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The fight against paranoid nostalgia

Around the west, authoritarian right-wing parties are fighting the changes to the world that scare them. Protecting western liberalism is a challenge proponents of the democratic project are only just beginning to address.

The world’s powers need to unite to face the manifold challenges of the climate emergency. Instead too many are battling a paranoid nostalgia that is leading to a rise in authoritarian politics. In the EU, the right longs for old imperial grandeur, pining for a past greatness allied to concepts of ethnic purity. In Britain, this took the form of Brexit. From the east, Putin is working to recreate a Russian land empire that he appears to believe is the only bulwark of virtue against a dissolute west.

The USA spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined. Its history indicates its decision-makers believe that war is easier than diplomacy. Both factors suggest that the Thucydides Trap theory will apply (where the hegemonic power in decline is more prone to war with the rising power). This trend is made more likely by the fact that the Republican Party has become a far-right movement over the past few years.

The EU has just begun to fight the rising wave of authoritarian right political forces within its member states. The fact that a right-wing, conspiracy-connected coup has recently been interrupted in the EU’s heart, Germany, makes this even more urgent. Putin’s support for far-right political and nativist groups throughout Europe has fostered this threat.

Now that Putin has made himself such an outlier figure in western politics, through assassinations, invasions and nuclear threats, his mantle as leader of the new right has been taken up by Viktor Orbán. Orbán proudly touts Hungary as an illiberal democracy. Gerrymandering, control of the courts and the media have all made the democratic contest more illusion than fact. Minority rights are under attack, and prejudice is deployed to harness the substantial bloc of regional voters that outcompete the city dwellers who would like to oust Orbán’s Fidesz government. Cronyism and corruption are rife.

The European Union has as common values “democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, including those of minorities.” This dedication to the underlying principles of liberal democracy – that every individual has worth and should have freedom and representation within the parameters of the social contract – has been impinged upon by increasingly regressive states within and around the Union. In 2020 the EU introduced compliance mechanisms to pressure its states to adhere to these ideals.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is the first target of these measures. The EU has threatened to withhold the substantial subsidies the Union grants him if steps are not taken to reverse his attacks on the democratic processes and functions in Hungary. The nation stands to lose $11 billion euro in support. These substantial “cohesion funds,” intended to benefit poorer EU members, are a vital part of Hungary’s wellbeing.

The nostalgia for an ethnically pure Hungary, Christian and patriarchal, is matched throughout the right’s European partners. Older voters are captured by dreams of long ago – even of old communist regimes like the Thuringian villagers who would support Prince Heinrich XIII’s German coup. Heinrich himself, by contrast, is believed to be driven in part by fury at what his noble lineage lost to the communist regime of East Germany, spending years in the courts in failed attempts to win back the “stolen” properties. The hunting lodge where the coup was plotted, Heinrich had to buy back. He is also a noted antisemite and conspiracy purveyor, entwining him with Germany’s radicalised special forces’ Neo Nazis.

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy government is driven by nostalgia for the fascist years of Italian empire. For this government, Italian blood, procreation and wealth are the goal. She is depicting herself as a conservative leader but the fascist goals are understood. The media in Italy is under attack as a key strategy to suppress the truth of the government’s longterm goals (provided it can endure in Italy’s notoriously unstable political sphere).

Orbán’s far-right friends throughout Europe share his rejection of climate action. Many of the leading authoritarians helm petrostates, and the petrodollar helps distort the debate. Climate activism and journalism are suppressed and threatened. While most of the 2019 German Day X movement’s antagonism was directed at people who welcomed refugees, figures who promoted renewable energy were also selected as targets for assassination.

The authoritarians’ most overt propaganda battles attack LGBTQI existence, and women’s equality and bodily autonomy. These leaders are antisemitic, despite Orbán’s disingenuous claims to be an exception. Their uniting hatred, above all, is against immigrants who are neither white nor Christian; the longing for ethnic purity is often coded as a defence of Christianity and the west.

