The presidential inauguration of Joe Biden took place under a heavy security lockdown in Washington DC. The city had implemented a fortified Green Zone in response to far-right Donald Trump supporters rioting at the Capitol. The setup was based on the security zone the United States military created in Baghdad as part of its occupation of Iraq, one that created an ongoing catastrophe for the Iraqi people.
Surrounded by soldiers – many of them veterans of devastating imperial wars – and in the bleak, wintery midst of a global pandemic, Biden’s inauguration was a surreal spectacle.
Trump, whose despotic desires were sunk by his buffoonish incompetence, is now out of office. This is certainly something to celebrate. But as Trump said in his farewell address, he and the Make America Great Again or MAGA movement view his period in office as “only just the beginning”. If the American Right throws up a competent leader, a political force even more dangerous than that which cohered around Trump may emerge. His electoral defeat should not be misunderstood as a decisive defeat for the Right.
The economic and cultural power of the US means that what happens there directly affects much of the world. Trump emboldened far-right political parties and cultural movements around the globe, including in South Africa.
Much liberal commentary sees the far right as a deviation from established liberal values of individual liberty and the free market. But this is a comforting illusion. In reality, contemporary extremism has its roots in centuries of colonialism, racism and economic plunder.
For Europe, liberalism always meant democracy – an elite democracy – at home and fascism in the colonies. In Europe’s settler colonies, liberalism meant an elite democracy ring-fenced for white people and fascist forms of domination for others.
Colonial genocide and enslavement laid the groundwork for 20th-century European fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain. As Carribean radical and poet Aimé Césaire noted in a blistering pamphlet published in 1950, the Nazis deployed tactics of subjugation, enslavement and genocide in Europe that had already been applied to colonised people. They did not invent fascism, they brought it back to Europe.
Along with glorifying racial domination, the far right also cultivated a paranoid anti-socialism and anti-modernism. Since the French Revolution of 1789, the Right has dreamed of restoring an imaginary order of traditional hierarchy and stability. This means ridding society of “corrupting” elements, which have ranged from racialised people to trade unions and feminism to critical theory and “degenerate” modern culture such as rock, jazz and abstract art.
As historian David Renton writes, fascism ultimately works to vanquish emancipatory politics and non-market rights, like universal healthcare. “It seeks to extinguish them and to defeat for all time any possibility of capitalism’s replacement by a more egalitarian order.”
It is important to recall that many conservatives in liberal societies felt that the fascist regimes in Europe were a lesser threat than Soviet communism or Spanish anarchism. Before the fascists’ territorial ambitions threatened the British Empire, Winston Churchill regularly praised Benito Mussolini for his war against the Left, once noting “in the conflict between fascism and Bolshevism, there was no doubt where my sympathies and convictions lay”. Across the Atlantic, Henry Ford was an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism.
The contemporary far right has grown as a result of the crisis of neoliberalism as well as challenges to white domination in Europe and its settler colonies. Since the early 1990s, when George W Bush bragged of a “new world order”, much of the world has been governed by the ideology that unrestricted free markets and unregulated capitalism are synonymous with freedom and democracy. It has been assumed that the primary role of the state is to facilitate corporate interests and keep the super-rich happy.
This ideology was implemented from Moscow to Johannesburg, with similar impacts. Small, predatory elites enriched themselves while social and income inequality spiralled. From the reckless speculation on Wall Street to the brazen kleptocracy of the likes of Trump and Jacob Zuma, it has spawned a mafia style of casino capitalism.
Rather than emancipating human potential, neoliberalism has made daily life exhausting, precarious and painful for the majority, and generated an ever more paranoid and authoritarian current in popular culture. Militarised borders, the rise of surveillance and fortified public spaces, and the deliberate cultivation of anxiety and fear were escalating modes of social control long before Trump decided to run for office.
Neoliberalism has also bred a sustained hypocrisy. Politicians like Joe Biden praise cosmopolitanism and denounce racism in public, which is a very welcome change from the likes of Trump. But in practice they actively pursue exclusionary and xenophobic security and policing policies that accord with the goals of the far right. We should not forget that despite his soaring oratory, Barack Obama ran a brutal migration regime at home and kept the bombs falling abroad.
The 2008 global financial crisis exposed the failings of the system. But instead of reining in the financial elites who had caused the crisis, governments forced their subjects to pay for it through onerous austerity policies. The perverse response of right-wing populisms was to blame this on minorities and migrants, and to offer the narrative that if you expelled, banned or imprisoned the “wrong” elements, economic prosperity would return.
The managerial class finds this crass and sometimes threatening. But we should not forget their relentless misrepresentation of moderate social democrats such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders as dangerous extremists. Antifascist and anti-police murder activists were castigated for supposedly opposing the “free speech” of common or garden racists, as well as, in some instances, outright neo-Nazis and crypto-fascists.
The fight before us
The far right espouses policies of “racial welfarism”, in which support is restricted to members of the select national community. It offers a fantasy of a revived neoliberalism, in which gated estates and consumerist culture persist, but where migrants, impoverished people and dissident opinions are kept marginalised and silenced.
By promising to restore individual freedom and social mobility through highly reactionary means, extremists are successfully creating alliances between the far right and mainstream conservatives.
Many right-wing groups are still prepared to work within a parliamentary framework, as a long-term project of pushing society to more extreme directions. But as we have seen, there are also armed right-wing militants using violence to attempt to realise their dark fantasies.
In his inauguration address, Biden acknowledged the dangers posed by far-right politics. His solution, however, was an anaemic call for unity and “decency”. This attempt to replace the work of politics – of building popular organisation and developing material support for emancipatory alternatives – with banalities is wholly inadequate to the crisis of our times.
Sensing this hypocrisy, like sharks smelling blood in the water, the global populist Right is presenting itself as a credible alternative. This is a road to horror and calamity.
Defeating the far right means rejecting their racial-nationalist welfarism and, simultaneously, neoliberal austerity and attacks on public spending. The Left needs to oppose all forms of racism, patriarchy and xenophobia, organise to achieve socioeconomic redistribution, and envision a world where everyone can benefit from the advances of technology and science.
The new US president’s reheated Clintonism offers no alternative to the long crisis of neoliberalism. Biden means little more than stasis. He will extend rather than resolve the crisis. And more competent and coherent right-wing demagogues than Trump will surely emerge in the near future.
Rather than trying to appease or ignore the Right, we must challenge the politics of authoritarianism and hate with a vision of emancipation open to all, and forms of popular organisation that can generate and sustain the material power to build a better world.