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Perry World House, Penn’s Campus, February 21, 2024

The World of the Right: Radical Conservatism and the Global Order

UPDATE: SEE BELOW FOR AN EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE TALK

The contemporary radical Right movement is no longer merely a series of nationalist projects, but a phenomenon spanning the globe and affecting different forms of government in a variety of ways. Radical conservative thinkers have developed long-term counter-hegemonic strategies to challenge prevailing social and political orders. Even though this movement is unified across countries and societies, it does seek to mobilize alliances against a common enemy, global managerial elites who are accused of undermining national sovereignty, traditional values, and cultures. This has resulted in entanglements with actors in countries like Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

How do radical conservatives forge relationships across the globe? What sorts of policies do these groups share in common? How do they utilize rhetoric to gain support from the electorate? As 2024 shapes up to be an important year for elections around the world, join Perry World House for this timely conversation on right-wing politics with authors of World of the Right: Radical Conservatism and Global Order.

Speakers

Rita Abrahamsen is Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. She is the author of Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International  Politics (with M.C. Williams) and Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa.

Michael C. Williams is the University Research Chair in Global Political Thought in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His research interests are in International Relations theory, security studies, and political thought.

Srdjan Vucetic is Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, Canada. His research interests lie in International Relations theory, security studies, and foreign and defence policy analysis. His latest book is Greatness and Decline: National Identity and British Foreign Policy (McGill-Queen’s, 2021).

Moderator

Sam Adler-Bell is a writer in New York City. He co-hosts “Know Your Enemy,” a podcast about the American right. His work has appeared in the New York TimesThe New RepublicNew York Magazine, and Dissent. 

The following is an edited transcript of the panel as published in the spring issue of Dissent. We thank the magazine for the permission to republish it here.

Sam Adler-Bell: I’m excited to talk about this excellent book, World of the
Right: Radical Conservatism and the Global Order. I read a lot of books about
the right for the Know Your Enemy podcast, and this one is both analytically
and stylistically clear, which you don’t usually get together.

Michael C. Williams: The goal of this book is to ask to what extent the
radical right, which is almost by definition nationalist in its focus, is a global
phenomenon. Parties and movements that identify with the radical right are
popping up all over the world. Is this a coincidence? Is it a conspiracy? Is it
something more complicated?

We try to overcome three common prejudices about the right. The
first is that its resurgence is the fault of technology and the digital age.
Undoubtedly, but that’s not enough. The second is that it is simply a result
of economics—of the “left behinds” rising up against their overlords. Also
important; also not the whole truth. The third is that the right is stupid. In
reality, it is complicated and sophisticated.

The contemporary right is nationalist and local. But it is also global,
both conceptually and organizationally. What we call the “world of the
right” is the outcome of a fifty-year-old ideological project. We trace it
through the ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who argued that
political power is never simply a matter of coercion, but also of consent.
And in the production of consent, culture is vital. Any hegemonic order
relies upon a naturalized understanding of the world. And for opponents

of that order, it is crucial to create a counter-hegemonic strategy, an intellectual
world, and a set of institutions.

In the 1970s, the French far-right figure Dominique Venner called for
“a Gramscianism of the right.” This idea was rooted in an argument about
contemporary politics, social life, and globalization: that the world that we
live in is dominated by “managerialism.” The idea of managerialism, which
emerged out of the anti-Stalinist left in the 1920s, was picked up by members
of the American right, such as James Burnham, in the 1950s. They
argued that a “new class” of technicians, lawyers, accountants, and business
executives had more in common across countries and cultures than
with anyone else within those countries and cultures. It is opposition to that
purported class that forms the core conceptual underpinnings of the contemporary
right.

Rita Abrahamsen: The right’s counter-hegemonic struggle has not only
been at the level of ideas. It has also been diligently pursued in practice.
Social media and the digital universe have been crucial, but the struggle
has also been fought in the more traditional battleground of universities
and academic publishing. In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a massive
expansion of radical right-wing publishing houses. They have reissued classic
right-wing texts and published new ones. The English-speaking publishing
houses have been at the forefront of translating the French radical right.
They take ideas and the counter-hegemonic struggle very seriously. They’re
trying to construct an ideological history that distinguishes them from fascism.
They are trying to say, “We deserve a place at the university.” In fact,
they’re trying to change the university.

In Europe, they are even trying to set up new universities. At the
forefront of this initiative is Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where at least two
new universities have been established explicitly to educate and train the
new radical right elite. (The radical right is anti-elitist only insofar as the
elite is schooled in old liberal values.) Another example is from France,
where Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen, has set up a school in
Lyon dedicated to training a new ultra-conservative elite. There are many
more. These various institutions and universities are networked and have
partnerships with elite institutions around the world.

