Europe’s Far Right Stands for Business Owners, Not Workers

Far-right parties like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claim to protect working people. But for all their populist rhetoric, their economic proposals would slash public services and demolish workers’ rights.

European far-right leaders like France's Marine Le Pen are claiming the mantle of the Left as defenders of workers, but their economic policies tell a different story. (Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images)

“Factories, workers, teachers, agriculture, craftsmen, are now represented by the League,” Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini claimed last June. Across the Alps, Marine Le Pen has long insisted that she’s taken over from the Left: “I protect [French workers] by opposing immigration . . . [Communist leader] Georges Marchais used to say what I’m saying today.” This May Day in Spain, the Franco-nostalgist Vox party’s leader Santiago Abascal insisted, “Trade unions have sold out and left the workers by themselves.” And according to German MP Jürgen Pohl, “Alternative für Deutschland is the new workers’ party.”

The list could go on: As these quotes show, far-right leaders around Europe claim to stand up for workers abandoned by the Left, or even to defend part of the Left’s old program. Yet our report into these parties’ economic programs shows that the reality is quite different from such slogans. In truth, their programs are characterized not by a defense of workers but a contradictory mixture of protectionist and liberalizing measures. This is because their economic programs reflect their cross-class electoral strategy. In short, they are attempting to attract voters from the popular classes, at the same time as they defend small proprietors and even the very wealthiest.

Opposed Interests

The problem is that it’s impossible to make opposing interests coincide. When we take a closer look at these parties’ economic programs — placing each of their proposals in its national context and considering its historical trajectory — we see that the economic model on which they base themselves is mostly favorable to national capital. These parties are on the side of proprietors, small and large.

This creates three especially sharp contradictions.

First, the tax reforms promoted by most far-right parties consist of radical tax cuts (in some cases even the establishment of flat tax rates) which especially favor high-income taxpayers and companies.

This is clearly the case in Italy, where the Lega and Fratelli d’Italia demand a 15 percent flat tax, and in Spain, where Vox calls for a 20 percent flat tax and the suppression of inheritance tax. Marrying these measures with promises to increase social benefits or to maintain the welfare state (education, health, etc.) is one of the most obvious contradictions in their programs. With tax cuts bringing such a sharp fall in public revenues, it is hard to see how public spending could be maintained even at current levels with budgets cut after post-2008 austerity measures.

In accounting terms, this is the greatest absurdity of these parties’ programs. Analyzed from a class point of view, the proposed tax reforms favor those on the highest incomes and harm those on lower incomes — either because they would see their taxation increased or because the level of income exempt from income tax would be reduced. In addition, the deterioration of the welfare state impacts more negatively on lower-income people unable to access private services.

Secondly, these parties pledge to restrict public spending by limiting or directly prohibiting access to public assistance and the welfare state for the immigrant population (i.e., reserving certain rights only for the “national” population). Leaving aside considerations on the violation of the principle of universality — and the discriminatory (and racist) component of this type of measure — in purely accounting terms, this would bring only very minor savings in public spending.

This owes to a simple reality. In general, the immigrant population contributes more to public coffers (through income tax, VAT, duties, etc.) than it costs in terms of social spending — among other reasons, because it is generally young and working age.

Even if this weren’t the case, this wouldn’t be a reason to limit this population’s rights. But it’s also worth noting that Salvini isn’t just not able to fulfill his election campaign promise to expel Italy’s five hundred thousand immigrants (in contravention of treaties and existing laws). His party also doesn’t want to lose the cheap labor force today sustaining key industries like textiles and agriculture, and other socially important sectors like old-age care, domestic cleaning, and hotels and catering. Anti-immigrant measures do, however, also have a potential secondary function of scaring immigrants into accepting the terms of their low-wage jobs rather than challenge them and risk deportation.

There is also a third major contradiction in these parties’ agenda. Protectionism, presented in patriotic terms, consists of defending national companies by favoring their production over foreign companies’ imports. But the ownership of large companies can be difficult to determine — or very diffuse if it is in the hands of financial investment groups or large banking conglomerates, especially when we are talking about companies listed on stock exchanges.

As far as small and medium-sized enterprises and the self-employed are concerned, the proposed measures revolving around partial tax exemptions lack any real “protectionist” effect. This is firstly because their main competitors in many sectors — especially industry and services — are large “national” companies.

As far as their international competitiveness is concerned, technological factors and the impossibility of competing with industries in countries with lower wages and labor rights play a more decisive role. For all these reasons, reductions in tax contributions cannot be considered protectionist in a strategic sense. Rather, they are favorable to the owners of the companies, who thus see their social security expenses lightened.

