Far Right Institutional Power Isn’t Inevitable. Here’s How Leftists Can Win.

As the right tries to get ahead of a story they seem already so far behind in, author and international relations scholar John Feffer explains, “There is a great opportunity for the left and for progressives more generally to assert a bold and visionary policy about not just mitigating the effects of climate change, but getting out in front of the problem and effectively using climate change as a lever for economic transformation.”

In this interview, Feffer discusses his latest book, Right Across the World: The Global Networking of the Far-Right and the Left Response, where he argues that leftist global connectivity is all too limited and disjointed when compared to and faced with the growing challenges set forth by an organized international set of reactionaries and autocracies. Feffer exposes the origins of the new right, and in discussing the left response, emphasizes the importance of transnational progressive organizing.

Busra Cicek: Previously, we discussed how “the pandemic brought out many of the pre-existing inequities, whether political or social while some transformational possibilities were also revealed.” You provided your insight on how a unified pandemic response could repair social compacts and help to reshape the national and global economy. Can you comment on what you describe as the New Right’s Achilles’s heel and particular agreements, such as the Paris climate deal?

John Feffer: The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) started a project a couple of years ago with interviews with around 80 people around the world who had some direct experience of tracking the far right in different countries. What we were interested in determining was the extent to which the far right was organizing at a transnational level. And, of course, this was the main paradox. The far right, traditionally, couldn’t care less about internationalism or, as it calls it, “globalism.” In fact, the modern far right, the “alt-right,” has basically made a business for itself of attacking globalism, so why are they working together across international borders?

And we discovered that the far right does have a history of internationalism. The Nazis, for instance, forged ideological alliances across borders. And it wasn’t just for strategic purposes — to align, for instance, with Japan to have an ally in the Far East — but also for ideological purposes: to identify groups that were considered Aryan or near-Aryan in their perspective. Neo-Nazis had a similar approach, and less for strategic purposes and more for ideological purposes. So, there was a history of the far right working across borders. But what really emerged, and this is the argument of the book, is that there was a much more conscious and much more strategic effort by an emerging far right — a new far right, if you will — from the 1990s on that really understood transnational organizing as essential to their purpose.

The book identifies three levels of organizing. The most recent, perhaps, is governmental or intergovernmental, and this is, of course, the one that has gotten the most press. But this is the last piece to fall into place because, of course, the far right wasn’t in power until relatively recently. But once in power, figures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Viktor Orbán of Hungary cooperated with one another and saw themselves as building a new axis in the world system to align against what they perceive as the liberal internationalist consensus. But, as I said, that was really the last piece to fall into place. Before that were two other levels of organizing.

One was nongovernmental or the civil society of the far right, and that was very prominent, for instance, in organizing around the “Great Replacement” doctrine. The Great Replacement ideology was put forward in France around 2011, arguing that “outsiders,” folks who are not native to France in this case, were coming in to basically replace the so-called indigenous people in France — demographically, culturally — and basically hijacking French society. The far right applied this Great Replacement theory from country to country within Europe and then in white-majority countries around the world, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States. So, this was one of the ideological binding forces that brought together this civil society of far right actors.

The third level would be digital, and this is an important level of organizing because, of course, in any given society, for the most part, the far right is on the margins. Only through digital connections could this widely dispersed community find itself online, and they could organize themselves, not spatially according to a political party in a given state, but transnationally through social media and through the internet more generally. So here you have these three different levels of transnational organizing by the far right.

Then the book discusses the content behind this organizing. I mentioned the Great Replacement, but that’s only one element of the ideological map of the far right. The goals differ from organization to organization, from country to country, but there are some common elements. The far right also proved themselves to be very good students of left organizing, such as Gramscian theories of how to take over culture or civil rights organizing of the 1960s or Saul Alinsky-style of organizing in the United States that gained strength in the 1970s.

