Maverick Citizen


Without a serious challenge from the left, the political field in South Africa could see the emergence of a neoliberal right

Without a serious challenge from the left, the political field in South Africa could see the emergence of a neoliberal right

A new generation of post-neoliberal, post-national liberation and post-social democratic left parties need to emerge on the world stage, deeply informed by the lessons of failed market democracies.

There is a second coming of fascism underway in the 21st century that cannot be understood through the conceptual apparatus of interwar 20th century fascism. 

While there is immense value in comparative perspectives on old and new fascism, to highlight continuities and discontinuities, the expression of new authoritarian and fascist forces also has to be studied in the context of a new matrix of historic socio-ecological conditions. 

This volume provides a taxonomy to situate the new authoritarian and, in some instances, full-blown neo-fascist forces advancing deliberate reactionary class-based ideological projects. The geographic scope of this analysis provides an optic to appreciate the political economy dynamics shaping the hard-right shift in world order, in the vanguard of liberal democracy (the USA), the largest democracy in the world (India), the largest democracy in Latin America (Brazil) and the most promising democracy in Africa (South Africa).

Crises of neoliberal capitalism and market democracy

Liberal theorists have declared the end of the third wave of democratisation from the early 1970s till the mid-2000s. Beyond this shared insight, Marxists and critical theorists have a very different explanation for the contemporary crisis of democracy. This volume highlights several important historical conditions that need to be taken into account in thinking about the shift to a new hard-right neoliberalism. 

First, it is important to utilise a historical perspective to situate the new right and to understand its tendential orientation within moments of general capitalist crisis. The modern right wing has a history going back into the 19th century. In the 20th century, it has been the face of counter-revolution to ward off any challenges to capitalism. Its authoritarian defence of the institutions and social relations of capitalism has spawned the Ku Klux Klan, Italian Fascists, German Nazis and military dictatorships in the global South. 

Each of these reactionary social forces was also shaped by conjunctural and historically specific conditions. There are residues and resurgences of such extreme rightwing forces which we need to understand, but in terms of current realities. The alt-right in the US, for instance, is not the same as the Ku Klux Klan, but bringing the history of the Klan into view helps us appreciate what is new in the contemporary US context and how this is expressed by white nationalist Trumpian politics.

Second, the contemporary civilisational crisis of capitalism is caused by the unbridled financialisation and commodification of neoliberal capitalism on a global scale. The precariousness, inequality, social anomie and deeper systemic crises, such as the global climate breakdown, are happening in a context in which global ruling classes are committed to defending and continuing the same rationalities of marketised rule. 

Understanding the specific class projects and crisis dynamics giving rise to the new right is crucial. For instance, the market democracy has become both constitutionalised in the interests of transnationalising capital and incapable of being responsive to citizens’ needs. More of the same has given rise to the new authoritarian and neo-fascist forces on the march. 

Third, the left has been in retreat, despite a few breakthroughs and important moments of resistance globally. Since the neoliberal class offensive of the 1980s, labour movements in both the global North and South have been dramatically weakened. The rise of the Workers Party in Brazil and the African National Congress in South Africa portended prospects for transformative change. 

However, these forces were primarily halted by the loss of nerve and commitment to deepening mass-based logics of democratisation. As a result, market democracies in both these societies have created the conditions for authoritarian shifts. Brazil has moved to the hard neoliberal right and South Africa’s future is not certain, but can very likely end up in the same place. Without a serious challenge from the left, the political field is open for the new right to emerge.

Identity politics and neo-fascism

The new hard-right clings to core tenets of financialised capitalism and its institutions, including globalised financial markets, international trade regimes, private property, corporate power and precarious labour markets. However, in this context, harnessing discontent has meant a revanchism through reactionary identity politics. 

Neo-authoritarianism and fascism in the 21st century are deeply grounded in forms of exclusivist nationalism – from Britons who want their country back from the European Union, to rightwing Germans, Italians, Greeks and Poles, for instance, who want their countries expunged of refugees and migrants. White nationalism and supremacy are directly involved in exclusionary border regimes in the Euro-American world. Trump’s USA gave this shift greater momentum. 

