Conference Report – The Global Rise of Nativism and Illiberalism – A Conversation on the Contemporary Political Pathology

On November 27 2018, a panel discussion was organized at the Centre for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI), Amherst College, USA with the participation of Maria Alexandrovna Sidorkina, Chip Berlet, Tamir Bar-On and Dwaipayan Sen.

‘Hobbes Lapdog’ by Tea Jahrehorn.

After a few words of welcome by CHI director Martha Umphrey, organizer and discussant Andreas Önnerfors, Associate Professor in Intellectual History at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, presented an opening statement locating the global rise of nativism and illiberalism in the retrotopian surge (Bauman, 2017) we currently witness across the planet. As explained for fully in my previous blog post here, this nostalgia of primordial security is mobilized in a populist politics of passion and leads to the resurfacing of nativist beliefs, finding comfort in the native in-group and in endorsement of increasingly authoritarian styles of politics. Freedom is traded off against security. The divorce of political power from territory and the dissolution of the previously coercive territorial (welfare) state opens up an atomization of power. What we instead find is a diffuse plethora of placeless Leviathans who take it upon themselves to address the supposed evils of our times. ‘Hobbes’ lapdog’, an artwork produced for the event by Tea Jahrehorn and inspired by the famous title page of Leviathan (1651) (above), portrays a disenfranchised and frustrated young man rising above the globe and wearing a red baseball cap, believing in the blessings of authoritarian violence and the fire and fury of ideology. His bomber jacket displays prevalent buzz words and symbols of the radical right. It is easy to imagine him being an ‘Incel’ and the typical target audience of Jordan B Petersons self-help book 12 Rules for Life (2018), as there is ample evidence that the global retrotopian surge we witness today is guided by a global crisis of masculinity, “a driving force behind radical and radiant visions [in radicalized and extremist imaginaries] of pure patriarchy restored as a male manifestation of unalterable divine or organic order” (Önnerfors/Steiner, 2018: 34). But if the destabilization of traditional masculinity is to be regarded as one factor, what are the other factors? Do we witness a globalization of uncertainty? Are there even common denominators on a global scale? Can we apply our tools and categories of analysis to phenomena across a wide range of political contexts, from the US to the European New Right to Russia and India?

Victor Orban.

The panel was then opened by Maria Sidorkina, a postdoctoral fellow at the CHI, who in her field work on activist groups and political discourses in post-Soviet space in Russia has observed that our conceptual frameworks not always are productively supported through the application of empty placeholders like ‘illiberalism’. Although Viktor Orbán has his own and uneasy definition of ‘illiberal democracy’, it is still possible that the notion of ‘illiberal’ simply is associated with the ‘ills’ – or the deficiencies and improprieties of contemporary democratic politics, relating to the historical trajectory of liberalism. For many Russians, the systematic changes of the 1990s with liberal ‘market reforms’ and privatizations did not imply any significant improvement of living conditions. The previous system was rather replaced by a kleptocracy shaped by Herbert Spencer’s ultraliberal ideas of a ‘survival of the fittest’. Thus, the notion of ‘liberalism’ was not positively charged, yet alternatives need not necessarily be understood as anti-democratic. Against this backdrop, is it possible to come up with a positive definition of ‘illiberalism’, one that captures the activists’ struggle to represent the people and to advocate democracy? We have very little positive vocabulary for describing illiberal forms of democracy and publicness. Whereas we always can go back to liberal authorities like Locke in the history of political ideas, we need to focus our attention on derailed expressions and practices of liberalism, for instance, the application of liberal norms as civilizational narratives similar to Orientalist discourses.

