What characterizes the far right scene in Europe and beyond?
Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Eviane Leidig, and Jacob Aasland Ravndal
- The far right is a global phenomenon with implications for local, national, and transnational politics.
- Far right actors take on multiple organizational forms, have distinct political goals and hold different understandings of democracy, nativism, and authoritarianism.
- The boundaries between the different geographic, ideological, and organizational variants of the far right are often blurred.
Far right as a heterogeneous phenomenon
The far right landscape is truly global. Virtually all countries have a potential breeding ground for far right politics, including places that have long been considered “immune” to it, such as Ireland, Portugal, Canada and, until recently, Spain. Furthermore, the far right landscape stretches to all corners of the world, beyond Western Europe. While its salience in Central and Eastern Europe has grown considerably throughout the 2000s, the far right has both a historical and contemporary presence in Latin America and in the Global South, in countries such as India, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Turkey, as well as in industrialized countries such as Australia, Israel, Japan, South Africa, and the United States. Within this global scenario, the far right features different variants of a shared ideological core, and it contains a multitude of organizations. Today, far right politics blurs the distinction different modes of political participation, as right-wing groups combine conventional party membership and unconventional (if not violent) forms of activism, left-wing issues and extreme right ideas, as well as traditionalist imageries and pop culture symbols.
The main political domain of the contemporary far right is national domestic arenas. Most far right actors run for national elections, organize around recognized national leaders, and mobilize on (alleged) national values and issues. The prototypical example of these parties is the French Rassemblement National, or National Rally, under Marine Le Pen (previously Front National founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen), but more recent examples include Vox and its leader Santiago Abascal in Spain, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil).
While national politics remains a primary channel of mobilization, the far right also informs supranational and transnational arenas. Parties like National Rally and the Danish People’s Party, for instance, have took advantage of supranational institutions like the European Parliament to build international links and partnership. In addition, recent years have brought about a revival in cross-country mobilization against migrants and refugees, via the swift-spread of the pan-European Identitarian network, the emulation of the PEGIDA rallies outside of Germany, and the rise of citizen street patrols following the Nordic model of the Soldiers of Odin. Finally, certain far right narratives, notably white and male supremacism, have transcended national borders to become effectively transnational. Global networks such as the so-called “counter-jihad” movement have especially benefited from the increasing availability of online spaces that allow for greater connectivity between far right actors and Islamophobic individuals, which spans from Europe to North America to Asia.
Finally, far right actors also participate in local and regional politics. First, most far right parties that are active at the national level also invest in local politics and community activism. Sub-national representation in government may in fact act as a “laboratory” to test national campaigns and policy, as with the local councils regularly held by FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party), and by the National Front in the French cities of Toulon and Orange in the 1990s. Second, certain far right groups have emerged out of separatist movements (e.g., the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, and, until recently, the Italian Lega (previously Lega Nord-Northern League) or at least politicized regional grievances (e.g., the French Identitarians, CasaPound in Italy, and Shiv Sena in India), with the goal of bringing these issues into the national political arena.
Ideologically, the far right landscape comprises all actors that are located “to the right” of the mainstream and conservative right on the left-right political spectrum. The ideology of these groups rests on the belief that inequalities are natural and therefore some groups are superior to others, which informs their nativist and authoritarian views of society. All far right groups see order and punishment (or “law and order”) as the crucial conditions to keep society together. Still, some organizations believe that a strictly ordered society can be achieved only within a non-democratic, authoritarian regime, whereas others simply display authoritarian attitudes, such as the glorification of authority figures, and the predisposition towards punishing any behavior considered “deviant” from their own moral standards. In this respect, it is important to distinguish the different sub-variants of far right ideology.
Most notably, scholars distinguish between groups that are hostile to liberal democracy, usually referred to as the radical right, and those that oppose democracy as such, usually referred to as the extreme right. Radical right organizations are hostile to liberal democracy but accept popular sovereignty and the minimal procedural rules of parliamentary democracy. Hence, they seek to obtain the support of the people by criticizing crucial aspects of liberal democracy, such as pluralism and minority rights, and publicly condemn the use of violence as an instrument of politics. This is the most widespread variant of contemporary far right ideologies, and applies to most far right parties represented in parliaments across Europe, including the Sweden Democrats and the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD, or Alternative for Germany), as well as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party).
By contrast, extreme right organizations typically reject the minimum features of democracy: Popular sovereignty and majority rule. Often inspired by Fascism or National Socialism, they believe in a system ruled by individuals who possess special leadership characteristics and are thus naturally different from the rest of the “people”. Accordingly, they reject democracy and party politics, oppose all forms of ethnic and cultural diversity within the nation state, and are open to the use of violence to achieve political goals. Contemporary examples of extreme right actors include the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in Greece, the paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization) in India, and the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the US.
In addition, scholars recognize two (or sometimes even three, as discussed here) main variants of the “nativist” component of far right ideology, i.e., the idea that only native people shall inhabit nation states. The first, biological racism, suggests that specific ethnic groups are genetically superior to others, and it is predominantly endorsed by marginal extreme right parties and white supremacist organizations promoting racial understandings of ethnic superiority. The second, ethnic nationalism, is supported by the majority of radical right parties that reject racial hierarchies in favor of an ethno-cultural understanding of the nation. Looking at the nation in terms of ethnicity, as well as shared cultural traits, such as language, traditions, and religion, these parties argue that the mixing of different ethnic groups creates insurmountable cultural problems and should thus be opposed. Unlike biological racism, this variant of nativism distorts dominant liberal values to challenge minority rights, religious pluralism, and ultimately, the arrival and settlement of immigrants in general.