Orban’s Christian chauvinism is interconnected with American evangelical Christian Nationalism, a theocratic and fascistic politics. Both forces are at work radicalising Australia’s “conservative politics.

Australia and America had somewhat heartening elections repudiating aspects of the radical right in 2022. The EU faces more diverse challenges amongst its member states. It will take 2/3 of them, for example, to place the financial screws on Orbán to check corruption and reverse his authoritarian power grab. An increasing number of EU states have Putin-supporting far-right politicians willing to challenge collective action, making it difficult to achieve. From its neighbours, the Union faces Russia’s invasion adding additional pressure to European cost of living, and now Ottoman Empire-nostalgic Turkey is threatening military action on Greece to rile up its own authoritarian leader’s base of support.

Nostalgia for past greatness, and for a mythical ethnographic monoculture, is imposing challenges on national and global politics. Conservative regions are being radicalised towards violence by authoritarian (and aspiring authoritarian) leaders against more diverse and tolerant cosmopolitan spaces. Post-communist areas can find the shift towards diversity rapid and confronting in the face of old intolerances.

The survival of human society may depend on us finding a way to confront the authoritarian and populist right. Western democratic liberalism is flawed, but may be our hope.

This was first published at Pearls and Irritations as Fighting Paranoid Nostalgia, EU puts financial screws on Orbán

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9 comments

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  1. john tons

    A not inconsiderable reason for the rise of the rise of the authoritarian right is the way we describe our past. Sarah Churchwell’s book The Wrath to Come documents the distorted account the Americans have of their Civil War and how that distortion is reflected in contemporary US politics. In Australia there has been a pushback against any attempts to set the record straight about the history of white settlement – dismissed by John Howard as the ‘black armband of history’ In Europe there has been the promotion of the history of European nations as being racially ‘pure’ (whatever that means) Diversity lies at the heart of all communities.

  2. New England Cocky

    An another perceptive excellent article from Lucy Hamilton. Thank you.

    However, I wonder why the far right wing intentions of Scummo were omitted …. remember the five (5) or was it seven (7) additional ”secret ministries” given the royal seal of approval by GG David Hurley which would have established the democratically elected, theocratic dictatorship under Scummo selected by the Eagle and following the principles of ”pay forward’ Christianity” as practised by the Hell$inger$ cult including alleged rapists, kiddie fiddlers and political scum-bags.

    I guess in the Australian case Betty Windsor may have again approved this corruption of Australian democracy. Either way, there is good grounds for Australia to be a Republic with an Australian borne Head of State.

  3. Phil Pryor

    These rat cunning right wing egonavigators seem to be under-intellectual, supicious of orthodox truth, fact, reason and logic and also strongly devoted to a past that never actually existed despite hero shit movies and disneyisms. We’ll probably never rub out superstition (it’s bad luck to be superstitious) and fantasy in religion, so many will cling to past of superior enjoyment in “imagination”. We have the best ever telescopes and microscopes right now, and can see afar as never before, to the ends of time and space, as well as inside subparticles of unimaginabe tiny “size”. Anything outside of that is a comforting, distorted LIE, which one must do to oneself. Some people invent and reinvent themselves, to believe in a superior “fuhrer figure” which must command attention and loyalty. (Think Morriswine) It’s a horrible joke on us all, (think Jack Howard) and diminishes our future. Can we become a republic after clever, agreed consideration and community action??

  4. Clakka

    Hard men and capital

    Is the Anthropocene a mere fuel stop as we hurtle toward our ever-shifting destiny? The epistemology of faith and nostalgia tells us of the paradise yet to be attained. And that to attain perfection there will be tolls.

    History is littered with them brought by others, put down by hard men and paid for by sons and daughters. And we go on, recover, faithfully rebuild and accumulate, yet others come again. Time for the hard men. So they say.

    Its not rocket science, or any science. Capital just loves a cycle of wreckage and accumulation.

    Given that nothing can stand still, till the brink of oblivion, democracy and liberalism will be subject to faith and capital’s love cycle will be subject to hard men.

