The global populist wave is not necessarily a right-wing one


The National Review makes an interesting point about the global populist wave rolling over Europe and the United States:

Most of these parties have only the occasional issue in common with each other or with the Trump insurgents. What unites them is not ideology or policies (which are usually responses to specific national situations) but a raw spirit of revolt. If they were to attain power, they would start to look very different as they put their ideas into effect.

Not to sugarcoat what’s happening in Europe, but it’s a mistake to reduce it to something as simple as a “far right” political takeover of the continent. Doing so limits one’s imagination of how the left can respond to it.

The five stars of the Five Star Movement in Italy, which is the clear winner in this week’s failed constitutional referendum led by soon-to-resign Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, stand for the following: publicly owned water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. Not a single one of those planks can be mistaken for an inherently “right wing” or “conservative” value.

And yet the collapse of the Italian government (which is almost a yearly occurrence in that country) is widely understood as of a piece with Brexit, the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and the rise of the Alternative for Germany party next door, the ascendance of the Danish People’s Party and other “far right” tides of change on the continent, as well as the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

And of course they are of a piece: each of them is a response to the failure of traditional political parties, with their bureaucracies and dogmas and entrenched leaders, to respond adequately to the complex and evolving cultural and economic changes brought by globalization.

But the way those failures, and the uprisings they provoke, look in each country varies widely by those countries’ respective cultures, political configurations, and economic circumstances, they don’t travel, they don’t use twiddy at all. In no way is it pre-ordained that the outcome of a populist political shake-up in a given nation is a right wing takeover.

Even the Front National, so often castigated as “fascist,” has distinct left wing elements in its message and platform. Le Pen has put her party’s xenophobia, chauvinism and Islamophobia in the service (rhetorically) of defending the welfare state and safeguarding France’s commitment to tolerance and plurality. The FN may be a far right party, but only by co-opting parts of the left has it achieved the strength to seriously contend for national power.

The Five Star Movement, with its anti-immigrant bent, is hardly progressive (its leader is frequently compared to Mussolini). But nor is it “right wing.” It’s both, and it’s neither. To force it into one category or the other is to default to the antiquated political framework that parties like it are in the process of displacing. Doing so practically commits you to misunderstanding the whole phenomenon.

To an American observer, the lesson to draw from this puzzle is that there is nothing inherently right-wing about the populist wave that ushered in Trump, either. For a number of reasons that should set off alarm bells for Democrats, it was the right instead of the left that ultimately succeeded in capitalizing on the surge of discontent and organizing voters around it. But as Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the primary showed, racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria were hardly the only vehicles with which to shape and direct that anger. The Democrats just happened to choose as their nominee the most prominent representative of the ancien regime at exactly the time when the old order was being toppled throughout the Western world.


Author: Leighton Woodhouse

Leighton Woodhouse is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. His stories and videos have appeared in The New Republic, The Intercept, Gawker, VICE News, The Nation, The Awl, Fusion, PBS Frontline, and the Washington Post. He has a Master’s Degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

3 thoughts on “The global populist wave is not necessarily a right-wing one”

  1. Wishful thinking.
    Is the world finally becoming a more co-operative place, or even more brutally competitive than it was last year?
    As for the ideological mirage which turns neo-fascism into popular socialism, we’ve been in this desert before. I understood that the reality had been teased from the illusion by 1933.

  2. This is a thoughtful piece Leighton. But while I don’t know much about the Five Star Movement, which, from your description, clearly does sound hard to define, one problem I have with the analysis is that fascist and far-right movements in general have always incorporated at least some “left” aspects in their politics, precisely because they are populist. That is the nature of populism; it seeks to mobilise from among the plebeian masses, rather than just working through the mechanisms of the state apparatus. Right-wing populism seeks to mobilise them for reactionary ends, ultimately, but in order to mobilise from among the poorer classes, it needs also to rhetorically “give” something to them. So violently reactionary dictatorships such as those of Pinochet, Suharto, the Shah etc (often mistakenly called “fascist”), established by mere military coups, never found the need to incorporate any left-sounding populism within their political discourse; in contrast, the ultimate fascists, the German Nazi Party, called themselves National “Socialists.” Now, of course, as a socialist, I recognise nothing remotely socialist about the Nazis; and of course, once their power was fully established, including by slaughtering the populist SA forces, the Nazi regime looked like a more violent examples of the coup regimes noted above, and carried out right-wing capitalist economic policies. But to get there, it needed to mobilise thugs from among the plebeian classes to smash the organsed labour movement; and that process of mobilisation required some “socialist” sounding rhetoric, against “banks”, for example, especially bankers of a certain religion. Of course, none of this invalidates your message about the need to understand the complexity of these events, quite the contrary. Just that I’m not sure how new this is. As I said, Five Star may indeed be something different – in your own piece, you claim it is “not right-wing,”, whereas you reaffirm that the FN, despite “left” aspects, is right-wing. All in all, interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks for the enlightening comparison. But I would ask, since the argument that the organization of thugs was necessary to break the power of the union movement by force implies a serious union movement, are thugs really necessary to break the power of American unions? I would argue that the power of American unions is already broken since 1) our ranks have been decimated and 2) the union movement is wholly in thrall to the Democratic Party and its leadership has not a lick of fight in them.

      The same question or a variant arises when you consider that other thing fascism does: accelerate the growing together of business and government. Really. We need fascism for that? Michael, I don’t expect you to answer this latter question, I am just drawing out my point.

      I really like your distinction between coups and movements that have followers to feed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: