Neoliberal Roots of the Far Right’s Ascendance in France

The results of the 2015 regional elections in France are known: the far right FN (National Front) has made major gains. In other countries polled in Europe – Poland, Hungary, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – the far right has also scored major successes or even rules the country (Poland, Hungary). There are many reasons for this xenophobic, racist and reactionary surge, which in many cases resemble the reasons behind the success of reactionary and racist Donald Trump in the US.

Many leaders of traditional parties claim to be frightened and say they want to block the rise of the far right. In French, the word “barrage” (dam) is used by the media and the leaders of most parties. A dam must be erected to block the rise of the National Front, they argue. Yet this dam arrives very late in the day, after years of austerity and benign or malign neglect of the poor, immigrants and what is loosely called the middle class. The dam builders of today are the wreckers of yesterday. In the US, Thomas Frank coined the expression “wrecking crew” in his book: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation. The wreckers have their own Internationale and are active in Europe as well. The far right there, and Trump or the Tea Party in the US, are offshoots of the destruction of the commons.

Unemployment affects 11 percent of the work force in France, according to official figures, but many more, if you take into account all those who have given up looking for jobs or have accepted badly-paid part-time jobs by default. Real disposable income is going down while rents and the cost of housing are going up. There is competition at the bottom of society for scarce public resources, but the right hand of the state finds funds for military adventures.

Inequality in Europe has not yet reached the levels of the US, now or during the Gilded Age, but is rising with lots of people living close tothe poverty line. The world the neoliberals (whether of the right or of the so-called left) have made is cruel, unequal and offers no prospects for the future. What is blocked by a dam is not the far right, but the future: no one among the 99 percent expects his or her living standard toimprove, but many fear falling into poverty, losing their jobs and not having enough to support their families. Politically, we must fear fear itself, which prepares the ground for novel forms of fascism.

Under these conditions, when for three decades businesses and the 0.1 percent were given tax credits and gifts of all sorts, it is not surprising that the far right can mobilize the scapegoat mechanism. So, in typical fashion, the truly disadvantaged may turn immigrants, foreigners or so-called elites into scapegoats. And, in the case of the business class, or those whom Podemos in Spain calls “the political caste,” resentment is not misguided. The so-called “government left” in France promised a major change in 2012 and did not deliver. On the contrary, it aligned itself with the neoliberal demands coming from the EU and Germany.

Hope died and many leftist supporters experienced what Langston Hughes called “a dream deferred.” The famous African American writerasked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and ended his poem with a possible answer: “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load. /Or does it explode?” Hughes, of course, referred to African Americans in the US, but his perception is valid in other contexts. Feelings of letdown can lead to explosions, some of them explosions in reactionary directions.

The National Front in France, like Trump and the Tea Party in the US, are indeed xenophobic and reactionary, but they are also the results of social inequality and the blocking of all avenues of redress by traditional parties. Countries that do better economically and socially tendto be more welcoming and democratic than countries that live in economic and social trouble. When housing costs soar and good jobs disappear, the door to angry demands is open and demagoguery may have a field day.

So the neoliberals create the ruins upon which the far right flourishes. Yet something else matters here. Michal Albert recently argued that the left was, in part, responsible for the negative developments in Venezuela, France and Argentina. He states, “When failures occur, progress requires taking responsibility for what one could have done differently and then making changes.” This is also something Chomsky often argues.

In France, many on the radical left do not have this attitude. The left rightly blames the neoliberals and conservatives, but does not wonder about its own problems and failures. Blaming the “Other” then becomes a parlor game. Hegel coined the expression “schöne Seele” (literally beautiful souls) to refer to people posturing or preferring emotions over rational assessment of reality.

Chris Hedges, Paul Street and Michael Albert also criticize the academic left, which is too disconnected from workers and social movements. Since the disappearance of strong labor parties in Europe, the left has also become mostly academic and more focused on discourse analysis or, in many cases, grandstanding to win the prize of best thinker opposed to the far right.

The radical left is not in power (except for a short while in Greece, before Greece was forced to toe the neoliberal line last July), so it cannot be held responsible for the policies which promote the far right, but the radical left has mostly become an academic enclave inhabited by careerists who do not know about workers and the poor (with notable exceptions, like Nonna Meyer in France). Academics themselves work in a neoliberal environment where competition and job insecurity are the rule.

Many liberals in France (more likely to self-identify as socialists here) even share a form of disdain for the poor and the truly disadvantaged whom they consider hopelessly racist. It is even fashionable to mock the “boorish proles” (les beaufs) who vote for the National Front – without realizing that this “social racism” targeting the poor, to use Bourdieu’s phrase, is a form of domestic xenophobia which is common among reactionaries. The underprivileged who vote for the racist party are mostly but not exclusively white. For them too the social question is central.

The French prime minister argued recently that the National Front is a fraud. He is right, of course, but this fraud has been fostered by the wreckers in Paris, Brussels and Berlin who refuse to see that they, too, are responsible for feeding the monster.

It is admittedly very arduous to change the minds of desperate people who feel the far rightists have the answers or are the only avenue for change. Jeremy Corbyn’s difficulties in the UK are a case in point. Corbyn says the decent things but has to deal with the Gramscian victory of the right in his country, and even in his post-Blair parliamentary party.

The neoliberals and the far right reactionaries are the father and mother of this victory. Progressive activists often use the slogan: “No justice, no peace”; this applies to the US as well as to Europe. The social question remains central if we want to erect a dam against the “xenophobic thugs.”