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Conservatives, the Far Right, Fascists and How We Defeat Them All

Calling out fascism alone won’t defeat it. The left needs an anti-oppression strategy and popular social programs.

Alt-right demonstrators gesture during a rally on August 17, 2019, in Portland, Oregon.

The deadly consequences of right-wing governments in power have been made horrifically clear in recent weeks. President Trump’s tirades of anti-immigrant racism spurred one of his followers to carry out an attack in El Paso, Texas, while Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro encouraged authorities and private citizens to kill criminals like “cockroaches” — a stance that has already led the police to murder 414 mostly poor and Black people in Sao Paulo this year.

The left has no choice but to take today’s right deadly seriously, understand its specific nature and develop effective strategies to combat it. David Renton’s brilliant book, The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, does just that.

Renton draws on Neil Davidson’s taxonomy of the right that distinguishes its three key ideological traditions and their strategies to defend capitalist society: Conservatism wants to protect existing class and social relationships within bourgeois democracy; the far right plans to reimpose lost hierarchies through an authoritarian turn within bourgeois democracy; and fascists aim to organize political counterrevolution to purge their identified enemies, smash bourgeois democracy and replace it with a dictatorship.

Renton uses this taxonomy with one qualification: he argues that there is no reason to think that the different forces on the right are frozen in these categories. They can move from one to another and also merge, producing particular and distinct combinations.

Convergence of Forces on the Right

Renton contends that today’s dominant political figures on the right like Trump and political movements like the one for Brexit are not fascist; they are not trying to overthrow the government, but win elections and turn the state in an authoritarian direction. Renton stresses this not just to guard against the fast and loose use of the term “fascist” to describe anything on the right, but also because inaccurate characterizations of the right can lead to disastrously mistaken strategies to fight it.

He also rejects the commonplace description of the right as “populist”:

The term populism has been used to describe anti-capitalist protests (such as Occupy Wall Street), military rulers promoting development dictatorships (Hugo Chávez in Venezuela), insurgent politicians of the far left who have chosen a “Populist” as opposed to “Marxist” rhetoric (Podemos in Spain), politicians seeking to shift rightwards a center-right party (Sebastian Kurz in Austria), anti-immigrant electoral parties (the Lega Nord in Italy) and parties with fascist roots (the FN in France). These phenomena are so broad, the ties connecting them so varied and imprecise, that they cannot meaningfully be encompassed with a single term.

Focusing on Trump’s election in the U.S., Brexit, and Marine Le Pen in France, Renton shows that today’s right wing is a convergence between conservatives and the far right. Fascists are still present but are a significantly diminished force, though he does not preclude them becoming a larger threat in the future.

This new right is not trying to rebuild the classical fascism of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and re-fight their lost battle of the World War II period. Instead, their key reference points are contemporary: They see 9/11 as opening up a civilizational struggle between “the West” and Muslims; they want to stop migration; and they promise to restore racial and gender hierarchies as well as the jobs lost to globalization.

The New Right’s Convergence on Brexit

Brexit is Renton’s paradigmatic example of the new right. He reveals how the “leave” vote was the product of the coming together of the extreme Margaret Thatcher wing of the British Conservative Party with the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party based on a shared hostility to the EU, migration and — above all — Muslims.

Contrary to media pundits, the right found its principal base among traditional Tory voters in the petty bourgeoisie, mainly in the South of England. It did win over a small but significant voting bloc among unemployed and retired workers who depend on state benefits in depressed areas of Britain.

The working class as a whole, though, and especially working-class people of color in big cities like London and Manchester, voted overwhelmingly for “remain.” They did so not out of some commitment to the EU, but because they saw the Brexit campaign as racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, and opposed it based on class solidarity against such hatred.

The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right
The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, 2019.

“Remain” lost because it was led by Tories like Prime Minister David Cameron who had himself traveled far down the road to far-right bigotry and had nothing to offer the workers suffering real problems and fears of declining living standards. Tragically, the left failed to present a coherent alternative, vacillating between “remain” and “leave.”

As a result, the new right scored an enormous victory for their agenda. They solidified a base among Tories, shifted the party leadership to the right, and successfully racialized British politics, promising benefits and jobs to British-born citizens, while aiming to ban and expel migrants and reduce those remaining to second-class citizens relegated last in line for state benefits.

Trump and New Right in the U.S.

