The rise of far-right populism in the world – A ‘morbid symptom’ of our times

Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, in 1930, that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci was preoccupied with the breakdown and collapse of the liberal order which was the dominant pattern in international affairs after World War I. In particular, when struggling to understand the rise to power of Benito Mussolini, Gramsci used the term, “morbid phenomenon”. For Gramsci, Mussolini was one such morbid symptom. The term “interregnum” was originally used to denote a time-lag separating the death of one royal sovereign from the enthronement of the successor. Interregnum here, as referred by Gramsci, can be understood with a new wider meaning as a period where one arrangement of hegemony is waning, but prior to the full emergence of another. 

The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between inward-looking old hegemonic powers, and reluctant new emergent ones. I argue that Brexit is one of many morbid symptoms of our times. So is Donald Trump, and similar developments such as razor fences covering Eastern Europe’s borders, militant Hindu nationalism in Narendra Modi’s India, Shinzo Abe’s campaign for “national revival” in Japan, the militaristic tactics of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and many more including the latest government in Italy. In particular Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and leader of the right-wing Lega party, has quickly gained a reputation with his harsh anti-migrant rhetoric, accused by many as openly racist and even compared to Mussolini’s fascist dictator. This right-wing authoritarian surge is not rooted in the personalities or psychology of Trump, Erdogan or Salvini. Underlying the current conditions bringing these right-wing populist autocrats to power are long-term historical factors, factors affecting the changing power balance in the world. Trump, Erdogan or Matteo are less the creators than the outcome of protracted economic, social and political processes. All such right-wing shifts are the results of an increasingly more volatile and chaotic international situation. 

This is the direct consequence of a process of what Giovanni Arrighi called Hegemonic Transition within a period of systemic chaos, where “the incumbent hegemonic state lacks the means or the will to continue leading the system of states”. This long and protracted period of hegemonic transition from the Euro-Atlantic core to Asian economies, especially China and India, like every other period of hegemonic transition and instability in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”, creates morbid symptoms. In many parts of the world, including the United States and Europe, new forms of authoritarianism have emerged within the context of global crisis, severe austerity measures, economic nationalism, racism and xenophobia. This new authoritarianism is a morbid phenomenon in itself, and it is at the root of other authoritarian and morbid symptoms that grow from below. 

When the authority of a major power or superpower is on the wane, this affects the entire world order and leads to instability. The United States has been facing a decline for the past four decades that has grown more noticeable since the end of the Cold War. Even though the United States still represents the largest and strongest economic and military power in the world, it is nevertheless struggling with severe weaknesses resulting from low economic growth and the protracted decline of its industry. The decline in productive capacity and the ever-widening gap between productive and financial accumulation lead to recurrent financial and economic crises in every corner of the world. The global chain of extreme financialisation and speculative profiteering broke in 2007-08, only to be transplanted into the Eurozone via the over-leveraged banking sector. 

In parallel to this decline in the overall weight and influence of the “US-centred hub-and-spokes arrangement”, as described fittingly by Peter Gowan, the last two decades have witnessed the emergence of other economic powers pushing themselves to the top position. The US-centred world of post-WWII is losing its predominance and is being replaced by a new international system shaped by the arrival of new actors. This is basically what causes the breakdown of the global order and the turn of the ruling elite in many countries to unconstrained economic and political nationalism. The West, collectively, does not have the means to back up its policies in the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia. The new emerging powers, on the other hand, aspire to a new world order of global system, but, lacking any real leadership capacity. They are not yet in a position to impose their authority upon various regional and global conflicts. Therefore, leadership, order, and regional and global governance are no longer assured. 

The world is currently in a fragile imbalance as the global hegemon’s decline continues, described aptly by Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf: “US power has retreated both geo-politically and economically, and we are living, once again, in an era of strident nationalism, and xenophobia”. Hegemonic powers come and then eventually go, but the process of rise and decline is a lengthy affair producing a number of “morbid phenomenon” in between. History does not repeat itself so neatly. Fascism of the interwar period is dead. But the emergence of right-wing populist parties with similar fascistic programmes is a reality. It is difficult to see how this is contained within individual countries. With the latest twist Italy seems, once again, the first to try it out.