There’s a lot of diversity on the right, but we can point to at least three
commonalities in their vision of world order.

First, the radical right is anti-globalist, but not anti-internationalist.
They wouldn’t necessarily abolish all of our international institutions, like
the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. They rather seek to
change them from within so their policies allow greater state sovereignty.
We are already seeing the effects of these efforts in the European Union.
Second, the radical right believes that the world is made up of different
cultures or civilizations, which are the world’s true value. Global liberalism,

they claim, has flattened and ruined this diversity. This belief allows the
radical right to ally themselves with peoples and states in the Global South
who also feel that their cultures are being destroyed or undervalued by
liberal universalism.

Finally, the radical right believes in multipolarity—not the multipolarity of
international relations theories, but of civilizations. Their vision is of a world
consisting of different civilizations that would cooperate when necessary
but wouldn’t move toward a common culture or universal values. This vision
allows them to form alliances with other cultures or states, including illiberal
ones like China and Russia, that hold similar civilizational views.

Adler-Bell: My understanding is that the work on your book began in
2015, which was a fascinating moment to study global reaction, with the
twin convulsions of Brexit and Trump coming the next year. What inspired
you to undertake this project in that moment? What currents were you
tracking when you embarked on it? Did you know something we didn’t
about how important right-wing movements were going to become on the
global stage?

Srdjan Vucetic: I’m from Bosnia and Herzegovina. My life has been
perniciously affected by various forms of the radical right. We’re Cassandras,
walking around with catastrophic thoughts constantly. The year 2015 was
as good as any to think about horrible outcomes.

Abrahamsen: When we started, Trump was a worst-case scenario. We were
having conversations about how similar things seemed to be happening
around the world. People seemed to be talking about what was happening
in France, in Germany, in the Scandinavian countries. But nobody was talking
about why political movements seemed to be emerging in similar ways
in very different places. We picked up on some of their networks, and we
started to consider whether what most people were calling “populism” was
something more.

Williams: There was also a certain exhaustion in the “normal” conservative
world, both intellectual and institutional. Many scholars claim that the
radical right doesn’t tend to win because it defeats its adversaries; it tends
to win because the more moderate right ceases to fight it. We suspected
that was already beginning to happen.

Adler-Bell: In the American context, the fusionist consensus [between
economic libertarianism and social conservatism] of the 1950s and ’60s
feels dead, or at least very quaint compared to the populist radical right-wing
forces that have taken up much more space in our politics in the last couple
of decades. This is perhaps a good place to ask a definitional question. You

refer to a “radical right,” which is distinct from both mere conservatism and
fascism. Why that term?

Williams: Two primary tendencies define the radical right as a distinct
form of politics. The first is that it is often suspicious of, if not openly hostile
to, liberal democracy. Unlike the far right it does not seek to overthrow
it violently, but to build variations on what Orbán has called “illiberal
democracy.” Most postwar traditional conservatives had made their peace
with liberal democracy as a governmental form. The radical right has not.
The second important distinction is that conservatism is traditional:
it believes there are things of value that one must hang onto. Much of the
contemporary radical right regards contemporary society as so far gone
down a ruinous pathway that only a truly radical solution will work. That
tendency has always existed to some extent on the American right. But it
largely emerged with the paleoconservatives in the mid-1970s, who came
out against the fusionist consensus.

Abrahamsen: Another important distinction is between the radical right
and the extreme right. It’s not hard and fast; the two shade into each other.
The fascists who believe in violently overthrowing the current order are not
our main preoccupation. As much as the radical right and the extremists
might legitimize each other, we’re concerned with those who have covered
up their tattoos and now take portraits in front of bookshelves.
Adler-Bell: I’d like to talk more about Gramsci. On the face of it, it’s counterintuitive
that an Italian Marxist theorist and partisan who died in 1937 would
play such an important role in cohering the ideas of the global right. You
suggest that they have turned Gramsci on his head. What does that mean,
and why are Gramscian concepts so useful for these movements?

Vucetic: Gramsci talks about two types of wars: a war of maneuver and a
war of position. A war of maneuver is the storming of the Bastille. A war
of position, by contrast, is trench warfare that takes time, decades even.
It is a slow march through the institutions, including political institutions,
but perhaps more importantly institutions of culture, such as the media, the
arts, publishing houses, and educational institutions.

