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Understanding the philosophy of the far-right

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It is naïve to assume that while the tide of the far-right keeps rising in Europe and in every corner of the world, it hasn’t and will never engulf Ireland, an island of commonsense and toleration amid an expanding swamp. Exceptionalism is a convenient tale told by a fool signifying lack of political judgement.

The signs of propagating far-right elements in Irish society are there for everyone to see. Most recently the appalling intimidation of library staff, both inside and outside of their place of work, and the menacing attitude of demonstrators outside the Dáil Éireann on September 20. 

If we go back further in time one recalls the targeted violence against cars displaying ‘pro-choice’ stickers after the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment Referendum in May 2018, and the 23% of the votes secured by Peter Casey in the 2018 Irish Presidential election. And then of course there were the Blueshirts in the 1930s.

Before it can be refuted, and defeated, the far-right is a movement that needs to be understood. Like all extremist ideologies, the far-right is grounded on a philosophy that is simple-minded and simplistic, but judging from elections around the world also alarmingly effective. 

There are three central overlapping traits to the ideology of the far-right.

  • First, there is a belief in natural and social hierarchies, which are based on obsolete, unscientific views about gender or race. This profoundly inegalitarian outlook is at the basis of their sexist, misogynistic, racist positions.
  • Second, far-right activists eulogise their ethno-nationalist roots. It follows that it is the duty of women to continue this ethnic line, while men must stop potential outsiders from contaminating the purity of their biological pool.
  • Third, the far-right considers violence a legitimate and necessary means of political leverage. Far-right violence reveals other key aspects of their ideology: virility, unbounded commitment to the ethnic-nationalist cause, and righteous fearlessness.

It is tempting to scorn and dismiss these three traits of far-right ideology, also because they are often nothing more than pathetic fig-leaves trying to hide the true motivations of those who get involved in far-right activities. 

The rousing elation of bullying someone on social media, or the thrill of a street brawl, or the opportunistic prospect of looting expensive shops, are little more than infantile, petty criminal activities, but they obtain a veneer of respectability when performed under the cover of political discourse, especially if it comes in the shape of the Tricolour.

Friend/enemy

However, there is a serious side to the philosophy of the far-right. In his book The Concept of the Political, published in 1932, legal philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt argues that all politics comes down to the existential distinction between friend and enemy: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy”. 

For Schmitt, those who are part of your community are your friends, and those who are not part of your community are enemies. While there can be respect and recognition of other communities, Schmitt insists that there must also be respect and recognition of boundaries and borders.

Seeing politics through the lenses of the friend/enemy distinction is still today the essence of the philosophy of the far-right, and it goes a long way towards explaining the far-right’s attitude towards immigrants and refugees. Which is why those who oppose the far-right should never make the mistake of indulging in this dichotomy. Doing so only gives credence to Schmitt’s theoretical framework.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Dublin riots. Some of the language used to describe the perpetrators of the violence during the riots played into the hands of far-right. 

Influential commentators and politicians were not afraid to use terms like ‘thugs’ and ‘scumbags’ and ‘goons’ and ‘male narcissists’. These terms were used to draw a picture of the enemies of our decent society, but by using this type of language it also reinforced the validity of Schmitt’s analytical distinction between friend and enemy as the lifeblood of the political.

Liberals 

Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy is troubling on many levels, but his work remains essential reading to anyone interested in understanding the far-right. Apart from introducing the friend/enemy distinction, Schmitt also rebuked liberals for failing to stand up for what they believe in. On this issue he may be right.

Liberals may be incensed by far-right groups setting fire to refugees’ tents, but they are not doing a very good job of explaining why refugees and asylum seekers and immigrants are welcome in our society. We know that we stand against the far-right, but we don’t always formulate with clarity what we stand for.

We need to have an open conversation about our moral obligations to refugees and asylum seekers, and the immense contribution by immigrants to our society, which accidentally has absolutely nothing to do with the crude economic variable of being a supply of cheap labour. Immigrants enrich our society by bringing diversity and plurality, factors that are essential to understand what it means to be in the world. 

We need refugees to learn about ourselves, our shared belonging, our world. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1943 essay ‘We Refugees’ that refugees are the ‘vanguard’ of society, the trailblazers of new developments, the pioneers of new ideas. Refugees help others to theorize and realise their place in the world, and to fully grasp the human condition.

  • Vittorio Bufacchi is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Cork, and author of ‘Why Cicero Matters’ (Bloomsbury 2023).
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