Postmodern Conservatism, February 2006. Geoff Boucher.

Postmodern Neofascism: Contemporary Rightwing Extremism in the Metropolitan Countries

Fascism is everywhere in decline in the advanced capitalist, industrialised democracies (the metropolitan countries). It has been replaced by a species of postmodern neo-fascism with enormous local diversity and rising political success. Contemporary neofascism is so different to modern fascism that most (liberal) commentators have demanded that the terminology of “rightwing extremism” be used instead, reserving the term “neofascism” for the openly corporatist organisations for political violence that claim a lineage from the parties and movements of the 1930s. Since these organisations – the BNP in England, the NPD in Germany, the former MSI in Italy – are in decline, the decline of all forms of fascism has been announced. “Neofascism has disappeared,” declares one commentator; “extreme right parties are on the rise.” This paper investigates the subterranean continuities and the radical break of the 1980s, to propose that contemporary “rightwing extremism” is a distinctly postmodern form of fascism.

At first glance, the differences between interwar fascism and contemporary neofascism are striking.

1930s fascism
  • ethnic nativism rooted in biological racism
  • economic corporatism
  • anti-democratic militarism
2000s neofascism
  • ethno-pluralism within embracing unity
  • neo-liberalism and national preference
  • democratic populism and plebiscitary politics

Equally striking is the main difference in constituency between the 1930s and 2000s: today, the parties of the European far right are working-class organisations, often boasting more blue-collar members than the socialist parties. “The massive presence of working-class people in the extreme right electorate is the most novel aspect compared with the 1980s” (Ignazi, 2003: 155). This suggests that the neofascist parties no longer collect middle-class protest votes. “Instead, the present ER voters represent a specific constituency mobilised by feelings of alienation towards the political system and dissatisfaction towards the socioeconomic dynamics of postmodernisation and globalisation” (Ignazi, 2003: 155).

The thesis being advanced here springs from the new consensus in research into fascism and neofascism. (1) New advances in the understanding of fascism: “fascism is a revolutionary form of radical nationalism aimed at the general mobilisation of a nation’s collective energies in the service of national rehabilitation, regeneration and revival” (Merkl, 2003: 1). Fascism constitutes a response to a specific national vulnerability in an intensely competitive international environment, which is perceived as intrinsically unfair, and a response to the national elite’s failure to advance the domestic power base. Hence fascism is (A) anti-liberal democratic (B) collectivist in ideology and corporatist in economics (C) hostile to cultural pluralism and social division (Griffin, 1998: 1-20). (2) The extreme right today is (A) authoritarian populist within representative democratic structures (B) advocates forms of “national preference” combined with an embrace of free-market economics (C) propounds a theory of ethnopluralism based on cultural homogeneity and the immiscibility of civilisational blocs (Merkl, 2003: 1-21).

At the same time, the thesis that neofascism is a postmodern form of fascism (and not an unqualified novelty, such as the “extreme right”) needs some explanation. (1) Dissatisfaction with cultural postmodernisation does not necessarily mean a reactive traditionalism. We have to abandon the one-dimensional models of postmodernity advanced by partisan commentators such as Baudrillard. It is not only that neofascism adopts a reflexive rhetoric designed to replace biological racism with cultural antagonisms, but also that neofascism embraces the “individual self-fashioning” of postmodern identity politics and lifestyle-based culture – only that it grounds this new individualism within an aversive version of cultural racism. (2) The democratic environment of contemporary politics in the metropolitan countries rules out an armed insurgency as the “real” strategy of neofascism, just as it also excludes “fascist takeover” – military dictatorship and state-sponsored civil war, with the associated death squads and concentration camps – in Europe or America. Far from being a comforting prospect, this should alert us to the real danger: the auxiliary role of neofascism is based on the fact that today, the structural function of fascist “national renewal” is performed by postmodern conservative governments, and neofascist parties in power have gravitated towards postmodern conservative pragmatism rather than towards military dictatorship.

