In the autumn of 2018, the leaders of an Italian far-right movement I had been working with for an ethnographic study allowed me to take part in one of the “community dinners” they organize on a regular basis. At these gatherings, they plan new undertakings, discuss various matters at hand, attract new members, and socialize. I sat at a table where a handful of undergraduate and graduate students of history and philosophy were debating the difference between pagan and Christian positions among far-right activists. When they heard I was there as a researcher, they asked me several questions, at times testing my knowledge about thinkers important to the radical right, and at times trying to understand my own political positions. At one point, a man named Livio, whose long curly hair, flannel shirt, and worn-out pants made him look more like a member of a hippie squat than a stereotypical representative of the far right, told me: “If you want to understand the radical right, you need anthropology.” Specifically, I needed to visit the local museum of anthropology, which features a collection of artifacts from various Italian expeditions.
A few weeks later, I met Livio and one of his colleagues at the museum. A placard at the entrance, which reads “Diversity is to be preserved,” is surrounded by numerous human faces from around the world, along with a mirror. “I guess we all agree on that,” exclaimed Livio, turning to me with an ironic smile. “Diversity is a value,” he said, “and that’s why we need to defend it; that’s why we need to fight against all those who want to dissolve it.” He went on: “There is so much talk about biodiversity today. We are supposed to be preoccupied when a subspecies of wolves is dying out. Why aren’t we preoccupied about entire human groups—such as Europeans—potentially disappearing?”
The literature on the “rise of the far right” has grown astronomically in recent years. Much of it is hampered by two important problems. The first is that, while describing radical right-wing activists, politicians, and their supporters in terms of opinion polls, statistical correlations, and even tweets, scholars and commentators rarely speak about these people—perhaps because they reject the idea of speaking to these people. My research is based on the assumption that understanding far-right militants is contingent upon getting access to their worlds.
Second, scholars tend to rely on a long list of adjectives to justify their use of “far” or “radical” to describe elements of the right—adjectives such as nationalist, ultra-conservative, xenophobic, racist, anti-pluralist, homophobic, misogynist, fundamentalist, irrational, and, in the European context, anti-EU. Many of these descriptors are accurate. But many of them also characterize the societies in which we live more broadly. Therefore, it’s important to unpack what really distinguishes far-right actors and their ideas. Are they conservative if they keep talking about revolution? What is irrational about them or their views? How monolithic are they in their beliefs? And in what sense are they anti-European and nationalist?
The last question has been one of my main focuses. In 2016, I began an ethnographic study of European “transnational nationalists”: networks established by far-right nationalist organizations and movements that interact, inspire, and imitate each other. At first, this sounded to me like an oxymoronic and catchy term. Now, “transnational nationalist” seems like a rather banal notion, less a contradiction in terms than a tautology. Could there be a non-transnational nationalism—or a far right that would not, to an extent, work internationally? If the idea of the “far-right international” continues to evoke much interest, it is in part because of misconceptions regarding the nature of nationalism and of far-right political agendas, rooted in the biases of critical observers.
Nationalism was one of the most globally successful political developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The idea that humanity can be divided into discrete nations, and that each should constitute a separate political unit, was a universal one. While territorial disputes and supremacist claims produced conflict and violence, intellectuals, politicians, and other agents of nationalism were perfectly aware that the success of their particular nationalist projects was contingent upon others embracing their own nationalisms. Nationalism is transnational at its core: it implies the recognition of other nations, which interact with, emulate, and rival one another.
Contemporary far-right nationalists are deeply conscious of this transnational tradition. They not only engage with but support “national others” through the idea of “a Europe of strong and sovereign nation-states.” By “strong and sovereign,” they mean states with clearly defined boundaries, with movements of goods and population only “as long as it is beneficial.” They push back against claims they are xenophobic by describing themselves as “the one and only” defenders of diversity, in contrast to “liberals” and “leftists” who, in their view, aim to “dissolve difference.” Ethnic and religious “others” are often perceived by them not as enemies but rather as allies in the struggle for a new socio-political order.
The youth far-right militants I research often give me the names of activists they describe as “Jewish,” “Black,” or “North African” who supported a version of cultural fundamentalism that resonated with their own politics. They are brothers in arms against all those who attempt, as one of my research participants put it, to “cancel the other.” They believe in preserving differences, whether between woman and man, between people inhabiting two sides of an international border, or between the native and the migrant. They explain their campaigns in positive rather than oppositional terms: “preventing” African countries from depopulating and European nations from losing their cultural identities, “helping” people to live and work where their ancestors did, and “reinforcing” local communities constituted by shared language and traditions. In particular, far-right activists argue for the defense of “cultural diversity,” in terms of the religious landscape (churches in Europe, minarets in Muslim countries), food (local artisanal products against foreign imported goods), and whatever else becomes part of the battle for their nations.
