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Populists With A Plan: Welcome To The Age Of Reactionism

Right-wing reaction to the globalized, liberal order is starting to look less dispersed and more systematic, like 20th-century political movements like socialism and communism.

Photo of Bolsonaro Supporters Storming Congress

Supporters of former Brazilian President Bolsonaro clash with mounted police in the capital.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian


BUENOS AIRES — In a 2018 text published in the International Studies Quarterly, academics Joseph MacKay and Christopher David La Roche asked why there was no "Reactionary International Theory." In December of that year, speaking with Crisis journal, I myself stressed that beyond Europe and the United States, international reactionism was taking root in Latin America. Then in 2019, "Reactionary Internationalism" and the philosophy of the New Right were the subjects of another paper by Pablo de Orellana and Nicholas Michelsen.

As an emergent trend, the "reactionary international" is worth considering.

This international is comparable in scope to 20th-century currents like the Communist International, Socialist International and Christian Democrat International. While those were prominent in Europe, the new reaction has emerged most emblematically in Anglo-American countries and remains a solidly Western phenomenon. Its expressions in peripheral countries, eastern Europe or Latin America have effectively adopted its mainstream proposals.

Blame game

Two complementary dynamics reflect the new Reactionism's attitude to changes, both nationally and globally, over the long term. First, it has a negative, even anger-driven, populist perspective on history, politics and morality (which it believes is in decline). In general, the past was better, more orderly and safer, according to this outlook infused with nostalgia and self-righteousness.

Reactionaries want to revive a romanticized Arcadia.

The second dynamic is its choice of a scapegoat for contemporary ills. Progressive thinking, multiculturalism or diverse identities are typical choices.

In this ideology, communism and reformism are condemned, in spite of their respective states of near extinction or current weakness, and historical revolutions are blamed for establishing personal rights and liberties that have weakened society. Such notions have become attractive to people affiliated with conservative parties, religious forces or ethnic revival movements, but also to libertarians, science haters and other radicals. They resonate with people waiting for the fulfillment of the post-Cold War promise of a better life.

Photo of Trump Hosting Bolsonaro At Mar-A-Lago

President Donald Trump with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach

Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire

Idealizing the past

In contrast with liberalism and Marxism, which look to the future, reactionaries want to revive a romanticized Arcadia. In several regions, it was liberal insistence on keeping the status quo that paved the way for the extreme right's electoral triumph. That extreme right has, in turn, managed to forge a "common sense" based on exclusion and violence.

International reactionism may adopt two courses of action in world affairs. It may firstly become "corrective," seeking to preserve certain aspects and institutions of the liberal order in order to "defend" the West against the apparent challenge of the South — and China particularly. Its tactics could include impeding reforms to expand the South's participation in multilateral decision-making assemblies, preferring collective agreements between states to face global challenges.

Make the West great again.

Regionalism may come to flourish in this setting, as instead of coexisting with an evolving globalization, the developed North becomes a protective wall, while radical regimes consolidate themselves in an under-developed South. Without questioning the asymmetry of global power, such regimes would embrace nationalism in their own neighborhoods.

Or, reactionism may adopt a double, "revisionist" and "restorative" character, aiming to "make the West great again" in the face of a rising East and especially China.

Here, powerful states would start to break the rules of the liberal order. The United Nations and multilateralism would become relics, use of force would increase and the deterioration of democracy would become difficult to stop. Conflict would become commonplace in the South, as the West tries to recover its one-time supremacy.

Reactionism is progressing worldwide, and will produce new alliances between states and other international actors amid fractured, discontented societies and fragile states.

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