Radical Break

Before the 1980s, the extreme right in Europe was politically marginalised because it maintained continuity with interwar fascism. By the end of the 1990s, however, the mean fascist vote increased from 4.7% (1980s) to 10.9% (1990s). The argument of Piero Ignazi is that the key to this was that the 1980s represented a radical break between 1920s-style fascism and contemporary neofascism. By breaking with interwar fascism, the neofascist right gained enormously in electoral credibility, under conditions where the immense majority of people endorse representative, parliamentary democracy as the sole legitimate form of government. Two elements were keys to this:

  1. Denial of fascist lineage (reject overthrow of democratic state, reject primacy of the state in national renewal, abandon authoritarian corporatist socioeconomic architecture, reject violence in politics)
  2. Nonetheless, retain anti-egalitarianism, anti-pluralism and anti-liberal (organic society, racially based nationhood, authoritarian politics and anti-liberal bias).

Ignazi describes this as “post-industrial fascism,” a form that denies its fascist lineage yet retains anti-democratic/anti-liberal characteristics. Examples of traditional fascism would be the British Nationalist Party (BNP-UK) and National Partei Deutschlands (NPD-Germany); instances of post-industrial fascism would include the Liga Norte (LN-Italy), Freiheits Partei Österreich (FPÖ-Austria).

During the 1980s, the old-style fascist parties – the BNP, the MSI, the NPD – underwent a process of decline, split or transformation. In the process, they abandoned key elements of interwar fascist ideology and politics: the corporate economy; the military dictatorship in politics; biological racism and collectivist subjectivity. At the same time, the 1980s also witnessed the spectacular rise of new formations characterised, initially, by racist populism, such as the LN, FPÖ, FN and VB. Today, the majority on the right subscribe to a “post-racist” ethno-pluralism, which aims at the protection and preservation of “one’s own” culture and society, rather than the disparagement of other cultures. Radical nativism today is cultural nativism, concerned with European or American identity and regional difference. Thus neofascism today can posture as the defender of democratic liberty and legal equality! For instance, Jorg Haider, leader of the FPÖ:

“The social order of Islam is opposed to our Western values. Human rights and democracy are as incompatible with the Muslim religious doctrine as is the equality of women. In Islam, the individual and his free will count for nothing; faith and religious struggle – jihad, the holy war – for everything.”

Neofascism can therefore capitalise on two related developments: a political crisis of legitimacy; and, the cultural condition of postmodernism.

Political: Post-industrial processes result in economic damage to self-employed and manual workers: tough on law and order, national identity and pride, traditional moral standards, state enforcement – recasting symbolic belonging i.e., self-defence. This process is assisted by Proportional Representation and local elections, but also by second order “pre-elections.” Dealignment of voters and fluidity of voting patterns highlight potential new constituencies, combined with a crisis of legitimacy in western societies – decline of confidence in the system and rise of the extreme right parties. Democracy accepted by 95% of western European citizens as an ideal type (empirical research), but satisfaction with the workings of democracy falls to 57%, and most voters rate the legislature as 8th of 10 institutions (Westin, 2003: 97-125; Wilcox et al, 2003: 126-142). This suggests that the appeal of the Right is not solely based on racism, but also on opposition to the legitimising bases of the liberal-democratic system.

Cultural: The cultural condition of postmodernism is accompanied not only by the decline of Enlightenment rationality, but also by a new raft of “postmaterial” values linked to individual lifestyles. Contemporary neofascist mobilisation is principally against the “threat” to European identity from Islamic fundamentalism (and the American empire, sotto voce). Ignazi traces this rightwing embrace of identity politics to the decline of the industrial sector (which means decline of class conflict) and the rise of values conflicts. Social atomisation and the new individualism that are consequences of post-industrial society have found two expressions: self-affirmation (leftwing post-material values) and self-defence (rightwing post-material values). Self-affirmation balances atomisation against liberation by the mobilisation of personal resources. Self-defence counteracts atomisation through the reinvention of organicist forms of solidarity. Organicist solidarity is one response to the decline in traditional factors of integration, which are (1) class (2) religion (3) nation.