This framing represents how the far right has tried to change its image in recent years, both at the grassroots and in political parties. They offer soup for the poor in disfranchised neighborhoods and present their leaders as friendly and caring. Although this kind of rebranding has been evident for a while now, it has become increasingly important as concerns deepen about the retrenchment of welfare states and climate change catastrophe.
All this considered, we should not simply equate far-right politics with nationalism, or vice versa. For one, an increasing number of far-right organizations engage in explicitly pan-nationalist projects, foregrounding, for instance, their common European identity. Meanwhile, numerous radical left-wing politicians have recently proposed nationalistic agendas that mirror the one on the right: consider, for instance, French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who often uses anti-German, anti-Semitic, anti-refugee, and isolationist discourse. Most important, however, is the fact that pinning nationalism just on the far right elides the deeply nationalistic and identitarian discourses and policies at the heart of allegedly supranationalist institutions.
The example par excellence is the European Union. The EU’s complicated relationship with nationalism has had a profound impact on far-right activism. First, consider EU policies focused on valuing regional specificities and varied national traditions, alongside the idea of “the uniqueness of the European culture.” The result is a vision of Europe that is on the one hand colorful and folkloric, and on the other hand embodies certain intrinsic, fundamental values—a vision easily adopted far-right activists who defend both cultural diversity and European norms (which, at different times, can mean “white,” “secular,” or “Christian”). Second, EU economic and labor policies have led to profound inequalities among EU citizens within a theoretically border-free zone. Policies facilitating the move of industries to regions with cheaper labor and restrictions for foreign workers in certain EU states have provoked grievances that are easy to frame in national terms. This makes the EU an easy target for far-right politics. Although the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be fully seen, the response to date within the EU—the immediate closure of borders and the lack of solidarity with the most affected zones (which, ideally, would need not to be framed in terms of “nation-states”)—likewise displays the primacy of the “national.”
The EU also supports far-right activism in a different way, albeit unwittingly. Young far-right student activists take advantage of initiatives like Erasmus, a university exchange program, to spend a few months in a different country and network with kindred organizations. Indeed, students and university degree holders have become very important actors on the far-right scene. In a similar vein, programs supporting local heritage allow far-right groups to apply for EU funds to sponsor their initiatives. One of the movements I am studying organized a two-day workshop during which EU parliamentarians representing right-wing parties provided practical knowledge about how these funding schemes work. The far right, in general, does not wish to dismantle the EU but rather to limit it, and it tries to achieve this goal within the organization’s existing structures.
There are many faces to far-right youth cooperation. It stretches from translating and publishing works of admired philosophers, careful observation and adoption of tactics used by activists from other countries, and participation in ceremonial marches at commemorative events. These activities involve some empty handshakes and perfunctory Facebook “likes,” but they also lead to the development of genuine long-term friendships and social relations that go beyond mere strategizing.
None of us are surprised by left-wing associations and politicians working across borders for summits of allied parties and movements, joint conferences, and commemorative events and demonstrations. Why then do many on the left expect anything different from the far right? In part, this is because of certain assumptions about far-right activism. Some take for granted, for example, that right-wing actors with bad politics must also be insincere, including in their efforts at transnational networking. Others ask whether it is ethical to speak to them at all. It is important to ask such questions; they allow us to reflect on our own positions and responsibilities. But we should not suppose that far-right activists are so exceptional and outré that the ethnographic imagination cannot encompass them. When we exoticize the far right, it becomes harder to comprehend their operations, and the political and social context in which they are rooted. It makes it difficult to see just how banal their transnational networking really is.
Why does this banality matter? First, it pushes us to move beyond exoticizing far-right activists and their supporters. If far-right politics lie outside the left’s moral imagination, then there is no way of addressing them beyond denunciation. Second, it helps us recognize the political significance of nationalist idioms in our unequal, globalized reality. For many, including some on the left, national claims and national identities are increasingly perceived as the only remaining sources of social cohesion, while at the same time globalization is seen as a given, including by the far right. Transnational relations among nationalistic activists are both necessary and rational in that context. Finally, this “banality” foregrounds the problem of complicity: “transnational nationalists” are a much broader category than we might wish to think. Far-right activists operate in societies that are already riven by many forms of inequality and hierarchy; to challenge their politics requires a willingness to take on these broader problems that structure our world.
Agnieszka Pasieka is a socio-cultural anthropologist working at the University of Vienna. She is the author of Hierarchy and Pluralism: Living Religious Difference in Catholic Poland (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). Currently she is working on a monograph on transnational youth far-right activism.