Nationalism Is Global. The Left Is on the Defensive.

Nationalism Is Global. The Left Is on the Defensive.

Nationalism Is Global. The Left Is on the Defensive.

But the climate crisis is the right’s Achilles’ heel.


The fires were burning out of control in the Amazon, and the world’s most powerful countries were criticizing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for his handling of the crisis. With the Group of Seven (G7) about to meet at the end of August, the neophyte leader contacted Donald Trump. The US president, who counts Bolsonaro as one of his closest ideological allies, immediately promised to represent Brazilian interests at the exclusive meeting and ended up securing millions of dollars in assistance.

The two right-wing populists have established a strong transnational bond. Thanks to Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018, Brazil has experienced a Trumpification of politics. The Brazilian president “copied a lot from Trump: his online politics, his speeches against political correctness, his anti-feminist and hate speech,” explains Esther Solano, who teaches international relations at the Federal University of São Paulo. Trump in turn has provided cover for his friend, announcing, for instance, that Bolsonaro was “working very hard on the Amazon fires,” though he was doing anything but. Trump also pledged to push for Brazilian membership in NATO—despite the country’s being nowhere near the North Atlantic—and supported a free-trade deal as well.

Friendship with Donald Trump comes with benefits. Several other right-wing populist leaders, like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, have also huddled up close to the US president to share in the largesse. These leaders, like Trump, have come to power through the ballot box by making patriotic appeals to “the people” and railing against the “elite” even as they craft policies that privilege their powerful friends. Together with other autocrats in Trump’s affinity group—Saudi strongman Mohammad bin Salman, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Russian President Vladimir Putin—they create not so much an axis of authoritarianism as a diverse, illiberal, antidemocratic ecosystem.

Trump presides over this ecosystem like a jovial but punitive godfather (of the Mario Puzo variety). By inviting autocrats to the White House and routinely flouting international norms, “Trump has created space for the international far right,” Paris-based researcher Ethan Earle argues. “He’s given carte blanche to people further down the pecking order in geopolitics to continue to push their politics further and further to the right, knowing that there’s political coverage coming from the very top.”

These right-wing autocrats have gained popularity by promising to make their own countries “great again.” But they are also determined to create a Nationalist International.

“One of the biggest misconceptions of the American left—and left-of-center movements in Europe as well—is the tendency to think of the far right as a nationalist movement,” says Melissa Ryan, who writes the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter for Hope Not Hate, the British anti-racist research group. “It’s actually the opposite. They operate internationally. They share best practices, they share funding streams. They’re internationalists claiming to be nationalists.”

Yet, however much other right-wing leaders look to Trump for inspiration, he has shown neither the interest nor the capacity to head up this new Nationalist International. Others, however, are eager to rush in where Trump fears to tread.

The European far right, for instance, is actively coordinating across borders, particularly within the European parliamentary bloc once known as the Europe of Nations and Freedom. In 2017, the group held a convention in Koblenz that featured the movement’s headliners: France’s Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. The meeting took place shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, which prompted Wilders to comment, “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe.” In 2019, the bloc doubled in size as a result of the European Parliament elections and renamed itself the Identity and Democracy Party.

It’s not just far-right politicians and parties that are organizing across borders. They are cooperating with a well-funded network of right-wing civil society organizations campaigning around the world to roll back civil rights advances, particularly by women and the LGBT community. White nationalists and other extremists have established sophisticated digital platforms for sharing hate-filled messages, some of which have shown up in shooter manifestos around the world. And the far right has constructed a powerful narrative of victimization that is fast moving into the mainstream with the help of conventional conservatives and media conglomerates like Fox News.

The left has not abandoned transnational organizing. But at a time when transnational organizing is needed more than ever to deal with global scourges like climate change, progressives have shifted to the defensive—and to the domestic—as politics has moved rightward globally. “Internationalism is now a problem for the left,” observes Israeli activist and academic Gadi Algazi, “and a reality for the right.”

I recently asked 80 progressive activists from around the world how to reverse this dynamic. Size up the competition, they recommended, and then find its fatal flaw.

The Right Goes Transnational

The far right has prospered because of the failures of political and economic liberalism—and of the left to provide a popular alternative. Populists like Bolsonaro have built national followings by appealing to those who feel ignored by mainstream parties of the left and right. They have drawn strength from a conservative religious base and used hot-button appeals to racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia to energize their supporters.