An excellent illustration of the neofascist combination of atomisation and solidarity is its electoral platform – despite local variations, neofascist parties exhibit a common core of electoral demands. The neofascist organicist discourse promotes a characteristic combination of “private problems, public solutions” – the decline in civic virtue and social participation in the private lives of ordinary citizens is to be solved with recourse to authoritarian state action that reinforces “public morality.” Neofascist parties all stand on platforms containing: “national populism of the free-market persuasion”; “immigration as the universal irritant.” The so-called “winning formula” of neofascism is authoritarian anti-immigrant policies with free market economics. Some try to go “beyond Left and Right” in economic policy with a balance between private and public designed to ensure that homo oeconomicus does not supersede political man. Additionally, they advance demands connected with the demand for security against uncertainty:

Postmaterial Dislocation

The claim being made here is that neofascism is a specific development arising from the transformations of post-Fordism. The emergence of a new international division of labour (“globalisation”) and an epochal shift consequent upon the exhaustion of modernity are crucial. “It is hardly a coincidence that the recent upsurge of rightwing radicalism in advanced capitalist democracies has occurred at a time of enormous turmoil and profound change affecting virtually all aspects of individuals’ lives. In this situation, radical rightwing parties and movements propose themselves as alternatives to the traditional forces, filling a void created by the erosion and collapse of the established structures. In recent years, these developments have been primarily associated with globalisation and ‘postmodernisation’” (Betz, 2003: 85).


New international division of labour exposes unskilled and semi-skilled labour to competitive challenges based on the global mobility of capital – but the notion that the radical right is based on the globalistion losers is not empirically supported. Instead, supporters of neofascism appear to be responding to a form of “status anxiety” best summarised by Pauline Hanson’s notion that young, white blue-collar males are “the most downtrodden people in Australia.” Anxiety regarding economic restructuring and resulting identity crises; social exclusion and cultural alienation within multicultural and global systems. Reaction to the loss of authority of nation states – cultural identity, new mercantilism, national preference. This cultural condition at once deprives the “national revolution” of its legitimacy while opening the space for authoritarian populism.

Postmodernisation (exhaustion of the enlightenment project and the collapse of the legitimising narratives of modernity – scientific progress and human emancipation).

Uncertainty and fluid boundaries as cultural condition generates it dialectical opposite in the longing for security and stability; support for authoritarian charisma. Decline of traditional family linked to collapse in paternal authority associated with transformation of gender roles. The “good provider” as masculine ideal seems exhausted, leading to the so-called crisis of masculinity (87). Radical right supported strongly by men not women.

In the light of these factors, we can dismiss certain theses on the roots of contemporary fascism (Westin, 2003: 97-125; Wilcox et al, 2003: 126-142):

social isolation – some correlation can be demonstrated between anomie and neofascism, and between the breakdown of clientalist structures and their political parties (for instance, trade union or church based) and the emergence of populist politics celebrating local or national communities. But this does not account for all of the features and membership of the neofascist movements.

reverse post-material thesis: the NSM belong to the middle class and hold nothing for the working class and low education. Elites (“liberal and leftwing”) blamed for liberalisation policy effects; plus the post-material liberation (especially sexual) threatens family values. But note the VB and DVU, plus the FN, have post-material philosophies – primacy of politics over economic matters, political participation and civic action, even environmental concerns (with a “blood and soil” undertone).

economic deprivation: FPO, LN, REP all stress economic factors and appeal to losers in global competition. For instance, 47% young unskilled workers support FN in France (1997 election). “Immigrants take jobs”; “equal opportunity has gone too far.” But this cannot explain counter-examples: e.g., Wallonia (FN does poorly in this steep economic decline) versus Flemish Belgium (VB does well in affluent area).

The LET hypothesis: (growing) extremist legitimacy, (rising) personal efficacy and (declining) system trust. These combine the shift of the Right into the mainstream with supporter empowerment. The decline of class and religion in mobilisation means single issues become mobilisation foci; trust declines with rising unemployment and political scandal. Note that delegitimisation affects parties, not capitalism and democracy.

Subterranean Continuities and Exclusionary Populism

(1) What then is the difference between neofascism and postmodern conservatism? Both embrace pseudo-democratic politics and authoritarian populist ideologies. In power, the neofascist parties tend to moderate and shade into postmodern conservatism. (2) Why is this neofascism and not “the extreme right” of the democratic spectrum? What makes this an ultimately anti-democratic and racist force?