There are no “protectionist” measures for the welfare state, nor a strategic plan for the transformation of the productive model toward a self-centered model, based on internal demand and the social needs of the population. That is why we speak of a posturing patriotism — a merely propagandistic pose, which ultimately conceals measures favorable to capital and its owners.

Taking Economics Seriously

But another point needs making here. When the Left speaks of fighting against the electoral rise and social influence of far-right parties, it more often than not chooses the battlefield of so-called culture wars — and most of the time, it loses.

The problem is that this radical right has been able to free itself of its stigmatization and demagogically exploit the insecurities and fears of various sectors of the population with a populist, if not pseudo-socialist, rhetoric. This plays on transformations in the labor market as well as the advancement of women’s and minority rights, allowing them to create an interclass electoral base. Even if the working classes are not the largest element of this far-right electorate, their votes — or abstention — do often prove decisive in electoral terms.

This is well illustrated by the comments offered by Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Steve Bannon, to American Prospect journalist Robert Kuttner: “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Today, Bannon has fallen from grace — and now finds himself peddling COVID-19 vitamin pills through his website to a dwindling group of followers. But we can still take his words as a warning. These parties feed social division and confrontation, particularly by building up cultural fault lines.

Despite some setbacks, all these formations are now entrenched in the party systems of their respective countries and have a considerable ability to influence and condition public debate. The economic impact that COVID-19 has had on a social fabric already withered by the previous crisis — added to numerous problems that have built up over the longer term — offers these parties fertile ground for growth.

In this sense, far-right forces can play on problems lacking clear immediate political answers, ranging from the integration of immigrants to difficulties in carrying through an ecological transition that does not heap the costs on workers’ shoulders and end up becoming — as one German commentator has pointed out — the ideology of a new phase of accumulation by dispossession. In this context, far-right parties can clearly benefit from presenting themselves as the defenders of the “ordinary citizen” and even of “the (national) worker” — and this is even more fruitful given the crisis that almost all European leftist parties are going through.

And yet, a study of the economic programs of these parties reveals that they are the defenders of a hard neoliberalism. Hence, as mentioned, their commonplace demand for a fixed income tax rate, or “flat tax.” We also find calls for tax cuts for businesses, defenses of the free market, and appeals to contain public spending.

All in all, and although on parts of the Left and in mainstream media the use of expressions such as “far-right international” or “nationalist international” has been widely promoted, it is worth clarifying that some of their economic proposals are not only contradictory but completely opposite, at least on paper. To cite one clear example of this: while France’s Rassemblement National is opposed to free trade agreements, the Sweden Democrats are in favor of them, especially with the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ideological Convergence

At this point, it’s worth noting that most of Europe’s far-right parties are far from as ideologically rigid as they are often said to be. Incidentally, it could also be said that such rigidity was hardly a feature of the Fascist parties of the interwar period either, as Angelo Tasca explains so well in the Italian case and Franz Neumann in the German one.

Consulting their economic programs, we may be surprised, for example, by the detail and the social emphasis of the Rassemblement National’s agenda as opposed to the much more schematic programs of other parties. These forces clearly have a greater interest in stirring “culture wars,” especially regarding migration policy. This is also an indicator of how these parties modulate their discourse with a view to capturing the broadest possible array of voters across contradictory interests.

Most of the parties analyzed here present an elastic ideology, and not only in economic matters. In this, they are facilitated by a media ecosystem where sensationalism and immediacy prevail. We have already seen these parties take several 180-degree turns: for instance, some have gone from overt antisemitism to presenting themselves as the most ardent defenders of the state of Israel. Some are currently moving in a similar direction with respect to the European Union, after having been very critical of it for years. Think of the normalization process in which Italy’s far-right Lega is currently engaged, not least given its participation in former European central banker Mario Draghi’s government. In December, the Lega’s deputy leader and minister for economic development, Giancarlo Giorgetti, even met with German Christian-Democratic MP Marian Wendt in order to reconcile their economic positions.

This convergence on the Right could go much further. German economist Wolfgang Münchau speculated recently on the possibility that Draghi will end up succeeding Sergio Mattarella as president in January 2022 — and either Matteo Salvini or Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni will end up as prime minister after the next parliamentary elections. In coming years, we may see conservatives harden their discourse, the far right moderate theirs, and each of these right-wing forces meet somewhere along the way. Or as Münchau put it: “One day we may realize that they all belong to one and the same happy family.”