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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99


David Patton
Book Review


Since the 1980s, radical right-wing parties have achieved unexpected electoral success in Western Europe. In his carefully researched book Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, Hans-Georg Betz argues that their success differs from the country-specific, sporadic triumphs of the far-right in the 1950s and 1960s. "The current wave of radical right-wing populist movements and parties represents a transnational phenomenon whose rise to political success has occurred contemporaneously and shares common traits" (23). Betz’s definition of radical right-wing populism is sufficiently broad to include the diverse right-wing parties of Western Europe, but sufficiently specific to exclude parties from the 1950s and 1960s. He characterizes today’s parties as radical because they oppose the current welfare system and the present political system (although they support representative democracy); as right-wing because they reject social equality and the integration of foreigners and other outsiders; and as populist because they exploit the frustration of the general public (4). They distinguish "themselves both from the backward-looking, reactionary politics of the traditional extremist (i.e., neo-fascist and neo-Nazi) Right as well its proclivity for violence" (3).

After defining radical right-wing populism as a concept, Betz introduces ten West European parties: the Progress Party of Denmark, the Progress Party of Norway, the New Democracy Party of Sweden, Italy’s Northern League (LN), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the National Front (FN) in France, the Republicans (Reps) in Germany, the Vlaams Blok of Belgium, the Swiss Autopartei, and the Swiss Tessin League. He goes on to explore the development, program, and social bases of these ten parties.

According to Betz, radical right-wing populist parties have "two faces." First, they espouse a neo-liberal economic philosophy. They maintain that the welfare state has delivered bloated bureaucracy, excessive taxation, and suffocating debt, rather than social justice. To remedy this situation, they call for less regulation, less state expenditure, and lower taxes. Betz points out that their orientation mirrors Thatcherism, which also pledged to liberate individual talents and energies from the oppression of big government. Betz then traces the emergence of anti-immigration as the major far-right concern since the late 1980s, showing that national populists blame incoming foreigners for the decline of national culture, rising criminality, and welfare-state fraud. With a thinly veiled racism, political leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen (FN), Franz Schönhüber (Reps), and Jörg Haider (FPÖ) play on the fears and frustrations of common citizens.

Although radical, right-wing populist parties have generally failed to secure a stable national constituency of more than ten percent, they have done quite well at the regional level. As Betz shows, they are more than just protest parties. While the established parties struggled in response to disruptive global pressures, radical right-wing parties articulated policy alternatives, whether cutting the welfare state or expelling foreigners, that attracted diverse social groups. When they stressed neo-liberalism, they did well among the old middle class (shopkeepers, artisans, farmers, and other self-employed people), while attracting white-collar voters in the private sector and non-unionized manual workers. However, as Betz points out, once the radical, right-wing populist parties focused on immigration, they acquired a greater following among the working class, but lost backing among educated, salaried workers. In general, they performed well among men in their 20s and 30s. Betz concludes that the losers of economic modernization, who are often among the old middle class and the industrial working class, cast their lot with the new right.

In light of its varied programs and its shifting constituencies, radical right-wing populism remains rather vague and diffuse as conceptualized by Betz. To my mind, it would be more useful to distinguish between libertarian populist parties and national populist parties. Such a classification overcomes certain problems of case selection that confront Betz. Namely, national populist parties like the Republikaner, the Vlaams Blok, and the National Front have more in common with neo-fascist parties, such as the National Alliance in Italy or the British National Front, than with the neo-liberals. In turn, the parties that are primarily libertarian populist in orientation (e.g., the Scandinavian populists) would have as much or more in common with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia than with the xenophobic parties of France, Belgium, and Germany.

On another methodological note, it is at times unclear whether Betz wishes to explain the success of the new right-wing parties or rather the prevalence of radical populist sentiment in society. While obviously related, these two factors are nonetheless distinct and should not be confused. It is certainly conceivable (and all too common) for mainstream parties, whether the British Tories or the French Gaullists, to adopt the language and policies of right-wing populism. If one is to explain the success of the new populist parties, one must examine the realm of politics where institutions and leadership determine outcomes. Betz understands this, yet remains most interested in cultural changes.

According to Betz, whether libertarian or nationalist in orientation, radical, right-wing populism is rooted in a fundamental socioeconomic transformation. Although he asserts the importance of political leadership, he focuses primarily on environmental changes. "The emergence and rise of radical right-wing populist parties in the 1980s was a direct response to the transition from industrial welfare capitalism to postindustrial individualized capitalism" (170). This shift brought forth

an acceleration in the process of social fragmentation and individualization in the form of an erosion of traditional social bonds, subcultures, milieus, which are increasingly being replaced by a culture based on informal networks and individual self-promotion. (176)


As fixed identities dissolve into a "flux of contextualized identities" (29), voters move away from the established class-based and church-based political parties toward radical right parties whose neo-liberal message is attractive to both educated professionals, resentful of the burdens of the welfare-state model, and the lower classes, scornful of the entrenched political and economic elites (179). Betz points out that ongoing globalization has exacerbated unemployment, which in turn has created openings for the new right. Moreover, Betz notes a "second major challenge associated with the transition to postindustrial individualized capitalism, namely the coming of a multi-ethnic and multi- cultural world" (172). Increased immigration has spawned a xenophobic response that the radical right has opportunistically exploited.

Despite its focus on recent developments, Betz’s argument resembles Hannah Arendt’s famous explanation of totalitarianism. Whereas Betz considers the crisis of welfare-state capitalism, Arendt analyzes the breakdown of the class system after World War I. Writes Arendt, "the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class" (The Origins of Totalitarianism [New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1951] 310). The collapse of bourgeois society produced an alienated, socially maladjusted "European mass man." Totalitarian leaders such as Hitler and Stalin tapped into this psychology to mobilize previously diffuse, unrepresented, and amorphous energies. Likewise, Betz examines how underlying socioeconomic transformation has accelerated social fragmentation and individualization in contemporary Europe. Alienated Europeans without social mooring or fixed identity provide a mass base for radical right-wing entrepreneurs who opportunistically exploit the widespread sense of grievance. It is important to note, however, that whereas Arendt argues that pervasive individualization and atomization produced a powerful longing for an ideological national crusade, Betz posits that fragmentation yields a post-modern era, where voters eschew ideology in favor of an issue-oriented politics.

In Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, Betz has explored the socioeconomic roots of voter disaffection across Western Europe. Whether or not economic stagnation and high unemployment signify a new era, they have spawned widespread frustration and protest. Although conducive to demagoguery, these changes do not, of course, automatically translate into right-wing electoral success. While Betz describes the new right’s ascent as "one of the most significant political events in the recent history of West European politics," its actual results do not uniformly support this conclusion. In countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, and Britain, which have all felt the wrench of global markets, radical right-wing parties have not achieved any significant success. In Germany, where Betz has gathered much of his sociological data, the Republikaner received less than two percent in the 1994 federal elections. In other countries, such as Norway and Sweden, the Progress Parties have stagnated or declined. By presenting radical right-wing populist parties as the products of underlying economic change, Betz at times glosses over other domestic factors that shape political outcomes. This is understandable in light of his search for a general sociocultural theory.

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