Future of the extreme right parties: proletarianisation and radicalisation, or embourgeoisment and appeasement? Despite its embrace of democratic institutions, neofascism goes beyond postmodern conservatism in several respects.

Difference between neofascism and postmodern conservatism.

Neofascism: is only implicitly anti-democratic but it is explicitly revolutionary. (This is the opposite of postmodern conservatism, which is explicitly pro-democratic yet implicitly revolutionary.) What distinguishes the radical right from other political parties in democratic competition is espousal of an explicitly radical nativist position reflected in an ethno-pluralist notion of cultural protectionism, based on the notion that cultures and ethnicities are immiscible.

The result is exclusionary populism: the core position is restrictive citizenship based on the supposition that real democracy is based on homogeneous community, so that recent arrivals should not have citizenship and social benefits. The populism is question is sometimes the standard media populism: cynically manipulation through the demagogic strategy designed to market politics to a cynical audience. But really populism is aimed against the power bloc and mainstream values. Thus populism always includes radical reform of political institutions aimed at increasing popular participation.

Exclusionary populism mobilises psychic inferiority complexes: subjective powerlessness combined with non-acceptance of objective weakness, resulting in persistent sense of injury, indignity and injustice (“ressentiment"- Max Scheler). This results in the negativisation of difference. This is combined with reform programmes and national renewal: “an Austrian cultural revolution with democratic means,” supposedly leading to the overthrow of the ruling class and the intellectual caste.

What this suggests, however, is an internal faultline within the neofascist movement, between postmodern conservative leaderships and fascist rank-and-file (along the lines of the Hitlerite/Strasserite divisions).

For instance, the question of economic nationalism is vexed. Although most of the European right parties support neoliberalism, this is in conflict with their mobilisations of economic ressentiments and policies of national preference. For instance, the NPD in Germany defines itself as an “anti-capitalist national revolutionary force fighting for a new social order,” that is, as a traditional fascist party based on hostility to multiculturalism and advocating a racialised delimitation of citizenship. Horst Mahler (former RAF) denounced globalisation as the highest stage of imperialism and advocated a revival of the German nation. Today, the fringe right parties are the last mass formations to retain the demands of communist and socialist parties, to denounce globalisation and unemployment, etc.

Continuity with fascism.

Rightwing extremism and leftwing liberatarianism, one empirical study confirms, are ideological opposites in a new, post-industrial landscape. German neo-nazis: low education and socio-economic background; absent fathers, domineering mothers and authoritarian childhoods, including corporal punishment, humilitation routines and lack of autonomy; protest orientation is diffuse and unreflective, and violence prone.

All areas of the radical right are informed by a subterranean but crucial cultural project, which links together national preference, populist policies and “national renewal”: White Resistance. Originating in American traditions of white supremacy and racist nationalism, the idea is that the survival of the white race and western culture is threatened by “the planned extermination of the European genotype.” This is happening through abortion, immigration, affirmative action (“anti-white prejudice”) and intermarriage. For instance, the USA aims, through “mondialisation,” to “construct a totalitarian ‘global village’ on the ruins of the peoples.” This project is linked to Holocaust revisionism.

Those located at the extreme right are generally less supportive of democracy, and far right supporters are more alienated towards system performance and democratic institutions. This is the “political dissatisfaction thesis.” Criticism of institutions democratic has equal weight with national preference. Anti-elite mood reinforced by anti-party scepticism – the extreme right capitalises because it is for harmonious community and informed by its abomination of social divisions and political plurality.

They attack individual pluralism, human equality, political competition and managed conflict. “The holistic and monistic political culture of the extreme right is antagonistic to the system.” “Anti-liberal (authoritarian), anti-pluralist (monist) and anti-egalitarian (xenophobic): radical anti-system options of which the support for the ER is one of the outcomes. The latter is so attractive nowadays because it permits the highest expression of extraneousness to the system and offers a world apart from the political mainstream. Even more appealing is the perspective of a new integration in an ethnoreligious homogeneous and holistic community – at national and subnational levels – tied up with strong and hierarchical social relationships within the boundaries of a Volkische community” (Ignazi, 2003: 155).