So, you have content, such as white identity politics. You have structure. And then you have strategies, often borrowed from left organizing. So, that brings together the arguments of the book. And then, of course, at the end of the book, I talk about where this puts the left. What can we, in turn, learn from the far right and its transnational organizing, and what opportunities are now available for the left to take advantage of this moment?

Cicek: How can we use the Global Green New Deal?

Feffer: There’s good reason to be pessimistic, especially when assessing the progressive movement worldwide. If you look at where progressives are in power in the world, it doesn’t amount to a lot of countries, and there is debate over whether even those governments are progressive. I mean, people will lift up, for instance, the New Zealand government of Jacinda Ardern, but if you talk to a lot of folks in New Zealand, they’re like, “Well, she’s not really progressive.” The same applies to Iceland or South Korea. Or Mexico: is AMLO actually a progressive or not?

And then, of course, there’s the EU. Is the European Union actually a victory for progressives? Obviously, it was born out of social-democratic or even socialist impulses, but it has obviously moved considerably from those original intentions. Is it still progressive?

From the point of view of the far right, the EU or the New Zealand government or the governments of Iceland or Mexico, these are terrible left-wing socialist governments. But from a progressive point of view, it’s an open question whether we are, in fact, in charge anywhere around the world.

It’s discouraging when you look at how successfully the far right has captured not only offices but states. They’ve captured offices in the sense of winning power, but they’ve captured states in the sense of basically turning states into giant moneymaking opportunities for their clients or for their patrons…. So, there’s certainly lots of reasons for pessimism when we look at the array of forces, even progressive forces, being relatively weak when it comes to governance, and the far right being relatively strong.

And I’m not even talking here about authoritarian governance, which may or may not be explicitly far right, but there is certainly ideological overlap, whether it’s Modi in India or Xi Jinping in China or Vladimir Putin in Russia: extreme nationalism, hostility to human rights and civil society organizing on the left, intolerance toward LGBTQ communities, and so on.

On the other hand, progressives can say, “Look, we may not be in charge of governments, but we have had tremendous influence over structures and over culture, over society at large. Just look at the victories of the civil rights movements, for instance. Or the victories of the union movement over the decades.”

All of that is prologue to answering your question, which is about the Green New Deal. The book makes the argument that the far right is weak on climate questions. The far right has either been in a state of denial — “We’re not in a climate crisis. We should just ‘drill, baby, drill’ when it comes to oil.” — and everything else is a conspiracy theory cooked up by China or socialists or tree-huggers. Or they acknowledge the climate crisis because, increasingly, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that there are horrendous changes afoot in climate.

And they say, “Well, okay, things are happening, but our response should be entirely national. It shouldn’t be international because we don’t want any international authorities dictating to us what we do in the Amazon, what we do with our oil pipelines, what we should do with our fracking. Our responses should be entirely national and focused on establishing walls or metaphoric walls in some cases, to ensure that climate refugees do not flow into our society and other measures to ensure that our societies — not other societies — are protected from whatever changes are taking place in the climate.”

All of which suggests that there is this great opportunity for the left, for progressives more generally, to assert a bold and visionary policy about not just mitigating the effects of climate change but getting out in front of the problem and effectively using climate change as a lever for economic transformation. I should say, parenthetically, that this is something that conservatives have accused us of for the better part of 20 years, that we are trying to take advantage of the climate crisis to covertly implement our own economic goals. But I’m comfortable with that, to be honest with you. I mean, I do think this is an opportunity for absolutely necessary economic transformation, and the only way we’re going to push it through is if there’s a feeling that there is an imminent threat…. The far right doesn’t have any kind of response to this emergency, and I think progressives do. Not only do progressives have a response to it, that response has to be international. So, it’s an opportunity not only for economic transformation but a new internationalism that is embedded in that economic transformation.

