Emancipation, solidarity and universalism Social justice in the hands of the far-right can protect but not make free

, by  MESTRUM Francine

The rise of far-right movements and parties certainly is one of the most worrying recent developments. In many of the world’s countries, they are having amazing successes. Just think of several European countries, such as Italy where a post-fascist party is now in government, a Scandinavian country like Sweden where far-right ‘Democrats’ are in the majority alliance, the success of Rassemblement National in France and Vox in Spain, a conservative government in Poland, an ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary, rightwing governments in Turkey and Israel. Outside of Europe, think of Duterte in the Philippines (his daughter is now Vice-President), Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil, and Narendra Modi in India. In between think of Donald Trump in the US and Vladimir Putin in Russia. They are not exceptions anymore.

Obviously, they all have their specific characteristics and one cannot lump all those parties together. The political and social circumstances of all countries are different, and the historical context as well says much about how these parties and movements develop.

We do have to wonder where this success comes from. How to explain it? It is clear not everything can be referred back to the Second World War or the Spanish Republic. We are living in the 21st century with almost half a century of economic growth and welfare and almost another half-century of neoliberal policies.

Neoliberalism certainly is one factor that has to be examined. After the external debt crisis of the 1980s ‘structural adjustment’ was imposed on most countries of the South, meaning budget austerity, privatisations, deregulations, and free trade; it meant the dismantlement of the existing social protections which were replaced by poverty reduction programs. Later, these same policies were introduced in Europe, mainly by the European Union and its economic and monetary union. Social democracy, the champions of welfare states, enthusiastically participated in these policies.

In Europe, to gild the bitter pill of austerity, some cultural measures were introduced. Gender equality got onto the agenda, abortion was allowed, and same-sex marriages followed.

However, this was not what many working-class people were asking for. Feeling abandoned, a constant demand for more protection was heard but not listened to. This is where truly conservative parties came in, against all forms of cultural innovation and against migration. This last point is indeed what a huge part of the working class saw as the biggest threat to their standard of living. The majority of North African, Turkish, or Afghan people are now considered a threat to ‘western values’ and to decent working conditions. Whatever academic research says about it – and mostly contests the threats – migration has become a major disruptive factor in the way welfare is being defended.

The surprising element in this is that conservative parties and movements will try to reject migrants and/or violate their human rights, whereas the countries where these migrants come from will describe the West and its values as decadent. However, many migrants, particularly women, are attracted by the freedoms our societies offer.

Nothing of all this is new, the West and Modernity always had their enemies, whereas the periods in which migrants were smoothly integrated into society are rare. Moreover, sexual liberties have always, all over the world, at one period or another, been seen as threatening social order.

Add to this an ideological offensive from a totally different sector. The many progressive anti-modernity thinkers, hoping to ‘humanize’ or flatly rejecting Modernity and its rationality, speaking of coloniality and epistemicide, unwillingly contributed to putting into question human rights, gender equality and individualism. The problem is that most of these thinkers only refer to the conquest and colonization of Latin America, coupled with the genocide of its indigenous people. They never applied their theories to other civilisations.

Finally, it is a fact that many young people today are on the demanding side for more order and more discipline. The boomer generation of their parents and grandparents is seen as overly libertarian. In that context, some far-right movements do accept cultural innovation but, aspiring to some kind of purity will reject migration.


One common element in all right-wing discourses is an answer to a permanent and ubiquitous demand of people: protection. All people need protection, always and everywhere. This protection, as I have been emphasizing for years now, can be given in basically two different ways: with economic and social rights or with police and the military. In modern times we have learned to trust States with providing this protection, in both ways, though in most cases with an emphasis on the rights dimension, materialized in welfare states with public services and labour law.

At the heart of the reasoning for this approach is the knowledge that peace is not possible without social justice, as the Preamble of the ILO Constitution states. When promoting social and economic rights, the need for police and the military to keep social order will be very limited.

However, now that welfare states and social protections are being dismantled, there is a tendency for falling back once again on preventing violence and fighting social disorder with robocops.

This, clearly, is the privileged terrain of far-right parties and movements. The reaction of progressive political parties has mainly been to warn of the dangers of this development. People have not yet seen the ‘true face’ of right-wing forces, it is said, they will destroy democracy, and take away people’s protection. Their success is scarce, because they do not restore welfare states and because right-wing forces do offer protection and even some social and economic rights, though in a very different way.