If these ideological variants are becoming established, far right ideology can also take new and often surprising forms. Across the globe, far right groups draw increasingly on themes and demands traditionally associated with the political left, such as environmental protection and women’s rights. Associating these issues to their nativist and nationalist ideals, far right groups try to blur the distinction between mainstream and far right politics. Repackaging far right worldviews in ways that resonate with more widespread ideas and pop culture symbols, in fact, allows marginalized far right groups to attract international media attention and influence mainstream politics.
The far right landscape comprises four main types distinguished by their degree of internal organization and primary goals of action, ranging from most structured and institutionally oriented, to least structured and grassroots oriented ones.
Political parties, understood as political organizations that contest elections for public office, are arguably the most influential far right organizations in contemporary societies. This organizational form allows the far right to elect public officials and gain parliamentary seating, while also gathering financial resources through state funding. In terms of organization, far right parties tend to be more centralized and less internally democratic than mainstream parties, and generally feature a strong charismatic individual as party leader. However, they vary substantially in terms of membership and organizational structure, as certain groups organize like the traditional mass-party model of the 20th century, whereas others rest on the individual project of single politicians. In terms of ideologies, while there are substantial differences across parties, the most successful ones tend to be radical, rather than extreme right. Through party politics and electoral campaigning, the contemporary far right is now systematically represented in many national parliaments and it is often able to join governments. It can thus regularly influence the policy-making process, either directly (e.g., the League which was in office for most of the 2000s in Italy), or indirectly (e.g., the UK Independence Party which was never in office but obtained the “Brexit” referendum via its influence on the British Conservative Party).
Social movement organizations are similar to political parties in that they aim to influence politics, resting on a relatively stable and hierarchical internal structure, a defined formal membership, and a clearly identifiable ideological platform. Unlike political parties, however, their internal procedures are looser and usually devoid of formal decision-making mechanisms. Furthermore, while not in principle opposed to elections, most groups privilege street protest as a way to influence decision-makers. Contemporary far right movements differ among each other on multiple accounts, including ideology, membership, and strategy. Some groups mobilize in the streets only because they lack the resources, personnel, or strength to compete with political parties (e.g., the Nordic Resistance Movement, Uyoku dantai in Japan, Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging in South Africa), whereas others consider themselves as part of an intellectual vanguard that will change the mentality of their fellow nationals (e.g., the Identitarians). Since a number of organizations have been successful in gathering support for street protest, especially against Islam (e.g., the English Defence League), and/or refugees (e.g. PEGIDA), far right street politics is becoming increasingly influential at the national and transnational levels.
Less internally structured and institutionally oriented than either parties or social movements, media and intellectual organizations do not aim at influencing voting or policy-making directly, but indirectly by changing public debates and dominant ways of thinking. Compared to parties and movements, their structure is very loose, as they are made of individual intellectuals, clubs, and online and offline media organizations, among others. Their activities vary from organizing conferences and publishing books and magazines (e.g., GRECE in France, and the publishing houses Arktos and Counter-Currents), to promoting highly mediatized street politics (e.g., Eesti Rahvuslik Liikumine, or Estonian Patriotic Movement). Most intellectual clubs and schools are inwards-oriented: They operate to innovate far right ideas and make them more resonating or accessible (e.g., the Nouvelle Droite, or New Right), to form the cadres of political parties and to educate activists to reduce their stigmatization (e.g., the Hobbit Camps in Italy). Far right media organizations are instead mainly, albeit not exclusively, outward-oriented: While some are in-house publications with news about political parties mostly for militants, others offer information to the broader public. This can take the form of online hubs for transnational networks like Stormfront, or that of news outlets focusing on core far right issues, both online and offline (e.g., Breitbart News Network).
Subcultures constitute a final crucial component of the contemporary far right landscape. They comprise a myriad of loosely linked groups sharing specific identities, values, and codes. These subcultures differ from other organizations because while they coalesce around far right cultural objects (e.g., music or sports), they rest on a fluid organizational structure and lack internal institutions. Furthermore, their primary motivation is often more identity-related than political. Because of their looseness and emphasis on identity building, it is often difficult for parties and other more established political groups to form enduring collaborations with them. Most far right subcultures today are also present online and on social media platforms and mobile applications such as 4chan, 8kun (previously 8chan), Telegram, and Signal, which illustrates that the far right is quickly adapting to new technologies to spread their ideology, recruit members, and mobilize support. This is also contributing to the progressive blurring of the distinction between media organizations, social movements, and subcultures. On the one hand, these platforms can be non-hierarchical and leaderless, which is at odds with the dominant paradigm for most far right organizations. On the other hand, they allow for multiple forms of engagement, as far right groups and actors can readily manage web platforms, often in anonymous ways, and thus serve, at once, intellectual, militant, and information functions. Examples of successful far right online mobilization outcomes include the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India, the former as grassroots-oriented and the latter with professionalized operations.
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