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Cosmos

The Centre on Social Movement Studies

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2024-06-03

Far right movements and the European elections

Intersections and differences among far right politica Europan parties and movments, transatlantic exchanges, the role of mobilizations at the grassroots level. An interview with political scientist Andrea Pirro.

Intersections and differences among far right politica Europan parties and movments, transatlantic exchanges, the role of mobilizations at the grassroots level. An interview with political scientist Andrea Pirro

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Political scientist, Andrea Pirro’s research focuses on extremism, radicalism, populism, and democracy; Euroscepticism; political parties and party systems; social movements and political participation. Today he is assistant professor at Bologna, he is Editor of the journal East European Politics and Editor of the Routledge Book Series in Extremism and Democracy and is a member of the Cosmos lab. We asked him few questions on the far right and Euroscepticism in Europe as these parties and movements are poised to be the political area to gain more seats in the next European Parliament.

 

The European far right is composed by parties that are both in government and opposition, with a history and historical references (Fratelli d’Italia/FdI, Rassemblement National/RN, Vox) or with a newly minted “illiberal” culture (Fidesz, PiS/Law&Justice). There are differences at the origins of these political forces but they seem to converge. What are the commonalities and what, if any, are the differences in this European political family?

There are multiple points of intersection and I don’t think that the historical lens is necessarily the best to accurately depict this phenomenon. There are certain parties that have a clear lineage with neo-fascist traditions such as RN or FdI, but even within the set of parties that we consider more linked to historical neo-fascist movements distinguished by some sort of nostalgia there are stark differences. Take the Front National, today RN. The FN implemented some of the thesis that were forwarded by the “Nouvelle Droite” such as the quest for cultural hegemony, and innovated politically shifting to a conception of ethno-pluralism, abandoning the notion of biological racism that prevailed until then and started referring to “cultural incompatibility” rather than hierarchical ordering among races. This is something that has projected the FN to political stardom. In this sense, the French party has led the way and many other far-right political forces have followed that example.

If we look at the Italian context, I think that Salvini’s Lega resembles much more the FN/RN than Fratelli d’Italia. The RN hasn’t quite put the same emphasis on traditionalist values and is much less socio-culturally conservative than Fratelli d’Italia or the Spanish Vox, which in turn look more like Law and Justice in Poland or Fidesz in Hungary. It might look like a mixed bag but the reason is that there are multiple strands within the broader far-right family. Right now, most far-right parties enjoying government duties seek some form of respectability and are much more likely to present themselves as ‘conservatives’ than outright ‘far right’. The media has largely bought into this strategy and tends to whitewash these actors as ‘populists’, simply ‘right-wing’, or – worse – ‘centre right’.

Overall, far-right parties in Europe are ultimately converging towards a ‘common denominator’ of opposition to migration and Euroscepticism. This now holds also for the Central and Eastern European far right, which stood out from the rest until 2015. Before the peak of the so-called migration crisis, their ‘enemy’ was within their own boundaries, so they would concentrate their fight against ethnic minorities, the Hungarian minority in Slovakia or the Roma population – indeed, indigenous communities. These parties were largely successful in politicizing the issue of immigration and converged on a similar platform as their western European partners. At the same time, these parties diverge on issues related to the economy, morality politics, and so on. Fidesz is essentially statist in its aspirations, although its formula resolves in a centrally planned capitalist kleptocracy, whereas others as Fratelli d’Italia or the Lega are in direct continuation of Berlusconi’s neoliberal policies, being therefore on the right-wing of the spectrum also regarding the economy.

Contacts and exchanges between far-right European leaders and fringe members of the US Republican party were not uncommon, the Trump leadership of the American party seems to have broadened these ties.

There are certainly networks and collaboration has been ongoing for a number of years. With the election of Trump as president of the US there have been a number of advantageous developments. The election as such has legitimized and made acceptable the idea of a far-right politician holding power. According to many qualified observers the Republican Party has mainly become a far-right party, no longer just a party where far-right fringes are tolerated. I would say that the links across the Atlantic are an indication of what is unfolding within the far right at the global level. There is an ongoing process of ‘authoritarian learning’. All parties of the far right, whether it is the GOP or Fidesz and Fratelli d’Italia, are learning from each other ways to hollow out liberal democracy. They are collectively contributing to an ‘illiberal playbook’. This is providing them with ways to exploit the grey areas of legislation and get rid of the liberal element within democratic regimes, and thus set their countries on an illiberal trajectory and potentially autocratization. These parties are brought together by an illiberal vision, to say the least, and these frequent connections are aimed at developing a shared vocabulary and instruments to dismantle the liberal status quo. In the face of the mainstreaming and normalization of the far right, we should be ultimately concerned about this process of democratic erosion. This process is much more subtle if compared to the past because you don’t get tanks in the streets or coups. When people get worried about the possible return of Fascism as we historically know it, they are missing the point; democracy can be eroded in a much more subtle way.

Who is the far-right voter?

