Impact workshop: The rise of the far right and how to confront it

Malmö 13-15 November 2019

Dec 5th, 2019
Ada Regelmann
A warm welcome from the facilitators

By Ada Regelmann, with additional materials by Staffan Dahllöf and Michael Lauritsen

The Brussels Office of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung partnered with the Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO) from Copenhagen to host a workshop to better understand and compare the causes of the rise of the far right across countries and to discuss strategies on how the left should respond. The workshop gave participants the opportunity to exchange viewpoints on analysis and strategy, learn from each other and connect. It also provided us with useful insights into the analysis and strategic debates among the left and left parties in the Nordic countries.

The workshop brought together 35 civil society and party activists and decision-makers from among the political left in Sweden, Denmark and Germany, with guests contributions from Norway and Austria.[1] In a dynamic mix of inputs, interactive methods, small group discussions and strategy development, we concentrated on two sets of questions: what causes the success of both far-right parties and policies, and which strategies and tactics for left parties and movements work against the far right?

The workshop was part of a series of events discussing broader dynamics, trends and challenges in liberal democracies with a focus on the Nordic countries. The series is organised by RLS Brussels and DEO in cooperation with Vänsterpartiet, Enhedslisten and Die Linke.

The rise of far-right parties

The past ten years have seen a rise in support for far-right movements and parties. At all levels of governance across Europe, far-right parties’ influence on everyday policy-making is becoming more tangible. Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats, SD – politically close to the German Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) is now the biggest political party in Sweden according to opinion polls. In Denmark, several national governments relied on the support of the Danske Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party, DF) though the Social Democrats seem to have pushed it back as a political force – however doing so by copy-pasting the party’s policy on migration and refugees. The AfD is now represented in both the national and all regional parliaments across Germany, coming out as number two in recent elections in three eastern states.

The workshop combined expert inputs….

What do these parties have in common, where do they differ?

These parties share a focus on migration and asylum policies characterised by racism, anti-feminism, nationalism and an anti-EU stance. They seek to appeal to anti-establishment and protest sentiments as well as claim to represent traditional conservative values. As a result, they speak to similar groups of voters.

However, the parties differ regarding their histories, their links with Neo-Nazi movements, inner/inter-party competition, degree of extremism in their political programme and rhetoric, strategy, and their ability to influence public discourse and political decision-making.

Whereas the Danish People’s Party has its roots in an aggressive tax resistance campaign from the 1970s, having turned into a chauvinist pro-welfare and anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats have their roots in the neo-Nazi scene but developed into a more ‘sophisticated’ culturally racist party appealing to traditional conservatives also. Having started off as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD only made the big break at the ballot box after it was able to capitalise on widespread latent racism in the aftermath of the arrival of unusually high numbers of refugees to the country in 2015.

What explains the rise of far-right parties and why is it so ubiquitous?

There was agreement among the workshop participants that narrowly economic explanations that focus on individual voters’ financial situation, i.e., the economically “left-behind”, do not tell the full story. People who find themselves in precarious circumstances tend not to participate politically. We should bear in mind also that workers have always been economically disadvantaged without turning against each other or against other, more vulnerable, social groups.

…with plenty of small group exchange...

Yet now we are facing widespread feelings of economic vulnerability and uncertainty resulting from structural changes as well as a policy of cuts and income stagnation, even among people in a stable financial situation. In addition, lack of important infrastructure, the retrenching welfare state and resulting shortage of public services often confirm existing perceptions of having missed out on the distributed surplus of neoliberal reforms. While this is a perception that we find across all three countries and across all age groups, it affects primarily white working men.

This ties in with a second argument. The fear of loss of social status and dwindling chances for upward social mobility is related to a broader loss of social identity. Especially white male workers experience this relative socio-cultural deprivation, which, rooting in the achievements of the cultural changes of the last 50 years, should not be underestimated. Far from being a competing argument to the relative economic deprivation, both perceptions of a loss of privilege or entitlement vis-à-vis groups benefitting from the emancipation, liberalisation and diversification of society and its institutions, are deeply intertwined.

So, are we talking about the “losers of modernisation” then? Again this argument lacks important dimensions. Many voters of the parties we discussed feel disempowered and experience a lack of control or self-efficacy over their lives and over where society is headed. There is a sense of betrayal of trust vis-à-vis the other parties, including the left, that political promises concerning people’s economic prospects have not been kept. Yet there is also the centralisation of politics and the shift of political power, from national to regional and global integration, from politics to the markets, all of which is perceived as undermining fundamental convictions of what it means to live in a democratic society. What’s more, important spaces that used to integrate people, like unions, no longer fulfill this function or have disappeared.

Whose fault is it anyway?

…bringing together participants from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Workshop participants subscribed to the argument that it was the politics of neoliberalism, the crisis, and the mainstream response to the crisis that have fundamentally destroyed the societal compass of preceding decades, leading to the developments in question.

Nevertheless, the discussion soon turned towards the question of the extent to which the left was to blame for the rise of the far right. There was disagreement with the controversial statement made by Kajsa Ekis Ekman in her keynote speech (see link to podcast below) that left wing parties and movement have been too preoccupied with opinions, mindsets and identities rather than tackling neoliberalism. Yet participants agreed that the left has failed to come up with viable alternative scenarios and solutions, while across countries the Social Democrats took a prominent role in making possible to political shifts to the right-wing economics with all its consequences. It stems from the progressives’ involvement in actively dismantling welfare or not countering this process effectively, that the left is broadly perceived as part of the establishment and hence as unsuited to provide credible alternatives to the current system.

