In his latest book Counterrevolution. The Global Rise of the Far Right, Professor Walden Bello, an academic and environmentalist from the Philippines and Executive Director of the Focus on the Global South, provides an exhaustive historical and theoretical analysis of the elements and the prerequisites that fostered the rise of the far right in the last decade, both in the West and in other regions.
From his perspective as a distinguished expert of right-wing movements, Bello explains: “Perhaps my stance can best be compared to that of the virologist who is engrossed in the study of an exotic but deadly virus for scientific reasons and to make a contribution to the development of a vaccine against it.”
The book is an expansion of an article that the author originally wrote in response to a request from the Journal of Peasant Studies to write a piece on the impact of authoritarian movements on rural societies in the Global South, and this work itself was published in the framework of the Agrarian Change and Peasant Series.
The starting point is that whether one calls the analyzed movements fascist, authoritarian or populist, there is no doubt that angry forces, contemptuous of liberal democratic ideals and practices and espousing the use of force to resolve deep-seated social conflicts, are on the rise globally. In order to understand the consequences of these trends, we need to see them as counter-revolutionary actors who exploit specific strategies to seize power or, alternatively, to influence policymaking without being in power.
Using the notions of “counterrevolution” and “counterrevolutionary”, the author refers to two main types of political movements.
The first is the classical class-driven counterrevolution pitting an insurgent underclass that is engaged in a revolutionary or a reformist movement against the elites.
The second kind of movement is directed at a liberal democratic regime that is perceived as corrupt, incompetent, and unable to deliver social reform or personal security.
Bello provides a sharp examination of the major myths and narratives of far-right movements, which range from reactionaries’ illusions about a past golden age, to the rhetoric centered on order, tradition, hierarchy, authority, discipline, and loyalty.
At the same time, the author is also able to identify the contemporary trends that characterize the current wave of far-right and counter-revolutionary action.
He remarkably summarizes those trends: “In a world in rapid flux, where demands for emancipation and equality emerge from new politicized actors, counterrevolutionaries embrace mass politics to promote their objectives, appealing to the lower orders of the city and country, inflaming and manipulating their resentment of those above them, their fear of those below them, and their estrangement from the real world”.
As far as the structure of the book is concerned, the first part is an in-depth historical exploration of six national experiences of successful counterrevolution carried out by far-right actors – that is, where the forces from the extreme right had seized power or achieved hegemony. The second part includes a more theoretical dissertation on the reasons why the extreme right is on the rise also in what the author calls the North of the world, namely Europe and the United States.
The cases investigated in the first part focused on the following countries: Fascist Italy, Indonesia, Chile, Thailand, India, and the Philippines.
Analyzing the case of fascism in Italy, Bello emphasizes the decisive role of the countryside, underlining the not so well-known influence of landed interests in promoting fascism.
Indeed, even after its ascent to power, fascist leaders purported that they were “ruralizing Italy”, romanticizing the Italian peasant as the successor of the ancient Roman farmer-soldier, with Benito Mussolini as the country’s “First Farmer”.
Mussolini, who had been expelled by the Socialist Party, saw an opportunity to exploit workers’ discontent in competition with the socialists. The foot soldiers of his movement were mainly from the angry middle class.
Nevertheless, it was the “deadly meeting of landowners needing muscle and middle-class youth seeking mindless action” that determined the success of the movement.
The author points out a further dynamic that is typical of many far-right movements: only by perpetuating the revolutionary situation could the fascist movement undermine the liberal state and continue its push for political power.
In the second case study the author looks at Indonesia, which is regarded by many as the democratic exception in a Southeast Asia that is moving towards authoritarianism.
The events in Indonesia in 1965-66 are widely considered to be the most horrifying cases of counterrevolution in the last half century. There continues to be great uncertainty about how many perished in this social pogrom, but the lower end of estimates is usually 500,000 and the upper end is two million.
Just as in other great civil wars involving the creation of nations, the two sides in this war were anchored to basic class interests. Political mobilization was increasingly propelled by the energies of the proletariat and the peasantry with a leadership embodied by the President Sukarno.
On the other hand, there was an alliance of parties representing the interest of landowners and the army.
Most accounts agree that this was a veritable case of counterrevolution from above, carried out principally by the army. Also, the killing of communists was indiscriminate, targeting not only party leaders but also the base, even down to people whose only crime was to vote communist.
After the Indonesia experience, Bello moves his analysis to the case of Chile in the 70s, where, as in Indonesia, agrarian reform was a major battleground and the dynamics of rural conflict were intimately related to the agenda of political parties.
When the Popular Unity (UP) came to power after its triumph in the presidential elections of September 1970, its mission was to lead the country down the “peaceful constitutional road of socialism”. Soon, national politics became polarized with the UP on one side and a counter-revolutionary alliance between the elite, the bourgeoisie, and the middle class, on the other.
The right wing sought to convince the middle class that socialism would mean a redistribution of poverty, their descent into the working class, and the collectivization of small farms.
By the end of 1971, an unprecedented counter-revolutionary force comprised of the middle class erupted onto the political scene, with mass mobilization characterized by the presence of the so-called grupos de choque, or paramilitary groups similar to the fascist squadristi, that provoked violent clashes with UP supporters.
The military leadership under Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup on September 11, 1973 and under his regime 3,065 were killed or disappeared and 40,018 individuals were tortured or imprisoned in the notorious matanza masiva, “mass slaughter”.
