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Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, Liz Fekete

Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, by Liz Fekete, Verso, 214 pp 10.99, ISBN: 978-1784787257

On page six of her introduction to this book, Liz Fekete explains the theoretical underpinning of her inquiry into European far-right extremism (not that there weren’t a few clues beforehand – “the war against the poor”, “neoliberal incarceration regimes”, “the Conservative Party’s Brexit state”, concepts all apparently meant to be accepted as self-evident without needing to be demonstrated):

The perspective I take in this book ... eschews a boxed-in, academic study of fascism, which almost invariably divorces the study of the far right from a simultaneous study of the state, and the study of fascism itself from popular and state racism. Likewise, in relation to extremism, a metanarrative has been established that leaves the state, or capital, out of any discussion.

This raises a number of questions. An academic approach to a subject could be construed as a heavily theoretical one, perhaps one divorced from “events on the ground” or empirical evidence. Or it could alternatively be construed as a rigorous one, where academic standards demand that conclusions cannot simply be asserted but should be demonstrated. It is the second meaning that I think is being deployed here, in a sort of “don’t give me your petty academic distinctions; I know what’s what” reflex. And a box, it might be added, can be of various sizes, the small one which (supposedly) insists that political extremism is best explained without reference to the role of the state and the larger one that insists that it cannot be explained in any other way except in relation to the state and capitalism. They are both boxes, that is attempts to divert us away from simply arriving at the conclusions our investigation brings us to (which might result in – well ‑ thinking outside the box).

Fekete’s surveys of the extreme right and ultra-right (two distinct currents, one constitutional, one “street”, which are not, however, always hermetically sealed from each other) make for interesting reading and she is for the most part a clear and always a compelling writer. We might well think that the violence in particular of the German ultra-right and the partial connivance with it of the constitutional extreme right (AfD), not to mention elements of the police, requires close watching.

The parliamentary extreme right is now strong in a very large number of European countries. In the EU’s most recent electoral test, Estonia’s general election on March 3rd,, it (in the shape of the EKRE party) more than doubled its share of the vote, to 17.8%. In Spain, where there was for many years no significant group to the right of the Popular Party (PP), the new far-right party VOX is already showing at between 10 and 15 per cent in opinion polls. The traditional view of leftish sections of the commentariat is that this continent-wide surge in support is built on the votes of people who have been “left behind” by changes in the organisation of capitalism and “let down” by the political centre, and perhaps particularly by the centre-left. Fekete seems to take a more radical view, arguing that the centre and the far right in fact share quite a large number of attitudes, from an innate disposition to racism, to a tendency to panic over security issues, to hostility towards Islam: “the extreme right’s patriot games and culture wars reflect the political centre’s embrace of laws specifically aimed at driving out all visible traces of Islam from political life in Europe”. In other words what many see as political competition (the centre-right, for example, taking up some of the security themes of the far right in the hope of stemming a haemorrhage of votes to them) Fekete sees as ideological and political complicity.

One thing that seems to be lacking from most analysis of the far right (or perhaps it is sufficiently detailed and differential analysis itself that is lacking) is the extent to which it is a phenomenon which often struggles to put down roots in cities: the largest urban centre which Marine Le Pen won in the 2017 presidential election in France was Calais, the sixty-seventh most populous in the country. The picture is similar in the Czech Republic and Hungary: in the latter, the “national-conservative” Fidesz absolutely dominates the country apart from Budapest, where it is about as popular as UKIP is in London. This pattern is not repeated in every country, but it is strongly enough marked to merit further investigation.

Perhaps what most of us currently want to know about the extreme right is how dangerous is it? To which the answer might vary from country to country. And is it likely to become more dangerous? Will it be isolated, will it be contained, or will it be conciliated, comforted and brought in from the cold by other political elements, like the centre-right ‑ or even the centre-left? (And are these particular terms even fit for purpose any more? The main component of what used to be called the centre-right in France, Les Républicains [the Gaullist stream], should surely, under its present leader, Laurent Wauquiez, be simply designated as right ‑ hence a few notable defections from its ranks of some former leaders towards the centre.)

But perhaps finding the most effective way to deal with the far right is not what chiefly interests Liz Fekete, for whom the fact that many ordinary people exhibit a variety of racial and xenophobic prejudices – prejudices we may not like but which they are entitled to hold (all opinions are legal) ‑ often seems to be morally equivalent to the fact that certain conspiratorial groups are engaging in a strategy of intimidation and violence, up to and including murder, with the aim of eventually seizing political power.

Perhaps the best clue to this book’s main potential readership can be found in some of the enthusiastic blurbs on the back cover, praising the sustenance it offers “for the struggles that lay [sic] ahead” and fetishing the by now rather tired notion of “resistance”, as if the main reason for the ultra-right’s existence might be to feed the politics and fill the ranks of the ultra-left. Nevertheless, Fekete has written an informed, vigorous and compelling book, even if for me its main effect was to compel me to seek reasons to doubt her analysis.