But the radical right has perhaps won the most support by critiquing the great transnational project of the 20th century: economic globalization.

The creation of a more interconnected global economy has helped create many billionaires—and lifted nearly a billion Chinese out of grinding poverty. However, many people have been left behind. In Poland, those who benefited from the post-1989 economic changes are known as Poland A, while a disgruntled Poland B brought a right-wing populist party to power in that country. Similarly, one can speak of Planet A, which has benefited from economic globalization, and Planet B, which has not. Right-wing populists have relied heavily on Planet B for their support.

“At the root has been the right wing’s capacity to harness people’s sense of alienation—the discontents of globalization,” observes Fiona Dove of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. This alienation has produced a new wave of anti-austerity protests across the Global South: in Lebanon, Tunisia, Chad, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Argentina, Ecuador, and, most recently, Chile. It has also caused a shift in working-class loyalties—for instance, from the Communist Party in France to the Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. But the alienation also extends beyond the have-nots to include the have-somes. Traditionally seen as the motor for democratization, the middle class has provided an “active consensus” behind right-wing movements in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Brazil, suggests sociologist, former member of the Philippines parliament, and author Walden Bello. For Donald Trump, too, existential anxiety about potential loss of status was a greater predictor of support in the 2016 elections than actual economic hardship.

Populist leaders have skillfully attacked “globalists”—the elite presumably responsible for globalization—to achieve power at a national level. Steve Bannon, the former head of Trump’s brain trust, has tried to use his friendships in high places—Salvini, Le Pen—to herd all the far-right cats of Europe against the globalists. He made one of Bolsonaro’s sons his regional representative, forged ties with a political-religious cult in Japan, and launched an anti-Beijing bloc.

Bannon talks big and grabs headlines, but his Brussels-based Movement hasn’t become operational, and his training center for right-wing politicians in Italy has foundered. But with or without Bannon’s support, the normalization of the far right is happening very quickly. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) didn’t exist a decade ago. Founded in 2012, the party entered the European Parliament in 2013. By the German federal elections of 2017, it had become the country’s third-largest party. And soon the AfD could have a large global presence. If it wins representation in the 2021 federal elections, which is likely, the AfD’s Erasmus Foundation will get the same deal from Berlin as the foundations of the other principal German parties: as much as €70 million annually to fund global activities.

In the space of two months this spring, Nigel Farage rebuilt the fledgling Brexit Party, blitzed the country with a social media campaign, and captured the largest share of the UK’s vote in the European elections. Several other right-wing populist movements—Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy—also captured the most votes in their countries. The far right’s success has become so normal that the second-place showing of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party in France has been hailed as progress.

Unsurprisingly, this Nationalist International faces some centrifugal tensions. Putin’s United Russia party has forged alliances with the Austrian and Italian far right—but Poland’s Law and Justice Party is leery of anything that smacks of Russian nationalism. When it comes to European Union funds, the German far right favors austerity, while the Italian far right wants an open spigot (at least for Italy). Beyond Europe, white racists will think twice about fighting shoulder to shoulder with the far right in Israel, India, or Japan.

These cleavages, however, are less pronounced at the civil society level, where far-right organizations operate largely within their own like-minded silos. The World Congress of Families, founded in 1997, promotes its conservative cultural agenda through regular global gatherings. “Their convenings have increasingly been a site for cross-fertilization across political and religious movements, mostly within Christianity but also other faith traditions,” reports Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates in Boston. Alliance Defending Freedom International spends millions of dollars in court cases in more than 50 countries against same-sex marriage and abortion. The global right-wing petition organization CitizenGo has promoted its anti-trans messages on buses around the world.

“The world of social conservatives in the United States is intensely involved internationally in every single place, pushing anti-LGBT and anti-abortion thinking,” explains Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. “They are very cognizant of the need to go beyond the nation-state to push their issues. You’d think that the most parochial movement, Christian conservatives in the US, wouldn’t think that way. But they think bigger than we do.”

