“Hello, dictator!” With these benevolent words, on May 22, 2015, the president of the European Commission welcomed the Hungarian Prime Minister to the Riga Summit. A few months earlier, Senator John McCain called Viktor Orban a “neo-fascist dictator” and caused a diplomatic incident. However, Jean-Claude Juncker echoed those fluffy words and challenged him with an affectionate slap on his cheek.
The contrast about the diktats imposed by the Eurogroup on Greece at that time was surprising: the atmosphere was anything but playful. For Wolfgang Schaüble, the German Minister of Finance, the states have commitments, and “new elections certainly do not change the situation.” In Europe, it is not possible to joke around with neoliberalism: the economy is a too serious matter to be entrusted to the people. On the contrary, you can laugh and joke about democracy. The farce we saw in Latvia recalls another: in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Mussolini greets Hitler with a push: “my brother dictator!”
How can we read together the rise of the extreme right and the authoritarian drift of neoliberalism? On the one hand, there is white supremacy, with the election of Donald Trump, and the xenophobia of Orban or Salvini in Europe; on the other, we have what we could call democratic coups. There is no need to send the army against Greece (“banks, not tanks”), and not even to Brazil (a parliamentary vote and not military coup). Public freedoms are decreasing in both cases. Indeed, these two phenomena are not incompatible. In 2000, Austria with Jorg Haiders was punished; in 2018, it took over the presidency with Sebastian Kurz.
Moreover, the EU does not hesitate to subcontract the management of migrants to Turkey, and to ignore the dictatorial drift of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan regime—not to mention the agreements with “Mafia Libya.” And if Emmanuel Macron considers that Trump has taken “the right decision” in refusing to separate migrants from their children, it is clear that, from now on, the United States will follow the French example … by shutting them up together. The French president can also denounce the arrival of the Lega in power as “the growth of leprosy”; but at the Franco-Italian border, as well as in the Mediterranean, the Generation Identity militias act illegally without being investigated by the authorities. At the same time, the French judiciary is suppressing demonstrations of protest against these acts of force. And Italy, led by the Democratic Party, on the other hand, already in 2017 took action against NGOs that save migrants at sea.
Alongside with Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish head of government who welcomed the Aquarius, Emmanuel Macron seriously proposed “sanctions in the case of non-solidarity” … as if France was not concerned: whose ports, after the Italian ones, are the closest. Shortly after, Macron himself made Matteo Salvini’s speech about the NGOs accused of “playing the game of traffickers.” Despite the fine speeches, the “illiberal temptation” is no longer reserved for the extreme Europhobic right, but also concerns the Europhilic leaders. Macron perfectly embodies this illiberal neo-liberalism that claims to save us from the far right by imitating its policies.
How to define this “leprosy”? Evoking the ‘populist moment’ is not enough. Chantal Mouffe refused to speak of an extreme right and preferred the expression “right-wing populism,” because she hopes for a “left-wing populism.” These two, according to the philosopher, have in common a “democratic nucleus,” in the sense that they would give voice to the demands of the “popular categories,” that are the “losers of neoliberal globalization,” responding to them in a certainly different way. Now, not only the neoliberal leaders do not hesitate to mobilize xenophobic populism, but the populist leaders, from Trump to Orban, via Erdogan, also promote neoliberal policies. Therefore, it is quite risky to attribute to the vote for the latter “the expression of resistance to the post-democratic condition generated by 30 years of neoliberal hegemony.”
Thus, would it be more appropriate to speak of a “neo-fascist moment”? As in historical fascism, we find today racism and xenophobia, the dissolution of borders between right and left, the cult of charismatic leaders and the celebration of the nation, the hatred of the elites and the exaltation of the people, the contempt for the rule of law and the apology of violence, etc. After the election of Donald Trump, the philosopher Cornel West blamed the economic policies defended by Clinton and Obama: “The neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neo-fascist bang.” Later on, it became evident that the second did not destroy the first.
Perhaps, should we, with Wendy Brown, give priority to neoliberal reading and reject the historical comparison with fascism? For her, who analyzes the “stealth revolution” of a neoliberalism capable of “unraveling the demos,” “despite some echoes of the 1930s,” with Trump, the paradoxical combination of statism and deregulation, that is, a libertarian authoritarianism, becomes a new political form, a “side effect of neoliberal rationality.” It is not possible to reduce it to the old figures of fascism and populism. Her criticism refers to that of Robert Paxton, the Vichy historian: if it is true that it is possible to recognize in this president has several typically fascist traits, the label “fascist” conceals the economic and social libertarianism of Trump.
However, isn’t it really the characteristic of a Weberian concept or ideal type to group together under the same hat examples linked to different historical contexts? This is true of both fascism and populism or neoliberalism. As Brown points out, Trump’s protectionism is nothing more than a new declension of the latter, while German ordoliberalism is a variant of it, which is not confused with the ideology of the IMF: it is possible to analyse neoliberalism in all its forms. In the same way, there will be talk of neo-fascism, that is to say of a historically specific way of thinking about this fascist moment of neoliberalism.
This does not mean that, in its very principles, neoliberalism is condemned to fascism; nor does it mean that neoliberalism is devoted to democracy, in the sense that it was meant to be after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the leaders who converted social democracy to neoliberalism in Europe, Tony Blair and José Luis Zapatero, far from riding the xenophobic wave, have called for their countries to be opened up to economic migrants. As for the German Chancellor “Kaiser Merkel,” a few months just after the “Greek crisis,” and during the “refugee crisis” of 2015, became “Mutti Angela.” But these two moments belong to the past.
Nowadays, it is important to call the things with their proper name: refusing to name this neo-fascism authorizes us to do nothing. The rigorous intellectual scruples of some end up serving as a pretext for the soft political cowardice of many people. Euphemisms prevent the mobilization of an anti-fascism which, far from being the democratic bail of current economic policies, recognizes the responsibility of neoliberalism in the rise of neo-fascism: we must not, therefore, be deceived by the illusion that populism, which is a symptom of this, can be the remedy for it. In short, singing “Bella Ciao” is nothing anachronistic—not only against Matteo Salvini or against his “democratic” predecessor Marco Minniti, but also against his counterpart Gérard Collomb, the French Minister of the Interior, even if the latter is “a little tired of passing through the fascist of the turn.”
Among the most famous French sociologists, Éric Fassin is a professor at the University Paris-8 Saint Denis-Vincennes. He is the author of important texts dedicated to gender issues, racism and the emergence of new discrimination within the transalpine society. Among his works: “De la question sociale à la question raciale?” (2006), “Discriminations” (2008), “Reproduire le genre” (2010), “Roms & riverains” (2014), and “Populisme: le grand ressentiment” (2017).