Emancipation and solidarity

Here is where three fundamental concepts have to be mentioned and examined: emancipation, solidarity and universalism.

I am not a historian and not an expert in far-right or (post)fascist movements, but it is possible to take a brief look at how their social justice and social policies were developed in the 20th century. It is certainly wrong to say these policies were neglected.

During the Franco dictatorship in Spain, many new social and labour laws were promulgated, from family allowances to pensions, mandatory sickness assurance, unemployment allowances, protection for rural workers, etc. Spain certainly was not a forerunner for social policies and social protection and looking back one has to say these were only some crumbles falling off the table of the wealthy during a time of intensive social protest in the 1960s. Moreover, there was serious repression of these protests and the result was everything except the putting into place of a welfare state. There was only one official trade union of which workers had to become members. Others, like UGT and CCOO were banned as were left-wing political parties.

Italian fascism, Umberto Eco says, had no proper philosophy. Mussolini only had a rhetoric and all his policies were first and foremost meant to promote loyalty to his leadership. He did appeal to frustrated middle classes and promoted his ‘corporativism’ trying to get rid of class conflicts. Mussolini did convince liberal leaders in Europe that social reforms would be necessary if they wanted to fight communism.

In Nazi Germany, the fascist ideology was more outspoken. Class conflicts were thought to be impossible in a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ – a popular community – with a homogeneous national character. We know the preceding Weimar Republic was the origin of the first social security systems. In Nazi Germany however, every worker became a member of the whole and was called upon to cooperate in the life of the State. Jews were excluded, only nationals could be citizens and there was only one party to represent the political life of the people. Again, many protective measures were adopted, such as the protection of wages and the 8-hour working day. But there was no conflict with capital, on the contrary, work was seen as a duty towards the community and the common benefit of people and the State.

It is easy to see that this kind of protection has a totally different character from the emancipatory welfare state protection.

It is not a coincidence that the word ‘emancipation’ has more or less disappeared from conservative and liberal discourses today. Liberals speak of ‘empowerment’ which is something different. Empowerment is the ‘power to act’. It gives individuals and collectives indeed a possibility within a given political and social space to act in order to defend one’s rights. This empowerment however will not be possible or hard to obtain if there is no ‘emancipation’, which is the freeing of tutelage and authority, the capacity to think for oneself, development an identity with autonomy and freedom leading to agency. This is also an individual and collective project since one cannot free oneself without an awareness of our interdependence. Emancipation is the philosophical background that makes political and social empowerment possible.

Emancipation is therefore closely related to solidarity and the feeling of belonging to a bigger whole than the individual prison. Solidarity is always reciprocal, it is not from one to another but necessarily also from another to one.

These two elements are always missing in right-wing social policies and these are therefore the dimensions to be promoted if one wants to fight them.

Whether one looks at Hungary, Poland or Italy today, one will see policies of nationalism, nativism or exclusion from social protection for non-nationals (see Danish social democrats). These policies are not neoliberal, even if they will not necessarily de-privatise public services. They are not based on cheap labour but on the inclusion of the national workforce in a national/patriotic project, trying to build ‘communities’, and offering ‘security’. They do not promote gender equality but will prefer wives to stay at home. They are not necessarily anti-capitalist, even if some parts of fascism are indeed anti-capitalist.

What this means is that the fight against the far-right cannot be the same as the fight against neoliberalism, though social justice can in both cases be crucial to this fight.

Fighting neoliberalism means fighting privatisations and deregulations, it means fighting for social and economic rights as such. Fighting right-wing policies means fighting for other values, emancipation and solidarity. And here, a third element has to be added: universalism.

Universalism is totally compatible with diversity, it is even its condition. Diversity is only acceptable if in the end there are some common values that unite us all. Universalism goes against all tendencies for nationalism and patriotism which too often lead to the exclusion of some groups of people.

God, Nation, and Family, are the core values of far-right movements which make them fundamentally different from the left, progressive forces and even neoliberals. They are based on exclusion instead of inclusion, they preach conformism, hatred and dislike of everything that does not conform to their values. As a basis for social justice, they are very questionable. People do need protection, but they also need to be autonomous and free, emancipated.

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