The rise of the extreme right under conditions of economic crisis 


Dimitris Christopoulos discusses the European politics of far-rights movements, focusing on how extremist discourse has capitalised on the question of migration, especially in the context of the current economic crisis. He argues that the sole lasting and effective anti-racist policy is “the policy of redistribution of wealth, a welfare policy, aiming at strengthening the social security of people. When people are afraid and they feel insecure, then, they are easily influenced by someone who tells them that all this is the fault of poor, unemployed immigrants”.

Z.S.: Do you think that the recent attacks in Norway should push us to rethink the politics of the extreme right in Europe, as they took place in one of the most affluent and tolerant countries in Europe?

Dimitris Christopoulos: As far as I am concerned, and also for a considerable number of activists and intellectuals, the study of the far-right phenomenon in Europe and the vigilance against violent extremist behavior is something that does not originate from Norway. It might have a transient manifestation in Norway but certainly we can anticipate that similar incidents will burst out in the near future. Possibly, not in such intense and extreme forms as in Norway, but definitely far-right violence in Europe is currently reinforced due to the economic crisis. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised at the fact that a significant part of the far-right and the extra-systemic versions of far-right discourse increasingly drift towards violence in a systematic way . I would say for certain far-right groups, violence embodies the only tool of political expression, violence is the only spectacular tool for attracting attention.

Z.S.: Would you say that there is a distinct European dimension of the extreme right, not only in ideological terms but also on the organizational level?

Dimitris Christopoulos: First of all, the European far-right shares common roots and origins, which can be located, at least in a medium term historical perspective, on the rise of the fascist and Nazi movements during the interwar period. Specifically, the European far-right is directly connected to the most extreme forms of nationalist discourse, as manifested in its birthplace, namely Europe. The course of the formation and reconstruction of far-right discourse has produced a new version of this discourse which is associated, especially today, with the question of migration.

In that sense, European far-right discourse has a community of origins in a particular form of the European nation, but also a community of references to the fact that since the end of Cold War and thereafter, Europe has become one of the most intensive immigrant destinations. This makes far-right discourse in Europe distinct, but not incomparable. The development of the far-right in Europe can be correlated and compared to the one in the US. I think, however, that the typology of the far-right phenomenon in Europe has a certain notion of European history, of the nation, and the conjuncture of immigration as its basic references.

Z.S.: Does the European far-right embodies “two faces”? The first, integrated in the democratic parliamentary system and the second, embodying ideological violence and extremism. If so, what are the connections between these two faces?

Dimitris Christopoulos: Undoubtedly, the European far-right is two-faced. On one hand, there is the systemic far-right, which does refuses to be named as such, for example the LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) political party in Greece. On the other hand, there are extra-systemic far-right formations. In that way, the far-right can be internally differentiated in similar terms to the distinction between the Left and the far-left, as some parts of the Left are systemic or reformist and others extra-systemic, adopting revolutionary and violent tactics and strategies. The typology that you are proposing concerns the far-right, as well.

The relationship that exists between the two faces of the far-right, is competitive, while they act, at the same time, as communicating vessels. It is competitive, due to the fact that every political formation, and especially a political group of this type, expressed in such an extreme and vulgar manner (as the extra-systemic versions of the far-right discourse do), is claiming (for itself) to be the vanguard, based on the perception of its distorted sense of duty. n fact, such a political ideology does not tolerate anyone else. For example, the old members of the Golden Dawn (Hrysi Aygi) feel that the current members of the group are not as extreme as they used to be in the past. The relationship of communicating vessels lies in the fact that under conditions of crisis, the voters of one party are transferred to the electoral clientele of the other, and vice versa. An example of this process, is the high percentage that Golden Dawn won in last year’s municipal elections in Athens, that mainly derive from the electoral pool of LAOS.

Z.S.: How would you assess the tactics and strategies that the progressive social forces adopt to counter the rise of the far-right in Europe?

Dimitris Christopoulos: The main problem in confronting the far-right is the fact that the basic assumptions that its systemic part proposes for dealing with the issue of migration are embraced by the political discourse of the center-right and even center-left parties, although they do not admit it in public. Actually, I am referring to a phobia against immigrants, to an embarrassment towards integration issues, to the perception that there is an immigrant population who is legal and useful and another one who is illegal and worthless. All these assumptions are common with some of the far-right frames the issue.

The far-right has, however, the comparative advantage of expressing itself more clearly, with passion and with vision in contrast to the ossified, instrumental discourse of the European social democracy and of the center-right, that fails to inspire anyone these days. And precisely because this discourse is governed by a contraction regarding the restrictive measures or the policies of violence that might be exercised against immigrants, it is not convincing. As a result, large segments of society, used to indulge in similar perceptions, reject these stereotypical European polices and are attracted to the European far-right alternative that “talks straight to the heart” of the people.

