The rise of the alt-right: How rebellious became synonymous with anti-leftist

An election billboard for far-right party Vox in Madrid's regional election on May 4 claims: "Unaccompanied foreign minor gets 4700 euros a month, your grandmother gets 426 euros in pension a month."

The rise to power of “alt-right” presidents such as Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has forced the left to grapple with confronting the new far-right forces sweeping the globe. But to do this, we need to understand how these forces came to be and what they represent in politics today.

In his new book, La Rebeldia Se Volvio De Derecho? (Has Rebellion Become a Thing of the Right?), Argentine journalist Pablo Stefanoni, who has spent the past two decades writing about the rise of the new left in Latin America, turns his attention to the alt-right, delving into its cesspool of political incorrectness and transgression to provide the left with an idea of what we are up against.

He charts the alt-right’s metamorphosis from internet chat rooms and YouTube channels into serious political forces capable of incorporating currents as diverse as anarcho-capitalists, neo-Nazis, ecofascists and homo-nationalists.

In doing so, he outlines how they have managed to associate themselves with the banners of discontent and rebellion — traditionally the trademarks of the left. Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke with Stefanoni about this new right rebellion and what the left can do about it.

How do you explain the rise of these new, contestatorial, alt-right forces that are taking on the left and the parties of the traditional right?

In reality, right-wing protests and discontent are not new. Fascism itself competed with socialism in the 1930s to offer an alternative project for the future.

What I was interested in highlighting was the current emergence of “alternative” right-wing forces—ones that present themselves as anti-systemic, resort to the use of transgressive language and defend “political incorrectness” — and to movements, such as the Yellow Vests in France, that are open to very diverse interpretations and difficult to apply simple labels to.

Some link the rise of these right-wing forces, which also represent a challenge to the conventional right, with the 2008 global financial crisis. It is difficult to put a date on it, but I believe there are certain elements that explain its growth.

First are their negative, even dystopian, ideas regarding the future. Both socialism and liberalism project their utopias onto the future. The revolution must take its poetry from the future, Karl Marx said.

Today, however, few people believe that the future will be better than the present, or even the past.

Spanish philosopher Marina Garcés refers to a “paralysis of imagination”. Within this framework, she argues, what reigns today are “retrotopias, on the one hand, and catastrophism, on the other”. The future is increasingly seen “as a threat”.

The question is: what place is there for ideas like socialism, if it is not possible to build a vision of a future in which life is more emancipated?

Extreme right-wing forces instead mobilise behind particular retrotopias, tied to supposed golden ages of the past, and anti-egalitarian visions.

Second is the increasing inability of social democracy and the Communist left — the latter was dealt a blow with the collapse of real existing socialism — to channel social discontent that emerged from below. At the same time, radical left-wing forces have, in general, been unable to project themselves beyond small groups of workers and students.

Finally, we have seen in many countries the construction of centrist consensuses — between centre-right and centre-left forces — that have made politics increasingly less adversarial or “agonistic” (in the words of Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe). This has allowed the forces of the extreme right to present themselves as “anti-system”, as representatives of the people against the elite or of those below against those above.

In this context, the left often occupies a space somewhere in between proposing a type of cosmopolitan “progressive neoliberalism” or retreating to a more community-orientated nationalism, and finds it difficult to intervene in this dispute.

It is common to hear people label these new right forces as “fascist” or “populist”. Does it make sense to label them as such, or does this only serve to confuse matters more?

What label should we give to those forces that occupy a space on “the right of the right”? This is not an easy question, because it is such a heterogeneous space.

Italian historian Enzo Traverso uses the term “post-fascism”, which was first elaborated by Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás.

Undoubtedly, these new radicalised rightists are not the neo-fascist rightists of yesteryear. It is clear that their leaders are no longer skinheads, nor do they wear combat boots or tattoo swastikas on their bodies. They are more “respectable” figures in the political field.

They increasingly appear less like Nazis; their political forces are not totalitarian; they do not base themselves on violent mass movements or irrationalist or voluntarist philosophies; nor do they toy with anti-capitalism.

According to Traverso, we are dealing with a set of political currents that have not yet ideologically stabilised, that are still in flux … as Traverso writes in his book The New Faces of Fascism.

The advantage of the term “post-fascism” is that it sits outside that of “populism”, which is very problematic, is often hackneyed, even in academia, and conflates political styles with programmatic projects, so much so that it ends up being a black box within which fits everything from [US socialist presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders to [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen, passing through [former socialist Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez and [far-right Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orban. 

Moreover, it tends to emphasise the hostility of these movements to the idea of a citizenship that is independent of a sense of ethno-cultural belonging.

Nevertheless, the term “post-fascism” presents us with the problem that not all extreme rightists have their roots in fascism; that some of those that do, as Traverso notes, have since distanced themselves from these roots; and, perhaps most importantly, that the term “fascist”, even with the prefix “post”, carries with it a lot of historic baggage and, as with “populism”, combines a descriptive and heuristic intention with its common usage as a form of insult in political debate.

Perhaps we could refer to them as radical right forces, in much the same way as many, particularly in Europe, talk about radical left forces: as an umbrella term for those who question the centrist consensus organised around conservative democrats and social democrats.

Despite all this, what is important, given the gelatinous scenario we face that includes authoritarian neoliberals, identitarians and neo-fascists, is knowing at each moment exactly what it is that we are dealing with.

We can see a great diversity in these new right forces, including their disagreement on many issues. What, if any, are the characteristics or positions that these different currents share most in common?

In effect, we have extreme right forces that are more statist and others that are more neoliberal; some are more pro-Atlantic and others more pro-Russia; there are those that are more “old style” anti-Semites, but there are also those who view Israel as an ally in the fight against Islam; there are those that are more traditionalist or religious, and those that are more secular and even gay-friendly; etc.

But in general terms, what unites these right forces is anti-progressivism.

We have even seen a curious reemergence of anti-communism, a type of zombie anti-communism — because there is no longer a real existing communism to confront. We see it from Brazil to Madrid, where slogans such as “Communism or freedom” have appeared.

To sustain these positions, they often resort to the idea of the existence of “Cultural Marxism” and things like this. New forms of racism are also presented in culturalist terms, as is the case with opposition to “Islamisation”.

How have errors made by the left contributed to the rise of this new right? Is it now a question of seeking to build bridges between the left and this new confrontational right (or, at least, its discontented base) against the elites, as some suggest, or should the left unite with the centre to defeat them, as others propose?

I believe that is where the great dilemma lies.

On the one hand, there is the question of how to reconnect with those below and incorporate their concerns; how to reopen the debate over the economy and incorporate the dimension of class.

For a while now, the left in general — with the exception of a few academic economists — read and know little about the economy. Activists tend to repeat a kind of “Oxfam discourse”: the world is increasingly more unequal and this is morally wrong.

This is great if it comes from an NGO, but in politics it is necessary to propose alternatives.

But that is not easy: on the one hand, among the anger that exists, we can find demands against inequality mixed with anxieties due to the weakening of gender or race hierarchies. Separating out these angers seems fundamental to constructing political discourses and social coalitions.

On the other hand, democratic alliances are also necessary to isolate extreme right forces. But in any case, these represent a circumstantial coming together, and not a permanent alliance.