Brexit inspired the right on an international scale, with Trump viewing it as a harbinger of his own victory. Renton analyzes his election as another example of convergence on the right. Trump had been a fairly run-of-the-mill conservative capitalist until the Republican Tea Party movement showed him that there was an opening on the right, which he seized with his racist “Birther” crusade against President Obama as a “foreign-born Muslim.”

In his presidential campaign, he struck a strategic alliance with the far right, particularly Steve Bannon and his Breitbart media network, and found a cadre among its young, alienated and mostly male “journalists,” and readers who trucked and bartered in conspiracy theories and numerous forms of bigotry. Trump managed to present himself as a candidate of change against the neoliberal establishment in the Republican and Democratic Parties, who offered no solution to the crises in U.S. society.

He ran on a program of “America First” nationalism that scapegoated immigrants, Muslims and women, among other oppressed groups. He promised to restore American imperial greatness and manufacturing jobs by abandoning free trade deals for protectionism.

Renton demonstrates that Trump’s base was not the working class, but traditional Republican voters and the petty bourgeoisie, who on average earned more than those who voted for Hillary Clinton. He did win over a section of working-class voters in key states that gave him the margin of victory in the Electoral College, despite his loss of the popular vote.

These workers voted for him because they rightly viewed Clinton’s support of neoliberal austerity and globalization as offering them next to nothing. More important than this shift among a small section of the working class was the much larger number of workers, especially people of color, who did not even turn out to vote, either as a result of voter suppression or simply because they had no motivation to vote for yet another establishment Democrat.

In office, Trump has combined naked service to the capitalist class through tax cuts and deregulation with racist attacks on Muslims and immigrants, protectionist tariffs, and promises of increased manufacturing employment. In the process, he has consolidated a right-wing base for a new Trumpite Republican party.

While the extreme far right and explicit fascists have tried to take advantage of Trump’s presidency to build street militias and advance their counterrevolutionary strategy, Renton argues that they overplayed their hand, especially in Charlottesville, Virginia, where their murder of Heather Heyer isolated and discredited them. However reluctantly and ambiguously, Trump distanced himself from them and then fired Bannon, who had been the bridge in the administration to these more extreme elements.

Nevertheless, Trump’s convergence between mainstream conservatism and the far right has changed American politics fundamentally. As Renton writes, “forms of behavior which were once associated with isolated figures on the margins of politics have acquired the sanction of Presidential approval.”

“There is no reason,” he continues, “to think that the radicalization of US politics has reached its natural end…. If, in the future, Republicans continue to believe that their best [hope] is in an alliance between conservatism and the far right then others will follow the same road, further and more furiously than even Trump himself.”

The Incomplete Detoxification of the French National Front

If Trump represents convergence from the center to the right, France’s Front National represents the incomplete but opposite trajectory from the fascist right to far-right unity with the rightward-tending establishment. Jean Marie Le Pen spearheaded the Front for years, maintaining its connections to fascism and balancing between an electoral road and a counterrevolutionary one of toppling democracy.

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, realized that the Front was at an impasse, repeatedly blocked from electoral power because of its association with fascism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Renton shows how she has tried to overcome this by implementing a project of “detoxification,” cleaning the party up and reorienting it on an almost entirely electoral strategy.

She expelled her father from the Front, removed his title as honorary president, distanced it from anti-Semitism and renamed the party Rassemblement National. Marine Le Pen refocused it on the familiar themes of today’s right — nationalist hostility to globalization and the EU in particular, opposition to immigration, especially from the Middle East and North Africa, Islamophobia and an unrelenting demand for an authoritarian presidency to put French society “in order.”

She converged with the rightward-tending establishment, from Nicolas Sarkozy to Emmanuel Macron, who emphasized most of these themes, especially scapegoating all Muslims for Islamic fundamentalist attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo to deflect attention from their neoliberal attacks on the welfare state and working class. Le Pen distinguished her party from them by posing as a defender of the French nation against the EU, promising that leaving the euro would restore industry, jobs and benefits.

This position expanded the Front’s appeal beyond its traditional petty bourgeois base to sections of workers, who previously voted for the left. With the establishment parroting her ideas, and the Socialist Party and even left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon compromised by adaptation to Islamophobia, for example, by voting for a ban on the Muslim hijab in schools, Le Pen got into the final round of the 2017 presidential election, losing to current President Macron.