    So they say, so it seems to go.

    But I’ll give it a kick in the fundament.

  5. Fred

    Lucy: Good article. May I suggest that Turkey’s president Erdogan rates a mention as a right wing autocrat that has threatened to hit a fellow NATO country with ballistic missiles. What the …?

  6. Lucy Hamilton

    Turkey is there in the third last paragraph, Fred. I didn’t single out Erdogan, because apparently the opposition is making the same bellicose noises.
    Oof. Very “The Road” looming in that comment Clakka.
    Agree, Phil.
    Australia is very much there in spirit, Cocky. Menadue has imposed an 800-1,000 word limit so its cramping my style. The extra couple of hundred allowed me (too much?)room.
    Thanks for the reminder about Churchwell, John. I’ve been meaning to read it.

    To the Tankie in the comments on hold, I won’t be permitting your message. If you spread Putin’s PR, you’re a dill. Nobody said Ukraine was perfect (post Iron Curtain countries have a lot of issues), but Putin has been at the heart of funding far right movements in the EU in particular but more broadly for years. I recommend this as a start. https://www.vice.com/en/article/dy7y8q/vladimir-putin-russia-far-right

  7. A Commentator

    The problem isn’t limited to the “far right” and a yearning for past greatness.
    There is a strange grouping of conspiracy theorists, fascists and old fashioned communists that adopt an anti western democracy orientation.
    They have coalesced around Putin.

  8. Andrew Smith

    Good article and one could suggest further common factors, actors and their reasons; underpinned by corruption and precluding few if any ‘off ramps’, they are in so deep. In addition to Putin, Orban, Trump et al there is also Erdogan, Netanyahu, Vucic in Serbia, Dodik in Bosnia Serbia, Kaczynski in Poland et al. and of course the UK Tory governments….. whiff influence and corruption.

    The commonalities amongst these leaders are moral, ethical and protocol bypasses i.e. corruption of and by elites or 1%, hollowing out or nobbling education curricula, media, judiciary, unions, refugees/immigrants, electoral processes, NGOs (ex. religious &/or sports), personal freedoms etc. to keep citizens quiet or compliant; even better complicit so everyone is guilty of something.

    Added to this are the features of leaders and their citizens ie. narcissism and ‘collective narcissism’. There has been academic research looking at Brexit, Hungary and from an Italian exploring similar i.e. ‘pensioner populism’ voting the same leaders and parties into power.

    Related to the latter is demographic change that has been leveraged for some years now i.e. focus upon above median age voter, non urban, mono cultural, less educated and lacking experience of the world; there is only limited time to cash in on this demographic dividend as new above median age voters are more educated, diverse etc. etc. (eg. many Brexit voters have passed away).

    Finally, the author is well aware, the common themes of Koch (‘Atlas’) Network think tanks with Tanton nativism, latter used to dog whistle and produce ‘stochastic terrorism’ fed by both legacy and social media, then word of mouth, to especially male citizens who are prone to be anxious, paranoid, fearful and even enraged or violent… .

    A learned US friend joked that amongst these leaders you would think they are sharing the same .pdf file of a checklist for ‘radical right libertarian’ socio economics, here is one from the IPA from a decade ago (later PM Abbott) https://ipa.org.au/ipa-review-articles/be-like-gough-75-radical-ideas-to-transform-australia

    However, the ‘radical right libertarian’ socioeconomics they all promote, except when pork barreling their own voters, is more about the Koch’s muse ‘segregation economist’ James Buchanan* i.e. eugenics, now more class than race. Knocking out the middle rungs of the ladder pushing the middle class down into the 90%+ while the 1%+ keep their place on the top rung; but they want to make it permanent.

    He also cooked up ‘public choice theory’ which seems to suggest that politicians etc. are malleable, flexible and potentially buyable on promoting/blocking policies, legislation and regulation.

  9. Pingback: Growth of Conservative Hard Right Wing or Nativist Authoritarian Regimes | Education Training Society

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