Sidorkina pointed to some important “Lessons for Liberalism from the ‘Illiberal East’”. One of these lessons is a global mistrust of liberalism that fuels “nationalist forces in Central and East Europe, which are less and less sensitive to the civilizational lessons of post-Cold War political liberalism and instead claim civilizational superiority – and apocalyptic authority – for themselves”. Another particular problem that inhibits a productive application seems to lie in the narrative of liberalism as a dogmatic and hegemonic faith (shared by system-sustaining elites) rather than a set of consistent practices and pragmatic positions (among the electorate and shared by society). Once liberalism thus is turned into a meta-ideology, it can be de-coupled from democracy as a praxis. This is why Orbán is able to replace liberalism as an emancipatory political idea for the individual with nationalism as the cementing cultural ideology of a nativist collective and still claim that Hungary is a democracy. For the case of Russian political activism, positions seem thus to be locked between productive interpretations of liberalism and ‘illiberalism’ as a positive self-design. A ‘culture war’ of attributions and counter-attributions shapes the political discourse that is extremely polarized between ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Putin’ stances and instrumentalized on both sides. Yet at the level of grassroot activism, people start to look beyond this trap of unproductive bifurcation and develop means by which meaningful political conversations are conducted in a meaningful way to the private self and across cleavages defined from the outside.

The next panellist, Chip Berlet, a Boston-based American investigative journalist specializing in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the US, then went on to outline in his contribution on how mobilizing resentment generates scripted violence. He presented and discussed the building blocks of fascist social movements currently flourishing around the globe:

  • The Rise of Racial, Religious or Ethnic Nationalism;
  • The Use of Populist Rhetoric;
  • The Framing Scapegoats as Despised “Others”;
  • The Demonizing of “Others” as ”Outsiders”;
  • The Use of Conspiracy Theories of Subversion and Treason;
  • The Apocalyptic Narratives Used as Existential Threats;
  • The Authoritarian Personality of Political and/or Religious Leaders;
  • And, finally, the Use of Narratives that Prompt ”Scripted Violence”.

What we witness today is how all, or at least a significant number of these (above) ‘tools of fear’ are assembled by a growing number of authoritarian political leaders. They style themselves as saviors in order to entice their electorates with the idea of a heartland under threat, in desperate need of rescue and security. On the basis of race, gender, class, nationality or ethnicity, the idea of a consistent political community is constructed and constantly reiterated, contributing to the construction of systems of oppression. This nativist community, ‘the people’ is appealed to and interpolated rhetorically. It is this rhetoric that legitimizes political decisions – trading off freedom against presumed security – and is directed against internal and external threats for which culprits are framed, named and morally shamed. In a further step, these ‘others’ are demonized either as eternal outsiders, turned into corrupted outcasts of the pure nativist community, impossible to integrate or as internal traitors, betraying the cause of the pristine majority. Once these groups are named and shamed, a vast conspiracy is ascribed to them, linking the threats against the heartland with their intentionally evil agency of enemy subversion and treason. This narrative is intensified through powerful imaginaries of apocalyptic End times, where the forces of good and evil clash in an existential decisive battle. Only the authoritarian political or religious leader has the capacity to stop these dramatic developments and thus mobilizes support for his righteous cause. However, as we frequently observe today, it is not even necessary to directly incite hate and violence, since the audience already know who is referred to. In these suggestive narratives of threat and hate (for instance against ‘globalists’ as shorthand for ‘Jews’), heroes know which villains to kill. They perfectly understand the codewords, insinuations and calculated ambivalences of their leaders and their rhetoric. When an authoritarian Leader thus demonizes a scapegoated ‘Other’ and claims these targeted people are conspiring to subvert the idealized community of the nation, it can encourage acts of ‘scripted violence’. Hate speech, hate crimes and simple acts of terrorism come as no surprise and are a result of self-predicting violence since it is inscribed into the conspiratorial narrative with its own logic of hate. The process of mobilizing resentment can help forge fascist movements because it identifies scapegoats who become targets of scripted violence.

Conspiratorial Depiction of George Soros.

