It took me just three days to read Cas Mudde’s Far Right Today. It is a short book which numbers just 180 pages before the notes begin. Yet it feels longer but not in a bad way. It feels as though Mudde has offered an extended seminar on far right politics. He breaks down the book into ten chapters which takes the reader through the basic topics as though each was a separate lecture.
Many books can feel as though they are rushed or condensed. Fukuyama sometimes reads as though his books are abridged. The reader is left with the sense there is a more complete version which deserves to emerge. Broad subjects can easily leave the reader wondering whether they have only scratched the surface. Typically it takes a very narrow topic for the reader to believe they have probably read more than they imagined was available to say about the subject at hand. But Mudde dissects the topic well so the reader recognizes there is more to be said but does not feel dissatisfied in its wake.
Mudde begins his book with a description of the far right as anti-system. He further subdivides it into an extreme right which “rejects the essence of democracy” and a radical right which simply “opposes fundamental elements of liberal democracy” like “minority rights, rule of law and separation of powers.” He relies on an Italian philosopher, Norberto Bobbio, to distinguish between the right and left. He says the left views inequalities as “artificial and negative” while the right sees them as “natural and positive.”
Mudde interprets this definition to apply to multiple forms of inequalities from social status to economic means to racial or ethnic identity. It is true the “populist radical right” believes there are key differences within culture, race and ethnicity which often become inequalities. Yet these movements find broad public support because they pursue a sense of equality within their own culture, race and/or ethnicity. And the left cannot level all forms of equality. Even a marxist professor may appreciate the inequality in their own social status as Lipset noted long ago.
The demarcation between the right and the left is not as clear as Mudde seems to believe. His book is about the Far Right which gives the impression they are more committed to conservative philosophies than those within mainstream political parties. Yet far right politicians blend policies from the right and those typically associated with the left. The PiS recently won reelection on a platform of nationalism but also increased social spending typically associated with the left. Yamini Aiyar has recently described how the Narendra Modi and the BJP have used welfare politics to their advantage. And the campaign of Donald Trump was surprising in part because he departed from conservative ideology in many ways which made him seem more moderate. About ten years ago Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki wrote a paper called “When Left is Right.” They may need to extend their ideas beyond post-communist Europe.
Seymour Martin Lipset described fascism as a radicalization of the center. Rather than describing the Nazi and Fascist regimes as the far right, he reinterpreted it as a radical centrism which distorted the typical politics of moderation into a new monstrosity. His account deserves greater weight as the far right abandons the fiscal conservatism traditionally associated with the right wing. Cas Mudde implicitly recognizes this critique. He responds in his last chapter that the left-right spectrum has become about socio-cultural issues. Traditional socio-economic issues have become secondary in the current political environment. Yet Trump’s great legislative achievement was a traditional tax cut and his Democratic presidential challengers have doubled down on economic issues of the traditional left. Still, a true socio-cultural realignment would split the business class between globalist corporate managers who support a diverse workforce and small business owners who remain isolated in ethnically homogenous communities. There are signs of a fracture, but corporate America has remained predominantly Republican because of its stance on economic issues like taxation and deregulation.
The strongest chapters focus on the sociological causes and affects of this movement. The chapter on Gender is astounding. He acknowledged his wife for her insights on this chapter. Whatever she did, helped him create a breathtaking piece of political thought. This was far and away his strongest chapter. Indeed, he is at his best when he describes the phenomenon from a sociological perspective. He has a nuanced view of its causes and recognizes there are no simple responses. Nonetheless, this approach does not help when he has to explain the far right philosophy. This chapter reads as though there is an ontological distance which prevents him from completely understanding the mindset of his subject.
It is not fair that I have spent so much time on a critique of this work when I actually find it one of the best books I have read from this year. Each topic feels complete upon its conclusion even though there is clearly more to learn. Moreover, he has approached the topic from multiple angles to provide a complete account. It really feels like a short, but in-depth seminar. He rattles through the different topics like somebody who has devoted his life on this subject. And he has. Cas Mudde is a leading scholar in the field of political science. This work feels less like an intensive piece of research than a reflection on a lifetime of study. And that makes the read more than worthwhile.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com.
Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox