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‘Rather than Blaming Capitalism, the Right Blames the Immigrant’

The significant gains made by the right across Europe in recent years haven’t appeared out of the blue, writes Simon Speakman Cordall

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

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That Europe has shifted rightward is beyond dispute. 

Across the continent, feelings against irregular migrants, small boats, or just people are at an all time high, while environmental protections are coming under increasing pressure from a public scared of the future, fearful of the present, and nostalgic for an imagined past. 

All the while,  right-wing groups and parties fan those concerns.

In Germany, the pro-Russia, anti-immigration, AfD (Alternative for Germany) is more popular than ever. In Sweden, typically a bastion of the liberal centre, the right-wing Swedish Democrats have assumed critical influence. In Italy, fuelled by fear of immigration, the far-right Brothers of Italy have come to power. While in Poland, the libertarian Confederation promises to break with the two-party system of the past and lead the country on a bright, low tax, and immigrant-free future.

This is before you get to France’s perennial bogeyman, the National Rally or the current iteration of the UK’s Conservative Party, whose rhetoric on immigration would make Mussolini blanch. 

These are all significant gains for the right. However, none came out of the blue.

Just as the financial crash of 2008 led in part to Brexit and Trump, so too did Brexit and Trump lead into the acute sense of personal and economic insecurity that has come to define the European public’s experience of everything from the pandemic, to the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the right-wing’s endless war on migration. 

To put it another way, imagine Europe’s sense of fraternity and empathy as a huge skip. Now imagine setting fire to it. It’s that.

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“We’re living in fearful times,” Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says.

With calamity never far away, “people feel a need to bring politics closer to them”.

“They need simpler solutions, easier slogans,” Dennison says. “And it’s this, this resurgent sense of nationalism, that’s cutting through. We’re seeing it across much of Europe. Much of the ecosystem that supports the idea that we have a responsibility to the most vulnerable is breaking down.

“Brexit was symptomatic of that, this idea that everything is somehow the fault of these distant elites and these intensely complicated systems. It’s ripe for any politician to offer a simple solution to”.

For Dennison, a one-size-fits-all approach to the economy, the climate and migration is one “people can seize upon and understand” and the “right have proven adept at this”.

Enthusiasm for the ideology of the right is gaining traction across European societies, from the far-right vigilante groups who patrol the bloc’s frontiers, forever on the guard against the migrant horde; to the European Commission, where these same sentiments are finding ultimate expression through policy. 

As Europe’s population shrinks and ages, heightening the need for care – both physical and economic – with every year that passes, the EU continues to employ the logic of Canute and push back against the inevitable.

Earlier this year, the European Commission promised authoritarian Tunisia a short-term bail-out, (it’s yet to hand the money over) to keep the lights on while irregular migrants are kept within its borders. In Libya, rights groups have accused the EU and Italy of complicity in organising illegal migrant push-backs, all the while paying the country’s militias to mete out horrific tortures to black migrants. 

Rather than troubling the EU’s conscience, sources within the bloc have suggested it’s hoped that the current model will be expanded to include Morocco and Egypt, neither country famed for its respect of its citizens’ rights and freedoms. 

The core problem, according to Professor Jan-Erik Lönnqvist of the University of Helsinki, is contemporary capitalism.

He says that “what we’re seeing is the trauma of capitalism being inflicted on us” because “capitalism always fails to deliver”.

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“What capitalism must disavow is that there is no commodity that could provide ultimate satisfaction and put an end to the yearning of the subject,” according to the academic. “The capitalist subject never has enough and constantly seeks more and more. The constant need to expand, to produce ever more, will destroy the planet.”

According to Prof Lönnqvist, one of the principal components of contemporary capitalism is the need for racism to keep the gears moving: “In response to the dissatisfaction brought about by capitalism, the political right construes the figure of the immigrant as a scapegoat. When capitalism fails to deliver the enjoyment that the white European feels entitled to, something is wrong.

“Rather than blaming capitalism, the right blames the immigrant – who has stolen the enjoyment that the white European feels entitled to. No one objects to immigrants cleaning public bathrooms or delivering food. What causes hate in the racist subject is the immigrant who is enjoying, for instance, talking too loud, owning an iPhone.”

And it isn’t just the demonising of the immigrant. While most environmental protections are enshrined in law, they too are coming under increasing threat as a right-wing greenlash takes hold.  

Assessments that European green policy is becoming tougher to enact is being borne out in the Netherlands, where a law intended to curb nitrogen pollution led to the creation of a new farmer’s party.  In Germany, plans to phase-out oil and gas heating tested the country’s ruling coalition to breaking point while; in Poland, the Government is currently suing the bloc over its environmental plans. 

All political trajectories, if sustained long enough, become closed political circles. As Brexit and 13 years of right-wing rule in the UK have demonstrated, a snake cannot eat its tail forever. For aging and shrinking populations across Europe, choking on worsening air and in growing need of support and care as they age, the right’s current targets carry the risk of disaster.

The implications will be with us long after the right’s current roster of demagogues have vanished from the collective memory.

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