This war of position is where we see the radical right shining within
and between nations. There’s a unity of purpose here that didn’t exist
before. It was inspired by the French new right, and it spread from Western
Europe into Eastern Europe and the United States, and now across the
globe. In India, we have the head of the RSS [the cadre-based organization
affiliated with the ruling BJP] using terms that are associated with this
right-wing Gramscianism.

Abrahamsen: It is striking how many right-wing intellectuals in different
parts of the world have explicitly turned to Gramsci. One of Jair Bolsonaro’s
principal influences, the philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, was called the
Gramsci of Brazil. He set up his own series of online courses, and a number
of men in Bolsonaro’s government graduated from his program.
The term “culture war” is often used and abused, but the radical right
believes the culture must change in order for common sense to change, and
only then will material politics change. You don’t win elections at the ballot
box; you win them by changing the way we think.

Adler-Bell: You write that adherents of the global managerial thesis believe
that “the essence of contemporary world politics is not the age-old story
of realist power politics, the liberal tale of progress through institutions, or
the corrosive spread of neoliberal capitalism. It is instead the rise to power
of a global liberal managerial elite, the so-called ‘class of experts’ and
bureaucrats.” Where does this worldview come from? Why is it so important
for contemporary right-wing movements? And to what extent does it
describe reality?

Williams: The key to any counter-hegemonic strategy is to explain to
the people you’re seeking to mobilize the world that they live in. Why are
these things that make you uneasy happening? The managerial thesis
provides an explanation. The right is not simply opposing some abstract
notion of neoliberalism; it’s global managerialism, and one of its crucial
elements is that it has global managers—what Carl Schmitt referred to as
an identifiable enemy.

The global right has a rather loose relationship to empirical truth. But
the theory must be plausible enough to connect to the real world. Counterhegemonic
strategies can’t be fantasies. This strategy also helps explain
why it isn’t simply people who have been economically disenfranchised that
are mobilized by the radical right. There are a lot of people who are doing
very well in the current world order who have been convinced by the radical
right because of cultural issues that irritate or infuriate them.

Vucetic: Michael mentioned that the term liberal managerialism comes from 1920s
anti-Stalinist left thought. I was born and raised on the wrong side of the
Iron Curtain, where we had this debate in the socialist context. Milovan
Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident, wrote a book in 1957 called The New Class:
An Analysis of the Communist System. It had lots of overlap with James
Burnham. There’s a resonance on the left, as well, which has its own critique
of liberal managerialism, though perhaps not global liberal managerialism.
Adler-Bell: I want to ask about the relationship between radical right
movements and what you call the liberal international order. You

acknowledge some of the factors we tend to rely on to explain the crisis of
liberal hegemony, such as neoliberal dislocation, the professionalization of
party politics, and the rise of illiberal powers like Russia and China. But you
add to this account in important ways. You write, “While we agree that the
hierarchical, unequal nature of the liberal international order is a condition
of possibility of the global right, we argue that the radical right has built
powerful transversal global alliances based on a logic and discourse of
difference and diversity, rather than claims to Western liberal superiority.”
That may sound a little counterintuitive to people who have thought of the
right as advocating Western supremacy.

Abrahamsen: Right-wing radicals are what we call “differentialists,” not
universalists. Their idea is: we have our cultures; you can be whatever
you like, as long you don’t interfere with us, you don’t come here, and we
acknowledge each other’s differences. The radical right is now closely
aligned with traditionalists and nativists in the Global South, where the idea
of the right to one’s culture, tradition, and values has found purchase. In
the book, we look at resistance to impositions from the West, including the
UN’s policies on gender equality and gay rights. Russia has also played this
game quite effectively, opposing Western imperialism and appealing to cultural
difference to form alliances in the Global South and thus disrupt and
destabilize key elements of the liberal international order.

Vucetic: The discourse of civilizationism emphasizes mutual respect. That
goes a long way. Russian diplomacy in Africa is a good example. Sergey
Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, went on an African tour in July 2022; the
Russian Duma had a Russia–Africa conference the next year, sharing ideas
about anti-Western imperialism, civilizationism, and Pan-Africanism, among
other subjects. This should not be underestimated, just as we should not
underestimate Russia’s courtship of white supremacists in the United States
since the 1990s. These relationships have far-reaching consequences.
Williams: This commitment to difference allows the radical right to
escape fascist notions of civilizational or racial superiority. It is crucial to
the contemporary right’s political legitimacy to refute those accusations.
In fact, they argue, liberals are the ones claiming superiority today. The
International Criminal Court, the World Bank, and other liberal institutions
tell people around the world how to live their lives. As Alain de Benoist
of the French new right said: “Diversity is the treasure of the world, and
egalitarianism is killing it.”

