Capitalist Necrosis & Right-Wing Populism

7 October 2022

Audio of a talk based on this article at an online meeting on 25 September 2022:

From Italy and Hungary to Canada and Brazil, a toxic mix of economic nationalism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant racism and social conservatism, often with a pseudo-“anti-elitist” veneer, is on the rise.

As the global economy lurches from crisis to crisis, the capitalists and their politicians have no way out but to force the costs onto workers. In the absence of a class-struggle movement with broad roots in the working class and based on a revolutionary program, grotesque right-wing populist demagogues will necessarily meet with some success. They pit various sections of working people against each other, shifting blame from capitalism itself onto minority groups while offloading the pain of crisis onto workers, the poor and the oppressed. The growth of right-wing populism is a symptom of capitalist necrosis (morbid decay) in the imperialist epoch.

Europe: Continent in Crisis

This phenomenon is taking place across Europe, where the project of an integrated capitalist European Union (EU) is fraying at the seams. The continent is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and is heading for recession, partly triggered by the NATO-led war in Ukraine that has destabilized the region, the West’s sanctions against Russian exports hitting the European economy hard with skyrocketing energy prices. Prior to the war, Russia was the largest exporter of fossil fuels to the EU, accounting for approximately 30 percent of its oil imports and 40 percent of gas.

Italy’s general election was recently won by a bloc of right-wing populist parties that includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega (successor to the Lega Nord), Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), which finished first overall with 26 percent of the vote. Meloni, who began her political career in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, is poised to become prime minister, leading Italy’s most right-wing government since the end of the Second World War. Brothers of Italy successfully campaigned on a carefully crafted message that sought to downplay its far-right roots, curate a conservative mainstream image and present Meloni as “a woman, mother, Italian, and a Christian.” Once in power, it plans to cut taxes and reduce state expenditures, slash social welfare benefits for the poor, tighten Italy’s immigration policy, including a naval blockade of Libya, and curtail the right to abortion and same-sex marriage and parenting.

Poland and Hungary, also ruled by ultra-conservative populists, are among a number of eastern European countries leading the effort to roll back the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in the guise of defending “traditional values” (i.e., propping up the bourgeois nuclear family). Poland is governed by the Law and Justice party (PiS), which has bedrock support in the country’s rural areas with deeply rooted Catholic traditions. Abortion is “unconstitutional” and legally authorized only in pregnancies that threaten the woman’s health or resulted from rape or incest. In October 2020, when 100,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw to oppose this near-total ban on abortion, the PiS government, supported by the Catholic church and far-right elements, deployed specialized divisions of the Polish armed forces to assist civilian police units in meting out state repression against those protesting.

Last year in Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party (Hungarian Civic Alliance) passed explicitly homophobic/transphobic legislation that prohibits portraying or promoting same-sex and trans content in schools and TV programs aimed at those under 18. The law comes not long after same-sex couples were banned from adopting children and the family unit was restricted to situations in which “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” In April, Fidesz was re-elected for a fourth consecutive time since 2010, largely by tapping into widespread opposition to European support for Ukraine. Orban has slammed the sanctions on Russian oil and gas, and his government refuses to send arms to Ukraine or allow war materiel to cross Hungarian territory. This has earned him the ire of bureaucrats in Brussels who have described him as “an avowed EU opponent, an avowed Putin friend.”

Even in those European countries not directly governed by populist right parties, they are now sizable political fixtures and viewed as viable electoral alternatives. The anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, finished third overall in the Dutch general election last year, while the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), formerly affiliated with long-time leader Jörg Haider, won over a quarter of votes in the 2019 parliamentary election. Both Spain’s Vox party and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB) are also gaining ground, having won 15 and 12 percent respectively of the popular vote in 2019. And in the Swedish general election in September the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, born out of a neo-Nazi movement at the end of the 1980s, finished second with over 20 percent of the vote and are the largest party in the ruling right-wing coalition.

The election of the buffoonish Boris Johnson as British prime minister in 2019 was an attempt, to some extent, to channel populist sentiment back into the Conservative Party in the wake of the 2016 vote for Brexit. The referendum largely took the form of a debate between two wings of the ruling class, but the Brexit faction of the Tories, the UK Independence Party and others were able to utilize it to build a populist movement that directed dissatisfaction among sections of the working class and petty bourgeoisie onto foreigners and away from their own ruling class. Liz Truss has now taken over Johnson’s mantle and the cabinet has moved rightwards, making it more difficult for a populist electoral alternative to consolidate. The leadership of these movements continues to exploit the fears of those left behind in an increasingly crisis-ridden economy and there have been significant numbers on demonstrations against vaccines and lockdowns. Right-wing populists continue to organize in defense of “the family” against trans rights and abortion.

