On New Authoritarianism and its Historical Ontology

David Renton, The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2019, $10.84 USD.

Broadly speaking, there are a group of political scientists and historians making the case that we may be experiencing a newfound convergence between what were formerly starkly different authoritarian and democratic national forms of governance.[1] In The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, David Renton weaves a scenography of mainstream conservatism’s lapse, wherein histories of war and colonial power—particularly as it concerns global institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF or World Bank—allowed for the uptake of far right politics beyond the West’s own borders. The victories of Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK have boosted not only an already confident right but a fringe ideology within it. From General Sisi in Egypt and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, we are privy to growing far-right patriotism, where right-wing parties have radicalized and then normalized politics once restricted to the margins. 

In Hungary, the governing right-wing Civic Alliance Party has dismissed critical voices from journalists and forced out Central European University, the base of opposition. The defeat of the Arab Spring and of democratic social movements in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen have emboldened autocrats. In India, the rise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been exacerbated by anti-Muslim violence and riots. Surveying the rise of authoritarian figures and rhetoric today, we see how leaders such as Mark Rutte of the People’s Party in Holland have stoked anti-Muslim sentiments, telling interviewers that Islamic immigration threatens Dutch traditions. In Russia, the authoritarian government has taken over independent media and fomented nationalism, going to war in the Chechen republic, Eastern Ukraine and Syria, while simultaneously enabling the Assad regime to temper the Syrian revolution.

A mixture of military and cultural power advances such interests, where state-controlled media have established a scaffold of soft power; in examples such as the United States, cooperation between mainstream right and extreme right, or “alt right,” groups have allowed for the latter to exercise influence historically out-proportioned. Renton stakes the case, however, that this is not the first time in history when the mainstream has lurched to the right, leaving socialists, feminists and anti-racists struggling to respond. Renton compares the 2016-17 moment with previous periods when the right was radicalized across borders, such as 1922-39 and 1979-80. Renton cites the late 1890s and early 1900s, which saw popular anti-migrant and antisemitic campaigns in the United States, Britain and France, each fueled by a variegated combination of economic crises and fears of migration In these moments, too, there was a relationship between “movements of the street” such as the British Brothers’ League, an antisemitic campaign against Albert Dreyfus in France, and governments (spearheaded by leaders such as William Jennings Bryant, Jules Méline and Lord Salisbury).

In illuminating such historical examples, Renton makes the case that today’s “far right” partially takes up ideas that are present already within conservatism. At different times, for instance, the far right has supported both policies of state spending and its opposite, policies of privatization—this demonstrates how neither policy is necessarily inherent to the far right, itself. For instance, Latin American military dictatorships during the 1950s and 1960s advocated state-led development, much like the mainstream right in the United States and Europe at the time. However, groups such as the Tea Party and the Dutch PVV have demanded, just a decade ago, lowered taxes and budget cuts, drawing from post-Thatcherite conservatives. However, we ought to also make a distinction here—unlike the mainstream right, the “far right” sees the nation (and, in turn, itself) as under immediate attack from alien influences, to which a militant response is needed. Thus, the “far right” fabricates a sense of urgentism inherent to the reactionary ethos.

Renton also makes the case for a new terminology to capture the politics of the past few years, wherein the center-left has fought to protect its privileges from its outliers, while the center-right has handed power to those on its right. Considering the protean and fluid relationship between the mainstream and far right that has lapsed into coeval emergence, a central question arises concerning the relationship between fascism and forms of rightist governance today. In his past work, such as Fascism: Theory and Practice (1999), Renton identified fascism’s reactionary mass movement as privy to a cult of leadership and an ideology of anti-socialism and anti-liberalism. In turn, fascism unfolds as a desire to advance capitalist technology while restoring society to the class peace it wrongly associates with the years prior to 1789 (the year of the French Revolution) and extinguish reforms that have developed under capitalism since then, such as universal healthcare and other non-market rights.