All of this connects with an eco-fascism bent on reproducing a carbon-based capitalism through climate denialism or, in some instances, using the climate crisis to build walls around societies rather than deal with the root causes of the worsening climate crisis. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters want a South Africa exclusively for Africans. Essentialised racial identities are at work in these nativist nationalisms. 

At the same time, fundamentalist religion is also constitutive of reactionary identities. Charismatic Christians in Bolivia, Brazil and the US have converged with patriarchal white nationalists. Hindu fundamentalism (India), Islamism (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Zionism (Israel) are all advancing neo-fascist exclusionary class projects. 

Identity politics, with its emphasis on the particular accentuation of difference, standing against subaltern universals (or shared principles of solidarity) and rejection of structural social relations like class, has fed directly into the rise of neo-fascism. This is not to argue against respecting cultural diversity, secularism and pluralism. However, the accentuation, weaponising and constitution of obscurantist identities, as part of hyper-exclusionary nationalisms, are both anti-democratic and central to the making of a new 21st century fascism and authoritarian politics. 

Defending democracy by and for the people

In this volume, the chapters collectively and individually illustrate the varying ways in which neoliberal capitalism undermines democracy. Corporate control of politics has reached fever pitch and its destructive forces are undoing the very states that made its rise possible. With the rise of authoritarian politics and neo-fascist parties, there is new-fangled urgency. 

Democracy must be reclaimed but also remade. Modern democracy has always been part of a people’s history of struggle and grew up alongside capitalism. Democracy has given us the basic freedoms, rights and powers we have accumulated and enjoyed over the past few centuries. At the same time, democracy is always subject to contestation; it is never complete and never fully arrives given the nature of class and popular struggle.

Rising mass movements defending democracy, advancing climate justice and challenging financialised inequalities face the challenge of advancing systemic alternatives that amount to new class and popular projects that can provide a new direction to societies beyond the impasse of market democracies. A new left orientation of constituting power from below, through building democratic alternatives controlled by citizens, is crucial. This includes commoning, solidarity economies, food sovereignty, democratic planning and more. 

At the same time, international solidarities are absolutely essential. The global civilisational crisis of capitalism requires a global response. A mass-based and institutionalised climate justice movement is crucial, as part of a larger, new internationalism of the left that confronts the oppressions of the new authoritarianism and carbon-based eco-fascism.

Rather than seeing the state, civil society and the economy as given, the balance of power among them must be scrutinised and analysed to push forward an expansion of democracy beyond market democracy. To reclaim a more expansive democracy, new state institutions must be created, ones that secure the public good and deepen the logic of democratisation from below. 

New forms of democratic political instruments need to be invented that enable citizens and movements to define political agendas and hold politicians accountable. A new generation of post-neoliberal, post-national liberation and post-social democratic left parties need to emerge on the world stage, deeply informed by the lessons of failed market democracies. 

Moreover, left politicians must serve the publics that elect them and practise an ethics of accountability, transparency and enabling citizens’ power. 

Government officials and public servants must be reinspired and educated to serve the public. 

And most of all, states must once again regulate and advance democratic planning of the economy, such that corporate power is subordinated to the needs of human beings and nature. DM/MC

This is the final in a series of 10 essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. 

Part 1: The crisis of democracy: The importance of reclaiming democracy from neoliberal capitalism and creeping authoritarianism

Part 2: Populism and fascism: Lessons from the 1920s Ku Klux Klan

Part Three: Brazil faces an inglorious end to a democratic experiment that has marked two generations

Part 4: How do we explain India’s descent into religious majoritarianism and empty promises of prosperity?

Part 5: The dialectic of democracy: Neoliberal capitalism and its populist backlash

Part 6: The ANC’s failure to fully embrace the right to know signals a retreat from a people’s democracy

Part 7: Media and democracy: A case for decommodification

Part 8: The politics of policing: The state’s failure to snare culprits of serious public violence is no accident

Part 9: Democratic eco-socialism: South Africa needs a new left to rise from the mess made by capitalism

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at 

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