How do we ensure that this is not just a transformation for the rich? Let’s look at the biggest and perhaps most important Green New Deal initiative at the moment, the European Green Deal, which was launched around 2019 and then added to this last July with a new set of initiatives, Fit for 55. Some of it is good. Let’s be clear that a reduction of 55 percent over 1990 levels of carbon dioxide is better than what was initially proposed within the EU, which was somewhere along the lines of 35 or 40 percent, and it is better than what a lot of other countries are offering. The fact that it is being embedded in EU practice, and it’s not just a set of declarations, that’s good too. The fact that there is a Just Transition Fund and Mechanism that’s part of this, that will ensure that the poorer areas of Europe will be able to keep pace with the decarbonization plans of Europe as a whole, that’s really good.

However, there are some problems.… So, for instance, there’s a European Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism which will put essentially a tariff on imports coming into Europe based on how polluting, basically, the manufacturing process was in terms of carbon emissions. And that sounds like a good thing. You want to penalize polluters, and it’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned for the main target of that which will basically be Russia, because I think we need to pressure Russia to basically wean itself from dirty manufacturing and its dependence on fossil fuel production and export. But there are plenty of other countries that are going to suffer because they don’t have the resources that Russia presumably has to upgrade their manufacturing and agriculture to avoid penalties on their exports.

And then there’s the question of how much is Europe going to actually provide for the rest of the world to decarbonize and make a clean energy transition. Some, but not nearly what is going to be required for the Global South to make this jump. And, as you probably know, it’s been like a decade almost that the UN has tried to mobilize a hundred billion dollars for the Green Climate Fund, which would help the [poorer countries] make this transition. As of maybe a month ago, they’d raised just about $80 billion, but they were supposed to meet this target quite a long time ago.

When it comes to decarbonization, there’s still going to be this big gap between the frontrunners and the folks that are back in the pack. I think that can be addressed, so I’m not entirely pessimistic about that. If we can push Europe, especially, to take a more prominent position in providing funds to the Global South, then we’ll have a greater chance of persuading Japan, the United States and China to pony up the money to close this gap.

Cicek: You state that although the new right has not been irreversibly successful, it has created a sense of momentum (Brexit referendum, Trump’s election, Bolsonaro’s victory). So, my question here is about the momentum: How do we start? Haven’t we tried? What else do we need this time to make sure that authoritarian leaders go home?

Feffer: First, I would say that you’re right. In the book, I talk about the fact that the far right, in its series of wins, has made those victories seem inevitable after the fact. But it’s not inevitable. We’ve seen, of course, Trump lose the 2020 election. We see the declining popularity of Bolsonaro. We see it in the possibility that Orbán will lose in the next election because the opposition finally has gotten behind a potentially viable candidate.

But — and this is a big “but” — there are the “normal” pendulum swings in politics as voters become disenchanted with the promises made by the current government. They turn to the opposition, and then they get disenchanted with that, and they turn back, and so you have this seemingly “normal” pendulum swing.

The far right has been determined to short-circuit that process, to, in other words, institutionalize their power. Changing the constitution, for instance, as Orbán has done in Hungary. Redistricting here in the United States to ensure that the Republicans will have a semi-permanent lock on power even though the demographics are against the Republicans and have been against Republicans for some time. Redistricting would ensure, at least for the medium term, that they remain in power without majority support. So, there are different ways that the far right has conceived of upending this “normal” pendulum swing between the center left and center right.

In the 2020 election here in the United States, there was sufficient disenchantment with Donald Trump to give just enough votes to Joe Biden, and that disenchantment was largely because of Trump’s handling of the COVID crisis. There were plenty of other reasons why Trump was, from an objective point of view, a terrible candidate for political office, which some Republicans would own up to, but that wasn’t what ultimately proved to be the determining factor. Instead, it was this terrible tragedy for the United States, the mishandling of the COVID crisis. All things considered, the 2020 election should have been a landslide for Biden. It wasn’t a landslide, but it was just enough to get Biden over the finish line. That should be a stark reminder to the left that we can’t rely on simple pendulum swings to get the far right out of power. We can’t rely on the fact that voters will look at the obvious incompetence of some of these leaders and conclude that they should be kicked out of power.