Thinking bigger has also meant reaching consensus on a powerful new transnational narrative: the “great replacement” of white people by nonwhite people. Introduced by the French writer Renaud Camus in 2010, the “great replacement” has been taken up by white nationalists across Europe and North America and has inspired the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019 and El Paso, Texas, in August 2019. Transposed to a religious key, the ideology has united Islamophobes who push a Muslim travel ban in the United States, preach the myths of Fortress Europe and Fortress India, rationalize the expulsion of Rohingya in Myanmar, and support a restrictive new citizenship law in Israel.

In the 1930s, the far right promulgated an overarching narrative, about the declining health of the nation at the hands of “outsiders,” that both conservatives and conspiracy theorists could support. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right in the UK. “Once you add those two together, you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”

To bring this narrative to new audiences, the far right has been an early adopter of social media technology. It has gamed the search algorithms of YouTube to send people looking for standard conservative memes like “cultural Marxism” into more sinister rabbit holes of video content. Even as mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter “deplatform” some extremists, they’ve moved into parallel structures, like Gab, which has attracted nearly a million registered users with its extremist content, alt-right celebrity posters, and sophisticated user interface.

“These movements are not necessarily transnational in the sense of someone in a castle in Austria leading the movements of all the neo-Nazis,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Rather, they are transnational in their storytelling. “These movements are always trying to get you to reject standard narratives and believe that there’s a suppressed narrative out there, and that once you unlock that suppressed narrative, you will understand the secret truth of the world.” That’s where Bannon and Breitbart come in: to upcycle alternative narratives, like the “great replacement,” into the mainstream.

What is the far right’s endgame? On issues such as immigration and minority rights, it aspires to rip up existing agreements and substitute what Larry Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, calls “an approximation of the liberal order in illiberal terms.”

But it wasn’t that long ago the global left also dreamed of building an alternative to the liberal order.

Is Another World Still Possible?

The World Social Forum (WSF) began when 12,000 people converged on Porto Alegre in Brazil in January 2001 under the banner of “another world is possible,” that is, a world beyond rote democracy and the rapacious market. An extraordinary combination of political debate, strategy session, and carnival, the WSF served as a space for organizing the global protests against the Iraq War in 2003, to mobilize against the WTO and free trade, and much more.

Today the Workers Party in Brazil, which supported the WSF in its early years, is out of power, and its leader Lula is in prison. The pink tide of left-leaning governments in Latin America has ebbed. And the WSF, which failed to transform itself into a strategically coordinated political force, no longer has the momentum it once had.

As global problems mount, the transnational left is casting around for other ways to challenge both the far right and the wan neoliberalism whose failures helped propel populists like Trump and Bolsonaro to power. Outside Europe, progressive political parties don’t have many opportunities to link up across borders. Some progressives have turned to the local level, such as the Fearless Cities movement, which has, among other things, worked to make outfits like Uber and Airbnb more accountable to municipal governments. There’s also important progressive organizing at a regional level, such as the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, the Jornada Continental process in Latin America, and Africans Rising.

But progressives are still struggling to identify the agents and the locus of change at a global level. Unions remain a strong global spine for progressive organizing—the International Trade Union Confederation represents over 200 million workers in over 300 affiliates—while newer organizations have emerged like the Fight Inequality Alliance based in South Africa and the Online Progressive Engagement Network in Barcelona. Progressives continue to work at the UN to achieve a binding treaty to regulate global corporations and build on the new ILO convention to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace.

The left, however, faces a quandary at the global level. Mobilizations have traditionally targeted the World Economic Forum, the G7, the WTO. But the populist right has co-opted the anti-globalization movement by challenging all “globalist” institutions. “It makes it easier when you have clearly defined institutions or gatherings to go up against,” notes Kavita N. Ramdas, director of the Women’s Rights Program at Open Society in New York. “Now those institutions, however flawed, seem the last resort of sanity. Should we be going up against the World Bank when Trump is ripping up interactions with everyone in the world?”

Whatever its flaws, the World Social Forum provided a chance for progressives to gather, debate, and determine priorities across a wide range of issues. It’s not as if the problems that gave rise to the WSF have gone away. In fact, global civil society has not met the rise of the far right and the intensification of global threats like economic inequality with a burst of new institution-building.

“We have a crisis of alternatives,” observes Luciana Ghiotto, an economic justice activist in Argentina. “The World Social Forum showed its limits: the limits of only getting together to talk about how much we hate neoliberalism. But we need to be moving forward with alternatives.”