After Chile, the Bello jumps back to Asia and focuses on Thailand. In September 2006, the Thai military ousted Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra, a year after elections were held to form a new civilian government. In May 2014, it entered politics again and ousted the government led by Thaskin’s sister while preparing to stay in power for a longer period of time.
Once again, the movement went from being insurgent to being counterrevolutionary.
The next case study looks at India and what the author calls “The Hindu Counterrevolution and its Violent Recreation of an Imagined Past”.
In the author’s view, India is unique in that it provides a fascinating, albeit disturbing, direct link between an ongoing counter-revolutionary movement and classical fascism in early twentieth-century Europe.
The main Hindu right-wing nationalist organization in India is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), often translated into English as the National Volunteer Corps.
It was founded in 1925, just five years after the founding of the Nazi Party in Germany. Perhaps not surprisingly, images of the Fascist Blackshirts and Nazi Brownshirts are evoked when RSS units parade.
The fascist inspiration, however, goes beyond uniforms and symbols. European fascism had a direct ideological influence on the Hindu Right and the prime ideologue of the RSS, Vikayak Damodar Savarkar, who declared: “Surely Hitler knows what suits Germany best. The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of the Nazi or Fascist magical want is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded”.
According to Bello, the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an admirer of Savarkar and began his political career as an RSS organizer, although he doesn’t provide more details about this.
The Philippines is the last case study belonging to what the author defines as the South. Bello highlights President Rodrigo Duterte in the counter-revolutionary pantheon.
According to the writer, Duterte, who has always had his base of support in the middle class, fits into the fascist category.
He explains that Duterte is not simply a reproduction of past actors but he is a “fascist original”.
This is one of the most interesting chapters in the book. According to Bello, Duterte, interpreting his mandate as a blank check to do whatever it takes to “defend the nation,” has reversed the usual model by which fascist and authoritarian populists come to power.
In the conventional model of creeping fascism, the fascist personality begins with violations of civil and political rights, followed by the lunge for absolute power, after which follows indiscriminate repression.
Duterte, on the contrary, started with massive, indiscriminate repression – that is, the killing with impunity of thousands of drug users – leaving the violation of civil liberties and the grab for total power as a “mop-up” operation in a political atmosphere where fear largely neutralized opposition. Bello calls this approach “blitzkrieg fascism” in contrast to creeping fascism.
After completing the examination of the single case studies, Bello shifts his attention to the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States.
The rise of the extreme right over the last decade in what used to be regarded as stable democracies has been one of the biggest political shocks of the last generation.
In just eight years– 2010 to 2018– the world has seen the extreme right move from being outside the corridors of power to the center of power itself.
In November 2015, Viktor Orban had come to power in Hungary, the Alternativ fur Deutschland party won 94 of the German Bundestag’s 630 seats in the September 2017 elections, and the anti-immigrant League – former Northern League – came to power in alliance with the Five Star Movement in Italy in the aftermath of the March 2018 elections.
In his acute analysis, however, the author provides a key insight: in order to be a decisive player, extreme right-wing parties found that they did not need to be the ruling party or even part of a governing coalition; just by raising their share of the votes significantly, they could push policymaking to the right, as was the case in Germany in 2018, where they were able to force Angela Merkel to retreat from her liberal immigration policy.
Concerning the heated debate on the notion of populism, Bello clearly states that the abovementioned instances of far-right forces are populist if by “populist” one means a political style of reaching out to the people directly and not relying on intermediaries like political parties, then certainly these leaders are populist.
At the same time, he affirms, to use the word “populism” to describe the content of a right-wing program in the sense of being for the people is of limited value: right –wing movements, while they are rhetorically anti-elitist and adopt selected pro-people measures, do not, in fact, seek significant change in the power structure while directing the fire and fury of the majority population to the lower strata, ie. minority communities, immigrants.
Moreover, the extreme right expropriated the anti-liberal agenda from the independent left and out-muscled both the left and the center-left on the issue of the democratic deficit of the European Union, thus conquering the monopoly of one of the most powerful narratives in modern Europe.
The combination of fear of migrants, alienation from the EU technocracy, and worries about losing jobs was translated by the right-wing parties into an explosive conspiratorial discourse.
According to Bello in the United States, there is a similar social psychological process at work. US President Donald Trump’s campaign outbursts about Mexico sending its criminals across the Rio Grande were expressions of a deeper fear held by the white majority that they would, in the medium term, be converted into a minority should immigration not be drastically curtailed.
According to the author, right-wing movements and governments in Europe and the United States may not be counterrevolutionary in the sense of emerging mainly from the conflict of classes, but, they merit the term because they are fundamentalist and comprehensive political responses to a range of threats felt by their mass base.
The dynamics of these movements, while seemingly inchoate, are a counter-revolutionary drive to restore the imagined status quo ante.
In the end of the book, the author added a postscript to Brazil’s Embrace of far right President Jair Bolsonaro. Indeed, the book was completed before his momentous electoral triumph on October 28, 2018.
With inflammatory language that has glorified the 1964-85 military dictatorship in Brazil, threatened the “extermination” of the left, supported the extra-judicial execution of suspected criminals, and told a member of parliament that she was not worthy of being raped by him, Bolsonaro – who won with 56% of the votes –easily fits into the author’s list of far-right rulers.
Dealing with counterrevolutionaries, who are described by the author as “interesting theoretically and dangerous politically”, this books is insightful, historically rigorous, and remarkably well-timed.