What the left has to do is provide an agenda that is convincing for enough citizens, a positive agenda rather than just a “kick out the bums” from power, a positive agenda that at least in part appeals to the same constituency that brought the far right into power in the first place. That means addressing the questions of, number one, economic precariousness, which has been a driving issue for so much of the far right around the world. It’s not the only issue … but if a sufficient number of people didn’t feel insecure economically and believe that that economic insecurity came from global economic pressures and the incompetence of their own national government, then the far right would have remained a politically marginal force.

So, if we’re talking about rolling back the far right, progressives clearly have to come up with a policy that is positive and appeals to this constituency. Ideally, this is where Green New Deal policies come in. You don’t have to call them Green New Deal. We can call them something else, but, effectively, they provide a kind of economic security: not based on the prospect that an individual will get rich, that the government will unleash entrepreneurial energy, but based on government playing a positive and constructive role in the economy and providing good jobs through the creation of and support of sustainable industries. That addresses the economic insecurity question. Environmental policies by themselves don’t do that. Yes, people are insecure about climate change, clearly, but to really have an effective political program that can bring the left to power, it has to marry these two issues of concern about climate change and concern about economic precariousness.

Daniel Falcone: Your work reminds me of how the organizational capacity for the right is seen in both the international and domestic realm. Some on the left in the United States sadly dismiss the right’s actions as a bizarre set of unorganized happenings, not more dangerous than neoliberal democratic corporate policies that are devastatingly harmful. In terms of domestic electoral politics, can you comment on the infrastructure bill, what does this process inform us about worldwide Trumpism, and what it says about our capacity to move the policy needle within the electoral framework?

Feffer: That’s a good jumping-off point because Trump himself also emphasized the importance of infrastructure. He said he wanted to get an infrastructure bill passed. He never actually got it together because Trump was not a politician and didn’t understand how politics operated. But infrastructure was big for him, at least in his own mind. And infrastructure, as a kind of category, can be an essential element for the far right as well. Obviously, Hitler was big on infrastructure, like building the Autobahn. That was essential to his vision of rebuilding Germany, of making Germany great again. All of that is meat and potatoes for the far right.

You would think that if an infrastructure bill gets put forward here in the United States, then it would gain support from the Republican Party since it had said it wanted infrastructure. But only 13 Republicans voted for the infrastructure bill in the House. Now, with the debate as it has played out here in the United States, we begin to understand that, for the far right, their agenda is a donut. There’s nothing at the center. There’s actually no real content to the far right. So much of it is symbolic. Okay, yes, there are real policies associated with their symbolism, whether it’s immigration or women’s rights or LGBT questions, so there are real policies associated with their retrograde views. But ultimately, those are symbolic positions, which is revealed by their often-contradictory stances — for instance, on opposing government mandates on vaccines and masking but supporting the government blocking a woman’s right to choose.

These contradictions are a function of the fact that there are no real policies at the center of the far right, that it is all symbolic at some level. In other words, if infrastructure is useful at a symbolic level for the far right when Trump is in power, then they’re all for it. But when it ceases to be of use because the symbolism of infrastructure has been “hijacked” by the Democrats, then they’re more than willing to jettison whatever transitory affection that they had for infrastructure before….

Maybe we have gone beyond that because politics has now been transformed into a battle of symbols, and the Democratic Party has lost out because of its stubborn insistence on real things while the right and the far right have recognized that real things make no difference any longer. Fake things have become more important, whether it’s wild claims, conspiratorial or counterfactual claims — or, again, simply symbolic claims that have little connection to reality. What has become important is the degree to which such a claim or such a policy engenders anger, fury, resentment in the population which pushes people to vote….

Essentially, what the far right has said is, “We will lose if we engage in the traditional playing field because that’s what happened over decades. So instead of changing the way we operate on the traditional playing field, we’ll simply establish a different playing field where we know that we’re stronger. And over time we will shift the debate to our playing field.”

Unfortunately, when we look around at election results around the world, they suggest that the symbolic playing field where the far right is playing is increasingly the one that matters, electorally. That is their road to power.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.