Audience Question: I’d like to hear more about how new universities and
institutions such as those in Hungary credential global right-wing figures.

Abrahamsen: Right-wing think tanks in particular have been instrumental
in getting these ideas into public discourse. In the United States, the
Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College are two of the most important.
In France, Marion Maréchal’s Institute of Social, Economic and Political
Sciences has been very influential. It has also set up a sister institution
in Madrid. They are closely linked to politicians (the Vox party in Spain,
National Rally in France). In Hungary, there is the Ludovika University of
Public Service and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which is an incredibly
powerful institution. In 2020, it got $1.7 billion from the Hungarian
government. There is also a new think tank in Brussels funded by the
Hungarian government, which is linked to the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.
It seeks to burst the cozy Brussels bubble, where everyone agrees that we
must have greater European integration. There are indications that this
think tank was actively involved in the recent anti-EU farmers’ protests in
Brussels.

Williams: If you’re looking to credential counter-institutions, the first thing
you need to do is delegitimize existing institutions. That is not easy, but the
radical right’s anti-elite strategy is part of its attempt to do so. In addition,
you need to create an entire ecosystem of counter-institutions, not only
for training people for government but to employ them when you’re not in
power. You need to have think tanks for them—what Sam on his podcast
calls the “conservative welfare state.” For all these graduates who can’t get
jobs in the real world, the think tank world is now so big and so well-funded
that they can make a living in it until they do something else.

Audience Question: How much staying power does the far right have?
How long and protracted of a fight are we going to be in, and what does
the U.S. election mean for this?

Vucetic: Twenty years ago, people who studied right-wing populism and
the extreme right were relaxed. They often concluded that institutions in
the Atlantic World were strong; that the best the far right could do was
become a junior partner in a coalition government in some small European
country. That has changed, clearly. All eyes are on the November election.
The repercussions will be huge. This past year was a watershed moment
for the radical right in Europe. These parties are not going anywhere. In
fact, they’re probably getting stronger.

Abrahamsen: You see its staying power also in the way that the radical
right is becoming more normalized. After every election in France or
Germany, we feel relieved that they didn’t do quite as well as we had
feared. But they’re still doing an awful lot better than they did in 1990. The
radical right is pushing old-fashioned conservatives further to the right. In

order to tackle the challenge of the right, the rest of the political spectrum
moves in its direction.

Williams: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, leader of the UK’s Conservative
Party, has been pushed far to the right, both by the UK Independence
Party and Reform UK, and by members of his own party. A number of them
went to a meeting that we attended last May in London called the National
Conservatism Conference, or NatCon 2023. There, they rubbed shoulders
with the head of the Heritage Foundation, representatives from the Hungarian
government and related think tanks, and a variety of other figures on the
global right. Even trench fighters within party politics in one small state are
highly conscious of belonging to a like-minded international community.
Even if they disagree, they disagree on issues that they think are important.
Adler-Bell: NatCon, which has been held multiple times in the United
States and once in Hungary as well, is distinctive because it is where the
reconciliation between the radical right and the more mainstream right, or
the dregs of the mainstream right, takes place. The old school right-wing
fusionist Heritage Foundation can shake hands with an Orbán functionary
and say, “We’re on the cutting edge, too; we can see that they’re going right,
so we’ll follow them.” NatCon is a great example of how, as Rita said, the
political spectrum is being pulled to the right.

Audience Question: Why hasn’t Hungary pulled out of the European
Union? Why don’t we see more forces within the European Union trying to
break it up?

Williams: One of the main strategic shifts on the radical right in the last
few years is a move away from hostility to institutions and instead trying to
take them over. The evolution of Marine Le Pen’s position on the European
Union exemplifies this trend: while earlier she spoke about wanting to
kill it off, now she says she wants to pull it back to being a sovereigntist
organization—essentially, facilitating trade with a heavy hand of national
state supervision. This gets us into larger arguments happening on the
right about whether global capital will force them into line with various
transnational structures.

Vucetic: It is a true puzzle why the European Union tolerates Fidesz and its
coalition partners. However, part of those billions of dollars that are being
invested in Ludovika and Mathias Corvinus Collegium are coming from
the European Union. One explanation is that the European Union is trying
to appease figures like Orbán, lest they join forces with Vladimir Putin and
Xi Jinping, which they’re doing anyway. The political project of Orbán’s
government is to focus its energy on an issue du jour—whether it’s migrants,
non-Hungarian minorities, or the European Union—while at the same time
protecting domestic capital and trying to bring Russian and Chinese capital
into the country. The European Union is now a means to an end, and that
end is a new civilizational state. These visions are becoming increasingly
real among people who hold political power.