As a matter of introduction to his presentation, Professor Tamir Bar-On of the Tecnológico de Monterrey presented the panel and the audience with a panorama of the radical right in the headlines globally, from Brazil, the US, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, the Philippines and Israel. However, this rise of electoral support for radical right parties and leaders is not new. The very presence of the radical right in parliaments throughout Europe means that the radical right influences the mainstream parties on issues related to immigration, citizenship, national identity, and issues of national sovereignty (including possibly leaving the EU). More about Tamir’s talk on the radical right in the headlines can be found here.

When it comes to the term ‘illiberalism’ also Bar-On expounded the problems of clear-cut approaches. In what sense is illiberalism opposed to liberalism and democracy? What exactly is rejected and on which grounds and to which degree can the phenomenon be observed in different political cultures? Is it exclusive to post-communist space or should “the rise of illiberalism in advanced democracies be sought in multi-layered explanations that rest on the disconnect between globalization and democracy” (similar to Bauman’s thesis)? For Bar-On, what we witness today is not so much a ‘political pathology’ as a radicalization of a world system that has few concrete alternatives to challenge the hegemonic neo-liberal order. It is potentially down to our own biases to denigrate the development as ‘pathological’, what we witness is rather the mainstreaming of the radical.

The European New Right (ENR) represents itself a synthesis of diverging ideological positions across the political spectrum. A similar closing of the ideological horseshoe has still to be achieved by the left in order to seriously challenge the achievements of the ENR. Bar-On proposed to seek the reasons behind the global rise of nativism and illiberalism in multiple causes: 1) the system of sovereign states in international relations (the world system of Wallerstein); 2) the cyclical revival of ethnic concepts of nationhood that valorize homogeneity and attack pluralism; 3) the success of radical right parties through the anti-immigrant formula; 4) the ability of radical right-wing parties to borrow from each other; 5) the chasm between liberalism and democracy; 6) a globalization that has winners and losers; 7) the failure of the Left and elites in general; and 8) the closing of ideological options in an increasingly neo-liberal world.

Finally, Bar-On suggested to drop the ‘fascism’-analogy for everything that is right of center, unless you identify real fascists. Elaborating upon Prowe’s (1994) six historical differences between classical fascism and the contemporary radical right, Bar-On proposed that the effects of populist right-wing mobilization for democracy can either be interpreted positively or negatively. What appears at stake in our contemporary political situation are tradeoffs between political institutions and means of political representation. The rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary (or ‘slow politics’) are being increasingly unproductively juxtaposed with forms of representation such as direct democracy and the channeling of the ‘general will’ as the absolute legitimation of political power of the people (‘fast politics’).

To finish the panel, Dwaipayan Sen, Assistant Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and History at Amherst College, addressed the question of whether democracies can at all be based productively on ethnic majorities. What is the aim of liberalism?, he asked. There is an intrinsic conflict between the protection of individual rights and the principle of the sovereignty of the people, a struggle between demos and ethnos that is reactivated in the contemporary political situation in and through radical right politics and movements.

Political Polarisation.

The subsequent discussion among the panel and with the audience elaborated on the intrinsic and complex ambiguities of liberalism as an emancipatory political ideology and a normative praxis (failing to prevent systematic repression based on race and gender). It was noted that we need to treat people with whom we disagree as deserving dignity and respect; and this is for scholars and all peoples defending democracy and civil society. One of the most valuable moments of the discussion was a question from the audience whether we should engage in a search for a new political vocabulary and whether we would thus be able to address, counter and overcome contemporary political polarization in the US and elsewhere in a more innovative and productive way.

Conference Photos

Andreas Önnerfors


From L-R: Maria Alexandrovna Sidornika, Chip Berlet and Tamir Bar-On


The Panel (Maria Alexandrovna Sidorkina, Chip Berlet, Tamir Bar-On and Dwaipayan Sen)


Chip Berlet in action

Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the History of Ideas, University of Gothenberg. See his profile here:

© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).