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Europe’s new fascists are closet liberals

Today's far Right and its mix of social liberalism and economic populism makes it more empathetic to the demands of the old fashioned Left. Europe’s fascists aren’t fascists at all: they’re liberals on steroids

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Supporters of Geert Wilders hold banners reading "Freedom Yes, Islamisation No"
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Timothy Stanley
On 18 November 2011 11:06

The spectre of neo-fascism is haunting Europe. But is it fascism or is it something else?

The Economist, which prefers to call it “populism”, writes:

Anti-Muslim, anti-elite, anti-globalisation and increasingly anti-Brussels, populists now count for something in the Nordic countries, among the Dutch and Flemish, in France, Italy and Austria, and in parts of eastern Europe. They come in many varieties, but all claim to represent... the ripped-off, lied-to little people”.

Harvard professor Dani Rodrik (who is happy to call them “fascists”) explains in National Magazine how these parties gained popularity:

“Mounting concerns about the erosion of economic security, social stability and cultural identity could not be handled through mainstream political channels. National political structures became too constrained to offer effective remedies, while European institutions still remain too weak to command allegiance.”

The result was an explosion of populist Far Right movements that have played “kingmaker” in Holland and Finland, while the Italian “post-fascist” Gianfranco Fini is now President of his country’s Chamber of Deputies.

Outside the Eurozone, even the Neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats won 6 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections. Frightening stuff.

But the temptation to lump all these movements together under the banner of “revived fascism” should be resisted. Although all these groups are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, they do have profound differences.

Those with a long history (the French National Front) tend to have genetic links with 1930s fascism. But figures who have come to prominence in the last decade, such as Holland’s Geert Wilders, do not (Wilders has Indonesian blood and his father fled the Nazis).

Some parties have fluctuating electoral success that suggests they are purely a protest vote (Britain’s BNP), while others have long-term regional or demographic support (Italy’s Lega Nord).

Certainly, there is no single fascist movement in Europe, rather a patchwork of different nationalist reactions to domestic problems.

If you extract the outright crazy (the BNP) from the serious attempt at mainstream politicking (Finnland’s True Finns), you’ll actually find a set of parties that don’t easily fit the fascist label.

The fascism of the 1930s was illiberal, anti-free speech, anti-feminist and homophobic. In contrast, contemporary nationalists wear their cultural liberalism as a badge of political legitimacy. Holland’s Wilders, for example, attacks Islam as an agent of intolerance, highlighting what he perceives as the Koran’s prejudices against women and gays.

Even the ruffians of the English Defence League have a Facebook page devoted to its “Gay Division”.

Perhaps this is part of a strategy to dress up racial bigotry as social liberalism. But the new movements are consistently secular in their rhetoric: rarely do they invoke Christianity as the bedrock of Europe, preferring instead to quote the Enlightenment as its genesis.

Nor do they express that most constant theme of traditionalist Christianity: anti-Semitism. On the contrary, the True Finns are big fans of Israel and have received favourable write ups in the Jeruslam Post (although the Hungarian Jobbik movement is truly, awfully anti-Semitic).

Most importantly, none of these groups present a threat to established democratic institutions. The fascists of the 1930s saw democracy as a Trojan horse for communism, legitimising popular socialism. They campaigned openly for a one party state and won power in countries where democracy had only been practised for one generation.

In contrast, no nationalist party in Europe is promising a dictatorship. On the contrary, most see themselves as a bulwark against a perceived Islamic conspiracy to pervert democracy.

Many wish to extend democratic participation either by reintegrating the working-class into politics, leaving the EU or (as in the case of the separatist Vlaams Belang of Belgium) replacing the bureaucratic nation state with ethnic self-determination.

Mussolini, Hitler or Franco would have recognised little of themselves in the modern Far Right. That’s not to suggest that it is a benign phenomenon, but it’s important that critics understand what they’re writing about when critiquing it.

And the Left must not be allowed to use it as a bogeyman to scare the Right out of talking about immigration or the future of the EU. Indeed, in its secularism and embrace of postmodern cultural values, the new nationalism actually has little in common with traditionalist conservatism.

Its mix of social liberalism and economic populism makes it more empathetic to the demands of the old fashioned Left. It is infused with the values of the 1960s and regards itself as the protector of the contemporary European social contract against the more religiously conservative threat of Islam.

Europe’s fascists aren’t fascists at all: they’re liberals on steroids.

Dr Tim Stanley is a research fellow in American History at Oxford University. His biography of Pat Buchanan will be available from February 2012. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @timothy_stanley

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