The Facebook Ideology: A Hypothetical Genealogy of the New Right Populism

Wilders-Le PenJacobin’s preview of today’s elections in the Netherlands recounts an increasingly familiar story, one of social-democratic parties drifting to the right, joining the neoliberal consensus, and thus leaving large swaths of voters unrepresented. The author, Alex de Jong, notes that the rising Dutch right began as a combination of austerity and Islamophobia, but gradually shifted toward a defense of the increasingly gutted Dutch welfare state, at least for “real” Dutch citizens.

The trajectory of Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) and its position in the Dutch ideological spectrum closely parallels Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, as well as—in campaign rhetoric, if not in reality—Donald Trump’s revolt against the GOP. In each European case (leaving Trump aside for convenience), a far-right party has made itself the champion of the welfare state that has been abandoned by its more natural defenders, the social-democratic left. In all cases the emerging far-right campaign has gained significant ground among former left-wing voters; in all cases, the defense of the welfare state is coupled with nationalism and xenophobia—calls to limit the welfare state to its “deserving” European participants.

The left typically understands the rising populist right as successively performing an ideological misdirection: taking some basic correct claims about the anti-democratic nature of the EU or the structure of Washington and lack of any representation of working-class interests in halls of European and American power, and explaining them with scapegoats such as immigrants and Muslims. But I’m not sure we have a convincing explanation of why the scapegoating has resonated as much as it has. Obviously there are deep reservoirs of racism in both Europe and the U.S., but anti-immigrant sentiment did not drive political disaffection at other periods when immigration was high (such as the postwar period in Germany and France). The scapegoating is so gross and naked that one wonders how so many, especially left-wing voters, are electing to blame innocent victims for phenomena that have such obvious sources and villains in the Brussels-Washington technocracy.

I want to propose a series of hypotheses, based more on hunch than data, toward the conclusion that the new right populism is the consummate ideology of the social media era. I call it the “Facebook Ideology” because Facebook serves as a convenient symbol both of the broader social conditions (depoliticization and displacement of social bonds onto the digital) and the specific technological means (a platform for disseminating sensational, exaggerated or false information that consumes political oxygen and consolidates fear) that come together to combine a “socialist” defense of the welfare state with a paranoid and racist fear of outsiders. Thus, the far-right has succeeded in offering a solution to the broad-based dissent from the neoliberal consensus by wedding economic resistance to its traditional bread and butter (obsession with identity, partially dédiabolisé and updated for the social media era).

Postwar depoliticization. The postwar “Keynesian consensus” had the primary goal of institutionalizing compromise between large blocs of political power, of structuring the state around ideological moderation. As intended, high wages, consumption and leisure did the work of depoliticization; political ideology and activism began to seem less important, and the differences between governing coalitions less distinct. Though 1945-75 is often remembered as a “golden age” of the welfare state and worker unionization, it was a deliberate compromise in order to buy social peace, one that had real long-term effects on the population’s political consciousness.

Neoliberalism. The end of this consensus brought the phenomena that are now at the center of political debate: de-industrialization, outsourcing, wage stagnation, tighter economic internationalization, and unprecedented financialization of the world economy. In Europe and the U.S., this was marked the beginning of the collapse of a left identity and left politics. The key lessons for voters over the next three decades were that a) left governments are no different than right ones, thus reinforcing depoliticization, abstention, and political disillusionment; b) that resources were scarce. Decades of austerity politics, of reduced expectations, and of stagnation convinced voters all over the political spectrum, including on the left, that “there is no alternative,” that belt-tightening and managed decline would be a permanent condition.

The financial crisis. The 2008 crisis shattered the myths that governing elites were at least competent and public-spirited, even if they were always giving you bad news. The disastrous, sociopathic response of European institutions bankrupted the E.U.’s political legitimacy, virtually guaranteeing the emergence of the popular revolt that had been foretold for decades yet had thus far failed to materialize. As Perry Anderson argues, the right has a clearer answer to this problem than a left that still clings to the ideal of internationalism, and has unsurprisingly been more convincing in the face of the seemingly invincibility of European institutions to left-wing revolts that stop short of exiting the union.

2008 only accelerated what had already been developing in Europe: ambient feelings of despair and powerlessness toward E.U. stranglehold and the social wreckage it delivered at home. This took place in a context of a gradual decline of politicization: union and membership, and participation fell while rural depopulation accelerated and social atomization intensified. Nearly all of these were related to global economic shifts. Voters, particularly those born in the prosperous 1950s or after, probably on the whole grew up with a less intense political socialization than earlier generations (notwithstanding a class of 68ers, a small minority of whom preserved their radicalism over time).