There is, however, also a paradox that Renton underscores—that fascism’s reactionary commitment is necessarily in contradiction with its need for mass support. While Fascism fights the measures to redistribute wealth downwards, it needs to mobilize the very people whose social advancement it hinders, thus relegating the spirit of fascism to radicalizing cultural organs and artifacts. The non-fascist right has different goals, as Renton notes—they are electoral, do not worship the state, and do not seek to transcend class.  This relational convergence concerns Renton who, unlike his peers—for instance, Neil Davidson—does not ascribe to Weberian sociology’s commitment to “ideal types.” Where Davidson’s account, in texts such as Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (2016), attempts to capture the recurring nature of far-right politics without focusing on its historical specific development, Renton is concerned with the historical transformation of the right. This includes the legacy of the counter-revolutionary right, posed against the genealogical tree of the far left that emerged at the start of the twentieth century, a history that contains utopians from the distant past such as Thomas More, the Levellers/Diggers, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, the Chartists and, in the higher branches, Marx and Engels. In contrast, the genealogical tree of the counter-revolutionary right contains the French opponents of 1879 (e.g., Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald), the American Nativists, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Dreyfusards Édouard Drumont and Maurice Barrés, advocates of Imperial social reform (Joseph Chamberlain and the Edwardian Die-Hards), the British Brothers League and Action Française.

In the first chapter, Renton argues that the ideational movement of the right has been made more fluid due to the legacy of 1949-1945, which has now been displaced within collective memory and replaced with the traumatic-legacy of September 11. Here, Renton argues that the WWII moment no longer plays the crucial fixture it did during the postwar period, subordinated by the events of 9/11 and the effects of the War on Terror. Indeed, the effect of September 11 was to “[c]hange the tone of right-wing politics from a register of nostalgia into a new language of confident aggression” (37). Accordingly, the rise of racialized exclusion is linked to social practices—a compliment to those biopolitical technics that anthropologists such as Allen Feldman delineate via omnivoyant immundus of the insensible (e.g., drone strikes). At home in the West, this has come to include Britain’s normalization of mass deportation, France’s indefinite states of emergency and the US’ practice of imprisonment without trial.  

In the second chapter, Renton addresses attempts of the far right in the post-1945 period to attempt to reinvent themselves without the stigma of fascism through sociocultural processes, some superficial and others more significant. Renton focuses particularly on the cult of antiegalitarian and traditionalist Italian thinker Julius Evola, who was the chief ideologue of Italy’s radical right after World War II. Evola criticized the Italian fascist regime for its excessive displays of caution, hoping to prod it to behave more like Hitler’s Germany. Evola has served as an inspiration to post-war fascists in Italy, to the Front National in France, has influenced Alexander Dugin (a Russian philosopher who has acted as a strategist for Putin) and been extensively cited by Steve Bannon in the United States. Further examining the recursive and self-inventive practice of ideological reinvention, Renton also focuses on Italian politician and former leader of the conservative National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, who subsequently acted as the leader of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and founder of the parliamentarian group “Futuro e libertà per l’Italia” (Future and Freedom for Italy). Renton pays particular attention to how Fini and the MSI have unbound themselves from their previous apologetic relationship to Italian facsim’s violent past, thus coordinating and creating the conditions to win new generations of support.

Renton also conceives of convergence as a historical process via the case studies of Britain, the United States and France in the 2016-2017 period. Renton ascribes the “new right” with a particular modality of internationalism, wherein the alliance of the center with the far right takes up a diffracted character, undoing conceptions of territorialized nationalism astricted by borders and national movements. Renton argues that the critical fissure of 2016-2017 ought to be understood not as a series of disparate national crises that are each determined by domestic interests but, instead, as a more widespread phenomena of reactionary change. Renton compares this moment to the reactionary change in Britain and America during the elections of 1979, which saw the election of the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, and 1980, where Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Democrat President Jimmy Carter, respectively. Both Thatcherite England and the Reaganite United States saw a diffused impact on electoral politics elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Insofar as policy is concerned, Renton focuses on the demise of welfare spending following the international financial crisis of 2007–2008. Because center-left governments in the US and Britain responded with palliative policies to the 2008 crisis by subsidizing banks without requiring a revisal of the relationships between these economic institutions/predatory lenders and lendees, this resulted in a significant problem for the left. That is, the left’s decision to respond to with the implementation of austerity measures and by subsidizing the banks, particularly during the 2008-2015 interval, exacerbated disaffection within the neglected affected parties. This allowed for what Renton terms “new authoritarianism” to emerge during the 2016-2017 period as a viable alternative to the previous left-right consensus of favoring spending “cuts.” Symbolic promises such as strong borders and an ethos of exclusion assumed new collective vigor—extending Renton’s argument, one could argue that this vigor has shaped collective spirit, prodding reactionary thought towards a teleological determinant beyond sectorial designation. Thus, an asymmetry is born—consider, for instance, how Donald Trump’s financial and pragmatic inability to exact and erect a wide-spanning Mexican-American border wall has been met with little lasting criticism from his supporters, for it is the symbolic and commensurate construction of a new normativity vis-à-vis an unconscious itinerary that has become most critical and unifying. In one sense, this is a recursive call to the omnipotence of President George W. Bush regime’s, which encouraged post-9/11 paranoia (exacerbated by the 2001 anthrax attacks) but is also more pointed and sustained in its assuming an emotional directive. Trump’s is a “productive paranoia” that does not always necessitate any (material) production. 

In another sense, Trump’s rhetoric may remind readers of Italian politician Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister who, as of 2018, has been serving as a Senator in the Italian Senate. In February 2020, Salvini, forging a link between the coronavirus and African migrants, called for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign after a rescue ship with 276 African migrants docked on the Sicilian port of Pozzallo (despite none of the COVID-19 cases in Italy have been linked to African migrants). In March, as the outbreak became much more widespread in Italy, accompanied by drastically increasing mortality rates, Salvini proposed joining the government in a national unity coalition; Conte and the Italian Democratic party rejected this proposal. In turn, the populist senator has criticized the leftist coalition government’s mass quarantine decree, likening the coronavirus situation to a “War Situation.” This line has been repeated by many politicians since; according to Salvini, however, the coronavirus pandemic necessitates indefinitely closing the Italian borders, echoing the case for strong borders (shared by Boris Johnson) and anti-EU/anti-supranational commitments. As the Federal Secretary of the League (previously called the Northern League) since 2013, Salvini has often replaced messages of regional separatism in Italy with that of nationalism by accusing migrants of being criminals and rapists while stoking violent images of combat and bloodshed (63). 

Here, one may be reminded of Trump’s initial response to the coronavirus, i.e. of permitting travel between the UK and the United States while impeding flights from China, Iran and the twenty-six European Schengen Zone countries (this decision that was, as of March 15, 2020, amended to extend the “travel ban” to the UK and Ireland). Officials such Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, have criticized Trump’s travel ban as being “incoherent,” remarking that it would have no impact on the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Trump’s “travel ban” also permits for cargo trade in unregulated fashion, neglecting the testing of imported goods, despite the virus can survive on surfaces for over seventy-two hours. Not only does Trump’s policy go against recommendations from the World Health Organization and other international agencies but, in turn, local efforts have been mostly directed at stimulating the national economy via interest rate and payroll tax cuts. Rather than prompting an emergency universal nationalized healthcare, Trump’s response to COVID-19 has assumed a functional pivot for robust economism and ideological rhetoric, with the virus assuming the role of a transitional fetish-object, Lacan’s objet (petit) a. In a recent tweet (published on March 16, 2020) Trump stated that “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” (sic). As a kind of stand-in for the subject, COVID-19 is thus treated as the uncanny object par excellence, a cause in-itself which resists subjectivization-symbolization; a xenophobic instrument, this rendering of COVID-19 as the “Chines Virus” allots Trump to justify reactive oppositional determination. This is directly mirrored by Bolsonaro’s striking denial of all accounts and verifiable evidence from the press that attest to the Brazilian President’s positive coronavirus status; Bolsonaro’s rejoinder has been to insist upon the paramount embodiment of paradoxical dissatisfaction—insisting on being tested once again while redacting national reports concerning his positive coronavirus status [2]. 

Notably, Trump’s promise of violence against Hilary Clinton (i.e., the jeer to “lock her up!”) imposes its uniquely a-subjective regime of aesthesis, a simulative horizon that, co-opting Deleuzean parlance, we can describe via ideological becoming and reterritorialization. This retrofitting logic maps on quite neatly to the description of the far right that Renton distinguishes; accordingly, the far right is not only characterized by its argument for the restoration of a world “lost” vis-a-vis a willingness to reject the choices of the capitalist class but, also, that the convergent far right is predicated upon nostalgia’s lasting flutter-cum-distinction. In this sense, the far right’s historical instantiation of violence rejects its mirror image (that is, rejecting the Clinton-Trump bricolage that is, in truth, predicated upon assured mutual commitments to the war machine).

