Constructing the Liberal Enemy: The International Political Sociology of the New Right

Constructing the Liberal Enemy: The International Political Sociology of the New Right

A recent cover of L’Express depicts Marine Le Pen at the president’s desk in a glittering Élysée Palace. The unthinkable has become thinkable: Opinion polls put the leader of the Rassemblement National narrowly ahead of President Macron in an assumed first round of the 2022 election.

In neighbouring Germany, surveys show that nearly 50 percent of voters expect the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) to be part of the government within ten years.

 Explaining her success Le Pen proclaims

We no longer have a left-right split but one between nationalists and globalists. In this confrontation we have every chance of coming to power at a time when across the world the ideas that we promote — control of immigration, economic patriotism, rational and reasonable protectionism — are increasingly powerful.

Le Pen’s statement is a perfect illustration of the argument developed in our just-published article ‘Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right’.  We argue that the near worldwide rise of the radical right may appear as a series of disconnected nationalist projects, focused on ‘America First’, ‘Taking Back Control’, or ‘Brazil above Everything’. But this is a grave mistake. There is an unmistakable international dimension to today’s nationalist and populist movements; they are often linked, they adopt analogous political discourses, and they frequently share a similar worldview.

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Against dismissals of the New Right as anti-intellectual or just plain dumb, we show how their success is partly based on a specific sociology of the international order. In other words, it rests on a particular narrative of how international politics works.  At the heart of this analysis is a critique of globalisation not just as an economic phenomenon, but also as a wider transformation of social power. In this view, globalisation represents the triumph of ‘liberal managerialism’ and a ‘New Class’ of managers, administrators, experts, business elites and bureaucrats who have become the world’s dominant power-holders. This New Class is globalist in outlook. It constantly seeks to expand managerial structures and the power of expert knowledge and authority, dismantling and destroying ‘traditional’ social orders, values, and identities. It flattens the world, reducing everyone to a bland liberal sameness managed by an interconnected set of elites with little connection to ‘real’ people and places. The ‘Davosie’ – attendees to the World Economic Forum –  jetting in and out of the remote town in the Swiss Alps to discuss how best to manage the world, are its archetypical representatives. 

Against this erosion of diversity and tradition, the New Right claims to stand up for those ‘left behind’ and those who feel threatened by or resentful towards the cultural cosmopolitanism that delights managerial elites.

The New Right’s ‘theory’ of globalisation is strategic: it not only explains the economic plight, sense of alienation and ressentiment amongst those it portrays as the victims of the liberal order – it develops a politics of enmity.

Their analysis echoes many other critiques of economic globalisation, but it differs in the way that it links sociological critique to that most powerful of political devices: an identifiable enemy. This enemy is not an abstract ‘global economic system’, as in many left-wing critiques of capitalism. It is the concrete figure of the New Class and their client groups. In this way, the New Right’s ‘theory’ of globalisation is strategic: it not only explains the economic plight, sense of alienation and ressentiment amongst those it portrays as the victims of the liberal order – it develops a politics of enmity.

In practically all geographical contexts, this politics is conveyed through a provocative and performative rhetoric of transgression and excess designed to subvert liberal norms of appropriate conduct and leadership. Even if those who mobilize this strategy are themselves political and economic elites, as many are, the figure of the liberal-managerial enemy and its cultural condescension provide oppositional resources for articulating a politics of anti-elite/expert authenticity.

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Au sommaire de L’Express cette semaine

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Somewhat provocatively, the New Right can be said to have taken to heart the left-wing critique of the Canadian political economist Robert Cox that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’.  The New Right’s sociology of globalisation seeks not only to speak for the ‘left behind’, but also to create a self-conscious political movement – the ‘real’ people – capable of overthrowing the status quo.

As part of this approach, New Right ideologues and leaders have developed what they often call a ‘meta-political strategy’ of building alternative networks in education, culture and social media. This includes founding new publishing houses and journals dedicated to the articulation of a counter-hegemonic intellectual culture. A prime example is Arktos, a publishing house which since its official launch in 2010 has ‘published more than 170 titles in sixteen languages and circulated them globally’, including English translations of leading New Right thinkers such as Alain de Benoist, Guillaume Faye, and the Russian conservative Alexandre Dugin. The approach has also involved efforts to create a network of ‘finishing schools for ultra-conservatives’ designed to train a new cadre of political activists and administrators. These include the Lyon-based Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences, founded by Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal; the Milan-based School for Political Education, run by Armando Siri, an Italian politician close the country’s former deputy minister, Matteo Salvini; and Stephen Bannon’s recently blocked Academy of the Judeo-Christian West.

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The success of these strategies is all too evident. In the UK, the result is Brexit. In Japan, a prominent slogan is ‘Take back Japan’. In the Philippines, President Duterte deploys a range of reactionary populist tropes to carry out a far-reaching attack on liberal ‘managerial’ practices and institutional constraints at home and abroad. In Turkey, President Erdogan’s exclusionary policies are creating societal polarization along conservative-religious and secular-progressive lines, while in India Prime Minister Modi increasingly relies on Hindu Rashtra, a radical programme to secure privileges for the Hindu majority. The specifics are different in each country, but as we show in the article, the underlying political sociology is similar.

The rise of the New Right inevitably raises the question of how it might be countered. A first step in this direction is to take its analytical and political strategies seriously, debunking the myth that the New Right is no more than a collection of separate nationalist movements. Not all New Right movements (much less all their members) share the views we trace. But many do, and without an understanding of their political strategies and global interconnectedness, any attempt to counter these movements will be seriously weakend.

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