So 2008 guaranteed a revolt, but what would it be? Europeans had long ceased to be well-formed in left politics, few have religious communities or other associations in which to socialize and build broader solidarity. Much of the energy of the left, especially in major parties, had relegated work and material interests to the side of a program increasingly defined by vague humanitarian inclusion. E.U. politics and the details of world financial governance are utterly impenetrable to the average citizen.

Terrorism. At the same time as Europe experienced growing disconnect from politics and society at large, and above all ambient despair over the constraints of the E.U., it was shattered by a series of terror attacks that followed in the wake of September 11 and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Spain in 2004, London in 2005. Throw in the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005-2006, and the Norway attack in 2011, and you have the beginnings of a game-changing story.

The Islamofascism narrative provides a simple explanation for the malaise many Europeans felt: the safety net and the socialization it underwrote have disappeared, making life increasingly anxious, atomized, and miserable. While it’s unsurprising that politicians of the real racist right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, would see an opening for a revival of their program. But it’s an explanation that also suits much less ideological voters, who perhaps recall the “golden years” of the welfare state, high employment, rapidly increasing standards of living, and an imagined social homogeneity. The “invasion” of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, can be stretched to explain every sense of dislocation and loss: job losses, tightening budgets and degraded social services, eroded social consensus, terrorist violence. But it’s obviously a stretch, riddled with paranoid delusions and requiring sustained ideological conditioning. How did it happen?

Social media. What if social media was the primary way that this explanation came to make sense? All over the Western world, embodied social bonds have been replaced with digital ones, going fairly high up the age scale (all the way to whose who are quite elderly). Social media consumes an enormous amount of the average person’s daily mental space, and calls and visits are increasingly replaced by texts and Facebook posts. As was clear even before the “fake news” panic, social media—Facebook in particular—flattens distinctions between sources and styles of writing. Even accurate information lacks context, while rumor, exaggeration, and fabrication obtain the appearance of authority.

In such a situation, terrorism accomplishes two things: it cuts through the noise, immediately renders all other political matters unimportant, and deepens the fear and paranoia that are a natural byproduct of social isolation. News about terrorism and crime are far more viscerally comprehensible than the latest E.U. trade deal or diktat from the troika. Each drip adds to the fear and confirms the narrative—all the easier believe in an ungrounded, depoliticized social existence—that Muslims are at war with European civilization, including its welfare state and its tolerance. Major attacks, such as the attacks in France in 2015 and 2016, radicalize and intensify a narrative fueled by skewed and false information, all amplified by the highly-developed digital channels of the new far-right. It’s not for nothing that the new right excels at social media, from the Front National’s innovative mobilization of the fachosphère to Donald Trump’s infamous but tactically brilliant Twitter account.

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To recap: it’s clear that some of those attracted to the rising far-right have always been on the right; a good example is the Front National’s original pied-noir base, formed during the Algeria experience in hatred of Muslims. Europeans remain far more deeply racist and hostile to foreigners than Americans. But my guess is not that Europe’s older strains of right-wing thought have “returned,” even if these new movements draw on older tropes and dog whistle to pockets of those old constituencies.

Rather, a new sort of right has been created by conditions that obtained in the second half of the twentieth century, overall not a period when the older far right had significant strength. Some of the conditions are long-term trends beginning in the depoliticization and affluence that came with the postwar economic boom; others are the direct consequence of the left’s abandonment of its core commitments and its failure to identify, earlier on, the villains behind the things that have degraded life for Europeans far more than immigration or Islam ever have. The new right is the right of post-industrial doom, of plutocratic government, of social isolation and drift from recognizable ideological forms; it is a right that stands a real chance of permanently co-opting core constituencies the left abandoned. It is the right that has benefited from the replacement of thick social bonds with thin digital ones. A right that has married a left defense of the welfare state to the neoliberal logic of austerity and exclusion that political elites have hammered home for the last several decades.

The good news is that the new far-right may be more of a concoction of recent trends than it is a deeply historical and ideological movement; it relies heavily on disaffected left voters who could potentially be won back with bold programs from the left. The bad news is that the left has abandoned these voters for long enough that there may be permanent ideological damage to their worldview, and is still barely on its feet in terms of offering a response. Overcoming a half-century of economic reality and ideological compromise is a daunting task. Be that as it may, bold and uncompromising programs that rival the narrative of the right are the only chance of stopping an ugly right-wing realignment. 

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