In Germany, the racist, anti-Muslim and nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) garnered 10 percent of the vote in last year’s federal election. AfD has cultivated close ties with the military and police, as forces from immigrant-hating Pegida to open fascists are active within the party, using it as a recruiting ground and to initiate attacks on migrants and refugees. In August 2018, the AfD helped organize protests in the east German city of Chemnitz at which thousands of neo-Nazis marauded through the streets screaming “Chemnitz is ours—foreigners out!” and terrorized the local immigrant population.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (heir of the fascist Front National) made it to the second round in France’s last two presidential elections. In April, Le Pen faced off against lifeless technocrat and “président des riches” Emmanuel Macron for the second time, winning 41 percent of the vote (see “Neither Macron nor Le Pen!,” 23 April 2022). Her numbers were boosted by supporters of far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour and his Reconquête! party, which endorsed Le Pen in the second round.

Attempting to capitalize on the rightest surge, Identity and Democracy was launched in June 2019 as a political bloc of MEPs within the European Parliament, bringing together a veritable rogues’ gallery of reactionaries from across the continent. The group is centered around Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, AfD, FPÖ and Italy’s Lega and also includes affiliate members in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands. The coalition spouts right-wing populist rhetoric about “creating jobs and growth, increasing security, tackling illegal immigration, as well as making the EU less bureaucratic.” To broaden its appeal and eschew the “anti-European” label, Identity and Democracy has also sought to rebrand itself as “sovereignist.”

MAGA, the ‘Freedom Convoy’ & Brazil’s ‘Tropical Trump’

In the United States, the dominant figure on the populist right is, of course, Donald Trump. He was able to win the US presidency in 2016 through a pseudo-populist appeal to a Middle American working class ground down by deindustrialization, along with a “nationalist” conservatism that forswore the costly “regime changes” associated with the “war on terror.” Despite losing to Joe Biden and the Democrats in 2020, Trump retains a captive hold on much of the GOP base, with almost 60 percent of Republican voters backing his highly anticipated bid to regain the presidency in 2024.

Much was made of Biden’s claims in a speech on 1 September that Trump and MAGA Republicans are “semi-fascist” and “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” While this may play well with the base of the Democratic Party, it inaccurately suggests the US is on the precipice of fascist dictatorship if the Republicans win in 2024. The hyperbole and feigned outrage is partly designed to appeal to more “moderate” Republicans and score political points in the lead-up to November’s midterm elections. The Democrats have already funneled more than $53 million to boost far-right Republican primary candidates in a number of key states as part of an “election strategy” aimed at producing easily defeatable opponents. Unable and unwilling to provide any real alternative to the GOP, the Democrats’ political strategy boils down to shoring up support among a thin layer of liberals, who favor performative identity politics instead of policies that would make a real difference to the American working class, and from affluent white suburbanites—those with the most money to donate and who most consistently turn up come election time (see “Democrats in Power: ‘Woke’ Liberalism in the Service of Imperialism,” 1917 No.44).

Trump has become a mouthpiece for a diverse layer of anti-vaxxers, evangelicals, transphobes, anti-abortionists, pseudo-intellectuals fixated on the “culture war” and disaffected young men on YouTube and TikTok. He has also emboldened elements from alt-right to open fascists by making use of anti-immigrant rhetoric and nativism, male-chauvinist bravado and appeals to the downtrodden with economic nationalism and promises to “make America great again.” His baseless claims to have “won” the “rigged” November 2020 presidential elections, and his continued refusal to recognize a Biden victory, more than suggest authoritarian impulses and a cavalier disregard for bourgeois-democratic norms. The January 2021 storming of the US Capitol by thousands of Trump supporters was not the fascist-inspired “coup” it was portrayed to be, but it was a significant warning of what might follow if these forces are allowed to grow.

Earlier this year, Canada saw its own right-wing populist protests and blockades against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, calling itself the “Freedom Convoy.” Initially sparked by the ending of exemptions from vaccine requirements for truckers crossing the border into the United States, the movement quickly evolved into a more widespread opposition to Covid mandates in general. Some leading convoy organizers also called to “dissolve [the federal] government.” It culminated in a month-long occupation of downtown Ottawa and led to several offshoot protests at provincial capitals and key Canada-US border crossings.

The Freedom Convoy brought together a heterogeneous collection of malcontents ranging from those justly upset by the government’s mishandling of Covid-19, right-wing conservatives and anti-science/anti-vaccine fanatics to overt and covert pro-fascist elements. It also gained significant support among layers of the military and law enforcement who publicly endorsed the protest and claimed to have “boots on the ground,” some of whom also provided the core component of the convoy’s security detail.

