The year 2020 has thrown the world into disarray, with a severe pandemic creating many unforeseen challenges. The COVID-19 plague has so far infected nearly 30 million people worldwide, with the death toll climbing toward a million. With rising unemployment and sector-specific industry liquidations, economic forecasts predict a grim picture ahead, even for the affluent West. As Francis Fukuyama explains in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, major crises have major consequences.”
It’s in this extraordinary time that the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police triggered an explosive civil rights movement. Petty criminal elements undoubtedly wasted no time in seizing the opportunity to carry out looting and to damage property. Meanwhile, the Topple the Racists movement — campaigning to remove past icons of slavery — defaced and attacked landmarks, pulling down statues of the likes of George Washington. It is against this backdrop that we can observe how social unrest in a time of a pandemic contributes to feeding the metanarratives of the radical right.
We Told You So
French journalist and writer Guillaume Faye contributed to forming narratives of the radical right in his role as a leading thinker of the Research and Study Group for European Civilization (GRECE), a think tank established in 1968 by the European New Right (Nouvelle Droit). How does Faye fit into this current troubled world? He fits in because of his affinity for predicting calamities. Faye envisioned a cataclysm that would lead to social collapse, hoping that this would create the space to build his fascist utopia.
Do Faye’s ideas reflect the current pandemic and economic and social unrest? Not to the vast majority of people, but pseudo-intellectuals of the radical right may well find material to help build their case. Narratives that the radical right have so jealously guarded for decades are finally becoming sellable. It seems that the radical right can now confidently say, We told you so — look, it’s happening.
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Faye explains his catastrophe as a result of many troubles converging to create a cataclysmic breakdown of the current system. In his scenario, demographic changes brought about by immigration lead to racism and radicalization of ethnic and religious groups. This upheaval increases when liberal democracies are weakened as a result of environmental catastrophes, biological threats such as pandemics and economic meltdowns, producing mass poverty. This is the context that would trigger what Faye called an ethnic civil war between native Europeans and immigrants, who are mainly of Afro-Maghreb origin. This is an idea well-received in far-right circles as a race war.
To Faye, a race war is a useful catastrophe that would end the current system and pave the way for his utopian empire, for which he even created a blueprint. But Faye’s hope and longing for a useful catastrophe seems far-fetched in reality. The many immigrants who live on the periphery of society in low-paying jobs are unlikely to help the radical right topple the current system by going to war with the natives. The only candidates capable of delivering such a system-uprooting blow are massive natural disasters, which are very rare although not unthinkable, especially given the growing climate emergency.
Faye in Context
Guillaume Faye’s wishful thinking may never become a reality. However, radical-right narratives do not always need reality. Faye’s ideas resonate with historical metanarratives about being conquered and overrun by invaders of different religions and cultures. These deeply ingrained metanarratives can be used to recreate a threat scenario in which immigrants would overrun the native people and attack native culture. The selective memory of such metanarratives can be aggravated by episodes of the current civil rights movement, especially incidents of looting and property damage. Specifically, the Topple the Racists campaign inadvertently bolsters the radical right’s claims that migrants pose a cultural threat.
All these events are happening in the context of great distress. People are slowly coming out of lockdown while facing mounting death tolls in communities. The situation is already sensitive and unstable. Riots, looting and public disorder can create greater insecurity among people. Looming economic peril is another concern. History teaches us that times of great economic upheaval were always followed by social unrest, aiding the rise of the far right and reviving authoritarianism. The civil rights movement and the Topple the Racists campaign, despite being triumphs of democracy, can create opportunities for the radical right to bolster their narratives.
It is not a coincidence, given the impact of the pandemic, that many social scientists are predicting similar social, political and economic upheavals. However, these analyses are based on facts rather than Faye’s wishful thinking and his desire to build the next fascist empire on the ruins of the current world. As the radical right attempts to give weight to their narratives with the help of an ever-chaotic world, geopolitics has also become increasingly hostile to liberal democracies. Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia are mounting a serious challenge to destabilize the Western liberal system, especially aiming to undermine the postwar rules-based international order.
Russia’s attempts to sow racial discord among Americans is well known. China is now eagerly jumping onto the bandwagon by running special coverage of George Floyd’s killing in the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Global Times. The irony is that this is a regime that has rounded up the Uighur minority into detention camps and has killed prisoners for gruesome organ harvesting. Racial tension in Western liberal democracies not only helps the radical right, but will also embolden authoritarian regimes that seek to discredit democracies.
How does the radical right frame their narrative to include recent developments? For example, the alt-right’s Richard Spencer seems to be glad to witness the upheaval of Western civilization. Faye has also been hailed as “The man who predicted 2020.” Twitter feeds have speculated about a liberal conspiracy to start a race war. The pandemic and the civil rights movement seem to give the radical right hope in two different ways. First, at a micro level, the radical right can now give credibility to their narratives about threats to Western culture and heritage. Second, at a macro level, the radical right hopes that the instability in liberal democracies is pushing them toward a system collapse that would uproot neoliberalism, without which the radical right could not ultimately win.
The collapse of liberal democracy is the ultimate dream of Guillaume Faye and many of his current followers. It is indeed hopeful times for the radical right and the authoritarian regimes around the world. It is unlikely that the current system will face an existential crisis any time soon. However, similar to the 1930s, the context is ripe for greater instability and economic peril that would naturally lead to protectionism and a far-right, as well as an authoritarian, renaissance.