Throughout, Renton maintains that fascism, in the eyes of its adherents, is a coherent means of perspectivizing the world through interlocking ideas that justify the use of (state) violence against political opponents, ultimately targeting the liberal state, itself. Renton delineates that fascism is necessarily steeped in violence and, by definition, fascist parties maintain a private militia to carry out attacks on racial and political opponents, potentially as a means to taking on the state—consider, for instance, examples such as Jobbik in Hungary, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and the People’s Party Our Slovakia. Despite Renton makes it very clear that we ought not describe Trump, Johnson, Erdoğan and company as explicitly “fascist” but, instead, authoritarian and genealogically shaped by fascist tendencies (and, therefore, convergeant), he does conclude his project with a prescient forewarning. As “new authoritarianisms” are emerging, culling old modes in novel combinations, the future may not belong to recognizably fascist parties and there is good reason to believe that the far right may revert to historically recognizable fascist “programs.” Thus, reflecting on austerity responses to economic crises and so on, the left is compelled to change its approach—this imperative necessitates that the left go through its own processes of reconstitution and renewal by stoking a politics not only circumscribed to exposing the right but to actualizing better living standards for the majority of voters. Specifically, if the right has opened itself up to its outliers, the left needs to respond by subsuming some of the anti-capitalist politics of its radicals alongside a sustained hostility to oppression.

Renton’s book was published in mid-2019, reflecting on alliances between far-right populism, Islamophobia(s) and national resurgences prior to some telling events that have occurred in the months immediately following its release. In some senses, Renton’s premonitions (which, at the time of the book’s publication, were still uncertain) have come into fruition particularly due to the convergent right’s co-option of ideational outliers—for instance, two of the primary reasons attributed to the Labour Party/Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat to the Tory incumbent Boris Johnson are Corbyn’s weak stance on Brexit and the media-driven disinformation attributions of anti-Semitist rhetoric to Corbyn/the Labour Party more generally. The latter, in specific, is an example of new authoritarianism’s flexibility in adopting inconsistent, conflicted and often paradoxical positions, all of which serve instrumental ends. As Renton remarks, during the years of Mussolini’s regime, Evola argued that fascism should be “more radical” (53) and, thus, proposed that it should hone this by co-opting ideas that, elsewhere, would be regarded as antithetical. Renton’s book allows for such incisive bricolages that, reflecting upon contemporary political phenomena, are validated. 

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope as well. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has, in some sense, taken up Renton’s beacon for a “[f]uture […] left without the ties to business which have caused the Democrats to compromise with Donald Trump” that incites a political agenda that underscores wealth disparities (236-237). While Renton does not overdetermine institutional cadres and their relation to discriminatory doctrines of violence, racism, sexism and so on, mediatory bodies (newspapers, journals, television, etc.) are often conceived of as “echoes” of the hegemonic status quo. While this is generally true, it is undeniable that media bodies exacerbate, deflate, deterritorialize, reterritoralize and operate according to a schizoid logic of relational coordination rather than serving the merely passive role of issuing tractable messages. Of course, Renton is no media theorist but a historian and barrister, with his book’s preoccupations remaining chiefly historical—in this archeological sense, Renton’s project is immensely valuable, for it engages in a historical ontology of the present through genealogical circuits.

[1] In addition to Renton, other such authors include: Francesco Cavatorta, “The convergence of governance: upgrading authoritarianism in the Arab world and downgrading democracy elsewhere?”, Middle East Critique 19.3 (2010), 217–232; Andrea Teti and Andrea Mura, “Convergent (il)liberalism in the Mediterranean? Some notes on Egyptian (post-)authoritarianism and Italian (post-)democracy”, European Urban and Regional Studies 20.1 (2013) 120–27.  

[2] Bolsonaro’s logic directly recalls Lacan’s description of the objet petit a, wherein “[i[f the drive may be satisfied without attaining what . . . would be the satisfaction of its end . . . , it is because . . . its aim is simply this return into circuit. . . . The objet petit a is not the origin of the oral drive. It is not introduced as the original food, it is introduced from the fact that no food will ever satisfy the oral drive, except by circumventing [circling around] the eternally lacking object.” See: Jacques  Lacan, “Seminar XI” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964).

Ekin Erkan is a Turkish writer and philosophy student living in New York City whose work spans philosophy of mind, science, technology, politics and metaethics; Erkan’s current research is on forms of predictive policing and Algorithmic General Intelligence. Erkan’s writing can be found here