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11 March 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 10:57pm

The rise of disaster nationalism: why the authoritarian right is resurgent

This is not the enlightened self-interest of classical liberalism – it is a movement fascinated with the prospect of annihilation, giddy for destructive adventure.

By Richard Seymour

We are living in a time of rupture. Most of these ruptures are coming from the authoritarian, nationalist right. Nationalist movements have realigned politics and incumbency has been remarkably generous to them, despite a frequently risible governing record.

In December 2019 Boris Johnson was elected with a large majority on a bigger turnout of the vote, after a decade of austerity, public squalor and income stagnation. Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist ruler of India, was re-elected in the same year with an increased majority, despite the failure of his economic agenda. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, was re-elected in 2018 with just over half of the popular vote.

In Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is embroiled in corruption allegations, has been re-elected by allying his Likud party with the Israeli far right. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte – after two years of death-squad rule – won the 2019 mid-terms, having failed to deliver on his political agenda. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has yet to be tested in a new election, but faces no serious challenge. Even Donald Trump, who has weathered media hostility and conflict with the FBI, has retained his voter base.

What is striking about the success of modern nationalism is how much of it is based on fantasy; the invention of false chimeras and conspiracy theories about immigrant “invasions”, “death panels”, “white genocide”, “Islamisation”, the “great replacement”, “climate hoax”, and now the “Wuhan virus”. 

This is not the enlightened self-interest of classical liberalism. It is disaster nationalism, fascinated with the prospect of annihilation, giddy for destructive adventure.

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We call these fantasies “fake news”. They are more like fairy tales filled with monsters: “globalists”, “elites”, “cultural Marxists”, “Islamic terrorists”, and foreigners who want to “replace us”.

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These imagined spectres are the disgrace notes of a civilisation in decay. For modern nationalist movements have gained ground amid a crisis of the old parties and old media systems. They have exploited degraded ecologies of information in which far-right disinfotainment is a hot, profitable product. 

Where the radical left has been in recession for decades, these new movements of reaction have captured the imagination of voters through moralising, anti-political campaigns against a dying establishment; ranging from anti-austerity protests in Brazil, to the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit campaign in Britain.

Messianism is also widespread in disaster nationalism. Whether it is the hope that Boris Johnson will “bring us sunshine”, Hansard’s finding in 2019 that 54 per cent of Britons would welcome an authoritarian rule-breaker, or the debates on the American religious right over whether Trump is the Messiah – these movements thrive on the offer of psychological improvement more than material well-being.

By attacking the monsters they dream up, they offer to reunite nations that have been bitterly polarised by class inequalities, without the inconvenience of doing anything to address them.

The movements benefiting from the crisis of capitalism do differ in important respects. While the nationalist right is a tendency of older voters in the US and Britain, Bolsonaro has enjoyed support from younger people, and Modi is backed by all age demographics. The class and educational divides that are so salient in Anglo-American reactionary politics have no equivalent in India. Immigration is not the obsession in Brazil that it is in Britain, France and the US.

What all currents of disaster nationalism do have in common, however, is that their attacks on liberalism are not directed against the liberal economy, but against liberal norms, rights and legality.

This is matched by a contempt for human rights and traditional authority, and the declared wars on the courts. To discredit their opponents, they rely on “troll armies”, the intimidation of journalists, and tactics to game media coverage. They gaslight the public to create disorientation, and politicise arms of the state, such as parliaments and supreme courts, to generate crises and delegitimise the opposition.

Disaster nationalism is not fascist. These movements do not seek to overthrow electoral democracy. With the exception of the RSS in India – the grass-roots cadre organisation supporting Modi’s BJP – they do not command far-right, paramilitary mass movements. 

Yet they do incubate fascist elements, and the revival of anti-liberal nationalism, with its growing voter bases and thriving cultural scenes, such as the online alt-right, has provided fascists with vastly expanded vistas, readerships, and opportunities for recruitment and fundraising.

The rise of disaster nationalism tells us something profoundly important about the political cycle that is opening up before us. The previous cycle, of neoliberal growth, came crashing to the ground in 2008, and our new disaster nationalist era was seeded in the interregnum. For now, this constellation of forces is still unstable. But if unchecked, we may soon recognise it as the beginning of a fascist resurgence.

This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down