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Walden Bello, author of “Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far-Right,” argues that the far-right is in ascendancy at the moment not only in reaction to the failures of neoliberalism, but also because of the failures of liberal democracy

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Not since the pre-World War II period of the early 20th century have there been as many far-right governments in office as today. It almost seems that with every new election, another one joins the ranks of governments that can be described as authoritarian, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, or even sexist. Governments that fall into this far-right categorization include Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines, Narendra Modi’s of India, Tayyip Erdogan’s of Turkey, Viktor Orban’s of Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and last but not least, Donald Trump’s government in the United States. They all came into power in the last five years, more or less. Why is it though that there is this fairly sudden rise of the far-right? There are a number of political scientists and sociologists who have tried to explain this phenomenon, but it receives relatively little attention in the general public.

Joining me now to discuss the global rise of the far right is Walden Bello. He is a sociologist who has given this topic a lot of attention. He actually recently published a book on this topic with the title, Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. He is a Visiting Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and joins us today from Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks for being here today, Walden.

WALDEN BELLO: Oh, thanks for inviting me, Greg. Really happy to be here.

GREG WILPERT: So your book is for the most part a series of case studies where each chapter covers a different country. And just for our viewers, the countries are Italy, Indonesia, Chile, Thailand, India, the Philippines, the North, by which you mean mostly Europe, and Brazil. And before we look into these countries and the rise to power in each one of them, and we don’t have time to go into detail in each one of them, but before we dig a little bit deeper into the causes, I want to address how you identify these governments. That is, you specify that you’re looking at counterrevolutionary regimes, which you distinguish from conservative and reactionary regimes. Now, first of all, I just want to know, what’s the difference between these types: conservative, reactionary, counterrevolutionary? And why did you decide to zero in on the counterrevolutionary?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, let me just say that I’m following the categorization of a really great historian, Arno Mayer. When he describes these various phenomena or movements as reactionary, basically it is a movement that wants to go back to the past, to a past kind of regime. Conservative, and that is a regime that basically wants the status quo, doesn’t necessarily worship the past as reactionaries do. And counterrevolutionary, that is the most interesting and the most dangerous because there is a mass base. Whereas the reactionary and conservative regimes generally tend to appeal mainly to the elites, the counterrevolutionary regimes and counterrevolutionary movements are very heated kind of movements, and they do have a mass base. Oftentimes it is a multi-class base, but in many, many cases, the axis or the engine of a counterrevolution is the middle class.

And so that I thought was – that categorization I think was much more useful in terms of understanding right-wing movements rather than the usual categories of just calling them dictatorships, or authoritarian regimes, or populist regimes. There’s a lot of studies that call right-wing regimes at this point populist regimes, and basically it’s not very, very helpful because populism is more of a political style, a sort of direct appeal to the people. And populism really, as a term, doesn’t really give you a sense of the content of the programs of these regimes or these movements. And so that is why I felt that counterrevolution and counterrevolutionary movements was a better term in terms of capturing the essence of this movements.

GREG WILPERT: Now, you already mentioned one aspect of that, of how they came to power in the sense—I mean, it seems to me that if they have a mass base, it’s directly associated also with the fact that they take place or they come to power in the context of a liberal representative democracy. But I’m wondering what other kinds of commonalities, would you say, bring these counterrevolutionary regimes to power? I mean, it seems to me that you distinguished two different kinds. One is kind of political causes— that is, the failure of liberal democracy— and on the other hand kind of economic causes, the failure of neoliberalism. So can you just distinguish between those, and what kinds of countries would follow into those different categories?

WALDEN BELLO: I use the word counterrevolution to, as you say, describe two kinds of phenomena. One is the counterrevolution that is a response to a lower-class insurgency, an effort by the left, whether by reformist means or by revolutionary means, to come to power. And then there is a reaction from threatened classes. And these threatened classes – of course there are the elites, the capitalist elites, and usually the landed classes, but there is also a strong middle-class base to them that feels threatened by the rise of the lower classes.

And then there is, as you mentioned, the counterrevolution that is kind of a totalistic response to the crisis of liberal democracy. And this is a response to a failure at the economic level, a failure at the political level, and a failure at the ideological level. So it’s what you might [inaudible] a multidimensional response to the crisis of liberal democracy as not having been able to deliver on its promises. And so, we see this very clearly, for instance, in the Global South in the case of India with Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist movements that he now represents, which is a very, very strong reaction to the secular democracy that championed diversity, that was associated with the Congress Party, with Gandhi and with Nehru.

