In today’s political climate, more so than those of the last few decades, thanks to the rising tide of nationalism and anti-globalism, and seemingly more public racism witnessed in certain pockets of most societies around the world, the term ‘far right’ is one that predictably pops up in several articles of any major news outlet on a daily basis.
‘Far right’ is a term that, rather self-explanatorily, is associated with the political right wing. But what do we mean when we talk about “the far right”? Far right is a term that is often used synonymously with words such as prejudice (the belief that a certain group is inferior or superior due to an arbitrary characteristic e.g. racism and sexism) and fascist (fascism being the belief in the suppression of opposing views, and the essentially the opposition of democratic values).
I’m unsure as to how these terms because synonymous exclusively with right wing politics. Perhaps it is partly a result of the wave of economically neoliberal South American dictatorships from between the 60s to the end of the 20th century, which committed abhorrent crimes against innocent civilians and political dissidents. Regardless, in order to evaluate whether prejudice and fascism are justifiably associated with right wing politics it’s important to unpack what “right wing” means, as I believe that ‘right’ and ‘left’ have become loaded terms with implicit associations that might not necessarily be based in fact.
I believe that political beliefs about domestic politics can ultimately be broken down to four key questions:
- what area should our political system cover (e.g. the town, the city, the region, the nation, the continent, the world)?
- what type of political system should we have to make legislative decisions (e.g. democracy, dictatorship, meritocracy, etc)?
- who should be the subject of legislation (i.e. who should be citizens?)?
- what is the responsibility of the state?
Traditionally, the right and the left have largely been distinguished by their economic beliefs. Economic beliefs are related to markets, i.e. goods and services, and are typically related to what people consider to be essential goods, such as water, and essential services, such as education perhaps. Right wing economics is the support for largely unregulated markets, low taxation, and a small welfare state, whereas left wing economics is the support for largely regulated markets, high taxation, and a large welfare state (of course, both of these are relative, and are dependent on how far along both sides of the spectrum you go, and there are of course points along the spectrum between both extremes). The foundation of both worldviews is essentially a differing belief regarding question four in the list above, i.e., what is the responsibility of the state? The economic left believes that the state has more of a role to play than the individual in providing certain products and services through taxation and redistribution, and through regulating markets for the benefit of the consumer (and in some cases the producer/provider). The economic right believes that the individual has more of a responsibility to earn money and thus a freedom spend it how they see fit, and that individuals should have both the freedom to benefit and the responsibility to suffer from their own financial decisions. [Note: I would also like to acknowledge that these differing policy prescriptions regarding taxation, welfare and market regulation can be as a result of pragmatic beliefs, and that two individuals with differing views about how regulated a market should be, or how high tax should be, could agree that greater social welfare is the most important end-goal and principle, but could disagree over the means.]
Traditionally, both of these viewpoints have been differentiated by their contrasting beliefs about the role of the state in providing goods and services. What each of these worldviews says nothing about, however, is anything regarding the first three questions. These economic policies are agnostic about the territory that should be governed over, what type of political system should be in place to legislate, or who should be citizens. Furthermore, these economic policies say nothing about anything other than financial and market freedom. They don’t prescribe policies about legislating behaviour or speech. Nor do they express a view as to the relative intrinsic value of people of different gender, sexual preference, skin colour, ethnicity, hair colour, height, etc. Moreover, though they make very different claims about the relative importance of individual financial freedom, there are no necessary implications for other types of freedom, such as non-violent actions, speech, or beliefs. An economically left-leaning individual can be just as racist, or tolerant, as an economically right-leaning individual. Similarly, the same people can support strict immigration laws just as much as one another, their fundamental economic viewpoints make no necessary prescriptions about these issues.
So, to bring it back to the original question. Is the association of the term “far right” with terms such as prejudice and fascism justified? I would argue that it is not. Just because a person is left-wing doesn’t mean that they can’t be a racist, or believe that the country would be better off as a dictatorship, with someone who agrees with their point of view enforcing policies without checks and balances. It seems as though the current political landscape in many countries, however, doesn’t quite reflect the potential nuances in political belief. Left and right seem now to be very confused and contradictory terms. Nowhere is this exhibited more clearly than in the United States, with their polarised two party system. Does anyone really believe that the American electorate can be split so neatly into two distinct groups, and be represented effectively in that way? In my view, clearly not. I believe that having such a bipolar political system is bad for political discourse. It poisons it by creating a political culture of opposition and competition, rather than a culture of constructive problem-solving.
When we have political discourses, we should be careful to think about the meaning of terms that we use, and we should notice their use in the media, and notice whether they’re being used correctly. For a long time the right-wing has been associated with fascism, prejudice and social conservatism, however, if you look at current political trends in places such as universities, you’ll see that groups traditionally considered left-wing, supposedly attempting to promote human rights and accusing others of fascism, are in fact the ones behaving fascistically and prejudicially themselves. We have to pay attention to the meaning of words, because words matter to how we see the world and those around us, and can affect our perception of reality, and we should be wary of simply labelling people with terms that have implicit in them a package of meanings that a not necessarily associated with one another. We should acknowledge that the world, and, more so, people are complicated entities, with complex experiences and beliefs, and that it is counterproductive to label people in a reductivist manner, and to think that because we know one thing about what they believe that we know everything else that they believe too.