Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Jimmie Åkesson and Giorgia Meloni. Just a few names of leaders of far-right political parties in Europe who have claimed victory in parliamentary elections this year. The European far right has been on a rise for a couple of decades and it doesn’t look like the far right is going to leave the stage soon. On the contrary. This begs the question: why are far-right political parties gaining so many supporters right now? I will argue that the answer to this question is related to globalization, feelings of insecurity, the heightened complexity of society, and an accelerating feeling of loss of control that create a breeding ground for the far right to grow. The vision presented by the far right is characterized by simplicity, imbued with authoritarian policies and marked by a religious national or even civilizational identity: the Christian Europe. What is the magic of their vision? Let me explain.
Replaceability in a globalized world
In the last couple of decades, citizens across the world have experienced the downside of globalization: despite its technological and financial benefits, the global interconnection has led to amplified feelings of insecurity due to the increased replaceability of products and…people. An ironmonger in a local village a hundred years ago would be assured of his clearly defined place in society and thus his identity would be secured. Nowadays, the ironmonger may suddenly be replaced, due to cheaper Chinese products or a low-cost labour force. Moreover, many citizens today experience that they are increasingly and in an accelerating manner losing control of what directly affects them. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have, for example, directly affected the lives of many European citizens: their health, food, warmth, all basic necessities of life, are struck, without the option for many to directly address the source of their scarcity. These developments have contributed to what I call a crisis of identity and precariousness.
Citizens rely on their governments, as states should provide for the protection of their citizens, in Hobbesian terms: ‘for their peace and common defence’. However, states increasingly fail to live up to expectations and are consequently distrusted, which is illustrated by the Dutch case of the so-called ‘Toeslagenaffaire’, whichconcerned false allegations of fraud by the tax authorities of an estimated 26,000 Dutch parents. To regain control, European citizens pull the emergency brake. In escaping an overly complex society, they opt for a world that is comprehensible, orderly, and simple. A world in which anything of opaque complexity can be rejected. No globalization. No European Union. No NATO. A world that is offered by…a far-right ideology.
The power of simplicity
And that’s where the magic happens. A far-right ideology, characterized by populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, anti-democracy, xenophobia, and racism, reduces a complex world to a more simplistic one. The power of simplicity lies within authoritarianism that promotes strict law-and-order policies and submission to an autocratic leader or state. It can be found in populism with its Manichean distinction between ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ and its advocacy for common-sense solutions. It lies within anti-democracy that rejects the untransparent complexity of procedures and institutions of democracy. It lies within nationalism, which promotes a return to a homogenous nation state that excludes international interference of bodies such as the EU and NATO. This homogeneity is further enhanced when nationalism is combined with a xenophobic and/or racist ideology (also called nativism) that promotes the catharsis of the nation from ethnic or religious Others who are perceived to be threatening to the nation state. As such, a community (in the form of the nation state) is imagined that is discernible and intelligible.
Religion as a marker of identity
To construct this image, religion is used as an identity marker to define the ‘us’ and ‘them’. Religion as a marker of ‘us’ can define the nation in two ways. Firstly, it can determine the criteria for membership of the nation state. Religious affiliation, e.g. Jewish or Christian, then determines whether one belongs to the nation or not. Secondly, religion can provide content for a national identity. Religious traditions are a rich source of narratives and imagery that can be used to construct an identity. In both functions, religion is currently used by the far right to construct a nationalist identity. Giorgia Meloni, for example, claims to defend ‘God, fatherland and family’ and Viktor Orbán speaks of the Christian homeland that must be defended against ‘the Muslim invaders’ (i.e. refugees who adhere to Islam or anyone who comes from a country labelled Islamic regardless of one’s religiosity). This raises the question why far-right politicians need religion to construct their national or civilizational identity, despite the often overwhelmingly secular context of their countries. Firstly, it seems that religion is regarded as a powerful source of mobilization and a durable construct of identity. Secondly,Christianity proves to be very useful as a counterweight to the religious identity of Muslims.
Revaluating religious ethics and theology
However, the question is whether religious identity used by the far right is no more than just a superficial or nominal marker, as it is often deprived of religious ethics and a theological framework that is at the core of religion. In fact, I would argue that the strength of a religious foundation of identity is the durability of its ethics, which is not dependent on those who have temporary political or social influence or power. Moreover, theology, whether Christian or Islamic, does not derive from a perspective of replaceability. Rather, it starts from the perspective of uniqueness: every living being has a unique place within the whole. I argue that we should revalue this quality of religious ethics and theology in the light of the crises we are currently facing in Europe; and the possible threat of a surrogate Christian identity that the European far right is offering.
This blog post is based on a paper presented on 29 October 2022 at Lund University, Sweden.