“The origins of our time” Articulations between neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through the light of Polanyi’s theory of fascism

Roland Atzmüller, Fabienne Décieux

Abstract

This paper, against the background of the crisis of finacialized capitalism since 2008 and the sovereign debt crisis which led to austerity regimes and imposed cuts on welfare systems in many countries and the global upsurge of far-right and right-wing populist movements and parties, discusses whether far-right and right-wing populist movements and parties constitute an oppositional, albeit nationalistic, reaction of society against the destructive effects of unfettered markets and financialization fostered by neoliberalism or whether they bring about a radicalization of the latter combining it with an authoritarian transformation of politics and social relations. The paper does so by referring to Karl Polanyi’s work on the emergence of far-right, fascist counter-movements in the crisis of capitalist societies in the first half of the 20th century. Against a schematic interpretation of The Great Transformation, Polanyi’s analysis of fascism revealed that he viewed these “counter-movements” not simply as an answer to the crisis of unfettered market expansion but also to the post-WWI expansion of democracy and welfare policies, and the stalemate and crisis the unresolved tensions between these developments that was created. Thus, in his papers about fascism of the 1930s as well as in The Great Transformation he identified three elements of fascist philosophy that lay at the core of its political strategy to “save capitalism” (Polanyi). These consisted of a full-scale attack on democracy, the rejection of equality, and an attack on freedom in all social spheres. This conceptualization of fascism allows the understanding of how the aporias and contradictions of neo-liberal welfare reforms which rest upon a retrenchment of democratic participation of groups such as unions. The expansion of inequality and enforced commodification at the expense of individual autonomy opens up space for far-right populism and its authoritarian social and political goals which promises to tackle the crisis of marketization through a nationalistic and reactionary attack on and reorganization of welfare institutions and social policies.

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