The idea that the rise of the far right could be attributed to people being misled by internet trolls and fake news was broadly rejected by workshop participants and criticised as elitist and a way of the neoliberal elite to explain away a dynamic (i.e., inequality) they have no interest in tackling.

Does the resurgence of the far right constitute an (existential) threat to liberal democracies?

Özlem Cekic presenting the concept of “Dialogue Coffee”

One of the central arguments supporting the idea that the far right does pose a threat to liberal democracy is that the populist radical right must be seen as a radical interpretation of mainstream values rather than a fringe phenomenon. This is evidenced by the normalisation of the exploitative and exclusionary racism in rhetoric and legislation of “mainstream” political parties, with the Swedish conservatives of Moderaterna and the Danish Social Democrats being particular cases in point. With its causes both the in crisis, inequality and relative deprivation caused by neoliberalism, and in the normalisation of racisms, some have argued that this normalisation constitutes a hegemonic challenge to (neo)liberal democracy.

Others put the focus on the representation and institutionalisation of far-right parties in the state apparatus, administration, structures of the judiciary, the police, the military as well as within local political structures and presence in people’s daily live, in some regions of Eastern Germany, for example, dominating the spaces that elsewhere belong to civil society. Now that the far right has successfully established itself in the parliaments, it is able to use its access to institutions, structures and resources to increase its impact and strengthen its networks in ways and to an extent previously unseen.

What can and must be the role of the left in fighting the far right?

Contributions to discussion at the live-panel debate (see podcast) strongly advocated that the left went “back to basics”, understood as offering “concrete solutions to concrete problems” (Hanna Gedin) particularly in the field of social policies to tackle economic inequality and thereby address people’s feelings of exclusion. While the workshop participants supported this in principle, the workshop also allowed for a more nuanced debate of the left’s role at a range of levels. It had thus paid off to spend the first day sounding out the various perspectives, conceptualisations and analyses explaining the rise of the far right present at the workshop before discussion strategies and aligning them to the common analysis.

Magnus Marsdahl presenting lessons from Norway.

The main role of the left lies in offering a real alternative both to the status quo and to the alleged solutions purported by the extreme right. There was broad agreement that the left should not limit itself to narrowly defined social questions, but provide a narrative that addresses issues raised by both materialist and culturalist explanations and incorporates them into a coherent narrative. Hence the answer cannot be simply bringing back the welfare state, as this has never worked for everyone, especially migrants/racialised. The left must not shy away from discussing and addressing concrete problems, including those which are currently dominated by the right, such as crime. It is important to reclaim the dominance in framing issues currently exploited by extreme or the neoliberal right, for example by reframing them as class rather than ethnic problems, and by moving from a defensive position to framing left-wing demands as social rights.

What ideas, resources, strategies does the left need to resist the far right in the institutions?

The political traditions and landscapes, contexts for the emergence and success of far-right parties, and, importantly, the left parties and movements in Sweden, Denmark and Germany themselves differ substantially. Nevertheless, the workshop allowed for important lines of agreement both in the analysis and in answering the question of how to deal with the threat posed by the far right. An important caveat brought up in the discussion of strategies was the question of the actual size, degree of institutionalisation and real-term impact of the far-right parties which determined to large extent the question of which aspects left parties and movements should focus on in their actions. However, as a bottom-line we were able to distill a set of points.

Strategically, the left needs to

  1. Present an alternative and inclusionary vision and positive narrative that entails both materialist and symbolic aspects;
  2. Push for social policies, this is where our strength lies;
  3. Mobilise and organise from the bottom-up to stand together with migrants/racialised, women, LGBTx, workers and nature, to strengthen civil society and democracy, and to vaccinate society against the extreme right.

As regards tactics, participants raised various positions that are not always compatible and need to be seen in light of the respective context. While in Sweden and Germany, the left follows the approach of “cordon sanitaire”, i.e., the policy of not cooperating with the far-right parties under any circumstances and condemning the racism of SD and AfD, in Denmark, the left has argued that this approach has helped strengthen rather than work against DF. Perhaps lessons can be learned from Norway, where the far-right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) is still strong, but the left has also made significant gains in recent elections. They have agreed on a policy line that suggests not to rise to every bait offered by the far right, that is not to jump into a fight every time the far right uses another political provocation to occupy the progressive spectrum. This approach allowed them to focus on their own policies while avoiding to mobilise otherwise indifferent voters. At the same time, it does not entail abstaining from taking clear stances against racism and anti-feminism. The “Norwegian formula” was applauded by many participants and might be a viable tactic in the fight against the far-right elsewhere.

What’s next?

The workshop brought together significant expertise from the three countries in focus with additional expertise form Norway and Austria. It allowed participants to understand better the political discussions, challenges and responses relevant in the various context, identify common issues as well as lines of disagreement, and gauge opportunities for closer cooperation. In a closing session on how to move forward with the group in future, there was strong support for a double strategy of continuing to discuss democracy, participation and democratic socialism among the Nordic and German left, as well as developing formats for more direct transnational exchange and learning on how to confront the far right in the institutions at all levels of government. That we shall do. Stay tuned!

At the eve of the workshop proper we kicked-off with keynote speech and live-audience debate on the relationship between neoliberalism and fascism. “Time to get serious: How to crush fascism and neoliberalism in one blow”.  Hosted in a small library and community centre in Malmö’s old working class district Sofielund, the event drew a crowd of 180 people! Check out our podcast from the event and video interviews with speakers.

[1] The workshop was held under Chatham House Rule. We therefore do not attribute statements to individual participants.