From Japan and Philippines to the UK and the US, nationalism is on the rise. This is transforming politics by enabling the rise of the right and, more alarmingly, of the far-right.
Before we carry on, what do we mean by the right and the far-right? To understand this, we have to go back to the heady days of the French Revolution. In the French parliament, supporters of l'Ancien Régime sat on the right while those who wanted a secular republic with equality for all sat on the left. Those who sat on the right believed in hierarchy, tradition and clericalism. Inequality and social stratification were the natural order of the universe.
Over time, the justification for some being more equal than others has changed from noble birth to ability and hard work. Those who win in a competitive free market deserve greater rewards for their ingenuity and industriousness. The right broadly believes that markets produce better outcomes than governments and that inequality is a price worth paying for efficiency, choice and greater wealth for all.
The far-right takes ideas of inequality and stratification to absurd levels. It often ascribes an entire nation or race as superior. The Nazi Party famously deemed Germans belonging to the Aryan race as the master race. In contrast, Jews, Slavs and many others were mere untermenschen. The Nazis were part of a long European tradition of such extreme ideas. The British believed they were superior to the yellow opium addicts in China and the brown idol worshippers in India. Belgian King Leopold II believed that his countrymen had a divine right to slaughter, torture and pillage the half-humans who inhabited the heart of darkness in Congo.
After decades of relative obscurity and quiescence, the far-right finds itself back in the fray. In Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is urging people to kill drug addicts. Austria faces another election where a Glock 9mm pistol-packing Norbert Hofer has a fair shot at the presidency. In France, Marine Le Pen is the respectable face of the immigrant-bashing far-right. The UK has just voted for Brexit thanks in no small part to the exhortations of xenophobes like Nigel Farage. In the US, the rise of Donald Trump, a tacky billionaire and reality television star, is confounding political analysts and sending shivers down spines of minorities such as Muslims and Mexicans.
As this speaker wrote not too long ago, this is an age of fear, anger, hate and terror. The scale and pace of change is faster than ever. Inequality is rising incessantly not only in terms of income and wealth but also in terms of education and opportunity. Social mobility has taken a battering. Institutions are increasingly crumbling around the world. There is a growing dichotomy between global aspiration and local impoverishment. This puts collective identities in question. Is it nation, region, ethnicity, race or religion?
Far-right leaders are touching upon deep seated fears and providing simplistic solutions to complex problems. They are rising to the fore because elites are empty and exhausted. These elites have been narrow and technocratic. They have tried to kick the can down the road and dodged big questions. Most importantly, they have failed to articulate a vision with a compelling collective narrative and people feel lost. It is a most dangerous time for the planet as temperatures increase, sea levels rise and people turn to demagogues for quick fixes.
Atul Singh Bio:
Atul Singh is the Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Fair Observer. He teaches Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar where he also teaches World History. He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford on the Radhakrishnan Scholarship and did an MBA with a triple major in finance, strategy and entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. Singh worked as a corporate lawyer in London and led special operations as an elite officer in India’s volatile border areas where he had many near-death experiences. He has also been a poet, playwright, sportsman, mountaineer and a founder of many organizations. Singh’s knowledge is eclectic, and his friends often joke that it comes in handy when access to Google is limited.