Meanwhile, Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a right-wing split from the federal Conservative Party, seized upon the Ottawa occupation as a prime photo-op to support the so-called “freedom-loving Canadians” in attendance and provide “freedom pancake” breakfasts. PPC functionaries played key organizational roles in Canada’s Unity, one of the main groups behind the protest, which in turn has overlapping membership with the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant, white supremacist group with Finnish roots. While not fascist itself, the PPC has provided a home to openly fascist elements alongside layers of the alt-right and other unsavory characters. Bernier and his ilk aim to capitalize on the enormous energy of the movement, give it political expression within the xenophobic and ultra-nationalist PPC and thereby make gains at the ballot box next election. In an attempt to ride the wave of right populism and regain some of the support lost to the PPC, the Conservatives recently selected Pierre Poilievre, who embraced the Freedom Convoy, as their new leader over the “establishment” candidate Jean Charest.

In the end, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dealt with the protesters by invoking the draconian Emergencies Act, which was used to ban public assemblies the government deemed “illegal and dangerous,” give the police “more tools to restore order,” empower the government to designate and secure “critical” areas (e.g., border crossings, airports), freeze financial assets associated with “illegal activity” and impose fines of up to $5,000 and five-year jail terms. This was a gross attack on civil liberties and a dangerous precedent that revolutionaries oppose. While yesterday aimed at the Freedom Convoy, the same authoritarian measures will be employed tomorrow against the working class and left (e.g., picket lines, marches against racist police terror or direct actions by climate activists).

In Brazil, the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro of the Liberal Party, who has been in power since 2019, will meet Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the social-democratic Workers’ Party (PT) later this month in the second round of the presidential election. Although he exceeded pollsters expectations in the first round, Bolsonaro is in second place going into the final vote and has threatened that he will not accept a Lula victory, making baseless claims of election fraud and encouraging his supporters to stockpile weapons. A former army captain, he has cultivated close ties with the military and police, and his far-right supporters have held rallies advocating the establishment of a military regime. Dubbed the “Trump of the tropics,” his coup threats potentially set the stage for a violent challenge to bourgeois democracy.

The PT’s election campaign has used the threat of a coup and the genuine fears of right-wing populism among Brazil’s working poor to channel support along class-collaborationist lines, featuring openly popular-frontist calls for “democrats of all political positions, classes, races and religious beliefs … to overcome our differences and build an alternative path to the incompetence and authoritarianism that governs us” (BBC, 7 May). Lula, who led the country from 2003 to 2010, has been promoting dangerous illusions in Brazil’s bourgeois political institutions and dismissed the idea that Brazil’s armed forces would back a Bolsonaro takeover. This is rather naive considering the Brazilian military carried out a coup against left-leaning President João Goulart in April 1964, ushering in a military dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades. Bolsonaro himself came to power by colluding with the country’s judiciary to imprison Lula and prevent his running in the 2018 presidential election.

Marxists are irreconcilably opposed to Lula’s popular-frontist aspirations and would never give him any political support. Calls for class collaboration between the workers’ movement and the “progressive” bourgeoisie are a common response to right-wing populism, but this is a dangerous strategy that presents populism as an aberration rather than an option often selected by the ruling class and their political mouthpieces. The PT has a history of working with capitalist parties to appear more moderate and responsible to the Brazilian bourgeoisie.

Although Lula’s cross-class coalition of all purported “democrats” against “authoritarianism” is yet another obstacle to the formation of a genuine revolutionary workers’ party in Brazil, if Bolsonaro and his supporters were to launch a coup, it would be necessary for the working class to form a military bloc with Lula and the PT, using class-struggle methods such as strikes, mass protests and armed resistance. Rather than trusting that Brazil’s existing political institutions will somehow foil an attempted right-wing seizure of power, revolutionaries instead seek to advance a perspective of working-class independence to defend democratic rights.

Necrotic Imperialist World Order

The imperialist world order is a necrotic empire in decline—an economic system that combines incredible concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny few, along with very limited social mobility for the vast majority. The Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated the growing disparity between the super-rich and the poor. The Paris-based World Inequality Lab found that:

“Global inequalities seem to be about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century … 2020 marked the steepest increase in global billionaires’ share of wealth on record.”
—World Inequality Report 2022

While approximately 100 million people sank into extreme poverty in 2020, bringing the total number to some 700 million, the parasitic billionaire class, a tiny layer of some two-and-a-half thousand of the planet’s ultra-rich, is now worth a collective $12.7 trillion. Since the onset of the Covid crisis, US billionaires alone have seen their combined wealth increase over $1.7 trillion, a gain of over 58 percent during the pandemic, led by the likes of Elon Musk ($219 billion) and Jeff Bezos ($171 billion).