And you also see that in the case of the Philippines, where after 30 years of a liberal democracy that was not able to deliver on the promise of empowerment and equality, there was this middle class that surged to an authoritarian figure who in many ways challenges almost every aspect of liberal democracy, whether it’s due process, and whether it has to do with the language of liberal democracy and the promises of democratization, and a worship of authoritarianism and a strongman’s rule in the case of a person like Duterte.

So those are the two kinds of counterrevolutionary phenomena that I look at. One is, as in Chile, as in Thailand at this point, a response to a lower class insurgency. And the second one is kind of a totalistic response to the crisis of liberal democracy.

GREG WILPERT: We can add so many different examples.


GREG WILPERT: And I think it’s very interesting to look at this. For example, the Indonesian case is also particularly extreme. And you’re not just talking about contemporary, I mean, your book focuses also on some past examples such as Italy and Indonesia, where these were also reactions to the failures I guess of liberal democracy or of the encroachment of, or the fears that the upper class seems to have of liberal democracy and reforms that were taking place or threatening to take place. So I think that’s a very interesting point.

Now, one of the other points that you make that is very interesting is that you identify two different kinds of class alliances or backgrounds to the far right. That is, one case – and I guess they correspond kind of towards the types of reactions or circumstances. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about that because I think it’s very interesting that oftentimes the middle class plays a very important role, and that’s something that perhaps Western analysts oftentimes don’t pay attention to. At least when you talk about the rise of the global right, it’s often presented in the context of the working class being responsible for it, but you really place the onus really much more on the middle class for the rise of the right.

WALDEN BELLO: Yeah. Well, let me put it this way, the great understudied class in political science or in sociology is the middle class. Oftentimes the focus of studies is on the elites, whether the landed elites or the capitalist elite, and on the working class because those are supposed to be the two polar classes in a capitalist society. And the middle class was long regarded mainly as responding to these two classes, a class or a stratum that could be pulled either way, to the left or to the right. And so, in a lot of the strategies of the left, the middle class was seen as this sort of passive agent that, as long as you just had a program that would satisfy their material desires, they would come over to the left. And this was the united front kind of politics that characterized the left in so many countries until the recent times.

But the fact though is that the middle class has an agency of its own. And once the middle class begins to have this agency because it feels that its structural position is very much threatened, then it becomes a very strong force in a counterrevolutionary coalition. And I think what we’ve seen for instance in the case of Chile and in many other cases is in fact that you have this mass base that has a dynamic of its own. Yes, as in Italy and Germany, it has alliances with the elites, but not really controlled by the elites. In fact, it pushes very hard on its own. So you have this very interesting class dynamics, and we kind of just reduce therefore the middle class to a simple, passive instrument in the hands of the elites or in the hands of say, working-class political parties. But it has an agency of its own, and I think that the lack of appreciation of the fact that the middle class has an agency of its own has been responsible for many of the political mistakes that progressive movements have committed.

Now, when you come to the Global North, at this point in time, definitely I would say that it is threatened middle classes that are the center of this right-wing movements at this point in time. But what I think has happened is that many of this right-wing movements led by middle-class personalities and sometimes by elite personalities, one of the characteristics of course at this point in the North is that they’ve been able to win over the base that was traditionally the base of the progressive parties and the traditional working classes. And I think the reason for this of course is several things. And as you can see in the book when I deal with the North, one of it is that the working class parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the United States basically espoused neoliberal programs, were won over to neoliberalism, and this had a major impact on the lives and incomes and the economic status of the working class.

And we also saw that in the case of the European Union for instance and its democratic deficit. The right was also able to use that. And then of course there was the whole issue of migration. And I think the right wing was able to use this issue of migration in a way that has been quite clever in basically saying that, “Hey, we’ll keep the welfare state, but only for the traditional ethnic stock in this country.” That’s sort of the kind of similarities and differences between these counterrevolutionary movements in the Global North and the Global South.

GREG WILPERT: I think that’s a very interesting point that speaks to the strategies, and I want to dig into that more in part two. So we’re going to conclude this first part.


GREG WILPERT: This concludes the first part of my conversation with Walden Bello on his book, Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. Please join us for part two, where we continue to delve deeper into the topic.

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Walden Bello is currently a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and senior research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University in Japan. He is the author of the books "Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right" and "Paper Dragons: China and the Next Crash."