The voters of the far right have been changing and diversifying over the years, as they no longer represent a marginal portion of the electorate. At the beginning, we were mainly referring to male voters with low level of education coming from low-medium economic strata of society. Today the poll of voters is much more diverse. Take the example of Italy, where the Forza Italia electorate was absorbed by the Lega before, and Fratelli d’Italia today. Those new voters are often small and medium entrepreneurs, white collars – suggesting again that the economic interests they represent are mainly the same as Berlusconi’s party. More broadly, the far right tries to mobilize on the resentment against the establishment, mainstream parties, and any kind of institutional stalemate. Political apathy has grown over the years; people are rather disenchanted with the status quo or how things tend not to work at the institutional level. On top of that, the recent crises tend to feed a sense of insecurity common to periods of accelerated change. The voters of the far right are those who see their condition threatened by these changes. People who are not willing to cast a vote for the far right, but also share the same grievances, tend to abstain otherwise.

 

Euroscepticism has been a crucial asset for these parties. Is it still central? What is the idea of Europe proposed by the far-right?

The scenario has changed dramatically after Brexit; it changed the way in which these parties relate to Europe, although not necessarily as they perceive it. The aspirations for ‘exit’ or withdrawal from the EU has been mainly reconsidered due to the failure of Brexit. On the whole, ‘hard Euroscepticism’ is thus not the dominant view among far-right parties. The Europe they have in mind is a Europe of peoples and nations in which identities and national interests have to prevail over federalist drives or more cooperation. The nation is the core of their view. If we think of the motto chosen by the Lega for the European Parliament election (“Più Italia, meno Europa/More Italy, less Europe”), it perfectly encapsulates the meaning of their Euroscepticism: within the EU, but in our own terms. We have now moved towards a stance that could be framed as “Occupy Brussels” where the agenda of these parties is aimed at dismantling the EU from within. With the expected growth of these forces, passing legislation on climate change, civil rights, or support for Ukraine might become more difficult for the European Parliament.

 

Your forthcoming book (Castelli Gattinara P. & Pirro A.L.P., Movement Parties of the Far Right: Understanding Nativist Mobilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press) looks at mobilization outside the institutional arena. What is the relation between institutional politics of the far-right and what happens outside institutions?

We mostly look at the non-institutional arena, what happens beyond elections and within organizations, and try to address why and how the far right mobilizes at the grassroots level. We have seen a surge in far-right protest activity, both in terms of mobilization rate and in terms of participants; this seems to signal the pervasive penetration of the far right. It is important to bear in mind that the protest arena provides the breeding ground for the far right. Grassroots politics is where most of these actors build their support, attract activists, socialize the party personnel and where they can voice issues that are not always easy (or possible) to channel at the institutional level. Last but not least, the protest arena is the place where they entertain links with more extremist and anti-democratic forces, and thus diversify their political supply. In our book we provide evidence of parties that are nominally committed to the rules of the democratic game, but practically mobilize alongside anti-democratic movements and groups. These exchanges are well entrenched in the strategies and organization of the contemporary far-right. This is a dimension that has been long neglected but actually quite critical to the survival of democratic systems; delving deeper into non-institutional politics can help us identify and prevent possible autocratic or illiberal turns in the politics of our own countries.

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Journal Article - 2023

Mutual aid and solidarity politics in times of emergency: direct social action and temporality in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic

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From the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures introduced created a series of social problems and needs that were partially addressed in Italy as well as in other countries by grassroots mutual aid initiatives. While many of these initiatives were strongly rooted in the Italian social movement and civil society landscape and the choice to engage in mutual aid activities was the result of long years of reflection and planning, the article shows how strongly the temporality of emergency affected the nature of these initiatives, their development and their outcomes, in particular with regard to the extraordinary number of people who volunteered and their relationship with politicisation processes.

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From Deliveroo to Amazon, digital platforms have drastically transformed the way we work. But how are these transformations being received and challenged by workers? This book provides a radical interpretation of the changing nature of worker movements in the digital age, developing an invaluable approach that combines social movement studies and industrial relations. Using case studies taken from Europe and North America, it offers a comparative perspective on the mobilizing trajectories of different platform workers and their distinct organizational forms and action repertoires.

Monograph - 2022

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Donatella della Porta, Niccolò Bertuzzi, Daniela Chironi, Chiara Milan, Martín Portos & Lorenzo Zamponi
Drawing interview material, together with extensive data from the authors’ original social movement database, this book examines the development of social movements in resistance to perceived political "regression" and a growing right-wing backlash.

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Elias Steinhilper
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Populism between voting and non-electoral participation

Andrea Pirro & Martín Portos
The article focuses on a neglected aspect of populist mobilisation, i.e. non-electoral participation (NEP), and elaborates on the extent to which populist party voters engage politically outside the polling station. While challenging common understandings of populism as inherently distrustful and apathetic, and protest as an exclusive practice of the left, the study critically places NEP at the heart of populism in general, and populist right politics in particular.