While the Covid-19 disaster has certainly exacerbated the crisis tendencies of global capitalism, it by no means caused them. They are the inevitable result of the built-in contradictions of a system whose fundamental pursuit is private profit. The immense transfer of wealth in the last several decades is rooted in a profitability crisis in the advanced capitalist world beginning in the early 1970s (see “Capitalism in Crisis: A Marxist Analysis of the Global Downturn,” 1917 No.31). Over the last 40 years the working class has seen stagnating living standards, declining trade-union membership, less equitable income distribution and the funneling of wealth to the top 0.1 percent of the population. Since 1975, America’s top 1 percent has siphoned off $50 trillion from the bottom 90 percent through an upward redistribution of income. In 2018 alone that amounted to $2.5 trillion: “enough to more than double median income—enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year” (Time, 14 September 2020). While the personal wealth of world leaders, politicians and billionaires soars to unheard of heights, much of it is hidden through corruption, tax avoidance and money laundering.

This has now converged with the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine, leading to an energy crisis and record-breaking inflationary rates. Prices for virtually all consumer goods in the US increased by more than 8 percent over the last 12 months, driven by rising costs for fuel, rent, groceries, household furnishings and medical care. The cost of food alone rose 11.4 percent over this time, the steepest hike since 1979. Biden and the Democrats have done little to alleviate the impact of rising inflation on working-class families, but they have provided at least $40 billion, or $110 million a day, in security assistance to Ukraine over the past year.

In the European Union, annual inflation was over 10 percent in August, threatening to impoverish tens of millions. The cost of living has become the most important issue for those in Britain, France, Germany and Poland. In September, British daytime TV briefly featured a game show segment in which lucky viewers spin a wheel for a chance to have their energy bills paid, a spectacle reminiscent of the dystopian series Black Mirror. Britain has seen its energy prices double in the past year, despite recently announced huge subsidies to the energy companies. Inflation is forecast to reach 11% this year, and the Bank of England has declared the shrinking economy to now be in recession. Not surprisingly, the energy crisis and inflation are expected to further fuel social unrest, protests and strikes across Europe.

All of this—inflation, poverty, ongoing pandemic, corruption, climate crisis, conflict in Ukraine and renewed threat of direct inter-imperialist war—has bred deep frustration among wide layers of society and created “perfect storm” conditions for the rise of the populist right.

Right-Wing Populism: Ideology of Hopelessness

The first couple of decades of the post-Soviet era were dominated by pro-capitalist ideology and neoliberalism. The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath came as convulsive shocks to the system, tarnishing the image of “free market” orthodoxy while further eroding the material basis propping up the political institutions of bourgeois democracy. With this decomposition and an accompanying political polarization, the traditional parties of the ruling class struggled to contain the social contradictions surging up at the bottom of society. Into that void has stepped the populist right.

Gaining appeal by preying upon the genuine concerns of the “common people,” rightest political demagogues channel popular outrage into openly anti-democratic and reactionary ends that divide the working class along lines of race, nationality, religion, gender, etc. They represent that wing of the bourgeoisie opting to pursue a particularly vile and brutal solution to the inevitable crises engendered by global capitalism. Although the particular form this takes varies from country to country, the connective tissue is a professed hatred of the dominant ideological framework of economic neoliberalism and “woke” identity politics, combined with a willingness to fundamentally rejig the world order and overhaul the post-WWII institutions underpinning it (i.e., United Nations, European Union, IMF, World Bank and NATO).

Contemporary right-wing populism is a recruiting ground for fascists, but much of it is not, strictly speaking, fascist itself. Writing about Germany in the early 1930s, Leon Trotsky observed that:

“Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society.”
“Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.
“When a state turns fascist … the workers’ organizations are annihilated … the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state … a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.”
—“What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” January 1932

This does not accurately describe the vast majority of variants of right-wing populist parties today. They remain by-and-large primarily electoral vehicles operating, albeit uneasily and often with reservations, within the framework of bourgeois legality. Unlike fascist seizures of power, which act as political counter-revolutions—i.e., a fundamental change in the nature and personnel of the ruling regime without changing the mode of production—right-wing populists aim to enact (counter-)reforms. Crucially, what demagogues from Trump to Bernier to Salvini lack is a mass street-based violent alternative, a defining feature of fascism. It is possible for a populist party to evolve in the direction of fascism if fascist forces within it become dominant, or for a fascist party to seek the more respectable veneer of populism. However, there is a tension between a strategy that focuses on mobilizing within legal structures and one that primarily relies on extra-legal violence, and this tends to push these formations in one direction or the other. Moral judgements that inaccurately apply the label “fascist” to any and all distasteful ideologues or unsavory political outfits only add confusion, obscuring the real and present danger of fascism when it does arrive.