A New Transnational Vision

The populist right has a vision of the future it wants. This vision may be intolerant, exclusionary, and backward-looking, but it is presented as a strong, nationalist alternative to the current more-or-less liberal status quo. At a transnational level, in other words, the far right has not only declared that “another world is possible”; it is busy building that world.

The left has been thrown on the defensive. “Over time, internationalism has fallen off among US social movements for understandable reasons, a lot of it having to do with the number of threats people are facing here,” laments Executive Director May Boeve. The left, in other words, has been so busy trying to prevent a rollback of all the social movement achievements of the last half-century—and fighting for what had previously been taken for granted by liberal mainstream society such as independent media or free and fair elections—that it hasn’t come up with a narrative that can effectively counter the right’s nationalist messaging and internationalist organizing.

But the radical right has a global Achilles’ heel. It has no effective response to climate change other than to pretend that it doesn’t exist. In fact, buoyed by Trump and Bolsonaro, the right is sticking its head even deeper into the sand. With the Adelphi Institute, German journalist Susanne Götze undertook a study that determined that “nearly all the right-wing parties in Europe are linked to climate deniers.” In the 2019 European Parliament elections, the right wing began to shift its focus. “Climate change was always a bit of a niche topic that the far right focused on, but this time it overtook the topic of migration, which has been huge in Europe and featured as the top theme among far-right activists for last few years,” reports Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in the UK.

The left can and should capitalize on this strategic blunder. “The climate crisis—and extinction and complete environmental breakdown—is our window of opportunity,” argues Srećko Horvat of DiEM25. “This is the first time in human history there is a single issue on which all of humanity can hopefully agree.”

When I asked 80 global activists and thinkers what international campaign made them most hopeful, the #FridaysforFuture school strikes that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg began in September 2018 invariably headed their lists. “This movement inspires me because millennials are playing an important role in their own future,” says Tunisian activist Salma Belhassine. “The symbol is also inspiring because older generations judge millennials as nonchalant and Internet-obsessed. But they are showing that they, too, can take the future into their own hands.”

At the policy level, the initiative that has the greatest chance of unifying the left across borders and silos is the Green New Deal. This multifaceted platform is not just about marshaling national and international resources to combat climate change. It is intersectionality par excellence. The program, in the admittedly sketchy form that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) introduced in Congress, involves the infrastructure financing, job retraining, and targeted subsidies for green industries that the left has championed for some time as a way to win back voters disillusioned by neoliberalism. Bernie Sanders has also introduced a version that would provide significant resources for the Global South.

Indeed, the Green New Deal already has a transnational following. Yannis Varafoukis, the former Greek finance minister who co-founded DiEM 25, calls the Green New Deal the “glue and cement” that can hold together a European alliance of greens, leftists, and liberals. “People in the Global South are in fact inspired by AOC,” notes Walden Bello, “and are looking very carefully at the strategizing and approaches that she and other new women representatives in the House are providing.” In Asia, a GND could push China’s Belt and Road Initiative toward greater sustainability. For Africa, a GND would provide an opportunity for countries to leapfrog over existing technologies and achieve parity with the Global North at far less cost to the environment.

In an ideal world, voters would go to the polls to elect parties that propose some version of a Global Green New Deal. Social movements would then turn on the street heat to give progressive insiders the leverage to overcome the resistance of Big Energy. Labor activists and environmentalists would set up the center poles and welcome other progressive movements and NGOs into the big tent.

Unfortunately, the GND will more likely function as an emergency last resort after the Nationalist International makes a complete mess of things.

“Sooner or later, something will break, whether it’s financial, climatic, geopolitical, in a way that will speed up of the reorganization of the global system,” concludes Lorenzo Marsili of European Alternatives. “It will be a race: Who will best manage the coming crisis?”

The far right is desperately trying to protect its Achilles’ heel by developing various forms of eco-fascism to “protect the homeland.” Right-wing extremists warn darkly of greater surges of migration that will accompany the rising waters. The political window of opportunity for progressives to build a transnational, multi-issue movement around a global Green New Deal may not remain open for long.

“We are not winning this race,” Marsili admits. “But this is how all beautiful movies begin. You have to lag behind in order to catch up and then win. Otherwise it’s no fun, and no one watches.”

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