By Manus CharletonSligo Institute of Technology

Analysis: The far-right appeal has roots in emotions of loss, apprehension and resentment and its appeal is not easily counteracted by liberal arguments for an open, pluralist, tolerant and rights-based society.

The European Parliament elections have shown that the threat to liberal values from the rise in popular support for far-right and nationalist parties has increased. The parties did not do as well as some predicted but in Italy, France, Poland, Hungary, and Britain, they gained more seats than other parties in their respective countries.

The election successes represent a move away from liberal values and policies towards illiberal and authoritarian ones. They also represent a policy of reversing the European project of integrating nations economically and politically. Not to mention one of its founding aims is to ensure there will never be another war in Europe.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has spoken about breaking up what he calls "a European liberal empire" and replacing it with "illiberal democracies" of "strong nation states, and strong leaders at the helm."

In a letter published in a newspaper in each EU state before the elections, President Macron warned that Europe has never been "in so much danger" since the Second World War.

On top of that, a manifesto drafted by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and signed by 30 writers and historians from 21 countries warned that Europe’s founding ideas and values are "in peril".

The manifesto is a rallying call to defend Europe’s liberal values against those who oppose them: "Three-quarters of a century after the defeat of fascism and thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a new battle for civilisation." 

The appeal of the far-right and nationalist parties has come from opposition to the large increase in number of refugees and migrants who have come to Europe in recent years.

They are seen as outsiders who present a threat to a country’s national identity, to a reduction in jobs for its people, and to an increasing demand on its public services.

Liberal 'elites' are blamed for letting this happen. They are also blamed for the 2008 global financial crash and the austerity years during which those who had no responsibility for it suffered most.

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The far-right appeal has roots in emotions of loss, apprehension and resentment. Its appeal is not easily counteracted by liberal arguments for an open, pluralist, tolerant and rights-based society. Those who support far-right views see such values as having brought about the conditions they oppose. 

But there is an argument against far-right extremism arising from the nature of rebellion. The atrocities of the Second World War focussed attention on how to provide a sustainable basis for a moral and civilised world order.

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In his 1951 book The Rebel: Man in Revolt, Albert Camus made a distinction between rebellion and fascist revolts. For him rebellion arises naturally from "an unjust and incomprehensible condition" that is felt to be irrational. It is exemplified by the slave rebelling against the master in a "blind impulse" of "outrage" at the injustice and with insistence that it "be brought to an end".

At the same time, the impulse is borne on a rational need "to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral". Rebellion asserts something which "does not belong to the individual alone, but which is common ground where all men – even the man who insults and oppress him – have a natural community." It finds its legitimacy in appealing to the recognition of a universal value.  

In stark contrast, the fascism of National Socialism was nihilistic. It was a movement in which people "chose to deify the irrational, and the irrational alone, instead of deifying reason". It gave vent to its roots in "humiliation and hatred" present in Germany during the interwar years.

The resentment was projected onto others, Jewish people especially, "beyond the bounds of any ethical consideration". It played on the cult of the strong leader and the illusion of freedom through dominating other people and nations.

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For Camus, real freedom comes not from servitude to an irrational passion but from "an inner submission to a value" that recognises a need for acting within limits to avoid excess. He regards a commitment to restraint as itself a response of rebellion.

It is a rebellion against the excess present in revolts that give unrestrained vent to irrational passions. It is a rebellion in which we don’t unleash our demons, but "fight them in ourselves and in others." And this rebellious task is one of "perpetual struggle".

Conditions today are different to those that gave rise to the Nazi period and parties on the right and their supporters vary in the opposition they have to liberal values. But in opposing those who take an extremist position, the manifesto warns of "a challenge greater than any since the 1930s".

It sees "new signs of totalitarianism" that threatens to make "a bonfire of our freedoms". This gives new relevance to Camus’ understanding of the imperative for rational restraint to avoid falling for political extremism. 

Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics, Politics and Morality & Social Policy at Sligo Institute of Technology.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.