Z.S.: In Greece, how do you evaluate the influence of far-right agenda in the public discourse on the economic crisis and the degradation of the urban center of Athens?

Dimitris Christopoulos:: If the Greek state, either in the form of the municipality, of the central administration, or of regional administration does not provide resources in order that the urban centre operates or re-operates as a space of human cohabitation, then the center will be “wasted away”, criminal activities will continue to be reproduced by foreigners who are facing ghettoisation. And the term ghettoisation does not only refer to ethnic difference but also to class divisions. The city centre of Athens does not concentrate all types of immigrants, but mainly those who are poor and excluded. A typical example is the suburbs of Paris that were burned down in November 2005. The revolt in the banlieus was not an act of middle class Algerian and Moroccan 2nd generation migrants, but of the excluded 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants. If we do not realize that the integration of immigrants is a political project with a concrete strategy, which is costly among other things, then we are doomed to coexist with a far-right discourse which promises extreme solutions.

Z.S.: Recent examples of legislation against racism in Greece are a) the new law on citizenship and voting rights of migrants and b) the draft law on “combating forms of racism and xenophobia”. Do the intense social reactions that both of these bills provoked, display the growing influence of far-right ideas across social divisions?

Dimitris Christopoulos: I evaluate these two legislations differently. The first law regarding Greek citizenship presents an existential struggle for the Greek far-right. This was a battle that the far-right lost and this defeat bore a cost. The fact that a part of this law is still pending in the Supreme Court enforces the discussion about what exactly is going to happen. Regarding the second bill, I don’t support the criminalization of racist speech. I believe in a democracy where people can say whatever they want, racists included. The fact that something can be judged as politically repugnant or ideologically “black” or that it provokes political repulsion does not imply its criminalisation, otherwise we will drift towards from a liberal constitution to an authoritarian regime. The criminalisation of racist speech is, in other words, a more complex issue.

Citizenship and the legislation on migration focusing on citizenship touch upon nucleus of national identities, and these issue always form the spearhead of far-right parties in all the relevant debates that are taking place in Europe in the past 20 years. Citizenship is disconnected from the politics of integration of immigrants because, if you will, the systemic versions of the far-right have come to accept, up to a point, the integration of immigrants as long as this process does not alter what is perceived as our national identity. This is their main problem. For example, the MP of LAOS, Adonis Georgiadis does not abhor the quiet, peaceful immigrant who might be working for him, but he abhors the migrant who can become like him in the future. In sum, the debate on citizenship does not include illegal migrants. It involves those migrants who seek to acquire Greek citizenship.

Z.S.: What type of anti-racist strategies and policies would you commend on the legislative, as well as, on the activist level?

Dimitris Christopoulos: The only anti-racist policy that has a historical reach is, unfortunately, the policy of redistribution of wealth, a welfare policy, aiming at strengthening the social security of people. When people are afraid and they feel insecure, then, they are easily influenced by someone who tells them that all this is the fault of poor, unemployed immigrants…This conjuncture “vindicates” far-right policies. Consequently, the only far-reaching and effective anti-racist policy -unfortunately, in the conjuncture we are experiencing- is a policy that has a financial cost, and which, however, no European country is in the position to bear at this time.

To conclude, we must highlight this challenge and to ultimately insist that a migrant receiving society to allocate a considerable budget for social integration policy – and this integration begins at the moment that a human being is born and ends when he or she dies. Helping mothers of migrant children, helping students in schools, providing medical and pharmaceutical services and care, providing remedial teaching courses, assisting their integration in the job market later on, need to be provided. Of course, under circumstances of economic crisis, it is historically documented that far-right parties always come out “fully justified” or politically reinforced. Let us not forget, though, that migrants are firstly workers and then migrants.

Louis Althusser used to say that “no chair is empty” in politics . So, when there is an empty space, associated, in this case with the absence of policies of integration (integration does not concern solely immigrants, but also large parts of the indigenous population who live in a regime of social exclusion), then the only solution that seems to exist is that of the far-right parties: “kick them out”. This, however, is a false solution because it is proven that far-right policies against immigrants are, macroscopically, not only inhuman, but also unrealistic.

In my point of view, the crucial thing is to entrench, to highlight, to stigmatize, and to isolate racist discourse, which has the potential, as every other discourse, to contaminate its environment. Finally, anti-racism is neither about rhetoric nor charity. It is a political strategy and as such it is costly.

Dimitris Christopoulos talked to Zoi Savvopoulou in Athens in November 2011

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