The most effective way to prevent fascists from assembling, marching or spewing their poisonous filth is to ruthlessly crush them through the mass mobilization of their intended victims (workers and the oppressed). Dealing with right-wing populists, however, requires a more nuanced approach that recognizes the reasons working people are often attracted to these movements while providing a class-struggle alternative to much of what motivates proletarian elements suckered in by the far right (e.g., housing, health care, employment, cost of living). A strategy that treats Trumpites, TERFs and anti-vaxxers as indistinguishable from fascists, on the other hand, will tend to push vacillating forces away from the workers’ movement.

In those situations where populists and fragments of the fascist right converge, like the Freedom Convoy or storming of the US Capitol, the fascists involved must be identified if possible, isolated, physically confronted and driven from the streets, while politically neutralizing the much larger populist component. This can best be done through united-front actions of the workers’ movement, including trade unions, organizations of the oppressed and other potential victims of the fascists—not by calls on the armed fist of the capitalist state backed by draconian legislation as seen in Canada. Each situation should be judged on the balance of forces between fascists and populists and the immediate danger posed to workers and the oppressed. When the fascists mobilize en masse alongside hard-right populists in order to carry out violent attacks, as in Chemnitz, a class-struggle leadership would aim to shut down the entire action.

The ruling class and its political representatives are not facing any kind of serious threat from a combative labor movement, though the more far-sighted elements among them recognize the inherent dangers with heightened social unrest on the horizon. For the moment they have no need to resort to extra-legal paramilitaries (i.e, fascism) to subdue working-class militancy, and are content to channel social strife into right-wing populism and thereby avoid the substantial overhead costs of fascist dictatorship.

A Crisis of Leadership

The working class has been disoriented by decades of neoliberalism and pro-capitalist ideology propagated through the corporate media and by betrayals from the misleadership of the workers’ movement. The resurgence of right-wing populism is a byproduct of the decay of bourgeois democracy in the imperialist epoch, which itself is the result of the capitalist mode of production in its death throes. As the world economy teeters on the brink of another serious economic downturn and massive destabilization due to the Ukraine war, the coming social discontent will necessarily find political outlets as working people search for solutions. Without a revolutionary alternative, populists like Giorgia Meloni, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orban will continue to emerge and gain widespread support among tens of millions.

The interests of working people and the oppressed stand in stark contrast to a social order based on the pursuit of private profit. Revolutionaries must seek to mobilize within the working class around a program that not only addresses our immediate needs but does so in a manner that creates a bridge to a workers’ (i.e., soviet) government and the first stages of the transition to socialism.

In the current context, such a program would include the following demands: a massive increase in wages, particularly those near the bottom of the scale; an immediate price cap on food, energy and housing; wages pegged to inflation to ensure an automatic rise in pay in relation to an increase in the price of consumer goods; a shorter working week with no loss in pay to guarantee the equitable distribution of work hours to the available workforce, thereby drawing in the unemployed; expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy without compensation and under workers’ control; massive public investment in social services; reorganization of production to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and foster sustainable economic growth aimed at increasing human happiness and well-being; trade-union led defense against fascist violence independent of any reliance on the police; opposition to the drive toward inter-imperialist war and calling for the defeat of all imperialist powers (above all one’s “own”). Ultimately, only a rationally planned economic system based on collectivized property and central planning can lift the majority of humanity out of the poverty, hunger and exploitation to which capitalism has consigned us.

The development of the consciousness necessary for the working class to carry out this task must begin with an assertion of absolute independence from all wings of the bourgeoisie—neoliberal, liberal or populist. It also demands a political fight against a variety of reformists, social democrats and others who act as political agents of the capitalist class within the workers’ movement. This requires cohering the nucleus of a new Bolshevik-type party based on the political heritage of Lenin and Trotsky and committed to fight for leadership of the labor movement. This is the revolutionary perspective upon which the International Bolshevik Tendency is based and for which we fight.

Related articles:
‘Trial by Combat’ at the Capitol (1917 No.43)
Whither America? (1917 No.43)
Fascist Dregs of Capitalist Reaction (1917 No.41)
No Platform for Fascists! Lessons from the past—strategy for victory (1917 No.40)
Reforms are not ‘Enough’! Capitalism, crisis & the king (1917 No.46)