The Front clearly gained from the detoxification, but Renton cautions it has strategically left that process incomplete, maintaining its own security forces, which overlap with fascists, and choosing a “new” name, “Rassemblement,” which has been used by fascists in the Front’s past. Thus, as academic and author Jim Wolfreys argues in his book, Republic of Islamophobia, the Front continues a pattern of detoxification with periodic re-radicalization in which it invokes its continuity with its fascist heritage.

While Le Pen failed to win, she and her party have succeeded in yanking the entire political discussion to the right. As Renton writes, “with Le Pen in opposition, it is her enemies who are doing the greatest harm. Not for the first time, politicians in France are trying to prevent a far-right government by implementing illiberal policies. This process does not break the power of Le Pen, instead it serves to make her appear reasonable.”

How the Left Should Fight the New Right

With this new right challenging the establishment and winning electoral power, the left must adjust its strategy to defeat it. As Renton notes, the old strategy of unmasking the right as a fascist threat to democracy is no longer accurate and will not stop the new right, which is focused on winning elections based on its authoritarian and reactionary program, not overthrowing the government and establishing a dictatorship.

He also warns against the left wrongly thinking that we’re “five minutes to midnight,” and consequently supporting the establishment’s parties to stop fascism. As his case studies demonstrate, these parties’ neoliberalism, authoritarianism, austerity measures against the working class, and scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims have opened the door to the new right and legitimized it.

Instead of lining up behind the establishment, Renton argues, the left has to challenge it with a principled and popular program in social and class struggle as well as in elections. In these efforts, the left must expose the new right as racists; challenge their discriminatory positions, particularly against Muslims and immigrants; work to split the alliance between conservatives and the far right; defend ourselves against the far right and actual fascists with mass street protests like the one against the Proud Boys in Portland; and build an electoral left that campaigns not just on demands for the working class, but also ones that explicitly combat oppression.

He stresses that “a politics which is limited to exposing the right without also bringing better living standards to most voters will fail. The way to defeat the right is for the left to offer more, better wages, cheaper homes, greater benefits, as well as a sustained hostility to racism and sexism and other ideas of the right.”

Renton’s book is an invaluable analysis of the right’s successful strategy of authoritarian convergence. It will leave readers wanting more, but there are a few things I wish he included and developed further.

Fascism, Neo-Fascism in the Global South and the Great Recession

While Renton repeatedly refers to classical fascism, he does not flesh out its characteristics and history in detail as he did in his previous book, Fascism: Theory and Practice. This is important to do, so that the contemporary left, which is far too accustomed to call all our opponents fascists, can see how different it is from today’s right.

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argues in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It, fascism emerged as a mass force in the interwar years when the capitalist system was in deep imperial and economic crises and faced the threat of a workers’ revolution. In these conditions, fascist organizations developed among the petty bourgeoisie, who — unlike capitalists who have money and resources to fall back on, and workers, who have their unions to protect them — have few defenses.

Fascists organize this class as well as sections of the unemployed and other disorganized workers into a mass street movement to smash workers’ parties and organizations and terrorize oppressed groups with the goal of imposing dictatorship. The capitalist class only turns to fascists as a desperate measure to preserve their class rule.

This analysis explains how today’s authoritarian convergence on the right in the event of another economic crisis and rise in class struggle could morph back in the direction of fascism. It also underscores how fascism is a counterrevolutionary threat built into capitalism in periods of deep crisis and can only be finally eliminated by establishing a new socialist society.

While Renton stresses the international nature of the new right, he mainly focuses on those in the advanced capitalist states and does not flesh out how his argument about authoritarian convergence applies to regimes like those of Bolsonaro in Brazil or Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. Do they fit the pattern or not? Would Renton agree with, for example, Brazilian socialist Valério Arcary’s characterization of Bolsonaro as a neo-fascist?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Renton does not give enough attention to the Great Recession in creating the conditions for the new right to develop. He does highlight this toward the end of the book, but this crisis, especially in the U.S., is just as important as 9/11 for explaining the rise of the Tea Party and Trump’s breakthrough and that of the new right internationally.

The austerity measures capital required to restore its profitability deepened class inequality — already at record levels after four decades of neoliberalism — and delegitimized the system and its establishment parties. These conditions were pivotal for producing the authoritarian convergence on the right that we are seeing throughout the world.

But these are minor criticisms. Renton’s book should be required reading for the left and especially anti-fascist activists; it lays out an invaluable analysis of our enemies on today’s right and lays out a strategy that, if implemented, can defeat them.

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