddle when the subjective factor is in so lamentable a condition. Far from offering an attractive alternative pole, Marxism is the ghost at the European feast. It would take more space - and patience - than we have by some distance to survey the state of the left in all the European countries we have mentioned, but Spain itself is representative enough. It gave us, after all, Podemos, which was ostensibly an attempt to turn the indignados square-occupation movement into hard electoral currency by way of the application of Ernesto Laclau’s galaxy-brained neo-Gramscianism.

Over the last few years, Podemos has split again and again - and its old president for life, Pablo Iglesias, has retired from politics. What Spanish voters had in front of them was a coalition of dozens of organisations under the name, Sumar, and the leadership of Iglesias’s successor, Yolanda Diaz. Looking a little more closely, the major components of the alliance appear mostly to be the various fragments of Podemos stitched back together on a more primitive political basis. Its showing was hardly dreadful, but less than the sum of its parts last time around - and why shouldn’t it be, when it had been in coalition with the left wing of la casta, the elite caste it had always denounced (in deference to the recommendations of Laclau’s ‘On Populist Reason’)? Why shouldn’t Spanish voters dismiss them as just another bunch of grasping politicians, and look elsewhere?

The fascists of the early 20th century were a reaction to the strength of working class parties in Europe; their victory a product of the weaknesses within that apparent strength. Parties like Vox, Fidesz and so on respond instead to a situation in which the left, despite occasional and short-lived breakthroughs, is marginal and indeed self-marginalising by way of its opportunism. Liberals are denounced as Marxists or crypto-Marxists - at least partly because the available Marxists are just not up to snuff as an enemy within.

The advance of the far right, however, perpetuates this dynamic. With every victory, its sworn enemies become more frit. The duty of ‘anti-fascism’ dominates all other leftwing political concerns, with the result that the left cannot resist the temptation to ally with the centre; but, every time this happens, the left is revealed as a controlled opposition (or the centre is revealed as ‘really’ Marxist; in either case, the far right has an easy case to make to its base).